Toward a New Vision of Productivity

This is the second part of a 12-part series I will be posting through the end of December and into January 2009, examining the current understanding of productivity and where the concept might be heading in the future. I invite Lifehack’s readers to be an active part of this conversation, both in comments here and on your own sites (if you have one). I will also soon announce some other venues where I and several others will be discussing some of the issues raised in this series. Stay tuned…

A specter is haunting the world of productivity, the specter of Taylorism. Frederick Winslow Taylor was a mechanical engineer who worked during the tail end of the 19th century to streamline industrial processes according to scientific principles. Eventually calling his approach “scientific management”, his management philosophy consisted of 4 principles:

  1. Replace rule-of-thumb work methods with methods based on a scientific study of the tasks.
  2. Scientifically select, train, and develop each employee rather than passively leaving them to train themselves.
  3. Provide “Detailed instruction and supervision of each worker in the performance of that worker’s discrete task”.
  4. Divide work nearly equally between managers and workers, so that the managers apply scientific management principles to planning the work and the workers actually perform the tasks (from Wikipedia).

Taylor was obsessed with efficiency. No action should be taken on the shop floor, he felt, except that which led directly to producing the maximum possible output. For example, he did motion studies of workers, timing their actions to the fraction of a sentence (Edison’s movie cameras were great for this, allowing analysts to determine to the nearest .03 seconds how much time workers needed for every single step). Taylor’s work allowed the workflow to be simplified into a series of rigidly defined motions timed perfectly from one end of the assembly line to the other. Taylor’s vision was of a scientifically organized production system in which each worker had nothing to do but “crank widgets” in perfect synchronization with his or her fellows.

Compare Taylor’s approach to industrial productivity with David Allen’s approach to personal productivity. Both seek the rationalization of the workflow and its reduction to a set of simple tasks that can be carried out without thinking. To do this, both drew clear lines between the managerial function – the work of planning, scheduling, assigning work, and determining goals – and the actual work of getting things done (or made). And both demand the constant attention to and review of the workings of the system – Taylor’s with the use of scientific observation (timing, filming, monitoring, charting, and directly observing workers at work), Allen’s through the regular act of self-reflection via the weekly review.

The Birth of the Organization Man

Henry Ford’s devotion to Taylor’s principles made his assembly line among the nation’s most successful, while elevating Taylor’s work to the status of gospel in the business world. By the 1950’s, the Taylorist commitment to scientific efficiency had become the norm at all levels of the business world, shaping behavior not just on the shop floor but in the executive suite as well. Work well-organized and efficiently performed was its own reward for the “Organization Man” of the post-WWII era.

Just as Taylor had broken down the industrial assembly line to a series of precise, discrete actions, each assigned to a specific workstation (and it’s generally unskilled and easily replaceable worker), the non-industrial workforce of the second half of the 20th century also found themselves increasingly filling smaller and more specialized niches. As corporations grew to the point where it became difficult – impossible even – for one person to grasp the entirety of their own company’s activities, individual workers took on a smaller and smaller piece of the whole.

By the 1970s, the feeling of being lost in the machine was widespread. Often called the “Me Generation”, the workers who came of age in the late 1960s and 1970s inherited a notion of productivity that demanded complete loyalty to their employers and held them in a rigid social hierarchy in which individual initiative was more likely to be punished than rewarded.

Workers of the ‘70s, unable to find meaning in their work, turned to other outlets. Some tried to find themselves (and some lost themselves) in the excesses of drug use, sexual liberation, disco. Others embraced a upwelling of new religious movements, ranging from Transcendental Medititation to EST. Readers devoured a new crop of pop psychology and self-help books; non-readers flocked to afternoon talk shows featuring the authors of those same books. David Allen did it all – drugs, dropping out, a string of marriages, immersion in religion. Like the rest of us, he sought meaning wherever he could – and like the rest of us, found it elusive.

Death and Rebirth of the Organization Man

After the conformity of the 1950s and early’60s, individualism seemed to be on the ascent. The quest for individual meaning led thousands to backpack across Europe, join the Dalai Lama in Nepal, read ancient Chinese and Japanese philosophical tracts like The Art of War and the Tao Te Ching, fill their homes with Tarot cards and crystals, invent new forms of radically unmusical music, and dress in increasingly bizarre fashions, all in an attempt to differentiate themselves, to follow their own bliss. But of course it didn’t last; instead, individualism of the ‘70s flared for only a few short years before sputtering out in the renewed conformity of the 1980s, Yuppie-ism and “family values” replacing the exuberance of Yippie-ism and the experimentalism of doing your own thing.

What didn’t change was the need for guidance in the search for meaning. The new young professional might have traded in the mind-blowing experience of the acid trip for the intense focus and work-friendliness of the cocaine buzz, but he or she still turned to outside experts for reassurance, comfort, and some sense that what they did mattered. That they mattered. That widget-cranking, whether on the assembly line or in the boardroom wasn’t the only thing they were good for.

Enter the coaches. In the intensely competitive and highly specialized world of modern knowledge work, few of us have time to master the skills and body of knowledge essential to our own work, let alone all the intricacies of simply living day-to-day. Things that our grandparents might have not given a second thought to have become a challenge: dressing fashionably, finding a romantic partner, raising your children, finding a job, balancing your work life and your home life. A new market was created for people to provide specialized knowledge about… well, about living to people who simply couldn’t find time to figure it out.

New Challenges, New Solutions

By the 1990s, simply staying productive at the things we ostensibly know how to do had become a challenge. In the wake of Reaganism, the business world had become increasingly competitive. Just keeping afloat required more and more work – wages weren’t increasing, but the demands on workers were. The 2-martini social lunch of the ‘70s had given way to the quick bite at the desk, the 40-hour workweek stretched to 50 hours and even 60 hours as workers strained to get more and more done.

The 1990s are bracketed with the two contemporary classics of modern productivity. Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Successful People was published in 1989; David Allen’s Getting Things Done in 2002. Both came out of religious traditions; Covey is a leader in the Church of Latter Day Saints, Allen in the Movement for Spiritual Inner Awareness. Both promised that the adoption of habits that increased productivity could be the basis for a life of greater meaning. Both extend the notion of productivity into life as a whole.

And both are avidly followed both in and out of the business world. Their workshops and other public presentations are wildly popular and command high admission fees. Their spin-off works have followed their masterpieces to the best-seller lists, and remain in print and in discussion year after year.

And yet both have generated disappointment as well, among followers who find their lives not measurably improved no matter how closely they adhere to Covey’s or Allen’s guidelines, people who find that Covey’s system or Allen’s system simply cannot be made to work given their own unique situation, and those who find themselves socially isolated by their adherence to a system that others do not understand. Common enough symptoms for followers of new religious movements, actually – but we’re talking about business productivity, aren’t we?

More importantly, while there are surely some whose lives have been immeasurably improved by their discovery of the literature on personal productivity, there are others who have found that, while they can certainly get more done, the time they save simply gets filled with more work. In fact, some find themselves willingly taking on more work to avoid having the downtime that should be the reward of efficient work habits!

Ghosts of Productivity Yet to Come

After a century of productivity, we find that our lives aren’t really any more filled with meaning than they were for our great-grandparents – and in fact might be less meaningful. We struggle to find time with our families, we let hobbies and other interests fall by the wayside, we interact with fewer and fewer people aside from our work colleagues. In the US, only a tiny percentage of people take part in organized activities outside the home – whether sports leagues, civic organizations like Kiwanis or Rotary Club, religious organizations, political organizations, or charities – while just 50 years ago almost everyone did. Meanwhile, we keep cranking widgets.

What, then, does the future have in store for us? More to the point, what does a model for personal productivity have to offer the meaning-seeker – if anything? What can we salvage from the literature on productivity, and what will have to be imagined anew? This series attempts to grapple with those questions, but I also want to hear your thoughts. What’s wrong with our notion of productivity, and what’s right? What do you need in order to be more productive at making meaning? There are 10 more parts to this series, and comments are open as always!

Love this article? Share it with your friends on Facebook