purging the productivity pathology

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The world is obsessed with getting sh*t done. "Productivity", we call it. Since the industrial revolution it’s been the metric we use to measure social and economic progress, and the means by which we derive our sense of self-worth. It’s the reason our feeds are filled with “productivity hacks”, morning routines, newfangle to-do lists, and one of the many reasons we’re so f*cking miserable. It’s a perverse pathology that has us obsess over how much we produce, while paying strangely little attention to what we produce. It’s a kind of collective delusion that has us believe that, if only we could manage another couple hours of work a day, the fulfillment of our dreams would be assured. Regardless of the nature of our consciousness or the quality of its contents, so long as we simply do more, all will be good, we convince ourselves.

You can appreciate its appeal: it implies that we can remain unchanged, wake up an hour earlier or outsource aspects of our lives, and by doing so, achieve greatness. However, appealing though it is, for the most part, it’s a load of sh*t. It’s perverse in that it has us obsess over the external measures of our work, distracting us from attending to our inner qualities. And it’s delusional in that it’s based on a number of (often) false assumptions. For instance, it’s based on the premise that productivity is a purely linear thing, and that doing more of something or doing something more efficiently is the most effective way to increase it. The history of civilisational progress reveals the absurdity of this notion; meaningful societal change is nearly always the result of non-linear, divergent thinking, not incremental improvements of the status-quo.

Moreover, our obsession with productivity contains the implicit assumption that there’s inherent good in doing more of whatever it is that we do. To be clear, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with the ideals of productivity, on the contrary, they’re rather admirable; it’s just doing more for the sake of doing more that’s stupid.

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the work vs The Work

By placing emphasis on the external measures of our work, the Productivity Pathology has us focus on “the work” instead of “The Work”. What’s the difference? “the work” is the number of emails and calls and hours clocked at the office, while “The Work” is the efforts directed at making ourselves demonstrably better, more highly functioning individuals: exercise, eating well, sleeping appropriately, intentional idleness, intellectual and spiritual development; the kinds of things that, with a couple of exceptions (namely meditation), fall outside the purview of our current productivity paradigm. The Work prioritises the fundamental qualities of the human system, the units of productivity, rather than the measurable outputs of them - “the work”, in other words.

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The Work is about leveraging the tools at our disposal to improve the quality of our work - its importance and its impact, instead of a blind and unquestioning focus on the quantity and efficiency of work.

The Work is concerned with doing the things that most contribute to the enablement of human potential, to ensuring we walk our Path, rather than sprinting someone else’s.

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To be sure, The Work does not require the renunciation of all material possessions and moving to the mountains to meditate with the monks (though if that’s your thing, go for it). The world is plagued with problems and the work is necessary if we are to solve them. However, it seems like a strange notion to suggest that by doing more of what we’re already doing we’ll rid the world of its worst. Instead of more, we should concern ourselves with doing better work. In order to do better work, we must direct our attention to our humanness. For if we are to truly rid the world of its ails, we must first alleviate the pathologies, neuroses and illnesses that hold us back as individuals. To begin, we must purge ourselves of the Productivity Pathology.

If linear progress is what we want, let work continue to be the worry. However, if an exponentially better world is what we desire, The Work is the way.

Nathan McNiece