The Industrial Revolution was a step change in how we operated.
It brought about huge improvements and innovation. The manufacturing boom that continues till date owes itself to the Industrial Revolution.
The revolution also created a new measure, one that made human effort a number.
Productivity allowed managers and owners to run operations at scale. Human performance was now a cell in a time-sheet. How many bolts you did, how many cars you fitted everyday. All counted in the 9 to 5 job.
Making human beings more productive was the new human endeavour.
Growth, the sexiest metric of our time, is defined as population growth multiplied by productivity improvements. Our progress is intricately linked to productivity.
To put it more bluntly, we are now chained to the concept of productivity.
It’s a badge of honour we proudly wear until it burns us. Our self-worth is tied to how much we can get done each day.
We are worthy if we are productive.
Our obsession with productivity is something that we rarely benefit from in the long run. The concept is possibly one of the most widely accepted drugs. It leaves little time to yourself. The habits that you pick up in your professional life slowly creep up into your personal life.
We stop doing things that once made you happy because we can’t determine if it’s productive or not. Did it give numbers? Did it add to revenue? Did it add users?
What’s the cost-analysis or rather, time-analysis on the thing that brings us joy?
If we define productivity as “getting as many tasks as possible in the least amount of time”, it may represent higher productivity but does not necessarily mean it moves the needle.
Sometimes, it seems being unproductive is the best way to move the needle.
Before the Industrial Revolution, people usually operated individually or in small groups. The previous explosion of human innovation was the Renaissance.
Masters like Da Vinci spent hours, days, years being unproductive. There were times when there was nothing. A wandering of the mind with no goal, no expected output.
You could argue that Da Vinci was in fact being productive. After all he was spending all this time letting ideas marinade. Those allowed him to be more productive.
The real question is – did Da Vinci care about being productive. I would imagine not.
If you recollect, productivity was invented as a measure by leaders/owners to manage workers everyday. Its integration with our measure of success is an indication of a worker mindset.
Therein lies the problem.
Life is a lot more complex than just being productive everyday. As human beings we inherently optimize for happiness. Just being productive is not going to get us there.
More specifically, using the concept of productivity as an end all is flawed. I call it “unproductivity” – breaking away from the shackles of measuring your productivity.
You can do more, be better, be happier without distilling it to an endless pursuit of daily output. Perhaps the right way to look at what you do is at a longer time scale – months or even years. It is why you hear stories of so many CEOs having “wandered” for years before they “made it”.
Systems that run at “peak efficiency” break, like COVID has shown to our supply chains. There is a need for “slack”, scope for decompression.
We too need time to decompress.
Since I moved to “unproductivity”, my yardstick involves measuring three things – am I getting better emotionally, mentally and physically. If the answer over the time frame of a month is yes, I am good.
When are you moving to unproductivity?