Tuesday, February 04, 2014

On Productivity

I had a doctor's appointment this morning. My doctor's office and work are in opposite directions from my house, so I worked from home until it was time to go to the appointment. This gave me a little extra time in the morning,and I decided to walk Pumpkin the couple of blocks to school rather than drive her there. It was delightful. She told me all about the things they do on Tuesdays at school and I could focus on what she was saying rather than buckling her into a seat, finding a parking spot, unbuckling her, etc., etc. The route to school includes a short stretch with a beautiful view down to Mission Bay and out to the ocean, and we both remarked on how clear and crisp it was today, after the rain we had yesterday.

I don't know why I don't walk her to school everyday. I already walk to pick her up most days. That seems more acceptable, though, because I'm stealing minutes from our home routine, not from work. As I walked back to my house this morning, I thought about that distinction, and decided that it is BS. I might be five minutes later to work everyday if I walk Pumpkin to school. So what? Why is it OK to be five minutes later to making dinner but not five minutes later to work?

Don't get me wrong: I know I can get a lot done in five minutes. In fact, making good use of the little bits of time in your work day is one of the things I recommend in Taming the Work Week.

But I've grown disillusioned with how we talk about productivity these days. This might seem like a strange thing for me to say, since I write so much about productivity. However, I am not disillusioned with productivity, just with how we talk about it. We talk about being productive as if that is the ultimate goal in life.

That is not how I think of productivity at all. To me, being productive is the means by which I can achieve my ultimate goal, which is to live a happy life, in which I have the time and money to pursue the many various things that interest me.

I am not independently wealthy, so I need to work to earn the money part of that equation. I am lucky that the substance of my work involves some of the things that interest me, but there are many other things that interest me. Like my children. And travel. And writing. And short ebooks. And music. And baking. And... the list could go on and on.

I've written before about how I view my life as something to build out of the various blocks of my interests. Some of the blocks produce money. I care about productivity so that those blocks don't squeeze out all of the others.

So much of what I see written about productivity seems to focus on doing more, more, more, always more work, whereas I'm more interested in doing the same amount in less time.

I know that rising productivity is an indicator of a healthy economy, and I understand why. I wonder sometimes, though, if we are forgetting that our measures are just markers for what we should really care about- which to me is giving everyone the opportunity to lead the best and happiest life possible. I remember when Bhutan announced it was going to focus on increasing its Gross National Happiness more than its Gross National Product. A lot of what I read about it in the Western press was bemused at best, and condescending at worst, but I've always been intrigued by the idea. What if we're optimizing on the wrong indicator? Can we find a better indicator to use?

I am not an economist or a philosopher, and am still working to learn all the fundamental concepts I'd need to understand to really tackle those questions. I think they are important, though.  I look at what is happening in our economy right now, and I see workers pushed to be ever more productive, and the rewards of that increased productivity largely going elsewhere. Is that because we're optimizing our policies on the wrong thing?

We may be seeing the beginning of this discussion in the wake of the Congressional Budget Office's estimate on the impact of Obamacare on jobs (somewhere in this report but here is the NY Times article on it). While some pundits worried about "lost jobs," Adam Weinstein at Gawker and Matt Yglesias at Slate both discussed a different interpretation: that people might start choosing to arrange their lives differently when they no longer require a full time job for health benefits. I personally think it if the threat of losing health care is the only thing keeping someone in a "standard" 40 hour week job, then it is a good thing if they get the freedom to choose differently. Maybe our workplaces will even learn to adapt, and start offering workers better options.

I would really like to see that happen, both for myself and for others. Right now, if I want to work fewer hours in my current line of work my only real option is to become an independent contractor. I'd like to have more options, even if I might ultimately decide to stick to a 40 hour week. I would like to work towards a world where we all have more options. In the meantime, I think I'll walk my daughter to school more often. Work can wait a few extra minutes for me.


  1. I love this post.

    Yes, too much of what is said about productivity assumes it is a goal in and of itself, or in order to squeeze in more work.

    Not the way I want to live my life...

  2. RE Bhutan. I didn't see that as odd at all. What's odd is that traditional economic data ignored 80% of all food production in Africa because food grown for family consumption doesn't require money to change hands.

    There is something seriously messed up about counting only things that cause money to change hands. Or in only factoring in things that can be counted. That's a serious bias in the data.

    Back to Bhutan. Forests don't add to GDP, but cutting down the trees would. Then, all the repair work for the resulting landslides would further add to economic "productivity". But, are they better off with or without the forests above their towns?

    When we pile on more and more tasks, we are unsustainably strip-mining people.

  3. Definitely walk Pumpkin to school. If I lived somewhere that it was 65 degrees in February, I'd be out walking all the time! My yard here in PA appears to be currently covered by a glacier.

    On a more serious note, the interviews I'm doing for my next book project feature a lot of realizations like this. You can do something fun for a few minutes. It's OK. Really. You can take a day to chaperone the school field trip. You can take real breaks and walk around outside. I eat lunch with my kids most days. I won't always be able to do this but I work from home now and the little ones are still here then so I can take a structured break at noon to do that.

  4. Here's our deliberately controversial post on whether or not GDP should be used to measure success: http://nicoleandmaggie.wordpress.com/2012/10/08/is-gdp-how-we-should-be-measuring-success-a-deliberately-controversial-post/

  5. Anonymous11:49 AM

    Walking pumpkin to scholl sounds really awesome. I have a hard time getting enough work doen at the moment, so I try to be more productive and work on my train commute - but that is because I want to come home to my kids early enough to be able to play with them.
    I'm reading a book right now that basically argues that we focus on the wrong kind of productivity and that we should focus much more on being efficient with the use of resources and not focus as much on being productive per worker. They argue that this would relieve some of the stress on both the workers and the planet. The book is called factor five, I find it certainly interesting. I think they also argue that economic growth can't go on forever and should not be that important, but I didn't read that part yet.

  6. "Why is it OK to be five minutes later to making dinner but not five minutes later to work?"

    I have been asking myself this ever since I went back to work after maternity leave. And, thank goodness, I now work for someone who emphasizes getting my work done rather than logging my time. It's amazing how much more focused I am at work.


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