Maybe today’s fashion for increasing personal productivity isn’t all it’s cracked up to be

Increasing your personal productivity is the subject matter of a slew of books, magazine articles, and more than a few successful blogs. It’s fashionable, popular, and, most of all, highly profitable for the authors and writers of software. But does that make it right?

I believe that more cookery books are published each year that any other genre, followed closely by diet books — surely one of the great symbiotic relationships of all time. You stuff yourself, then diet, then fall off the diet and stuff yourself because you feel guilty. Oh hell . . . back to the diet.

Maybe it’s the same with recipes for getting yet more things done: you overload your time and brain with impossible expectations, hype yourself up on the latest fad for coping with the overload, then crash and burn — swearing that, next time, you really will to find a way to crack the whole, messy problem of doing more in your waking hours than those hours were ever designed to hold.

From where I stand, this looks to be almost the ultimate in self-inflicted madness: people stuck in a have-it-all, instant-gratification society demanding techniques for organizing the lives they are systematically filling with the effort to have yet more, every minute of every day.

Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against helping others to be more organized or better able to juggle life’s necessary demands. But I am starting to wonder how many of those demands are really necessary; and whether the cure isn’t in danger of becoming more onerous that the disease.

Our gas-guzzling lives

Our addiction to getting things done is not unlike that other addiction: the one to huge SUVs and trucks. Both the trucks and the productivity software and ideas are undeniably flashy and pack a lot of horsepower under the hood, but neither are good for us in the long run, nor strictly necessary.

Using an SUV, or a truck the size of a semi, to go to the mall, as many people seem to do where I live, must empty your pocket-book even more quickly than it sucks up gasoline. Filling your every moment with constant activity, however carefully and expensively organized, is going to suck you dry of energy just as quickly, then leave you as exhausted as a worked-out oilfield.

And if huge, gas-guzzling autos threaten to destroy our physical environment through global warming, what are people’s huge, energy-guzzling lives doing to the mental and social fabric of our world? What are they doing to our organizations, where it’s become commonplace to expect highly-trained professionals to work harder, for longer hours, than we would judge humane for laboratory rats?

Whatever happened to “working smart?”

Why are we now so devoted to getting more and more things done in less and less time? Not so long ago, we were all urged to “work smarter, not harder.” Whatever happened to that idea?

As a natural skeptic, I suspect part of the emphasis on constant busyness is simple: it makes some people a good deal of money. It’s just that those people aren’t often the ones doing all the extra work. They’re being smarter while you’re working harder.

I also suspect it’s far easier to write a book about how to aspire to a four-hour week than it is to do what the book recommends — once you’ve had the book idea, of course. That’s really smart. The rest is the age-old business of selling snake-oil.

In America at least, my long-time bugbear, the Puritan Work Ethic, is a major contributor to today’s fashion for finding still better ways to work more.

According to the work ethic mythology, work is a GOOD THING IN ITSELF. Hard work is what makes you into some kind of hero (most often an exhausted, burned-out one), so more of it is bound to be better than less. There’s a nasty suspicion in the Puritan mind that people who appear to do things easily are probably up to something immoral, because they AREN’T TRYING HARD ENOUGH; and their achievements, however impressive, are really NOT WORTH MUCH.

If effort is what gives work its value, then whatever is gained with most effort will be most valuable.

A sideways look at personal productivity

This Calvinistic belief that effort is what gives value is, of course, total nonsense. If it were true, a crook who spent months of hard effort organizing a complex robbery would be commended; and a doctor who had a moment of insight that cured a sick child would be given a stiff dressing-down for laziness.

What gives value to anything, work or play, is the importance and worth of the outcome, not how much effort and organization went into it. In a world that was truly progressing towards a better state, there would only be one kind of productivity that was valued: the productivity that comes from finding ways to get worthwhile results with less effort than before.

That, of course, is what productivity actually is. Doing more by working longer hours and focusing your efforts more closely isn’t increasing your productivity; it’s only the result of working harder. To be more productive means to do more with less effort, not more with more effort. And if the only way you get more done is by wasting less time in a muddle about what to do, that’s a trick you can only play a single time.

NOT getting some things done is what we truly need

What’s wrong with today’s fashion for a thousand ways to up your personal productivity? Too much of it is about filling every moment with activity. It’s about doing when you would be better employed thinking. It’s about focusing on getting results when you should be focused on whether you need those particular results at all.

We’re creating a world of hard-driving ants, not a civilization where people find ways to increase their time enjoying life through becoming cleverer at doing only what has to be done — then doing it with the minimum effort.

What rational being would devote one minute more to work than is essential — let alone find ways to pack more and more into every waking moment?

Look around you at the world of nature. Which animals spend most time at the “work” of finding food? The answer, of course, is those that eat the least nutritious things in terms of their bulk. Cows and other herbivores must spend hours grazing because they need prodigious amounts of grass, which has little energy value. Lions and tigers, in contrast, spend most of their time sleeping and lazing about, because their meat-based diet is extremely high in energy per pound of dead gazelle.

Here’s the choice then: do you want to emulate a cow or a tiger?

Is your life based on gathering lots of low-energy, readily available input of the kind that never runs away? If so, any help you can get with packing more activity into 24 hours is well worth it. Or are you aiming for the kind of life that feeds on highly energy-rich inputs — even if you have to devote a good deal of intelligence, skill, and speed to catch them — so you can spend the rest of the time enjoying yourself in the sun?

The day that someone comes up with a good technique for getting much less done, with much less effort, while still meeting life’s needs, you can bet I’ll be there at the front of the line to get my copy.

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