The productivity trap

This post was written 3 years ago.
Sat, 08 Nov 2014
About two months ago, on a warm summer's evening - this summer, that never wanted to end, but now has - I was sitting on the floor by the Arnolfini with some attendees and speakers of this year's JavaScript workshop. Next to gender stereotypes I remember us at some point discussing productivity and how it seems to be so utterly important these days. I heard myself saying: "I have become more productive since I have given up trying to be productive". It was something I had only realised quite recently. People are different, and it seems to me, some are genuinely capable of working steadily most of the time, being efficient and productive. But I have to admit that for me that is difficult, and I am starting to think whether it would even be a desirable world where everybody can do that.

I remember, about five years ago, reading somebody's blog post about how GTD just didn't work for them. At the time I hadn't known about the book, and when I read it a year or so later, it seemed such a revelation. I really did spend two days where I dealt with all the lose ends, I organised all documents worth keeping in stand-up folders and hanging files. I felt so good afterwards. And I had a brief spell of dealing with things immediately, finding the next actions etc. But it didn't last, and I am pretty sure I am not the only one.

There must be thousands of blog posts now where people share their stories of how they managed to become more productive. There's usually a list of tips. And a lot of them are really valuable, like turning off distractions, especially online distractions. But what is a bit questionable in my eyes, is when "time off" is just seen as an opportunity to recharge the batteries. When it is just a means to an end, and the end is to become ever more productive. And I have seen this viewpoint being expressed several times.

Against productivity

Then today, I saw two tweets that were posted in quick succession by two different people. One was pointing to a post on Medium wirtten by Quinn Norton which I could relate to very much. It is called "Against productivity". I could quote endlessly from it. One thought I've had myself is that this demand for productivity started with the industrial revolution. It is not entirely a recent thing. It is just that it has come to a head now. It might be time to stop and think, is this really how we want to live.

And then there is this about the American dream: "I began to think no iteration was quite as vile as this one. Despite all the greed and hatred of the past iterations, no version of the dream had been so mechanical — so dehumanizing — as this dream of productivity."

And the other tweet? It linked to an infographic of "Take back your mornings" - take back your mornings to be more productive. What else?

Productivity paradox

The tricky thing is that on the other hand we are probably happiest when we are productive. When we create something, when we finish a difficult task, when we have done something that makes a difference to others, or even just to ourselves.

I often get restless because I do a lot of "unproductive thinking". I have this habit of "philsophising" all the time. And I most certainly overthink things. It is not always totally useless, sometimes I might be able to see some connections that others don't, and I might get some useful ideas. But on the whole, it often seems a bit too much. And of course it keeps me from being efficient!

So for me, I think the real challenge is to not get too distracted (and the online world really can be a bit of a problem, here) to keep myself from working on some things, that I then do finish and can feel okay about. Also, to not get disheartened by what I am thinking.. although that's not entirely avoidable and maybe shouldn't be. - Act on the good ideas that pop into my head. And ironically you can become distracted from putting good ideas into practice, because you are asked to do so many other thing. Be productive, be busy! And then you forget what it is worth getting busy with!

No "Getting things done" != Getting no Things Done

At least for me, there will always be a tension between the things that I'd like to accomplish and what I do in reality. But I do feel a lot less bad by now, about "wasting" some time by just thinking about things, about life in general, about how the human mind works, about how society works (haha those are the high-brow ones, I am not telling you about what else I think ), without seeing an immediate benefit of it. Perhaps that is something that we have to learn again. That when there's no immediate outcome that doesn't mean that nothing positive has happened in the meantime. And it would be good to accept that; in ourselves, and in other people, too.

People have always got things done, and got some amazing things done, before both the "positive thinking" and the "productivity" industry.

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