Tracing the rise of toxic productivity and re-examining the true role of productivity and acts of maintenance.
I’ve had a complicated relationship with planning and productivity. From rebelling against it, to grudgingly giving it a try before embracing it like a born-again convert, to slowly questioning why I was letting a to-do list control my life, I’ve been through it all.
And I’m sure I’m not the only one. “Get shit done” seems to be the rallying cry these days, followed closely by “hustling”.
But where does this idea of constant productivity come from? And why has the cult of productivity — hustle harder — become the rallying cry over the last few years?
A brief history of productivity
To examine that, maybe we should go back in time to find out what productivity really means, and how it has evolved over the years.
Before the Industrial Revolution in the 1700s, we essentially lived in an agricultural economy, which means that nations were dependent on farmers for food and sustenance. It wouldn’t be far-fetched to say that the ancient civilizations would have been most concerned with agricultural productivity. We can turn to the detailed demographic surveys maintained by the Romans to extrapolate this data — their records show how many people lived in the cities and villages, which gives us a fair estimate of how much of the ancient Roman population was involved in the pursuits of farming and fishing. And it would be reasonable to conclude that most ancient civilizations would have followed similar trends. Examining Roman demographic records, economists were able to model agricultural productivity, which essentially helps us understand how many people it took to keep everyone clothed and fed. For the curious, 99% of Romans produced food, and all of what was produced in a given year was consumed in the same year.
The Industrial Revolution in the mid to late 1700s ushered in numerous advancements that changed the so-far agrarian and handicraft-based economy to one dominated by industry and machine manufacturing. Agricultural improvements made during this time made it possible for a smaller number of farmers to produce food for a larger number of people. Technological advancements led to the creation of factory systems and automation, which meant that less human labor was required in the manufacturing process. This made production quicker — and also led to a rise in national wealth in industrial nations. But it wasn’t until 1913, when Ford unveiled the first assembly line, that productivity became inextricably linked to figuring out how to produce things faster.
From that point on, technology continued to advance at a rapid rate, more employment became available in factories and industrial sectors, and industrialists became increasingly concerned with productivity. Their main area of focus was on how to improve factory automation processes to produce more units in the same — or quicker — time.
It made perfect sense to measure productivity on the factory floor. After all, the more productive industry is, the greater the financial return. It’s relatively easier to increase productivity on the factory floor too — automation can be improved, bottlenecks removed, the assembly line made leaner and more efficient. As factory workers spend a certain amount of time on the floor, their efficiency with a process they repeat multiple times every day improves.
But how did this focus on productivity leak out of the factory floor and into daily life?
The rise of personal productivity
I think there’s a two-fold answer to this question — one of which lies in a rather unexpected place: World War II. That’s when women entered into the workforce in large numbers, and from that point on, their number only continued to grow. But while larger numbers of women stepped away from full-time domestic roles, they still had to balance the demands placed on them at work with those placed on them at home. This meant that there was a growing percentage of the population that had increasing responsibilities that had to be met in the same amount of time — i.e., they needed to figure out how to get more shit done.
Second is the rise of the white-collar worker (who Peter Drucker called the knowledge worker, a term that is still used today). In the late 1950s and early 1960s, knowledge workers started to outnumber blue-collar workers (the people engaged in manual jobs). By the early 1970s, they accounted for around 40% of the working population in the US and Canada.
Productivity, therefore, was no longer simply a measure of how much a worker could produce on the factory floor in a fixed interval of time. Organizations needed to adapt productivity metrics and systems from the factory floor to the office setting. According to Drucker — the business scholar who is widely regarded as the creator of modern management theory and, by extension, personal productivity — organizations would need to focus on implementing systems to improve workforce productivity, which translates to achieving more with less. To achieve this goal, he claimed that organizations should aim to produce at least 50% more over the next 8-10 years without increasing the number of people employed. Which means that knowledge workers needed to be able to work faster and more efficiently.
With the increasing pressure on their time and productivity, people became busier and needed ways to track and schedule their time so they could juggle the increasing demands on their attention at work and on their commitments outside of work.
The rise of the cult of productivity
As this need gained supremacy, there was an urgent need for systems and tools to help people keep track of their many commitments.
Enter the humble diary, which was initially used by merchants and traders to track stock movements. According to the Boston Globe, daily diaries started to become increasingly popular as industrialization became more entrenched, with one of the earliest known to-do lists available for purchase debuting in 1900.
But the real milestone for the personal productivity industry came in the 1960s, when Dorsey Printing released its first scheduling system, the Day-Timer, for the masses. This was the first time that a scheduling system was released for general consumption; before this, its scheduling systems were targeted at professionals like lawyers, accountants, and engineers.
Since then, the planner industry has exploded. The most recent figures I could find pegged sales of the planning industry at $342.7 million in 2016 — and it’s safe to assume the numbers have only grown. As have the number of books and productivity systems, ranging from Getting Things Done to the Pomodoro Technique, the Bullet Journal, Zen to Done, Kanban, The Action Method, and countless more.
As the world has become smaller and faster thanks to the world wide web, our struggles with remaining productive only seem to have increased.
Personal productivity and hustle culture
A large part of this stems from social media and the rise of hustle culture, the more glamorous version of “workaholism”, which has been scientifically proven to be harmful for our mental and physical health. Hustle culture just dressed it up in catchy slogans.
Do what you love. Hustle harder. Don’t stop when you’re tired. Rise and grind.
Doesn’t it sound so much cooler than the rather stodgy and dreary “workaholic”?
But sample this:
From this perspective, the hustle is never ending; work is supposed to be exciting; and it goes with you everywhere — whether you’re lounging on the beach or traveling around Greece. In fact, leisure is cancelled too. Meditation and yoga are embraced because they can help you to hustle harder —by boosting physical stamina and improving attention spans.
This is a culture that exhorts you to strive harder and aim higher while oozing confidence and positivity. And once you notice it, it is almost impossible to escape.
Contrast this with the workplace indifference that was the epitomized by the Gen-X cult classic Office Space. The start-up worker bee and the serial entrepreneur would be aghast by protagonist Peter Gibbons’ confession: “It’s not that I’m lazy. It’s that I just don’t care.” Workplace indifference just doesn’t have a glamorous hashtag.
Companies like WeWork, “the Starbucks of office culture,” as Erin Griffith wrote in the New York Times, are making hustle culture mainstream. Valued at around US$9 billion, WeWork is exporting “its brand of performative workaholism to 118 cities across 33 countries, with over half a million members, including workers from 30% of Global Fortune 500 companies.”
When productivity becomes toxic
Tech leaders like ex-Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, and Tesla owner Ellon Musk glorify hustle culture, claiming that not only are long work hours possible, but that it is the only way to “change the world”.
Facebook COO Sheryl Sanberg’s bestselling book Lean In offered a more nuanced look at the challenges women face in the workplace, but her message was quickly distilled down to its simplified, can-do essence: If a woman works hard and asserts herself enough, she can thrive at home and at work.
Her approach placed the burden of responsibility for success on individual efforts, rather than addressing or bringing any meaningful change to the societal and corporate structures that actually support them. Yet, it spawned a social movement across the world, with more than 41,000 Lean In circles in 170 countries, where women meet regularly to discuss and implement Sandberg’s guidance — in essence, how to be more productive.
A dream that soon soured for many who initially embraced the concept. It would take another powerhouse of a woman to put in words what many felt: “I tell women, that whole ‘you can have it all’ — nope, not at the same time; that’s a lie. It’s not always enough to lean in, because that shit doesn’t work all the time.” former First Lady Michelle Obama told a sold-out crowd during a book tour when she was promoting her memoir, Becoming.
In our current capitalist culture, where productivity has leaked out from the work place into every aspect of our life, even hobbies are no longer things we do just for fun. They’re being turned into side hustles too. This is a far cry from the 1886 campaign by US labourers, who demanded an eight-hour workday with the motto “eight hours of work, eight hours of rest, eight hours for what we will”.
This undefined space and refusal to define “for what we will”, argues Jenny Odell, author of How to do Nothing, challenges a capitalist system that is “colonis[ing] the self by capitalist ideas of productivity and efficiency”. As the hustle bleeds into our personal lives via social media and the rise of the personal brand, the boundaries around leisure appear to have dissolved, with everything we enjoy becoming something that has a profit potential.
The true role of productivity
This isn’t to say that there isn’t any place for productivity. There certainly is. We do, after all, need to get shit done.
But at what cost – that is the real question.
In a performative productivity culture that values busy-making and hustling, there’s no space for critical acts of care and maintenance. Social media free days, for example, can be considered critical care — yet it’s embraced not as a way to unwind, but as a way to be more productive. To innovate, produce more, and hustle harder.
Acts of maintenance — cooking, cleaning, resting, looking after our mental and physical health — are rarely seen as productive. We tend to look at these activities as the things that keep us from producing. And yet, we know these acts of care and maintenance are foundational to our very lives. We cannot, after all, get by without food or rest.
The reason we tend to dismiss it, Odell argues, is because social media companies and Big Tech have managed to direct our attention and alter our judgements in ways that ensure we are helping them to turn a profit. Our leisure cannot be commoditized — productivity can.
For something that initially gained importance on the factory floor, productivity has emerged today as a many-headed hydra. We’re all caught in its trap; making our way out, forming our own counter-cultural narrative will take time and effort.
Dismantling the current pervasiveness of hustling harder and easing into a more nuanced understanding of productivity — one that gives as much importance to care and maintenance as it does to producing things — will require sustained effort. There is no road map here. No trail of breadcrumbs to follow. Turning our back on the shiny neon lights of productivity-ville isn’t easy. It’s the badlands out there — and monsters lurk in the shadows. From people who simply don’t understand why we refuse to hustle, to an influencer culture that peddles productivity, to our own inner demons, which insist we’re doing some thing wrong or are being shirkers for pressing pause on the productivity hamster wheel.
And yet, if we never embark on that journey and don’t stare down those monsters, we will never find our way to the place where we can rest, think, play, and create on our own terms. There’s a rich life to be lived beyond the hustle. If we don’t learn how to strategically step back and evaluate where we are going, we may find that we’ve hustled our way up a hill we didn’t want to climb in the first place.
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This post is part of Blogchatter’s CauseAChatter.