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False Productivity

May 5, 2013

Time. In our present state we can never get it back; it is a most precious resource.

That’s why we spend many hours on self help (or worse, see The bane of self-help ) and other kinds of micro reform. We’ve talked about memory retention and how great it is. ‘Save time by learning faster!‘ ‘With this new time you can learn more or do other productive things.‘ Okay… we don’t say it with such a feel-good emphasis, but you get the point, right?

Well, our astute readers are one step ahead – there’s no point saving time unless that time is going to be used for something else! What utility are we gaining from saving time? Are we are actually happier for our extra time or doing any extra work? What value is there? People consider themselves busy yet seem to get little for all their effort. Why?

Because they’re spending their time on false productivity. Things that don’t add value.

And there are lots of things that we do that don’t add value, unfortunately.

This is a very thorny field. To determine whether X activity is ‘adding value’ we must first determine what is valuable; not an easy task. However, let’s list a few things that we might value for various reasons:

Happiness, learning, solidarity, money, contentment, silence etc. We can think of many things.

Now, how we measure these against each other is difficult. Is happiness more important than learning? Don’t we receive diminishing returns on certain things… Point is quantifying these tasks is very difficult. You don’t say ‘that class had a value of 73 units whereas that websurfing had a value of 16 units’ . Instead you might make a qualitative assessment – ‘that class was more valuable than that time wasted on surfing the web.’ We can’t quantify value very easily, and our attempts to quantify value lead us to overemphasise those aspects which are quantifiable. Such misguided notions distort our sense of value.

When people go to the shops they often focus on the price. Why? It’s easily quantified. Herald columnist Ross Gittins has shown time and time again how others aspects (say, functionality, aesthetics etc.) are ignored when contrasted against price. We let an easily quantifiable thing play a larger part in our decision making process than it should.

What’s this all got to do with our micro reforms? Simply put, we’ve got to really look at whether what we do lines up with what adds value to our lives. Chances are it doesn’t – you’re either chasing quantifiable things at the expense of other things or… you simply haven’t thought about whether you’re using your time well. (alright, that last line is pretty cold-minded and cynical)

Let me give give another example of false productivity.

Many workers work extremely hard filling out paperwork, filing documents, writing reports etc. It’s ‘work’ – they aren’t slacking around – but what value does it add? Too often the added value seems non-existent! This is one of the themes explored in Wall Street, the famous movie featuring Gordon Gecko’s line ‘greed is good’ . A huge part of the movie is about the conflict behind real and fictitious wealth. In the same way, we’ve got to ask ourselves if this work is adding real value. How do we do that?

Productivity is defined as Output / Input – basic economics definition.

So, our input is our worker’s time. Output is… well, let’s check some of those criteria from earlier. Does this ‘busy work’ fit those criteria? Too often it doesn’t, and so there’s no real output.

That’s why the title says false productivity.

A sidenote

Quite a few things went unsaid in this article. We briefly mentioned quantification but didn’t discuss it in depth. We also hinted at trying to determine what provides value in a consequentialist approach. Suffice to say, one can write lots of that, and we will… just not in one article! Much better to separate the ideas and make sure people understand each idea as it comes than have them forget; memory retention is something we strive for!

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