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Toward a New Vision of Productivity, Part 2: The Ghost of Productivity Past

Toward a New Vision of Productivity, Part 2: The Ghost of Productivity Past

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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    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!

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    Last Updated on November 5, 2019

    How to Cultivate Continuous Learning to Stay Competitive

    How to Cultivate Continuous Learning to Stay Competitive

    Assuming the public school system didn’t crush your soul, learning is a great activity. It expands your viewpoint. It gives you new knowledge you can use to improve your life. It is important for your personal growth. Even if you discount the worldly benefits, the act of learning can be a source of enjoyment.

    “I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.” — Mark Twain

    But in a busy world, it can often be hard to fit in time to learn anything that isn’t essential. The only things learned are those that need to be. Everything beyond that is considered frivolous. Even those who do appreciate the practice of lifelong learning, can find it difficult to make the effort.

    Here are some tips for installing the habit of continuous learning:

    1. Always Have a Book

    It doesn’t matter if it takes you a year or a week to read a book. Always strive to have a book that you are reading through, and take it with you so you can read it when you have time.

    Just by shaving off a few minutes in-between activities in my day I can read about a book per week. That’s at least fifty each year.

    2. Keep a “To-Learn” List

    We all have to-do lists. These are the tasks we need to accomplish. Try to also have a “to-learn” list. On it you can write ideas for new areas of study.

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    Maybe you would like to take up a new language, learn a skill or read the collective works of Shakespeare. Whatever motivates you, write it down.

    3. Get More Intellectual Friends

    Start spending more time with people who think. Not just people who are smart, but people who actually invest much of their time in learning new skills. Their habits will rub off on you.

    Even better, they will probably share some of their knowledge with you.

    4. Guided Thinking

    Albert Einstein once said,

    “Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking.”

    Simply studying the wisdom of others isn’t enough, you have to think through ideas yourself. Spend time journaling, meditating or contemplating over ideas you have learned.

    5. Put it Into Practice

    Skill based learning is useless if it isn’t applied. Reading a book on C++ isn’t the same thing as writing a program. Studying painting isn’t the same as picking up a brush.

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    If your knowledge can be applied, put it into practice.

    In this information age, we’re all exposed to a lot of information, it’s important to re-learn how to learn so as to put the knowledge into practice.

    6. Teach Others

    You learn what you teach. If you have an outlet of communicating ideas to others, you are more likely to solidify that learning.

    Start a blog, mentor someone or even discuss ideas with a friend.

    7. Clean Your Input

    Some forms of learning are easy to digest, but often lack substance.

    I make a point of regularly cleaning out my feed reader for blogs I subscribe to. Great blogs can be a powerful source of new ideas. But every few months, I realize I’m collecting posts from blogs that I am simply skimming.

    Every few months, purify your input to save time and focus on what counts.

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    8. Learn in Groups

    Lifelong learning doesn’t mean condemning yourself to a stack of dusty textbooks. Join organizations that teach skills.

    Workshops and group learning events can make educating yourself a fun, social experience.

    9. Unlearn Assumptions

    You can’t add water to a full cup. I always try to maintain a distance away from any idea. Too many convictions simply mean too few paths for new ideas.

    Actively seek out information that contradicts your worldview.

    Our minds can’t be trusted, but this is what we can do about it to be wiser.

    10. Find Jobs that Encourage Learning

    Pick a career that encourages continual learning. If you are in a job that doesn’t have much intellectual freedom, consider switching to one that does.

    Don’t spend forty hours of your week in a job that doesn’t challenge you.

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    11. Start a Project

    Set out to do something you don’t know how. Forced learning in this way can be fun and challenging.

    If you don’t know anything about computers, try building one. If you consider yourself a horrible artist, try a painting.

    12. Follow Your Intuition

    Lifelong learning is like wandering through the wilderness. You can’t be sure what to expect and there isn’t always an end goal in mind.

    Letting your intuition guide you can make self-education more enjoyable. Most of our lives have been broken down to completely logical decisions, that making choices on a whim has been stamped out.

    13. The Morning Fifteen

    Productive people always wake up early. Use the first fifteen minutes of your morning as a period for education.

    If you find yourself too groggy, you might want to wait a short time. Just don’t put it off later in the day where urgent activities will push it out of the way.

    14. Reap the Rewards

    Learn information you can use. Understanding the basics of programming allows me to handle projects that other people would require outside help. Meeting a situation that makes use of your educational efforts can be a source of pride.

    15. Make Learning a Priority

    Few external forces are going to persuade you to learn. The desire has to come from within. Once you decide you want to make lifelong learning a habit, it is up to you to make it a priority in your life.

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    Featured photo credit: Paul Schafer via unsplash.com

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