Our Productivity Obsession

Photo: ferrantraite

I spent a few weeks being extremely productive. And by productive I mean that I worked many more hours than usual. I was consumed by work. I was focused, efficient, and produced good, solid, measurable work. I was feeling pretty good about myself, until I got sick. My body has always reacted directly and appropriately to my stresses and emotions. I really got ill from all the productivity I was getting.

In Japan, there is a term for death by overworking – “karoshi.”

Then I got interviewed for a life hacking documentary. We talked about the life hacking movement that has caused a frenzied race for productivity. We talked about the varied systems and techniques, the new media that has changed our way of communicating, and how I balance my work-at-home life with just my home life. The interview really stayed with me, and I started doing some thinking (some would call me being unproductive).

Obsessive culture

There are similarities between our obsession with work (or productivity) and our obsession with food (or nutritionism). Michael Pollan’s theory on why our nation is so unhealthy is that we have an obsession with food. Since we don’t have a food culture like the rest of the world, we think we need food science to tell us what we should eat. Other countries have social rules that keep them eating well. We have Dr. Atkins. We don't want to rely on our intuitive sense of how to maintain healthy bodies. We want numbers, data, and diagrams that make us feel full of knowledge, when we're just really all full of crap.

Similarly, our work culture has created an obsession with productivity. We jump at anything that promises more output on less time. We try all the latest tools and gadgets. Who can blame us?  After all, we are living in a time where there is unprecedented information flow.  We are lost in a sea of communication.  Is it so bad to want help filtering and sussing out the emails and feeds? 

There’s nothing inherently wrong with wanting to manage our time better.  Except that for most of us, the increased productivity hasn’t led to less work. Sure we are doing more on less time, but what are we using that saved time to do? We’re using it to work more.  Now that I can do in 4 hours what used to take me 8, I can spend the extra 4 hours to do another 8 hours worth of work.  Is that really why we want to be more productive?

Breaking our own records

Aren't we just valuing productivity for its own sake?  Technology makes us work faster, and deliver communication immediately.  Now we are chasing our own stats, just to break our own records. The faster we’re able to cross off to-do items, the faster we’re able to add more to the list. How is this break neck speed of productivity helping make our lives better? 

Dysfunctional communicators

Email comes along and revolutionizes the way we communicate.  It made us more connected.  We can communicate easier with people who are far away.  We keep in touch with people we would never have if we had to keep track of mailing addresses or phone numbers. 

Then we started getting so many of them that we didn't have time to respond thoroughly or read clearly.  With more sites, feeds, and emails, we learned to communicate through a series of keywords rather than in depth conversations.  We scan emails, the way we scan articles, the way we scan conversations.  We twitter instead of saying complete sentences.  We pick up words here and there and create a fuzzy picture of what we think the other person is saying.  Add to that our own personal filters of communication, whether it's biases or experiences, and we've truly become dysfunctional communicators

Multitasking and scanning are the biggest productivity myths, and are destroying our ability to pay attention to anything.  

Your time, your decisions

Tim Ferriss is productive not because he's created a system to manage his time, but because he's made uncompromising decisions about his priorities.  He truly crams a week's worth of work in four hours so he can use the rest of his time traveling, learning new skills, and enjoying life. For the rest of us, productivity tools and systems don't make us do more with less time, it makes us do more on the same amount of time.

Maybe our varied curiosities and attention is the only thing keeping us from becoming machines.  Maybe it's okay to "waste time" reading every word of an article rather than scanning for an incomplete understanding.  Maybe it's okay to take time drafting an email without using a template. Can't we watch Dr. Horrible's Sing Along Blog for the hundredth time without feeling inadequate about our production level?  Sometimes a little distraction helps remind us that we have interests outside of work

We have friends and sunshine and things to say beyond what we blog about.  Don't we?  Shouldn't we be striving for productivity in an attempt to have more time for ourselves, to do the things on that other to-do list, the one we label "some day when I have time" or are we pushing ourselves to be more productive so we can have more time to work, more excuses to not play with the kids, more reasons to let dust settle on that one, really important to-do list?  

Don't flame me

Before all the scanning leaves you with the idea that I'm advocating a couch potato lifestyle, please read this: I believe in a strong work ethic.  We should work hard and earn what we get.  I just wonder if we are made to feel guilty about our productivity level so often, that we forget what the point of it is in the first place.  We don't want to spend all our days working.  Technology has made it so we can skip the commute, take a conference call from another country, disregard the office hours, and thus use time more efficiently.

But more and more, the same technology is invading our personal space, causing an age old conflict of work life interfering with personal life to resurface with a vengeance.  The instant access from anywhere, anytime, is supposed to help us be unchained to our desk.  Instead, we've allowed work to flood our personal lives so completely, we no longer see a boundary. We take calls at the dinner table. We put the cellphone by the bedside every night.

Maybe some of us are just looking for a distraction from life. And what better distraction from life than trying to strive for productivity perfection. We can reach for this ultimate end goal for us to work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, with no wasted seconds. Self destruction may be the cost of no self development.  Then we can all do the karoshi.



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Guest's picture

I was forced to become productive when I had the job from hell for a year. Seriously, there were not enough hours in the typical work day to get it all done. So I worked 12 hour days during the week and 8 - 12 hours days during the weekend for one year. Even so, I had absolutely had to learn how to use the Pareto Principle (see "20 Tips for High Effective Time Management" at http://shanelyang.com/2008/05/05/20-tips-for-highly-effective-time-manag... ) for the first time in my life. However, having learned how to do it, that year was perhaps the most valuable of my entire working career. I was thrown into the water and forced to learn how to swim or I'd sink to bottom like a rock. I started out dog paddling and ended up with the backstroke and butterfly! But, here's the real kicker! After I realized I could actually be that productive, I had no excuses not to go for a career I truly loved -- something that wouldn't feel like work at all. Before that year, I never thought I had it in me to work 24/7 and I'd always heard that to succeed in your own business you have to able to work that hard for the first few years. But, after that hellish year, I knew I could do it. And, so I did! Now, I do work almost 24/7 but it doesn't even feel close to work. It feels like I'm just indulging my favorite hobby all the time. Wow! That's what super productivity can do for you! : )

Guest's picture

But I don't want to be that productive!

Guest's picture

It's not just about work. Even day to day life is chaotic with a seemingly endless number of things to do: trips, events and projects to plan, recipes and restaurants to find, groceries to buy, plumbers to schedule (and reschedule), dry cleaning to pick up and so on. Layer job to-dos and obligations on top of this...who doesn't feel like there's too much to do and not enough time?

Frankly, just thinking about it is stressful...let alone actually getting it done.

But as you point out - absent a clear sense of what we might do with more time - I agree that we become obsessive about productivity for productivity's sake. And then, it's easy to lose sight of what's really important.

Guest's picture

Excellent post. Recommended book is Juliet Schor's The Overworked American. She talks about how we use the time that we save to do just more work.

Guest's picture

Hi Lynn - Great post (if maybe a little depressing)... So, what is the solution? Turn off, shut down, tune out? Or maybe it's refocus, recenter, refine. I'm gonna start small, with The 5-Item To-Do List.  Other ideas?

Guest's picture


I hope the title says it all. It really is all about balancing your personal and work life. Productivity in the workplace can help, but it doesn't mean that you have to beat yourself trying to do more in the same amount of time that you have.

I personally think that people should work smarter, not harder!


Richard Rinyai

Guest's picture

IF you're one of those lucky persons who has a job doing something you love, then work at it as much as you want and can. If you're like the rest of us, I say, work only as much as you need to to maintain the lifestyle you enjoy.


Guest's picture

I really needed to read this! Despite all my 'productivity' and working, I wasn't feeling any more fulfilled in my work. So I took a few days off entirely - no email, no phone calls, no writing - and came back with a better outlook, one that is very well reflected in this post. I need to be working to live, not living to work.

Thanks and excellent post!

Guest's picture

I thrive on finding ways to do things as productive as possible, the key is to do similar tasks in the same vein, not multi task in various different subjects. it also helps to have tools to speed up your tasks to get more done. Some you can find on my website PCLicious Video Tutorials