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The Frustration with Productivity Culture (newyorker.com)
190 points by x43b 13 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 101 comments





The problem with the entire productivity culture is just how industrialized, bureaucratic and formulaic it is. You read the piece by Newport and there is Henry Ford, the assembly line, 'knowledge work', growth, and so on.

Words that don't show up once: freedom, exploration, curiosity, creativity (that does show up once in quotes technically).

Everything that makes life interesting is discontinuous and surprising and unique. Productivity culture is an attempt to bureaucratize human action, a sort of individual Whig history.

Newton was a genius, yet the man spent most of his life doing alchemy, trying to forecast the future with the help of the bible, and chasing dragons in the Swiss Alps, put simply, he was batshit insane and probably a failure by the standards of modern productivity gurus. Yet he also made contributions larger than anyone will ever do by filling up note-taking apps and tracking how much time they spent on their breakfast with a stopwatch.


The kings and queeens have turned into the captailists and relgious zealots who espouse ideals of productivity and growth in order to secure your obedience and trap you in debt and gives you no choice but to continue on or give up everything.

By chasing the money you commit yourself playing within the confines of this system.

I instead chase my passion and ive found an employeer who is happy to make those same tradeoffs. I remotely work on a global SaaS product that is scaling quickly, and my backyard is a river next to the ocean where i can immediately connect with physical world. As the tides ebb-and-flow i can see the day changing and feel apart of it. My water cooler is like going on a hike into the mountains. This is what pleases me so i keep it close.

My day is a combination of creativity and nature mixed with technical challenges and stress. No matter your situations, if you are working a growing company you will have competing priorities and therefor stress.

Ive been developing professionally now for 26yrs. 10 years ago i released that i was not going to be happy climbing the ladder in search of more money. More money at the expense of my personal time. More money to manage people. More money to 100x shareholder value... Ive switched markets/verticals from gov to private to startups in search of this balance.


> The kings and queeens have turned into the captailists and relgious zealots who espouse ideals of productivity and growth [...]

Advocatus Diaboli here. One has to be careful not to forget benefits of the hard work over millenia which we all enjoy: shelter, electricity, food in the fridge, medicine in the cabinet, transportation right outside of the house we live in. Countless people worked hard to get to this point. So the question is: is our society evolved enough to stop working hard and still enjoy these benefits?


Also, have our society evolved into one that we actually want? I would expect the answer to vary greatly, depending on whom you ask.

And, if not, should we stop now? Perhaps break-through is around the corner?

It's almost as if this wasn't a one-sided issue that could be solved by a few anonymous comments on a discussion forum aimed at a crowd that are relatively privileged compared to most of the World's population.

Jests aside, these are all valid points, and it's sad that the current political climate has become so polarized that it's difficult to have a reasonable discussion about this. Going from one extreme to the other won't necessarily result in a net improvement.


There have always been elites. There will always be elites. The question is, can we afford the rent overhead of our current elites in return for the stability they provide? If not, then a new elite will seize the opportunity and replace them. I'd wager the dissatisfaction with "productivity and growth" is an expression of frustration with a high rent-overhead from a rent-seeking elite, which has ceased to do what made them the elite in the first place.

> Ive switched markets/verticals from gov to private to startups in search of this balance.

Am I understanding correctly that you switched to startups to find better work/life balance?

I have to say I'm surprised by that. Usually startups have the highest demands and the fewest people to get things done. Can you expand on your experience?


There are a lot more variety of startups than there are big companies. If you're thinking of late-stage VC-driven companies who work hard to maintain the label of "startup" to perpetrate the mythology of rocket-ship riches that their ivy league hiring funnel relies on, then yeah, it's gonna be stressful. On the other hand, if you're willing to take less money for the ability to work with tighter constraints, less resources and more creativity then it's not too hard to find a company willing to accommodate you, especially if your talent level is validated by a big tech name brand on your resume (not saying it's the best signal, but hiring manager psychology is what it is).

> especially if your talent level is validated by a big tech name brand on your resume

This is unironically the best way to find a good WLB while working on interesting problems. I switched from a startup with great WLB to a big tech with worse WLB because I recognised that the brand name on my resume will open me up for more interesting work with better WLB later on. It sucks for me now, but I'm hoping it'll pay off soon enough.


There are plenty of big tech companies with good WLB. Not everywhere is Amazon.

That's a sort of outdated view on startups IME. Unless you're talking about the FAANG types (which, IMO, shouldn't be called startups anymore) I've found that many small startups are embracing a healthy work-life balance. I switched from a small startup working on an early-stage SaaS to a mature big tech company and my wlb got worse.

I think the reason is that small startups can't always compete on salaries, so they have to make up for it by giving you something else in return. The market is full of extremely talented people leaving big tech because they're unhappy with the wlb, or want full-time remote or so on, so it turns out to be a win-win for startups and engineers. Big Tech will continue to get meat for the grinder by their sheer reputation, so they can expect you to dedicate your life to them if you want to stay.


It's a different kind of stress, and some people prefer one over another.

I experienced both a megacorp and one-man-army setups, and I find fighting bureaucratic inertia, office politics, endless stream of status updates, ever-changing organization chart and product rebrands - all way more tiring than shipping out features at frantic pace.


There are more ways of doing startups than dreamed of in Silicon Valley, my friend.

“Newton was a genius, yet the man spent most of his life doing alchemy, trying to forecast the future with the help of the bible, and chasing dragons in the Swiss Alps, put simply, he was batshit insane”

I generally agree with your comment but this sentence doesn’t do justice to Newton. During his time alchemy, predicting things from the Bible were generally accepted. If Newton had published papers about his successes in alchemy you could call him crazy but he just probed the accepted wisdom of his time. I bet in few hundred years a lot of our current conceptions of reality will also sound crazy. That doesn’t mean that current scientists are insane. They are just trying to expand our current knowledge. Which is the same Newton did. He did all kinds of crazy looking stuff because he was curious.


Exactly! In 200 years it'll be "why did they try all that cold fusion creation when you can just go to the dollar store and buy a self-contained gateway to an exploding sun to charge your Tesla for the next 1000 years?"

I think the first paradigm change will be "why did they let humans drive cars??"

"safety uber alles" is a sure way for your society to stagnate, at the civilizational level, and a sure way to hate your life at the personal level.

That's quite the non sequitur.

>tracking how much time they spent on their breakfast with a stopwatch

Masterfully stated.

One of the primary problems with this culture, and the general culture of quantified self/everything, is that the data doesn’t inform or change actual actions.

Most quantification is proffered as a solution by the Anxiety Alleviation Industrial Complex.

I’d argue a significant portion of consumer SaaS is just that.


> One of the primary problems with this culture, and the general culture of quantified self/everything, is that the data doesn’t inform or change actual actions.

It depends on how you use the collected data. I think it is psychologically similar to investing in stock market or cryptocurrencies: Some people keep refreshing the screen every minute and get crazy about microscopic increases or decreases of the stuff they own, read all the clickbait with related keywords, and after a few weeks they burn out. Other people invest some money, then forget about the whole thing for a few months, then spend one afternoon looking at the numbers and making small adjustments, then again forget about the whole thing for a few months.

Just because you collect a lot of data about yourself (as the quantified-self people like to do), doesn't mean you need to review it every day. You could simply spend the minimum effort to collect the data, and then summarize it and draw conclusions once a year. I know people who collect various body statistics every day, and they just upload the logs to their computer, and later write a script that generates graphs over longer periods of time. And their conclusions are like: "hey, I made this lifestyle change a few months ago, and here my health data have improved significantly, so it was the right move"; where the health data is something like a weekly average of blood pressure.

Collecting million trivial details does not necessarily prevent you from seeing the big picture. Though I guess for some personality types, the temptation to obsess over the details is irresistible. It is not enough that the big picture is okay, they need to maximize the pressure at every single detail... until the thing somehow explodes. Congratulate yourself on successfully shortening the bathroom breaks, and then get surprised when in a few months half of your workforce quits.


That line reminded me of the Pajama Game (1954): https://www.allmusicals.com/lyrics/pajamagamethe/thinkofthet...

    At breakfast time, I grab a bowl.
    And in the bowl I drop an egg, and add some juice.
    A poor excuse for what I crave.
    And then I add some oatmeal too
    and it comes out tasting just like glue,
    But think of the time I save.

If we're going to have a civilization, we can't just have Newtons. We still need to grow food, build houses, take out the trash, and do all the mundane stuff that's necessary to sustain life. That requires some "bureaucratizition" of human action. The only reason Newton was able to do what he did was because he had a position where other people took care of fixing the leak in the roof and preparing the meals.

Newton can come up with the laws of motion, but he can't build a space shuttle by himself. Nobody could. It requires some organization and coordination and, yes, some menial, boring tasks.

Maybe one day we'll get robots to do all of that, but we aren't there yet.


Of extended family and friends, the ones with the most personal wealth by retirement got there not by being more creative, or inventive, or productive, or by studying and acquiring skills and knowledge, or starting and growing a business, but by inheriting, buying, renting and flipping properties at the right time.

I don't know much about macroeconomics or economics in general, but it seems that's how you climb in the Western world these days. "Working hard" and increasing your productivity - that's for chumps.


> seems that's how you climb in the Western world these days.

Or perhaps - used to climb. Property prices can't rise sharply forever. Not if you want real people to buy them too, not just the speculators. Real people have real limits on what they can afford, and, if priced out, you're just left with speculators and a speculative bubble, which won't go on forever.


Well if they can't buy, rent to them! Rent-seeking in a nutshell. The value of a property becomes determined by "can you rent it for more than your mortgage?" and "how much credit can you get?".

Obviously, that's going to break down eventually, and it will be a mess when it does.


It's the problem of diminishing returns.

If one is at rock bottom then working hard and being productive can get them to middle class lifestyle. It works. Helped billions of people in the past few decades.

But starting from middle class and working hard won't make riches. Think of it physically. A hardworking person can build a house compared to a drunkard who will be homeless. Yet the same hard working person can't build million houses and get insanely wealthy.

To get truly materially rich (millions+ usd, servants, yachts, etc) one usually needs to be evil and screw over other people. Productivity, in the sense of a machine making houses in the millions, would make the inventor fairly rich. But this is the exception rather than the rule. Most riches are arrived at immorally as parent comment mentions.


"Behind Every Great Fortune There Is a Crime"

> tracking how much time they spent on their breakfast with a stopwatch.

I know this is a serious forum. But the last line had me in splits.

And yeah. He made contributions larger than anyone will ever do. End of the sentence.


>Yet he also made contributions larger than anyone will ever do by filling up note-taking apps and tracking how much time they spent on their breakfast with a stopwatch.

Maybe not the best example. Apparently, Newton took loads of notes, and also created handwritten indexes and contents lists, alphabetical, by topic.

https://www.inc.com/ilan-mochari/how-isaac-newton-remembered...


> Yet he also made contributions larger than anyone will ever do by filling up note-taking apps and tracking how much time they spent on their breakfast with a stopwatch.

Part of the problem is that both the low hanging fruit has already been picked and the competition is steeper due to a wealthier society.

If you can't make a societal impact the magnitude of calculus, why not time your breakfast so that the marginal benefit you provide improves society a little while also increasing your status?

I wouldn't say I agree with the above, but I'd push back against the portrayal of the productivity guru being irrational.


The idea that only "big" impact is worthwhile is a huge part of the problem. Software and the global internet has made it possible to scale everything at ridiculous speed with tiny overhead. This has set the standard for success very high, but has some perverse effects. For instance, smart people flocking to finance and ad-tech because it's easier to make money there simply by proximity and complexity to mask what you're doing.

I'd argue we need a fundamental shift in our economy and regulation to incentivize diversity.


Another point overlooked in the implicit “why be 10% more efficient instead of 10x” is that we can’t all be Newtons. There is no advice to turn you into Newton, but that doesn’t make advice useless.

It’s reason to get what you can out of life, not to throw your hands up! And maybe one way to get more from life is to cut down on drudgery or do work faster so as to contribute more.


Math is thousands of years old yet many people have made significant strides in multiple fields in the last 200 years. In 1,000 years even more low hanging fruit will be plucked. Yet, I suspect a few people will be notable for their great strides between now and then.

Everyone can’t be Newton, but perhaps everyone can aim higher than yet another note taking app.


You are so far in the trap you cannot imagine a life without it.

I understand your frustration, but your comment is a bit off the mark.

> Yet he also made contributions larger than anyone will ever do by filling up note-taking apps and tracking how much time they spent on their breakfast with a stopwatch.

I really doubt Cal Newport would recommend this.

> Words that don't show up once: freedom, exploration, curiosity, creativity

Pretty sure Cal discusses these often - some in a positive manner and some in a disparaging manner.


> Yet he also made contributions larger than anyone will ever do by filling up note-taking apps and tracking how much time they spent on their breakfast with a stopwatch.

This worked because he was independently wealthy, and lots of people at the time couldn't do that and made all the goods and services he paid for so he could spend his time doing what he did. That still is the case today.


Newton was poor enough that he worked through college and could only attend on scholarship. At the time of writing the Principia he was a fellow, still just a working scholar same as any professor.

He only became wealthy after joining the Royal Mint.


New efficiency is easy, new effectiveness is not. So everyone focuses on the former with a lot of cookie cutter type recipes (management, their consultants, ...).

And Efficiency progress is so nicely measurable while it happens. Effectiveness you only see once you have it and not in a new organisation design.


Good point.

>he was batshit insane and probably a failure by the standards of modern productivity gurus

Newton was notoriously involved with the Royal Mint (for decades, I think) and efforts to maintain sound coinage, and it's conspicuously left out of your list of odd things he did.

It isn't exactly about "productivity", but your overall tone seems like you're presenting him as unsullied by capitalism, finance, "bean counters", and other mundane things.

https://blog.sciencemuseum.org.uk/isaac-newton-and-the-royal...

Actually, reading some of this sounds like Newton may have had some good insights into management for productivity:

"he encouraged the Mint’s engravers who were responsible for engraving coin designs on to the master punches (the tools used to make the coins) to take on private work outside of their contracted working hours. Newton recognised that this would enable them to improve their skills, making their engraved designs of a much higher quality and thus more difficult to replicate by the counterfeiters."

I think you could spin him as an icon of productivity, an early forerunner, if you so desired.


This depends entirely on what you let pass for productivity culture. The Ford "scientific management" stuff falls under your description, but it also doesn't work. It doesn't promote productivity, it promotes waste.

Look into how the lean ideas promote productivity. Hint: it involves freedom, exploration, curiosity, and creativity -- quite explicitly. Those are the things from which true, lasting productivity stem.


I think a lot of people confuse 'productivity' and 'organization'. A considerably large number of people lack organizational skills, especially so when working remotely, or running their own business—it's a lot of hats to wear.

The guy actually poked needles in his eyes because he was curious about how eyes worked.

There's more than to it than the productivity culture. The different underlying factors that a lot of people are hiding away because they can't seem to express it impact how they perform.

This is such a thoughtful encapsulation here. Thank you Barrin92

> Words that don't show up once: freedom, exploration, curiosity, creativity (that does show up once in quotes technically).

Obviously, those are the opposite of productivity, the things you want to get rid of to get more things done. Productivity is about optimizing your workflow to the point where no action is wasted, and every second is used in the most beneficial way.

> Newton was a genius

Was he? Or was he just lucky to be rich enough to be sent to university, while living in an age of low-hanging fruits to discover?

> yet the man spent most of his life doing alchemy, trying to forecast the future with the help of the bible, and chasing dragons in the Swiss Alps,

Now think about what else he could have discovered if had work seriously and not wasted time on pointless stuff.

> Yet he also made contributions larger than anyone will ever do by filling up note-taking apps and tracking how much time they spent on their breakfast with a stopwatch.

Maybe, maybe not. The thing is, nobody knows that. Creativity is random and unpredictable. Sometimes is bringing forth something good, but more often it's more harm than benefit. There is a huge mountain of survivorship bias with those cases.

It's true that we need the creative nut heads who think outside the box and contribute in mysterious ways to society. But not everyone should be a nut head and not everywhere we can afford them. We've seen in the last 18 months the other side that this creative minds will bring to society, in the form of conspiracy idiots and anti-vaxxers.


It's easy to have the wrong mindset around productivity. If an individual thinks that doing more always leads to better results, they're going to have a bad time. I use productivity as a tool to have __more__ personal time and reduce stress. I really think about what I'm doing and what impact it has on my day.

From what I've seen, working in large corporate environments, is that people make their own productivity prisons doing things that no one asked for or working late hours on something no one is waiting for. Individuals create the stress for themselves by trying to standout or impress others.

If someone doesn't care about career progression, which I'm assuming is most of the anti-productivity crowd, they can get along just fine at almost any company doing only the minimum requirements of a role, have a fair work/life balance, and live a normal life.

If someone takes a mid six figure comp package from a major tech company, they should expect to work hard going into that role. Those jobs aren't for everyone. There are plenty of less stressful work environments in technology that will pay someone a decent salary and will be much less demanding.


> There are plenty of less stressful work environments in technology that will pay someone a decent salary and will be much less demanding.

There are?! Could you list some examples? I would take a pay cut for fewer responsibilities if I could stay in tech and if it didn't pay like thirty grand, which is what you will make in support.

How do I transition from a high stress high pay software engineer to a medium pay low stress other kind of technology worker like you have described???


Go work for some bigco that is coasting on a great market position of a SaaS project and you can definitely find software jobs where you can work about 30hrs a week, make around 130-180k a year, and chill hard.

Only problem is that after a while you'll get really complacent and your skills may suffer. If there are layoffs and you have to find another job, you might be in trouble.


You shouldn't worry about falling out of the technology rat race. Everyone's stack is different, you would be lucky to time learning a technology with a particular job opportunity that is using it. You may as well just research it the weekend before the interview and be upfront about your ability to learn it.

You can't know every technology and in 5 years you will probably be applying for jobs with tech that doesn't even exist yet.


I'm not at all talking about knowing the latest tech when I say your skills may suffer. I'm just saying that in my experience, sometimes in a chill job your fundamentals as a developer can suffer. You can literally get worse at programming if you aren't challenged.

However, if you are an internally motivated and driven person, you can take that extra time and energy you get from the chill job and learn all kinds of things and become a much better engineer. The situation is whatever you make of it.


Well I think my skills suffer more because of work: after a day of "being productive" at work, I no longer have the time and energy to explore and learn new stuff, which is how I gained and expanded my skills in the first place.

Yes, the extra time you get from the chill job can go either way. It's whatever you make of it. If you use the time to learn, you can definitely learn more at a chill job than at a hard job.

In certain parts of governments, non-profits and academia, can be found jobs which both (a) have lower stress / better work life balance, and (b) use innovative tech which keeps one's skills sharp and up to date. These jobs don't typically pay amazingly, but sometimes have a good pension plan, and the option is always there to go back to well-paid higher stress workplace later to fix finances if required....

> How do I transition from a high stress high pay software engineer to a medium pay low stress other kind of technology worker like you have described???

Work literally _anywhere else_ but Sillicon Valley. These jobs are aplenty; they are probably at least 2/3 of all programmer jobs everywhere.


I've only actually worked for one company (1/5) that emphasized productivity and graded people on it. My default answer would be most of them. I would say the majority of tech companies are work/life oriented, especially compared to other industries.

Software Engineers and Data Engineers have one of the best leverage positions in the work force. If you don't like your current employer's practices, find another one.


I'm with you. I don't know of such a thing.

But luckily I differ from you in that I'm a type-A personality, and slow, relaxed work bothers me. I want the high-speed high-stakes atmosphere.

I recognise that I'm not a normal person in this regard, which is why I say I am lucky.


I don't think working support is less stress, just less pay. And I think many people think working 40 hours a week counts as a good or decent work/life balance, which is frankly absurd, even if one is working from home or has no commute. A 5X8 work week is still essentially living to work. Unfortunately it is often the minimum one can get away with.

The line about asking individual knowledge workers to optimize their own work hits me hard. I'm the only programmer in the office I work at. My boss has started telling people that they should take an hour every week to stop and think about how a small process can be done better/faster. The problem is that the longest and most important part of what they do isn't some manual task, but a mental process (they are digital artists). I doubt most people are going to intuitively solve the complexity of their own brains through introspection (as some early psychologists thought we could do). It's easier for me to 'optimize' because I can manipulate how a physical computer operates. It's hard for anyone to manipulate how their intuitive functions work besides slowly gaining experience and mastery.

I don’t know what your digital artist coworkers produce, but unless it is pure l'art pour l'art they can think about ways how to streamline processes outside of their art. How do they receive their “brief”? How is the work batched? Does it ever happen that they are asked to produce something which then gets thrown away and wasted for reasons the company could better control? Are there any missunderstandings? If the artist see themselves as simple “brief -> bitmap” converters then this is of course beyond their pigeonhole, but if they are smart and creative people, as I belive they are, they might already have ideas how to improve things. And the boss basically encouraged that those with ideas come forward, so he might believe the same!

Also this “the only way to improve is slowly gaining experience and mastery” is not true. (I was paraphrasing your words) I watch many videos of great artist sharing tips. Again I don’t know what medium they work in, but in 3d work one can improve a lot by better organizing their asset library. In digital painting work I have seen people use posable human models to start sketching from. Ian Hubert shares great “lazy tutorials” on how he learned to cheat and animate complex looking things in super simple way. Just spending an hour a week reading up on tricks from others can improve ones “craft”.

And what is the worst? You goof around an hour and can’t think of anything. You tell the boss that when he asks, what is he going to do? Fire you for not trying hard enough? If he does, he wanted to fire you anyway and was just fishing for an excuse.


This makes a lot of sense. I guess I just wondered if people end up degrading the quality of their work to maximize speed instead of inspecting their process which is another part of the artistic flow. Everything you've said here is a good refutation of my original comment.

The problem with "productivity gurus" is that not one of them actually has any accomplishments in an actual specialized domain (other than marketing their stuff).

Conversely, as I look at all the accomplished people around me, they've quietly built a mountain of expertise and achievement with cobbled systems held together by spit and glue that a productivity hustler would scoff at.


A great book about this topic is "Daily Rituals: How Artists Work" -- which covers the routines of actual artists and thinkers, with their wild, idiosyncratic inconsistency: from waking up hungover most days and only writing when they feel "inspired" to working 3 hours a day and spending most of the day walking and "lounging" to the strict, regimented routines in the style of productivity gurus

I can't say that I agree with this. There are the productivity "influencers" who say a lot of things but don't actually live it. There is a high correlation between being a productivity based person and being successful. Most of the leaders you admire are highly productive people and employ practices to increase their productivity, they're just too busy to soapbox about it.

I suspect the "influencers" and the "productivity gurus" you two are talking about are the same people. A guru is a type of teacher -- the really productive people don't have time to teach anyone other than, at best, their successors.

Or perhaps they leveraged their success to reduce the amount of “busy” they have so as to make time to amplify the mindset or practices that helped them, because they think that can be their biggest gift to the world.

> Most of the leaders you admire

Perhaps you admire them. I don't, and I suspect a lot of the anti-productivity people don't as well.


Yes. Much better to look at people who have achieved excellence in their specialty and see how they do things.

Cal Newport is a tenured theoretical computer science professor. Seems like an accomplishment in an actual specialized domain to me!

> The problem with "productivity gurus" is that not one of them actually has any accomplishments in an actual specialized domain (other than marketing their stuff).

Any source for this or is this just assumption? There are many people in that business.

> (other than marketing their stuff)

How is that not work that involves productivity?


Maybe I'm workaholic, but do people like friction in their work? I mean, we should certainly push back against anyone that thinks that we should increase productivity through sheer force of will (or hours, or sacrificing mind and body). But I've always found the meta-work to be the most interesting part of the work. Especially if it means I can spend more time in a state of productive flow.

TFA is essentially saying orgs should have a framework that enables their staff to work smarter not harder, and that the org's ROI is not a coder's problem to solve.

It is absurd to tie productivity to workers. An example suffices. A technician running a pair of horizontal machining centers accomplishes the finish machining of eighty automobile engine blocks in an eight hour shift. Now, he’s replaced by a robot and automatic gauging. There are two fundamental problems. In the technician reference frame, his productivity has suddenly and discontinuously fallen to zero, as he sits in fear at home. From the company reference frame, productivity has increased. I used the term reference frame, from physics, on purpose. The idea of productivity is fundamentally flawed- in our system the two views cannot be reconciled, and the discontinuity in the worker frame is also highly problematic.

Economic rationalism, globalism, etc have always justified that by saying the net productivity in society has increased, so the technician can be taken care of (or at worst, is collateral damage in service of the greater good).

The problem is they don't account for other damage caused by that. People get a sense of purpose from work, many would actually rather work than get a welfare check. Communities are built around industries. Uncertainty and changing circumstances can have big impacts on people, more than can just be measured by subtracting their income from some balance sheet.


It’s more than that. Because of advances in technology and science, “productivity” will always increase.

But to whom go the spoils?

And when will we take responsibility for the losers?


Not necessarily - it could be that a lot of effort goes into (for example) how products look, and how polished they are, to increase products' relative positions in their markets, instead of prioritising absolute increases in productivity for mankind.

and the assumption that there is some kind of UBI to make sure that the technician is taken care of.

We've been a bit slow about adding that ingredient into the formula.


Or reducing work hours in response.

> Much of the professional self-improvement literature that is often hastily summarized as being about “productivity” really is not, in the sense that it focusses less on increasing your output above all else and more on nuanced goals, such as reducing stress through better organization, making smarter decisions about your time, being a good leader, or producing higher-quality results.

The author's book "Deep Work" was a great lecture for me and though it used the term "productivity", I think its message lays elsewhere:

Cal deliberately talks for pages about the idea of working less but prioritizing deep work. It's true that this is ultimately a "productivity" hack. Still, practicing this idea myself, I'd say I have more time of my day now "not having to be productive".

I used to work shallowly for 8 hours a day. Since a year or so, I spend mostly 4 hours in the office. My "products" haven't suffered. They've become better, and so have I.


Was alarmed to see an otherwise good article descend into a defense of Agile.

"Agile project-management methodologies didn’t alleviate the need for programmers to strive to be better coders, but they did prevent the developers from having to excessively worry about what they should be coding and whether they had done enough"

I think there are many coders here who would strongly disagree, and maybe even identify Agile as the ultimate manifestation of productivity culture.


At the risk of being the No-True-Agileman...

The original idea of sprint planning was to choose only as many tasks as you feel comfortable doing in given time frame. The customer specifies priority, the developers estimate effort. Also, measuring individual productivity is strictly forbidden; the team is supposed to operate as a "black box" from the management perspective. In theory, that is.

In real life, in most companies there is pressure on the team to take more tasks than they feel comfortable doing. Sometimes there are external deadlines, like "all these tasks must be completed in the next two sprints, but hey guys, enjoy your AgileTM freedom to decide which ones get done in the first sprint, and which ones get done in the second sprint". Or you measure individual productivity by number of story points completed, and say "hey guys, feel free to set your own sustainable pace an enjoy your work-life ballance, but the 20% of you with least story points completed will get fired at the end of the year".

Agile was meant to be a replacement for management. Instead it became management's another weapon. Because management makes the ultimate decisions about how exactly agile gets implemented at your company.


I agree with this, though personally I'd distinguish between Scrum (continuously sprinting, people mindlessly trying to grab as many story points as possible to impress their boss, getting in trouble if a story overruns a sprint or takes longer than the estimate), and Kanban, which to me seems less stressful and more realistic and what the author was getting at.. IMHO at least..

Ugh. Talking about the same thing over and over and over again for decades, with 5000 different books and gurus and TED talks about it does not yield ANY insight whatsoever. In fact more and more information = more noise making it even harder to find the few things that do work.

Its a tragedy how the model fails utterly at building frameworks to think about things, instead just popping out endless cliches or tips. There's a reason anything you learn in college is structured and professors work hard at defining course plans - it builds up a framework, piece by piece, making sure you understand each piece before moving on to the next. The framework lets you reason about X in many contexts. The framework for productivity is not all that complicated.


The frustration is mostly that people want to keep and eat their cookie. They want to get selected by productive teams and work with productive teammates, but they don't want to face the pressure associated with being a productive teammate themselves. Ultimately the pressure comes from yourself, you don't have to be better than the team you are willing to work with. If you want to work on a world class team then you now put world class expectations on yourself, if you are fine working on menial tasks then you don't have any issues at all not being productive.

> If you want to work on a world class team then you now put world class expectations on yourself, if you are fine working on menial tasks then you don't have any issues at all not being productive.

In open source it works naturally. I can contribute a trivial improvement to a project where geniuses do magic. Hey, I am not a genius, but I can still improve the documentation, or add a translation, and my humble contribution is still an improvement to the overall project; the geniuses don't mind me doing this.

It just somehow doesn't work at a job. Speaking for myself, I absolutely wouldn't mind if the geniuses get 10x the salary I get; that would be completely fair. Sadly, the geniuses usually don't get paid significantly more... if you are 10x more productive, your salary is maybe 2x higher. And then the company resents having to pay 50% of the genius salary to a person who is clearly not in the same league. Also, managers love treating people as replaceable, so they e.g. estimate the effort in man-days, ignoring the fact that one person's man-day could be another person's man-week or more. From this perspective, working with geniuses is exhausting.


Reading a great book-- 4000 weeks by Oliver Burkeman.

He makes the great point that no matter how productive we get, we will never feel satisfied, as there will always be more to do.

Instead, we need to start focusing on things that actually matter.

The title 4000 weeks is the average lifespan of a human-- and Oliver make the point we get stuck in the race to be more productive, and forget to enjoy life, which is usually the reason we start the productivity race in the first place.


We don't forget to enjoy life; employment is offered on the basis of work 40 (or more) hours a week or you don't work at all. Working less hours for less money is rarely, if ever, a choice professionals get to make.

The benefits of productivity have not gone to workers at all, even professional workers. In fact, it has been the opposite, with even high value workers being squeezed for more hours.


That seems like a fatuous point to me. The productive mindset is not about satisfaction, it’s about striving. Who suggested you’ll feel more satisfied by spending more time striving? And why is ‘feeling satisfied’ assumed to be a general goal anyway? For me satisfaction is just one emotional state, one that I want to experience sometimes but not as often as a feeling of striving and achievement. For someone else it might be the other way round, and that’s fine too. There is no need to declare what “actually matters” as if you speak for everyone.

+1. I'm reading it too, great book, very recommended and necessary. His old writing on The Guardian: This column will change your life, never failed to made me think.

Yes, Oliver Burkeman is on my list of "Read or buy anything he writes"

His book "The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking" is one my favourite books



I think the problem is that people keep using industrial/factory models of productivity to figure out if non-industrial workers are productive (have you upsold X amount of times at the drive-thru, have you done Y commits to the repo, etc). These attempts to produce meaningful enumeration of work ultimately misses the point of what the work is about. In software development, we're largely tasked with either solving a novel scenario or automating drudgery (usually the latter but the former does happen). In either case the metric that should be used is how little work your users/clients have to do to benefit from your product. If your user/clients have to do more work to make sure their use of the app is reliable then you have problems and you should track that. But you can't track it with arbitrary measurements of commits per developer or how many weeks it takes to fix the problem (it could be multiple problems). At best, you can measure how reliable your developers are at solving those problems. How fast beyond a certain point doesn't matter (usually the time frame of your biggest clients).

Definitely room for improving processes, think there is large scope for productivity increases just in our wider work culture. Too many people trying to CYA (Cover Your A*), things like email acknowledgments and people requesting things when they know the answer is no, but solely so they can prove they actioned something or tried to go the "extra mile".

I feel like our desire for “more” is a contributor. One could just as easily use personal productivity improvements to work less.

But many of us want more money, a bigger house in the right neighborhood, travel across the globe, acclaim from others, etc.

If there’s no end to your wants there’s no end to the work.


Is the article essentially arguing that work should be made easier for knowledge workers — so they aren't as stressed out? I assume it'd fall on these knowledge workers to build the better systems that would simplify their day-to-day work.

Yes and that's exactly what the author is saying is wrong with our current productivity culture.

"A growing portion of my audience was clearly fed up with “productivity,” and they are not alone."

Pretty much summed in two xkcds:

https://xkcd.com/1319/ https://xkcd.com/1205/


Hi, productive person here. I'm also frustrated by my own productivity, tbh... some days I wish I languished more, to take in the moments as they come without any influence on my part to their outcome.

Take some of my languishing. I have plenty to spare at the moment.



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