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Towards a Humanistic Productivity

Productivity is so narrow and shallow. Your human life is deep and wide.

Pamela J. Hobart
Pamela J. Hobart
4 min read
Towards a Humanistic Productivity

Suck More Marrow Out Of Life

Unless you've been living under a rock, you have by now been exposed to a wide variety of systems, tips, tricks, hacks, tools, opinions, and allegedly-scientific findings about "productivity."

Intuitively, more of a good thing is better than less. And if you do more, you should get more: money, recognition, satisfaction, happiness, something.

Life is, after all, just another resource, a (hopefully big) chunk of time. You have your time, your body, and your mind somewhat under your control: all grist for the productivity mill.

By becoming more productive, you will wring more whatever out of your own life. Great!

Why Productivity Is Having A Moment

It's not hard to see why people today are interested in personal productivity.

Many kinds of white-collar and knowledge work deal in abstract, intangible deliverables. Workers are keen to be evaluated well on the job for instrumental purposes (e.g. getting a raise, not getting fired). Plus, workers actually want to contribute to the world.

People spend so many hours working even as other institutions have declined. Thus, work has sopped up various other purposes: it delivers money but also social opportunities and a large portion of personal identity.

The not-work stuff of life - relationships, hobbies, leisure, physical recreation - has been work-ified as work expands to fill common consciousness: you "work" on your marriage, you "work" on your home, you "work out" your body. For children, play is instrumentalized as a kind of education, and getting educated is the work of students. Work work work work work.

To sum it up: our monkey brains are as interested in status, relationships, and survival as they ever were. But our monkey brains are also overwhelmed by information, and our monkey bodies are trying to live in evolutionarily novel ways: away from kin, raising children with less or different help, working closely and doing business with total strangers.

Humans did what they have always done: those hairless apes innovated. From the chatter, clickbait, and manifestos, a new productivity discourse was born.

What Regular Productivity Can Do

Regular productivity stuff can help you figure out when to do more, how to fit more into your schedule.

Have you heard the good news about pomodoro? 5am wakeup, anyone?

Regular productivity methods can also help you to figure out how to do more things of higher priority. These are your various to-do list capturing and arrangement strategies.

What Productivity Doesn't (and Can't) Do

But ordinary productivity discourse raises more questions than it provides answers. And all of the interesting questions surrounding productivity are actually philosophical.

At the bottom of every quest for productivity, we are confronted with increasingly value-laden choices:

  • Do you even want to do more?
  • Should you want to do more?
  • Which "more" should you do?
  • How much more?
  • Why do more?
  • Why do anything?

The answers to the philosophical questions that ordinary productivity discourse accidentally or lazily implies are worse than nothing.

Just a few extremely questionably-assumed premises, off the top of my head:

  • Your life necessarily goes well when you do such-and-such things, and it goes poorly when you don't.
  • Accomplishing self-chosen goals is intrinsically good.
  • Quantitative measurements of productivity are better than qualitative ones.
  • If it's not a strong "yes," then say "no" to it (because your feelings are the best guide to what you ought to do).
  • Additional "productivity" is always worth pursuing on the margin.
  • Distractions are bad.
  • Producing whatever it is that you produce inconsistently is bad.
  • Being active is better than being passive, so you should create more than you consume.
  • Allowing yourself to become derailed by emotions results in a waste of time.
  • Rest and leisure should be pursued in the same spirit as remunerative work.
  • Productivity methods span over all the various other goods in life, ejecting them as outputs.

Humanistic Productivity

Productivity people could have claimed some of these philosophical issues for their own, but I don't see them doing it in a noticeable way. At the very least, the meaty productivity issues have been totally crowded out by the shallow, listicle-worthy stuff. Yuck.

Meanwhile, I never intended to become any sort of "productivity coach." I am just a humble philosopher (oxymoron?) with a nose for bullshit.

But I feel myself being drafted into the productivity wars by its many discontents, and my task is becoming clearer by the day.

We must reshape "productivity" into a contemplative human practice instead of a dumb grab bag of tips, apps, and hacks whose assumptions don't withstand the slightest scrutiny.

I know that this reformation is possible and valuable because I've already begun this work with clients. Most of my philosophical life coaching clients are faced with live questions about what they ought to produce in the world. These are very wide questions, not narrow ones.

Productivity problems always demand that we make complicated all-things-considered decisions with many moving parts. They only sometimesdemand the judicious deployment of productivity tactics.

Humans are creators. We're also consumers, observers, lovers, parents, friends, experiencers, players, reflectors.

The productivity people will tell you that their advice is perfectly consistent with our essential humanity. But I don't think you would have read this far if you really believed that.

These harried, hairless apes do need to deal with their contemporary predicament: information obesity, time poverty, etc.

But productivity advice invites you to think more shallowly about what you are doing (or failing to do), when you really need to go deeper. Muchdeeper. All the way to "why do anything at all?," if necessary.

These depths may be uncomfortable to explore. But not as uncomfortable as a to-do list stamping on your human face, forever.

Please watch this space for more about properly humanistic productivity and how to implement it.

Pamela J. Hobart

Philosophical Life Coaching in Austin, TX. Also mother of 3, Miata driver, and DIY manicure aficionado.