Toward a New Vision of Productivity

This is the sixth part of a 12-part series running from 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…

We are a society of stress junkies. We must be – it’s the only way to explain how we think about and behave with regards to work. This “go go go” attitude, this notion that everything is a competition, that everything is a test of our mastery, that we must strive to excel at everything – these are not the symptoms of a healthy relationship with work!

A lot of productivity literature encourages this unhealthy attitude about work. And a lot seems to discourage it, but is grounded in Western notions of work-as-spiritual-value. It’s practically inescapable in the West –it’s called the Protestant work ethic, but after five centuries of Protestantism, it’s become a dominating theme in Western thought.

Work as a Value

According to Max Weber, the turn-of-the-20th century German sociologist whose book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism is one of the great sociological works of all time, Protestant attitudes towards grace, labor, thrift, and sobriety were integral parts of the rise of capitalism as a socio-economic order – and centuries later, they have been internalized throughout the Western world, regardless of religious faith. For Protestants, work was something akin to prayer, and its products were valuable inasmuch as they celebrated God’s grace. Thus the accumulation of wealth was also the glorification of God, and wealth that did work – that is, capital – was doubly sacred. (This might seem odd to us today, but as recently as the mid-20th century missionaries at Indian schools were teaching that “property and wealth are signs of God’s approval”; see Mary Crow-Dog’s Lakota Woman).

Now, I’m not at all saying there’s anything wrong with work as a means to reach our goals. Where we go wrong, though, is in finding in work for work’s sake a sense of meaning, accomplishment, and ultimately of self. Our culture is littered with phrases like “Idle hands are the Devil’s playground” and Thomas Jefferson’s admonition that “I’m a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work the more I have of it” that suggest that work is a value in and of itself.

In the workforce, the elevation of work to the level of sacred calling manifests as a constant pressure to keep busy – or at least appear to keep busy, which is a particularly grueling kind of work. I remember slow nights at a video store I worked at in college, when my manager – a Marine sergeant in his non-video store life – would exclaim “If you can lean, you can clean.” True enough, I suppose, but cleaning for the sake of looking busy never struck me as all that meaningful – especially as the cleaning demands of a smallish video store with a fairly efficient staff were never all that great.

More problematic, though, is the way that this attitude towards work spills over into our leisure time – when we allow ourselves leisure time. Studies of US workers a few years ago showed that 35% of American workers do not take all or any of their vacation time each year (along with almost 60% of executives) adding up to 415 million unused vacation days in 2003. Work pressures, such as too much work or employees feeling disloyal if they take time away from their jobs, are the main reason given, but for many, it’s simply an inability to fill the time. If we’re not working, we wonder, then who are we?

Stress and Selves

There are a lot of explanations for stress, and I’m sure there are numerous and wildly various sources of stress in any individual’s life. But if I had to nail it down in one general statement, I’d say that stress emerges when a person’s work becomes out of line with their life. We rarely feel stressed out when we’re deep in the flow of a satisfying task (or if we do, it’s what psychologists call “eustress”, positive stress that leads to greater focus and motivation). But when we do work for reasons that do not relate to our own self-actualization (to borrow another term from psychology), stress emerges. Whether its work we do just for the money, or just to look busy, or because our job is on the line if we mess up, or because a dominating supervisor or manager is riding us, or for whatever reason, work under externally-imposed conditions seems to be the biggest source of stress.

So the question is, how do we bring our work in line with our inner, authentic self – and how do we cut out the work that isn’t? I don’t claim to know the answer, but I do know that to start with, we need to have some sense of what that inner self looks like – and in our society where work for work’s sake is celebrated as a primary source of meaningfulness, we have remarkably underdeveloped psychic tools for self-reflection. Self-reflection, in fact, feels a little too much like not working for us to be very comfortable with it, let alone for us to be any good at it.

But it’s something we have to grapple with as part of a new vision of productivity, because being efficient at work that a) leaves us too stressed to enjoy our lives (or even to live them – stress not only kills, it maims), and b) creates open time that we desperately fill with even more work, is not being productive in any meaningful sense.

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