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Productivity is a cultural obsession. You can’t toss a virtual rock without hitting an article or App that “helps improve productivity.” Indeed, we want to maximize our efficiency, and we’d all love to get more done, but for creative endeavors, such as writing, much of the productivity advice works against you. That is, trying to be more productive can result in less productivity and often lower quality work.
The Virtues of Production
Productivity has a unique place in American culture. There is a long-standing belief that productivity’s opposite is laziness or sloth. Sloth is one of the original deadly sins, and early Puritan settlers warned that “idle hands are the devil’s workshop.”
Although the “sinfulness” of idleness faded, works such as those by Benjamin Franklin continued to focus on the productivities grand rewards.
“plough deep while sluggards sleep and you shall have corn to sell and to keep.”
Two hundred years later, we still believe that “the early bird gets the worm” and we teach our children the terrible things that happened to the lazy grasshopper who played all summer while the industrious ant worked.
Such stories fail to mention that the ant died a few years later from a stress-related heart attack.
The Real Root of Our Obsession
A heightened focus on productivity was a result of changing labor laws and began with the efficiency studies from the 1920’s.
As we moved from farming to factory, the connection between “production” and “survival” loosened. A farmer’s desire to avoid starvation motivated him to tend crops, to maintain precise schedules, and to beat the harvest deadlines.
Unlike the farmer, factory workers exchanged their time for money. Whereas a farmer’s output was directly beneficial to his well-being, the factory worker’s output was secondary because it was a means to a paycheck, and the paycheck ultimately purchased things beneficial to his welfare.
Companies recognized the productivity implications created by a pay-for-the-hour system. The possibility of misaligned goals between owner and worker. Whereas the owner wanted maximum hourly output and the worker desired minimum hourly effort.
The Hawthorne Studies, commissioned in the 1920’s marked the beginning of the corporate effort to understand how to improve productivity. And over the past century, companies continue to study everything from lighting to workstation layouts, to the motivational impact of free food on worker’s output.
Productivity and Big Brother
These early studies reached two conclusions. First, output decreased after forty hours of work. Each additional hour returned less of a return on investment.
Our traditional forty-hour work week isn’t a humanitarian effort; it’s based on a financial calculation.
The second conclusion suggested productivity was related to motivation. The Hawthorne Studies found that increased production was not as simple as systems, processes, and environment. Worker motivation played an equal role in production levels. Most importantly, the research discovered that the simple act of “paying attention” to employees and letting them know “you were paying attention,” increased production.
This phenomenon was called the Hawthorne Effect, and the psychological implications were far reaching. In medicine, clinical trials include control groups and placebo groups to ensure the outcomes aren’t just the results of either the Placebo or Hawthorne Effects.
Theoretically, We’re Still Punching the Clock
Interestingly, most people no longer work in a factory, but we still adhere to the forty-hour work week.
Our productivity system doesn’t consider . . .
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* Originally posted on WritersAfterDark.net by Raymond Esposito