The Frustration with Productivity Culture
Early in the pandemic, I received an e-mail from a reader who embraced my writing about the importance of deep work and the need to minimize distractions, but was thrown by my use of the term "Productivity" to describe these efforts: "The productivity language is an impediment for me." Intrigued, I posted a short essay on my Web site that reacted to her message, proposing that the term "Productive" could be salvaged if we define it more carefully. The comments were filled with a growing distaste for the many implications and exhortations that had become associated with productivity culture. Writing in 1999, the management theorist Peter Drucker noted that the productivity of the manual worker had grown fiftyfold during the last century. If you accept that increased productivity helps the common good, the question becomes how to reliably achieve these increases. In the seventeenth century, agricultural productivity was increased by the introduction of the Norfolk four-course system, which avoided the need to leave fields periodically fallow. The productivity of early-twentieth-century car manufacturing leaped forward with the replacement of the craft method with Henry Ford's continuous-motion assembly line. Historically, optimizing systems to increase productivity was exceedingly difficult.