Everyone is familiar with the self-help section of bookstores, even if they do not frequent it. Americans have broadly accepted the necessity of mental health, even if we are still grappling with what that means. The discourse of therapy has permeated popular culture, sometimes in interesting ways. Productivity is an example when the practitioners of a system recognize the need to manage their own mental states as part of their daily work routine. It could be considered one version of what Michael Foucault called "Care of the Self."
What happens when we hit the finite walls of our lives? When our productivity, our therapy, is bounded by conditions set by our environment? Lots of podcasts talk about managing productivity in office meetings, very few ask what we should do if we are poor. This is one example of success breeding blindness.
A bottleneck is a metaphor for a situation which does not fully impede success, but slows it down and constrains our enthusiasm and creativity. As a mental picture, imagine a river of projects dammed where the river is narrowed by life's challenges.
GTD as Therapy
There is a genre of writing on the Internet characterized by semi-sage productivity advice. For authors, their stories of professional trials and accomplishment are publicized through a growing network of fellow-traveling blogs and podcasts. It is not offered in a condescending voice, but as an example to be emulated or an experience to learn from. I offer a few general traits of the zeitgeist:
- Its participants are largely programmers or technologists who write commentary and advice. Yet this is not technology journalism in most cases, but people for whom publicity and creativity balance the analytic logic of programming.
- Technology is a tool for improving lives.
- Many of the heuristics of their profession become premises for living their lives. This is similar to a business person who spouts management cliches as guiding principles for every aspect of life. Such heuristics may or may not be cliches. But, in general, our vocation often becomes the model for how we live many other aspects of our lives.
- They are self-employed and self-starters whose personal drive has made them successful.
- They espouse an aesthetic of elegant design, to the extent that design becomes a philosophy of private and public life.
- Their jobs are vocations, bordering on compulsions, and their introspective writing reflects the need to balance work, family, and leisure.
- Because they are driven to accomplish goals, they are concerned with productivity. They may devise metrics to measure personal efficiency, but usually ascribe to a larger program that helps promote productivity (such as a GTD-like system).
- They are hyperconscious of their personal strengths, weaknesses, responsibilities, and goals. They are post-theraputic in the sense that their writing and weekly podcasts function as venues for a public critical self-examination. The audience is invited to perform the same self-criticism.
Discussion in this genre is provided by people who are successful models in their fields. And there does appear to be a zeitgeist emerging out of this public sphere. In other words, from the perspective of an intellectual historian, there are common goals, problems, solutions, and languages emerging together in public discourse. I believe the hothouse of web blogs and podcasts reflects a broader social trend.
And, despite some hesitation, I find much that is valuable in this writing. Let us put aside whether further rationalizing our professional lives is wise; my reservations are drawn from my education as a political philosopher. It is no longer fully clear where a critical self-consciousness transforms itself into its opposite, a blind rationalization of our lifeworlds. More positively, there are similarities between the 'Maker' attitude and the 'GTD' attitude: the former works on the world, the latter on his- or herself. Both are attitudes to be embraced if they promote a kind of practical autonomy.
The discourse of productivity often stands in for therapy. Whether one struggles with depression or ADHD, adhering to a few meta-goals helps to manage the undesirable symptoms. More importantly, the act of asking "How can I be more productive?" engenders a constant state of self-reflection. In turn, self-reflection identifies personal weaknesses and promotes good habits over bad.
Therefore, it is important to recognize bottleneck situations, because they can negatively feedback into other aspects of our lives.
A Personal Digression
I would like, for a moment, to digress through my personal history, which has dovetailed with the trends I am describing. In graduate school, I learned a great deal about political philosophy; I did not learn very much about living a life in a way that enabled me to be a successful academic. What I mean is that how we live—our habits, etc.—is as important as our skills and work ethic. I am sure that for some people, their focus on a few specific goals can override other faults. But in order to be successful at a quiet, pensive discipline (I use 'discipline' advisedly) it is necessary to create the conditions in life in which concentration is possible.
When I struggled daily with motivation and depression, productivity was a therapeutic discourse I could apply to myself. How can I wake up each day and accomplish a few targeted goals, so that I am not depressed each night? How can I view tomorrow as a challenge rather than an inevitable failure? How can I build healthy habits, so that success is not day by day? It took a long time, but partly through this language of productivity, I have provisionally succeeded. Depression is a weird thing. At this point, I am sure that I will never be free of it. The goal is to manage it, to even out the highs and lows, and to confine the inevitable chemical crash to a few hours or a day. Accomplishing this has required many of the same tools described above, applied for much more modest goals.
Depression chased me from the academy. And not just depression, but an entire lifestyle based upon the idea of escape and self-pity. I say this to emphasize my next point. I have been unemployed since early 2010. Despite my knowledge of the objective economic conditions and my belief that human worth is not dictated by income, I am burdened by shame every day I cannot find a job. And this is important, because many of the same emotional triggers that drive my depressive episodes have been constant companions. It is not irrational to be depressed by circumstances, but it is counter-productive.
To be unemployed is to have all the time in the world, and nothing to do with it. Imagine all the goals you could accomplish if you had infinite time to bend to them. There is one caveat: you cannot spend any money.
There is a difference between the unemployed and someone who has been successful and has the resources to continue to be successful. Part of the meta-goals of productivity discourse that I am describing include projects that improve quality of life. Often these projects are designed and built personally. The ability to positively transform our environment is powerful. It is also one of the first facets of autonomy lost when people lack economic resources.
It is easier to mitigate if you are a computer programmer. Assuming you can afford a computer and an Internet connection (big assumptions), most of the building blocks of complex projects are freely available. One only needs to download them and assemble them like complicated Legos into a Millennium Falcon. The Open Source movement now even includes Universities whose courses are available free. To the extent that our world is mirrored digitally, the ability to program it at little cost is a powerful tool.
Writing is also a low-cost project. Several now well-respected journalists and writers started very modestly. If you prefer fiction, Amazon and other services let authors self-publish without any of the former stigma. Web blogs are now ubiquitous and unaccredited sports sites are legion. The truth is that if you want to write, open a journal and write. You are much less certain to find a competent editor or a sympathetic reader however.
The two main activities of the zeitgeist I described are nearly cost-less. Others are less so. Consider home brewing: a beginners' kit costs about $150. You will need to provide your own bottles and ingredients. You will need to order new ingredients for each batch. You will need a relatively clean and temperature stable area to work. If you wish to brew more than a few gallons, the price escalates rapidly. For some, buying a backyard or space to brew outside is major barrier to the hobby. (It's much worse if after investing in equipment, you move and find no place to store or use it.)
Consider reading: It is certainly easy enough to find plenty of reading material online. But I will caution the novice philosopher or historian, its quality is suspect. Libraries are a great option, if you can find the secondary literature. WorldCat is an option for local libraries, but unwieldy and uncertain. Better is a university library, where you can sit for hours among the stacks surrounded the accumulated knowledge of history. Many of these books are not available digitally; you cannot read them even with difficulty on Scribd or Google Books; and if you are serious about doing philosophy well—and a meta-goal of the zeitgeist is to do things well—you need to read the secondary literature. But a really good library is a scare resource. If you live in New York or London, you have at your disposal one of the best libraries in the world only a train ride away. If you live in a university town, especially the main campus of a state university, you will find a very serviceable library. Elsewhere, you will be lucky to find anything but cheap paperback novels ordered from the bestseller lists. And any library is dependent on your ability to get there. If I, now that I am in LA, drive to UCLA's library, I must fight traffic, pay for gas (at over $4 a gallon), and then pay for parking while I browse for hours. This is a not inconsiderable cost to pay to read an old book.
Consider gardening: To me, a well-lived life is one that is lives within itself, emotionally and physically balanced and self-sufficient. While in Maryland, I was able to compost all of my organic waste. Here, in LA, I throw out everything (even recycling is a major hurdle). Gardening is an extension of this ethic: to cultivate and recapture a relationship with a less commodity-mediated world. But like other activities that require space, gardening is difficult to do in apartments. A window herb garden, maybe with a fish to filter the water, can be expensive to build and run. And who knows what rules govern a rented, rather than owned, space.
Consider building: Instructables and Maker are two examples of the builder or maker culture. They have instructions for all sorts of fiddly projects. More ambitiously, I have done major home and commercial renovations; I could, if I had a house, be devoting my time to improving it. This would be ideal in the sense that free time is invested in the value of my home. Of course, this implies both the resources to own a home and to buy the materials necessary for its improvement. Let's say we are less ambitious and decide, as a recent article suggested, to build a bed frame out of surplus wood: Do you own a saw? Do you own a truck to get the wood home in? Do you have a garage or a backyard? Do you have friends with any of these things? If your answer is no, then no amount of ambition or knowledge will allow you to accomplish the project.
The Big Picture
All of these examples suggest that all the productivity in the world is limited by our resources. Much of the productivity zeitgeist is devoted to maximizing our mental resources. Indeed, productivity discourse is a 'Care of the Self' that extends into mental states to manage our relationship to the world. This can an empowering vision of our relationship with the world. It is also depends on the world giving a few (non-economic) things back.
Doing requires objects; learning requires contexts. It is possible to learn a great deal using the Internet. What you cannot recreate by scattering bits across digital space is the experience of interacting with people who are successful at what you want to do. A major bottleneck is access to a community of success. In graduate school, I was surrounded by people who lived and breathed what I loved; now, I am surrounded by cats. A mentor or community is invaluable and impossible to recreate by yourself. Our culture, which so overrates personal success, too often forgets the role of communities in fostering the habits and skills of successful people.
As I understand it, the ultimate goal of productivity discourse is to promote quality of life. The efficient production of goods and services is important both as an income, but also because it is intrinsically valuable to the person producing. You program not just to make a living but because you find elegant solutions to computer problems fulfilling. I read philosophy or brew beer because I find it meaningful. In other worlds, following a program like GTD is useful insofar as it improves our quality of life.
Let me suggest that one common goal we all share, and therefore a major component of our quality of life, is recognition: We desire not just to produce or perform well, we desire our performance to be judged and valued highly by others. It is probably more true than ever before in human society that we live public lives; there are more Paris Hiltons than Emily Dickensons. This is partly a misplaced need for recognition. On a healthier scale, we all need positive reinforcement. We need to hear that our contributions are valued and important, not like a mother's unconditional enthusiasm, but critically valued.
Recognition is the most difficult bottleneck to accomplishment and to quality of life. It is a simple fact that a microscopic few are exceptional people doing exceptional things, yet we are taught from an early age that exceptional lives are normal. Maintaining the drive to perform over a long period requires positive reinforcement (unless your personality is atypical). But recognition handed out indiscriminately is devalued. My personal self-worth dictates that I do not recognize or value things that define me: I am more likely to be offended, or judge harshly, bad political philosophy than I am a badly knitted scarf.
Allow me to end by asking a question about distributive justice: Who deserves quality of life? If, as I have argued, productivity is intrinsically tied to resources which are out of our control, and our quality of life is tied to being recognized for success, do we have an obligation to provide minimal positive recognition to other people? I am not sure the answer to this question. I suspect we Americans are too meritocratic, and the metric too subjective, for us to answer in the affirmative.
Less philosophically, I think there is value(-added) in two points:
- Outlining what I take to be the common elements of a new way of talking about productivity as therapy.
- Refocusing the discussion on some of the non-internal barriers to productivity.
Personally, I am working out how to maintain my own sense of self-worth and accomplishment in the face of these bottlenecks, which do not fully impede success, but they slow it down and constrain our enthusiasm and creativity. Partly the answer is to do things like this: take an aspect of a broader discussion and contribute to it in the hope that someone is reading.
I would loosely categorize myself here, since I have been dabbling with programming, have found an appreciation for some kinds of UI design, and write. ↩
If theraputic culture may be described as confessional and mediated by authority, post-theraputic culture is about self-confidently owning our emotions in an empowering way. Because I recognize my limits, depression, ADHD, etc., I am able to manage it and, better, harness it to my goals. ↩
C. Wright Mills famously wrote about the distinction between public and private problems. Depression is too often labeled a private disease instead of investigating the public triggers or circumstances. I believe our lifestyles, which are largely dictated by how we construct society, contribute to the epidemic mild mental illness. It seems prudent to talk about life change before, or along with, medication, the effects of which are poorly understood and indistinguishable from placebos. However, this is not the same thing as advocating a radical restructuring of social life. ↩
Or that history shows drive them, I also learned not to speak in certain terms about emotional states. Managing them is more like trying to crush a ballon with your hands: the air just moves around. ↩
I am thinking of Ezra Klein, but the examples are many. ↩
The orange tree outside my window produces dozens of oranges. They fall onto the parking lot, where they are swept up and deposited in the trash. How many people in my building buy oranges at the grocery store? ↩
I know it has been done. But my current apartment has very little light, illegal cats, and grumpy neighbors. ↩
One of the most interesting aspects of this zeitgeist is that it combines efficiency without any financial metric. It rationalizes in order to achieve entirely non-rational goals. ↩