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Toward a New Vision of Productivity, Part 6: Staying on the Ball

Toward a New Vision of Productivity, Part 6: Staying on the Ball

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!

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    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).

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    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.

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    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.

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    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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    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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