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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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    Last Updated on July 17, 2019

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    What happens in our heads when we set goals?

    Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

    Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

    According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

    Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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    Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

    Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

    The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

    Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

    So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

    Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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    One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

    Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

    Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

    The Neurology of Ownership

    Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

    In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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    But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

    This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

    Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

    The Upshot for Goal-Setters

    So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

    On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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    It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

    On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

    But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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    Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

    Reference

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