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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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    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Most of the skills I use to make a living are skills I’ve learned on my own: Web design, desktop publishing, marketing, personal productivity skills, even teaching! And most of what I know about science, politics, computers, art, guitar-playing, world history, writing, and a dozen other topics, I’ve picked up outside of any formal education.

    This is not to toot my own horn at all; if you stop to think about it, much of what you know how to do you’ve picked up on your own. But we rarely think about the process of becoming self-taught. This is too bad, because often, we shy away from things we don’t know how to do without stopping to think about how we might learn it — in many cases, fairly easily.

    The way you approach the world around you dictates to a great degree whether you will find learning something new easy or hard.

    The Keys to Learning Anything Easily

    Learning comes easily to people who have developed:

    Curiosity

    Being curious means you look forward to learning new things and are troubled by gaps in your understanding of the world. New words and ideas are received as challenges and the work of understanding them is embraced.

    People who lack curiosity see learning new things as a chore — or worse, as beyond their capacities.

    Patience

    Depending on the complexity of a topic, learning something new can take a long time. And it’s bound to be frustrating as you grapple with new terminologies, new models, and apparently irrelevant information.

    When you are learning something by yourself, there is nobody to control the flow of information, to make sure you move from basic knowledge to intermediate and finally advanced concepts.

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    Patience with your topic, and more importantly with yourself is crucial — there’s no field of knowledge that someone in the world hasn’t managed to learn, starting from exactly where you are.

    A Feeling for Connectedness

    This is the hardest talent to cultivate, and is where most people flounder when approaching a new topic.

    A new body of knowledge is always easiest to learn if you can figure out the way it connects to what you already know. For years, I struggled with calculus in college until one day, my chemistry professor demonstrated how to do half-life calculations using integrals. From then on, calculus came much easier, because I had made a connection between a concept I understood well (the chemistry of half-lifes) and a field I had always struggled in (higher maths).

    The more you look for and pay attention to the connections between different fields, the more readily your mind will be able to latch onto new concepts.

    How to Self-Taught Effectively

    With a learning attitude in place, working your way into a new topic is simply a matter of research, practice, networking, and scheduling:

    1. Research

    Of course, the most important step in learning something new is actually finding out stuff about it. I tend to go through three distinct phases when I’m teaching myself a new topic:

    Learning the Basics

    Start as all things start today: Google it! Somehow people managed to learn before Google ( I learned HTML when Altavista was the best we got!) but nowadays a well-formed search on Google will get you a wealth of information on any topic in seconds.

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    Surfing Wikipedia articles is a great way to get a basic grounding in a new field, too — and usually the Wikipedia entry for your search term will be on the first page of your Google search.

    What I look for is basic information and then the work of experts — blogs by researchers in a field, forums about a topic, organizational websites, magazines. I subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds to keep up with new material as it’s posted, I print out articles to read in-depth later, and I look for the names of top authors or top books in the field.

    Hitting the Books

    Once I have a good outline of a field of knowledge, I hit the library. I look up the key names and titles I came across online, and then scan the shelves around those titles for other books that look interesting.

    Then, I go to the children’s section of the library and look up the same call numbers — a good overview for teens is probably going to be clearer, more concise, and more geared towards learning than many adult books.

    Long-Term Reference

    While I’m reading my stack of books from the library, I start keeping my eyes out for books I will want to give a permanent place on my shelves. I check online and brick-and-mortar bookstores, but also search thrift stores, used bookstores, library book sales, garage sales, wherever I happen to find myself in the presence of books.

    My goal is a collection of reference manuals and top books that I will come back to either to answer thorny questions or to refresh my knowledge as I put new skills into practice. And to do this cheaply and quickly.

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    2. Practice

    Putting new knowledges into practice helps us develop better understandings now and remember more later. Although a lot of books offer exercises and self-tests, I prefer to jump right in and build something: a website, an essay, a desk, whatever.

    A great way to put any new body of knowledge into action is to start a blog on it — put it out there for the world to see and comment on.

    Just don’t lock your learning up in your head where nobody ever sees how much you know about something, and you never see how much you still don’t know.

    Check out this guide for useful techniques to help you practice efficiently: The Beginner’s Guide to Deliberate Practice

    3. Network

    One of the most powerful sources of knowledge and understanding in my life have been the social networks I have become embedded in over the years — the websites I write on, the LISTSERV I belong to, the people I talk with and present alongside at conferences, my colleagues in the department where I studied and the department where I now teach, and so on.

    These networks are crucial to extending my knowledge in areas I am already involved, and for referring me to contacts in areas where I have no prior experience. Joining an email list, emailing someone working in the field, asking colleagues for recommendations, all are useful ways of getting a foothold in a new field.

    Networking also allows you to test your newly-acquired knowledge against others’ understandings, giving you a chance to grow and further develop.

    Here find out How to Network So You’ll Get Way Ahead in Your Professional Life.

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    4. Schedule

    For anything more complex than a simple overview, it pays to schedule time to commit to learning. Having the books on the shelf, the top websites bookmarked, and a string of contacts does no good if you don’t give yourself time to focus on reading, digesting, and implementing your knowledge.

    Give yourself a deadline, even if there is no externally imposed time limit, and work out a schedule to reach that deadline.

    Final Thoughts

    In a sense, even formal education is a form of self-guided learning — in the end, a teacher can only suggest and encourage a path to learning, at best cutting out some of the work of finding reliable sources to learn from.

    If you’re already working, or have a range of interests beside the purely academic, formal instruction may be too inconvenient or too expensive to undertake. That doesn’t mean you have to set aside the possibility of learning, though; history is full of self-taught successes.

    At its best, even a formal education is meant to prepare you for a life of self-guided learning; with the power of the Internet and the mass media at our disposal, there’s really no reason not to follow your muse wherever it may lead.

    More About Self-Learning

    Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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