The Problem of Productivity
Cal Newport almost gets to 'progressivity', but not quite.
Cal Newport, to whom we owe the concept of ‘Deep Work’ and other contributions, has been backed into a corner by readers expressing negative emotions about the centrality of ‘productivity’ in the foundation of work:
Early in the pandemic, I received an e-mail from a reader who embraced my writing about the importance of deep work and the need to minimize distractions, but was thrown by my use of the term “productivity” to describe these efforts: “The productivity language is an impediment for me.” Intrigued, I posted a short essay on my Web site that reacted to her message, proposing that the term “productive” could be salvaged if we define it more carefully. There were, I wrote, positive aspects to the idea of productivity. For example, by better organizing administrative tasks that cannot be ignored—paying taxes, filing forms—you can reduce how much time you spend on such drudgery. On a larger scale, the structured “productive” pursuit of important projects, far from being soulless, can be an important source of meaning.
His readers offered other terms to soften the sense of ‘productivity’ as being too intertwined with the downsides of overwork, burnout, and the excesses of what Erin Griffith calls ‘toil glamour’, a sort of performative workaholism:
In the new work culture, enduring or even merely liking one’s job is not enough. Workers should love what they do, and then promote that love on social media, thus fusing their identities to that of their employers. … This is toil glamour, and it is going mainstream.
Newport dutifully lists several writers who have argued for — at the least — a gentler notion of productivity, and at the extreme have pushed an antiwork agenda. He also provides a concise timeline of the history of 'productivity', with mentions of Henry Ford, Adam Smith, the rise of Knowledge Work1, and so on, up to the present. However, this meandering down productivity lane doesn’t add much to his argument. Then, he simply restates his central argument, again:
This brings us back to the original question of whether the term “productivity” has outgrown its utility. I don’t think we can abandon the word altogether. The precise economic property that it measures is important: we need to measure it, and we need to continue to seek to increase it.
The problem with ‘productivity’ is that it is concerned with managing and increasing output: producing widgets, quarterly reports, the next release of the software, yet another research report, and meanwhile, always aspiring to do more with less. Less waste, less idle time on the assembly line, and fewer workers. The end game is to speed up the machine at all costs, and many people are just not good with that, anymore.