Excerpts from, “Against Productivity”, by Quinn Norton

Why bother? You’re already going nowhere fast, right?

Apparently, Medium holds a three month exclusive license on people’s work, otherwise I’d just post the whole damn thing, it’s too good not to!

This essay deals with a lot of how we think about what makes us productive vs. what actually helps us do the things we want to get done, done.

Norton travels to Puerto Rico with hopes:

I went with the idea that I would avoid distractions and get a lot of writing done. I would organize my time, my thoughts, and my notes. I would have to-do lists and subject clouds and create outlines and fill them in, everyday between 9 and 6 or 7. I would have a word count, discrete articles, a body of material. I could pitch them and massage them into house voices as needed on a schedule to woo editors. I’d make habits that let me produce content, on time, regularly, without last minute stress.

I didn’t do any of that. I got a little writing done, and I stared up at the beautiful old ceiling of my apartment a lot.

But what did Norton do instead? A lot of “nothing”…

I watched rain fall. I cooked. I considered the shape of the buildings a lot, and looked after cats periodically. I walked to old forts and lookouts. At one point I took pictures of doors for no reason I could discern. I berated myself for being unproductive, for wasting this precious time I’d set aside to put my professional life together. I spent hours anxious to craft my time to be quantitatively better for writing. Then it all collapsed, and the only habit I fell into was depressive empty afternoons when I was alone with the cats and the rain. But I also, and wholly by accident, thought the thoughts that would take my career and life in a new and unimagined direction.

I can relate to this a lot because sometimes when I intend to write things (say a novel for a particular month…) I keep putting it off by doing nothing in particular or a bunch of other projects that may or may not be as time sensitive. And eventually I just give up on trying to make any real progress on the novel. I feel like I haven’t done much in the end because I haven’t actually accomplished writing the novel.

But when I look back at it I can see that through my larger failure I also had many many smaller victories I may not have had otherwise and those are worth celebrating too even if they don’t add up to the failure. There’s just no use in being solely negative about the time you spend on what you do if you get a bunch of important things that mean a good deal to you done even if you don’t get “the” thing or project done.

Norton speculates on why society seems to put so much emphasis on productivity:

We dream now of making Every Moment Count, of achieving flow and never leaving, creating one project that must be better than the last, of working harder and smarter. We multitask, we update, and we conflate status with long hours worked in no paid overtime systems for the nebulous and fantastic status of being Too Important to have Time to Ourselves, time to waste. But this incarnation of the American dream is all about doing, and nothing about doing anything good, or even thinking about what one was doing beyond how to do more of it more efficiently. It was not even the surrenders to hedonism and debauchery or greed our literary dreams have recorded before. It is a surrender to nothing, to a nothingness of lived accounting.

This is an interesting passage given that Alfred Bonnano in his, “Let’s Destroy Work!” gives a similar metaphor for seeing life as accountancy:

The pernicious mixture of hatred and dependency at the basis of the work relationship atrophies the individual, reducing life to a question of accountancy. ‘Free time’, a mere negative quantity ranging from a few hours between days at work, to months or even years between jobs, can be survived by performing a number of rituals. Shopping, watching TV, doing voluntary work or going on adventure holidays to far away places can fill gaps and prevent any feelings of anguish which might lead to putting the whole setup in question. If all else fails, capital’s white-coated auxiliaries are always on hand to prescribe the latest psychotropic fix tailored to produce a dim glow of indifference. (emphasis added)

Indeed, Norton seems to sum up productivity well when she says that, “Productivity never asks what it builds, just how much of it can be piled up before we leave or die. It is irrelevant to pleasure.” This is largely how work works too. We subject ourselves to ends that we don’t necessarily find pleasurable or means we don’t find pleasurable just to get by and hope we can get ahead in life in some minimal capacity.

There’s also an a-contextuality to modern conceptions of productivity as Norton points out:

Productivity, the word, was born at the beginning of the 19th century as the ability to bring forth. Land could be productive, or cattle, the sea, or a woman. But by the 20th century it was eclipsed by its new economic definition: the rate of output per unit. Productivity lost the implication of fertility and vitality and became something you could measure: put the output over the unit unit input. If you raise the numerator, you are more productive, no matter what the units represent.

Knowledge is something you can measure. You can create metrics and universal evaluations that can fill the columns of accounting records. Above all we become interested in measuring ourselves. Word count/day, lines of code/day, hamburgers served/hour, steps taken/day, test questions/100, money earned/field’s average salary. We got quarterly reviews, job evaluations, and tested certifications. Productive people came to know exactly if they fit somewhere or not.

Norton makes a comparison between this sort of knowledge and the idea of “wisdom” which is a more airy and less rationalistically involved (rational being used in a specifically Tayloristic sense) and can’t be measured or studied as closely or as scientifically. In part this is undesirable because obviously we want to understand the world but at the same time if we limit our ways of understanding the world (and especially using such noxious sources as Taylorism) then we are also limiting the sort of goals we can strive for or the things we can even want out of life.

There are some parts I’m unsure about though:

America has no death from karōshi*. We don’t count it as a category of death, and therefore in our measurable world it doesn’t exist. We are productive without price. Not because people aren’t dying, they surely are, uncounted lives and families are smothered with despair. There is no price because there’s no measure to quantify what we are losing. *productivity

This is probably partially true but with stories like the woman from New Jersey who was found dead in her SUV as well as things like OSHA statistics about death via occupational hazards it’s possible that this isn’t totally true. But then again these are deaths by jobs and usually placed as such rather than America’s over-emphasis on productivity per se’.

Perhaps I’m just nitpicking.

There’s a lot of great rhetoric in this piece, here’s a good example of Norton making a good use of her writing in describing why productivity sometimes doesn’t catch everything that we wish it would in terms of what’s “good” and what isn’t:

There is more than one kind of thought. There are thoughts you cannot complete within a month, or a fiscal quarter, just as there are thoughts that can occupy less than a vacation period, a weekend, or a smoke break. Like the spectrum of photonic behavior, thoughts come in a nearly infinite range of lengths and frequencies, and always move at the exact pace of human life, wherever they are in the universe. Some thoughts are long, they can take years to think, or a lifetime. Some thoughts take many lifetimes, and we hand them off to the next generation like the batons in a relay race. Some of these are the best of thoughts, even if they can be the least productive. Lifetimes along, they shift the whole world, like a secret lever built and placed by the loving imaginations of thousands of unproductive stargazers.

And not to mention these long drawn-out thoughts can lead to good experiences and helpful ways to ponder the world questions like what does it mean to do good work to begin with and other important meta-questions about life.

I’ll let Norton have the last word, both for potency and for laziness purposes.

Plus her passages are just much more productive than mine will be:

But it all means something else now. When I look back on not only the wasted time in PR, but the couple of unproductive years around it I see it differently now. When I wasn’t beating myself up for not being productive enough, I was thinking about and interacting with the world. I was laying the first stones of a new foundation, a new way of thinking about networked culture, and even about our place on this planet.

Instead of getting things done I was learning, smiling at people I didn’t share a language with, and cross-connecting the notions of my brain and the experiences of my life. It all lay fallow in me for a long time, as notes on my blog, snatches of poems, story bits to never be written. The pieces of this change were pieces of lyrics I wasted time writing on post-it notes I promptly lost, and articles I read instead of working and bits of conversation and pop songs that clung like ribbons and buttons and bits of flowers stuck all over my psyche.

We should spend more time wasting time. We all need to be bored more. We all need to spend more time looking quizzically at birds we don’t recognize. We all need a little more time to connect the dots and see if they matter. I don’t know how much more, but sometimes you have to do things without knowing how much you need.

As for me, I want to go back to Puerto Rico.

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