Written Words – On Productivity

It’s the theme of everyone I know right now. “I’m not being productive.” Across all life paths, my friends, associates and peers generally feel as if their actions suddenly have ceased to be as productive. So, with a tip of the hat to John DiIulio, who likes to remind me that data is not the plural of anecdote (and a tip of the hat to Silvius, who argues that data is in fact, nothing more than the plural of anecdote) I’d like to take a moment to address some philosophical thoughts towards the subject of productivity:

Let’s start with a basic premise. I refuse to accept the possibility that suddenly all of my friends have ceased to be productive. This seems unreasonable, especially considering the generally high quality of such individuals. Of course the possibility exists for a general quarter-life crisis; perhaps that’s a topic for another post (or a John Mayer song).

Instead, let’s look at the similarities across these individuals. The biggest thing that shows up is that we’ve all existed undergraduate education. In fact, the one exception to this trend — the person who feels exceptionally productive — is my friend that has reentered undergraduate education. Now this is obviously a huge life change, most of our life has been focused on descriptive, and at its worse, simply regurgative learning. But is the exit enough to explain the unproductivity phenomena? Is it a hangover? A depression? An adjustment?

I’d like to argue that instead, it is a reflection of the way undergraduate (and by extension, high school) productivity distorts our perception of real world productivity.

In undergrad, there are clear objectives. There are clear tasks. There is a grade at the end that is in many ways the end-game. There are assignments.

There is also an art to handling such things. And to a tee, my friends are people who mastered this art. They (and I) were busy, but had a way of completing these things in such a way that they got positive feedback. Furthermore, the focus on regurgitating or learning for success. Success was defined as getting something right. That was something you could work at. You could set goals for. You did assignments. Nailed tests. Wrote papers. The objects on your daily agenda defined success.

Of course, this is profoundly different than real world productivity. I was talking to a teammate working in a lab, and he said he was in the middle of a stretch of a month in which every one of his experiments failed. So despite his ticking off the boxes, he had failed to move forward. He felt unproductive.

This was largely representative of my experience in the work force. In my non-profit job in Philly, it was often a little spurt of creativity (I should call Spark the Wave! What if we went on an Outward Bound trip?) that did the majority of the work. Yet, the vast majority of the time, especially in between these moments, I felt profoundly unproductive. I can remember entire days where I felt like I was a waste of place in the office. I’d google things, read political blogs, write blog posts.

But when I look back over the year, I am tremendously proud of what I accomplished. What causes that disconnect between my understanding of my productivity and the level of productivity over the long term?

I think it’s the way in which undergrad education teaches us to define productivity. In basic schooling, productivity is defined by daily progress towards clear goals. In life, it’s often a process more akin to stuttering than smooth speech. Days, weeks, years of nothing. Then, boom, a break. Productivity.

I wonder if my generations struggle with productivity has nothing to do with themselves. It has everything to do to moving onto tasks (becoming a doctor, a researcher, a lawyer, working in a non-profit, working in government) in which productivity is not defined by steady progress, but rather by inspiration.


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