The point of productivity

Productivity has long been a big sub-industry within the business world.

David Allen’s Getting Things Done or GTD methodology, honed over 30 years, has sold millions of books, and prompted a wave of frameworks mapping GTD to the digital world. And that’s only one methodology … there are many, many more. (Todoist has helpfully compiled a quiz which allows you to decide which productivity framework is right for you.)

An article about Allen’s methods in The Atlantic magazine way back in 2004 started with the line:

The modern condition is to be overwhelmed by everything.

If overwhelm was the modern condition 16 years ago — before Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, WhatsApp, Slack and all the other communications apps and tools and systems that can add up to the present everyday norm for hundreds of millions of people around the world — how are we to describe the current norms?

What is clear to me: distraction is everywhere, at every moment of every day, and the ability to avoid distraction and find focus and actually get things done can seem something like a superpower.

But it brings to mind a question: what is the point of productivity?

“Productivity” is different to “being productive”.

To be productive is to honour something central to what it is to be human. We are creative spirit beings, and to create is to produce something we value.

Productivity is a step beyond being productive, I think.

Productivity is ticking off lists of important things, to satisfy some earnest we’ve set for ourselves, or which, occasionally, have been set for us by others, mostly bosses.

Sometimes it seems like we invest in productivity only to get to the next list of things that need to be done, and that the end point of today’s productivity is only the need for more productivity tomorrow.

Being productive is good, but when it comes to productivity explicitly, it’s good to ask some questions beginning with, “Why?”

Why do I need productivity?

What feeling do I want that lies beyond this period of productivity?

Why is this thing I’m doing important?

When I asked the question on Twitter (below), there were several thought-provoking replies:

  • “a feeling of accomplishment or money to pay bills”
  • “At the end of a good productive day, filled with a lot of deep work, I’m far happier for the rest of the day.”
  • “Contentment and satisfaction”
  • “Keeping your promise to yourself. integrity.”
  • “Happiness and being content.”