The Problem with (Personal) Productivity

Is it time to move beyond it?

By Tim Leberecht

Personal productivity does real harm to workers. Is it time to move beyond the whole concept of productivity?

A recent article in The New Yorker by Cal Newport, author of Deep Work, titled “The Rise and Fall of Getting Things Done,” pinpointed the discomfort I’ve always felt with one of the main skills required of the “knowledge worker”: personal productivity. Google it and you’ll find hundreds of thousands of articles and blog posts that promote, for example, “37 habits to enhance your productivity” and similar “hacks.” If productivity — the measure of efficiency of a person (or robot) completing a task — is the lowest common denominator of the economy, personal productivity is the lowest common denominator of the knowledge economy.

Getting Things Done, a methodology created by the consultant David Allen, is widely seen as the vanguard of the personal productivity movement, and in his piece, Newport takes it down as a proxy to question the entire concept. He points out that the focus on personal productivity allows organizations to delegate the responsibility and pressure of productivity down to the individual under the guise of autonomy:

“The modern office worker is inundated with quantified quarterly goals and motivating mission statements, but receives almost no guidance on how to actually organize and manage these efforts.”

Newport takes aim at Peter Drucker’s pioneering “Managing by Objectives” (and you may add its more recent twin, OKR, as in Objectives and Key Results). In Newport’s view, the problem is that all these frameworks “don’t directly address the fundamental problem: the insidiously haphazard way that work unfolds at the organizational level. They only help individuals cope with its effects.” Even more concerning, “The knowledge sector’s insistence that productivity is a personal issue seems to have created a so-called ‘tragedy of the commons’ scenario, in which individuals making reasonable decisions for themselves ensure a negative group outcome,” he contends.

Slack or Trello to the rescue?

Newport is not the first to point out the misalignment between personal productivity and organizational productivity. In a 2017 article for Harvard Business Review, titled “The Paradox of Productivity,” Ryan Fuller posits:

“To really improve productivity — and to be honest about what it means — you first have to gain a level of organizational self-awareness to understand what work actually drives value at your company, and then direct employees towards these tasks. This is pretty straightforward for manual work (e.g. assembly lines), but extremely complex when it comes to knowledge work.”

Others, like the organizational psychologist Adam Grant, have exposed the shortcomings of our understanding of personal productivity itself, pointing out that the underlying idea of time management is misleading and that we should instead become better at attention management: “the art of focusing on getting things done for the right reasons, in the right places, and at the right moments.”

Newport has written the most incisive and enlightened critique of personal productivity to date, but his conclusions are too incremental. When he proposes more “intentional assignments of effort” and to “work on one feature at a time,” it smells like shoehorning knowledge work into the containers of micro-industrial processes on digital steroids. Instead of the “total freedom” of personal productivity, he calls for better tools to optimize collective work, borrowing from the best practices of software developers and their morning stand-ups and task boards, touting qualities such as transparency and agility, the darlings of the digital economy. Trello boards, Slack, or Guild to the rescue? That is a bit, well, unimaginative perhaps? And doesn’t it entrust the fox with protecting the chicken farm?

Digital technology, with its behavioral-change apps and myriad collaboration suites, has turned task-based personal productivity at the workplace into 24/7 self-optimization. Today’s knowledge workers do not suffer from total freedom, they suffer from a total lack of freedom. The tools of productivity have colonialized our most personal sphere: our selves.

Productivity is now social monitoring

A few years ago, a writing app called Don’t Worry, Be Happy made the rounds on media. The app surveyed a worker’s facial expressions, and if that person stopped smiling while performing their computer work, it would delete everything they had produced in the previous hour. Don’t Worry, Be Happy was a not-so-subtle example of a social conditioning tool that combined productivity with well-being, enabling “emotion enforcement” as the pinnacle of Digital Taylorism. Now, that app was available in the app store, but it remains unclear whether it was meant as a satire or for actual use (you know something is creepy when you can’t tell the difference), residing in the same uncanny place that also led to the HBO series Silicon Valley.

It turns out Don’t Worry, Be Happy was a precursor of things to come. As Jacob Silverman observes in The New Republic, the COVID-19 pandemic has fueled the rise of social productivity-monitoring tools with Orwellian names like DeskTime, SPYERA, Time Doctor, and Hubstaff that, for example, track students’ eye movements, or ensure that employees aren’t playing games during work hours. The workplace panopticon has come home, as Silverman notes.

The most recent, and arguably most consequential, example of this trend is the Productivity Score, a new feature that Microsoft recently introduced as part of its 365 Workplace Analytics suite, used by millions of people every day. The Productivity Score comprises a Technology Experience and a People Experience score, both based on data collected from workers’ usage of Microsoft’s 365 office productivity suite. (The People Experience score, for example, is built across five categories: content collaboration, meetings, communication, teamwork, and mobility.) It is essentially a new dashboard view designed to, quoting Microsoft, “help everyone in your organization build the habits that harness the true power of those tools” and “harmonize productivity and well-being.”

It sounds like a satire as well: too banal and too obvious to be taken seriously. But it is real. What may be even worse than firms like Microsoft maliciously betraying all the talk of “humanizing the workplace” is that they actually believe their tools contribute to bringing it to life.

Efficiency does not meet the exterior and interior demands of a complex world

When Microsoft proclaims that its Productivity Score “illuminates the essential insights to move your transformation from art to science,” it lays bare the myopic philosophy at the heart of all productivity tools. Ever since Frederick Taylor pioneered it, the idea of scientific management has proven to be detrimental to both productivity and worker happiness.

First of all, as management thinker and author Margaret Heffernan points out, efficiency is good for the complicated but not for the complex, and it falls short of addressing a world that is increasingly unpredictable.

“Trying to standardize and measure all work may instill the illusion of control, but it too often demotivates people whose skill sets can meet unpredictable demands. It also robs people of their capacity to adapt and respond with creativity and commitment.”

Digital technology has led to significant productivity gains, but at what cost? Productivity as the main metric of work performance not only produces high external costs, but also hampers mental health within a company, causing stress, anxiety, and burnout among workers. Almost a third of Americans, for example, reported in a 2017 Ipsos study mental health problems due to workplace stress. The actual number is likely higher. In a 2018 survey among Canadian employees, workplace stress was reported as the primary cause of mental health issues, with depression and anxiety ranking as the top two issues. The pandemic aggravated this trend, as a recent MetLife survey indicates, with 74 percent of American workers concerned about “at least one aspect of their well-being as a result of the virus.” And it’s a vicious cycle: The global economy loses about US$1 trillion annually in productivity because of depression and anxiety, according to the World Bank.

By simply digitalizing scientific management, we only worsen these effects: we narrow the playing field and flatten the human experience at the very moment when businesses should develop a vested interest in the exact opposite — for the sake of spurring innovation, ensuring psychological safety, and creating healthier and happier workplaces.

So, no, let’s not move from art to science, please. Business is definitely not a science. It is an art that requires imagination and contemplation, not just pseudo-objective execution.

Contemplation eats collaboration for breakfast

As for contemplation, the knowledge economy leaves little time and space for it. The focus is on knowing, less on acquiring or honing knowledge, let alone questioning it, also known as thinking. In the logic of personal productivity, to think means to be unproductive, even outright counter-productive. As William Deresiewicz argued in his brilliant West Point commencement speech in 2010, solitude, being alone with your thoughts, is key to effective leadership.

Unfortunately, to produce increasingly means to collaborate. There is nothing wrong with the idea of collaboration in and of itself. It’s an evolutionary distinction that sets humans (mostly) apart, and has brought us, just to give one recent example, breakthroughs in developing vaccines. The problem is that working together on so-called digital collaboration platforms is often merely symbolic. I’ve written elsewhere that we are collaborating ourselves to death, and that platforms like Slack or Guild, or any of the other collaboration tools that promise to democratize work and to make us more productive, often redirect our time to managing our workplace brand and persona, giving us merely the illusion of shared creativity and productivity.

To state it more sharply: The onus has shifted from personal productivity to personal branding, and digital collaboration frequently means the pretense of collaboration: We collaborate for the sake of collaboration, but it is never the work product that is being collectively negotiated and shaped, it is our identities and relationships in the process. This is the new paradox:

The more objectively we believe technology can measure the quantity and quality of our work, the more important the fuzzier and more subjective aspects of our work become, which explains why Microsoft and others are so keen on “objectifying” them through quantitative measures. It is a hopeless quest.

Social productivity tools fail us twice: They impede our productivity and at the same time increase our stress levels, because we no longer have to “just” do the work, but now also need to talk about it as well, in ways that are visible and ideally measurable. Ultimately, these tools make us both less productive and less social.

Work is love made visible, not love made measurable

Personal productivity is dead, even though digital surveillance tools have brought it back into our homes through the backdoor as a zombie. But perhaps the concept of productivity itself is deeply flawed, too, and it is time to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

There are several alternative paradigms we can explore: from “regenerativity” — the degree of external cost produced by one’s work and the amount of circular resources one creates for others and oneself, rather than mere task-related output — to the idea of a “naturalized workplace” that views work as an emergent and fluid organic feature rather than something than can and must be predicted and managed in measurable units.

Perhaps we need a different language altogether: love and beauty instead of productivity and efficiency. “Work is love made visible,” as the poet Khalil Gibran wrote, not love made measurable. Work is beautiful when it brings us closer together instead of just forcing us to collaborate. It is beautiful when it matches the true demands of the world with our own personal potential. In this sense, beauty is not just an aesthetic but an ethical quality. We must produce more of it.

Tim Leberecht is the co-founder and co-CEO of the House of Beautiful Business, a global platform and community for making humans more human and business more beautiful.


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