The American identity is bound up by a continuous desire for improvement. Deep within our Americaness is the belief that everything, including ourselves, could and should be better than it is now.
Stephen Fry gave an interview recently where he proposed and mused on this idea. It came about through a conversation about meditation. Fry isn’t a meditation enthusiast. He says the word “mindfulness” makes him blush with embarrassment. He’s skeptical of the fact that the effects of meditation aren’t clear, obvious, or measurable. Meditation, according to Fry, is marketed and sold as self-improvement. In the U.S., as well as plenty of cultures that have adopted American values, anyone who isn’t constantly improving themselves is inferior.
We can make the same argument about productivity (and I fear people do). As a trend, the desire to be “more productive” intertwines with ideas of self worth. To increase one’s productivity is to be morally superior to others. People discuss or think about personal productivity as if it’s some amorphous and immeasurable quality.
When we think of productivity in this way, it starts to sound like a personality trait. Anyone talking themselves up as a highly productive person surely is. Plus, no matter how productive we are (and if we’re not measuring it, who knows how productive we are), we’re supposed to work harder to be more productive. It’s the American way. It’s also the snake eating its own tail.
What is Your Productivity End Game?
That’s not to say I don’t believe in trying to increase personal productivity. There are, however, a few foundational concepts that we must clarify in order to have the right frame of mind about it.
For starters, “wanting to be more productive” is not a goal in itself. That’s productivity for productivity’s sake, and it isn’t useful.
An increase in productivity must lead to some other end game, some goal, or it has no purpose. The stated goal could be to have more time to spend with family or to develop a positive reputation at work in hope of being promoted. It could be to finish a project by a certain date. There has to be something you want to get as a result of being more productive.
Second, productivity is measurable. The definition of productivity is a measurement! It’s the ratio of input to output. We can and should measure it, whether with apps that are built for it or simply time-management logs. In measuring productivity, we must honor the gains, no matter their size. A 10 percent increase in productivity may not feel a huge improvement to an individual, but it is.
Related to the idea of productivity for productivity’s sake is confusion about the difference between bad habits and being unproductive. People confuse “I want to be more productive” with “I want to stop procrastinating so much.” Curbing a bad habit can lead to increases in productivity, certainly, but there’s a difference between putting your focus on one thing or the other. If what you really want is to stop procrastinating, then learning other productivity enhancing tricks isn’t going to help you. You need to identify the procrastination and change it as a habit.
Productivity Snake Oil
In the self-improvement genre, there’s a lot of snake oil being sold to people who believe they should continually strive to be ever more productive. And there are so many jokes about the snake oil.
There are two secrets to being more productive: wake up at 5 a.m. every day and be born independently wealthy.
How do we avoid being the sucker?
Awareness is always a solid starting point. Start paying attention to the phrase “more productive.” Question it. Does it make sense? Is it clarifying “more productive than what?” or stating an end goal? Decide for yourself whether “more productive” has turned into an amorphous dream rather than a mathematical definition.
In your own life, work on formulating the goal rather than getting caught up in a negative thought spiral about your bad habits or continual need to be improved.
Image by Leo Reynolds, CC.