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The dark history of our obsession with productivity

Productivity Obsession

Productivity Obsession

As workers, we are obsessed with getting stuff done. It is then clear why there seems to be a bottomless well full of advice, hacks, tools, tricks, and secrets to help us pack more into the waking hours.

According to IBISWorld research, productivity software alone accounts for an $82 billion market.

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The dark history of our obsession with productivity

The dark history of our obsession with productivity

https://www.fastcompany.com/90230330/how-our-obsession-with-productivity-evolved

fastcompany.com

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Key Ideas

Modern History of Productivity

  • Adam Smith wrote in 1776 that there are two kinds of labor: productive and unproductive. The productive one generally adds value to the materials which he works upon, of his own maintenance, and his master's profit. However, a man grows poor by maintaining a multitude of menial servants who add to the value of nothing.
  • Benjamin Franklin put forth his own "to-do" list in 1791, stating that one should start the day asking what good shall be done and end the day evaluating what was accomplished.

Abuse Masked as Productivity

In the late 18th and early 19th century, during the Industrial Revolution, machines moved production from handmade in the home to factories. A frenzy of producing more goods more quickly became a kind of national pastime.

Low-wage factory workers, many of whom were children, toiled in unsafe conditions for decades before labor unions put measures in place to protect workers from the excesses of the push for productivity.

The Day Planner

By 1850, day planners were proliferating. Productivity became inexorably linked to the virtue of working hard.

Etiquette manuals of the era suggested that the daily planner was a means for self-improvement.

The Birth of Consultants

  • Frederick Winslow Taylor, an industrial engineer and efficiency expert, would get himself a consulting gig with a company, observe the workers, and calculate how they could do their jobs faster.
  • Best known as the parents of Cheaper by the Dozen, Peers Frank and Lillian Gilbreth were mining productivity by dividing human action into 17 motions and then determining which was the most efficient and effective way to do any task.

The Productivity Gurus

  • Michael Porter exalted the leadership of productive management practices.
  • Bill Smith, an engineer at Motorola, introduced the Six Sigma Method in 1986. It is a disciplined, data-driven approach for eliminating defects in any process. According to Six Sigma, productivity is more than revenues and profits, because profits reflect the end result, while productivity reflects the increased efficiency as well as the effectiveness of business policies and processes.

Current state of productivity

In the frenzy to be more productive, we have become less so.

The procedures and methods in use are over a decade old. Until more robots and AI are incorporated to take over rote tasks, the downward trend will continue.

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A shift in measuring well-being
A shift in measuring well-being

People in societies such as ancient Greece, imperial China, Medieval Europe, and colonial America did not measure people's well-being in terms of monetary earnings or economic output.

Measuring well-being: people vs money

The turn toward financial statistics means that instead of considering how economic developments could meet our needs, it instead is to determine whether individuals are meeting the demand of the economy.

Until the 1850s, social measurement in 19th-century America was a collection of social indicators known as "moral statistics," which focused on the physical, social, spiritual, and mental conditions of the people. Human beings were at the center, not dollars and cents.

Measuring progress and prosperity

What led to the pricing of progress in the mid-19th century was capitalism.

Capitalism is not just the existence of markets. It is also capitalised investment, where elements of society and life - including natural resources, technological discoveries, works of art, urban spaces, educational institutions, and people - are changed or "capitalised" into income-generating assets that are valued by their ability to make money and yield future returns.

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We Are On Our Own
We Are On Our Own

In his self-help book "Smarter, Faster, Better", Charles Duhigg observes that we are now masters of our own time.

The onus to manage our time, attention, focus and priorities is ...

Divided Attention

There are an endless number of distractions, attention sapping ‘urgent’ tasks and other requests for action (like an email) that sap our limited energy and willpower, filling our days with stress and unnecessary procedural work.

Old Management Fads

... like the SMART(Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Realistic, Time-bound) goals, which are taught in every management class, are themselves part of the problem, distracting us from any actual productivity towards the realization of the said goal.

Another example is ‘Stretch Goals’ which are so audacious that they start to demotivate and decrease confidence.

Problems with the Work Ethic
  • For centuries, the promise of America has been built on the work ethic, with everyone aspiring to have a job that pays them.
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The Unfulfilled Promise of Work

What working a decent job means is slowing losing ground, as we are not deriving meaning from our work.

Having a job means getting paid for our talents, but it may not be the case for many. Work ethic is supposed to provide us a good life, but in reality, the opposite is happening.

Following The Orders

Most workers rely on the whims and fancies of the so-called 'Job Creators', a class of people who own a business and can employ staff. Job creators hold power on the worker's time, behavior and conditions of employment.

These employers also monitor and sanction what workers post on social media, what they eat or drink, how frequently and for how long are they going to the bathroom, and what are their political leanings.

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