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The real reasons for the modern productivity movement

(Sidebar: I know I'm a late adopter, but I've been playing with Twitter. If you want to join in my experiment, I'm matthewcornell.)

The last five years has seen a surge in interest in personal productivity, with the publishing of David Allen's 2001 book Getting Things Done being a watershed. Want more proof? Trying searching blogs for productivity (13,713,538 hits) or time management (833,569) and you'll find discussion of every aspect of getting our work together. Amazon's Health, Mind & Body > Self-Help > Success category lists over 79,000 books (bestsellers here).

Some have argued that it's a cult for the information age, but I disagree. Look at mega sites like Lifehacker, Lifehack, 43 Folders and you'll see a tremendous following by a wide range of people. (You, dear readers, are a good example - executives, in-house family workers, pastors, actors, comedians, programmers, trainers, professors, musicians, historians, and a ton of fellow bloggers. Neat!) Clearly some large subset of us is fascinated (obsessed?) with being "more productive" [1]. Why is this?

After a bit of thought I decided it's a perfect storm of 1) a really good best-selling book (Allen's), 2) an urgent need for meaning in our lives, and 3) the explosion of blogs. Mix in the scientific method and the human capacity for self-experimentation, and you've got something remarkable. Let me try to tease these apart.


Productivity is neither a cult nor a fad. It's a search for meaning. -- (me :-)

Since the advent of the scientific method we've had to face regular breakthrough discoveries about how the world works, and about how our bodies and minds interact with and interpret it. This is like a punch to the gut to our rather irrational belief engines [2]. From the article Why We Believe What We Believe:

The greatest invention of the human mind is not fire, or agriculture, or iron, or the steam engine, or even the splitting of the atom. From the perspective of understanding the physical world, the greatest invention of the human mind is the scientific method--the systematic, skeptical approach to claims about the way the world works.

I believe this new perspective has caused many of us to redefine what our purpose on the planet is. Add a large dose of cognitive dissonance resulting from our species' unsustainable behaviors (e.g., global warming and peak oil) and the stress of our Olympic-paced worklives, and you have a crisis of purpose.

In that sense, could modern productivity techniques be the technical age's equivalent of tools for spiritual quests? Are they a way to get personal control of ourselves, much like science has given us unprecedented control of our world? Could it be we crave a replacement of the human rituals that were formerly integral to our daily lives, such as meditation or chanting? I ask because these methods seem to offer a way to obtain equanimity - what my meditation teachers might have called "getting centered" [3].

Blogs and self-experimentation

The phenomenal growth of blogs during this same period [4] means a large subset of us (the same one as above?) has a voice that can potentially reach thousands of readers using relatively simple tools. That means it's easy for us share what we think and experience. Now combine this with:

  • our uniquely human ability to consciously evolve our behavior (and know it),
  • our love of feeling important,
  • our need to make acknowledged contributions, and
  • our urge to help others.

I think these factors, along with the rigorous observational tools of science applied to the personal level (you do have capture tools, right?), are what's caused the explosion of blogs on self-improvement. The final piece is that the challenges to modern living seem to be large and universal (who doesn't experience procrastination?), but there's no uniform training of how to manage ourselves. This means each of us has had to experiment on ourselves to rediscover things that work, and therefore we each have something unique to say.

In an important post, Jose asked why there's a raft of anecdotal writing around productivity, but little empirical study. I can't answer the latter (young scientists - get busy!) but I think the above considerations go to explaining why we're driven to share our personal discoveries, and that they might help. After all, you have probably discovered something I don't know but could use. (Actually, in answer to the first part, is it possible we haven't gathered enough data to formulate the laws of work? I found doing so difficult when I took a stab at it.) That also explains the complaint about there being a lot of trivial or useless content on productivity: One woman's trash is another's treasure. (Or, It's all relative.)

Thinking our way to happiness

A final piece of this (admittedly poorly-defined) puzzle is our ability to change our thinking so that we're happier. That's a mind blower. A common idea in self-help circles is that it's just as biochemically easy to have a negative thought or interpretation as a positive one. How to do that is of course the hard part. I don't think this has been solved yet, but there's hope. Check out the wonderful current crop of books on the topic, including The How of Happiness, Learned Optimism, and Stumbling on Happiness.

Laws of living and wrap-up

I suspect that because there's not yet a "scientific method of happiness" (don't worry, I'm writing the book on it) we're left in the meantime with exploring it on our own. Thankfully, we have an extensive resource in the productivity blogging realm for helping each other. Yes the sheer number of sources makes 80-20 difficult (e.g., finding the small number of thinkers who give us the biggest return - see my post on Blogruptcy and Information Overload) but I think the search is worth it. That's also why I hold my readers in such high regard.

Lest you think I don't respect the efforts of religion through the years, let me finish with this discovery from my pickle jar: "Hey - Methodists were named for their spiritual routine - METHOD-ists!" I offer the Wikipedia entry as food for thought:

The movement focused on Bible study and a methodical approach to scriptures and Christian living. The term "Methodism" was a pejorative term given to a small society of students at Oxford who met together between 1729 and 1735 for the purpose of mutual improvement. They were accustomed to receiving communion every week, fasting regularly, and abstaining from most forms of amusement and luxury. They also frequently visited the sick and the poor, as well as prisoners.
Happy happiness hunting!


  • [1] What's the definition of "productive?" It's one of the first questions I ask top productivity thinkers in my continuing interview series. I've had a range of answers, including insights from Marilyn Paul (making work meaningful and valuable - doing what we care about), Laura Stack (output per hour per worker - the value that's created with all of your work), and Sally McGhee (performance without sacrificing work/life balance). Another perspective was passed along by reader Dan Markovitz, who recalled Merlin Mann's definition of being able to focus on "the creative work that only you can do." My current take: Productivity is exerting the least amount of effort doing the most important work and leading the life you want. I'd love to year your definition.
  • [2] See Why We Believe What We Believe, Belief Engine (Skeptical Inquirer May 1995), and Science vs. the Belief Engine. Great stuff!
  • [3] Side note: I've studied yoga and meditation, and by far the biggest mental relief I've experienced came from the methods I practice and teach. It's partly why I took the risk of changing careers.
  • [4] See The State of the Live Web, April 2007.

Reader Comments (12)

It's interesting the Merlin Mann has recently had something of an epiphany on where the whole productivity things is going, explicitly abandoning tinkering all of the time in order to search for key strategies that allow us to do what we want more and better. His whole "better" philosophy that he just posted about.

That intrigues me as well, because I'm well beyond tweaking the mechanics of my system at this point. It's pretty mature. Now I need to figure out how to make myself get more productive seat time, particularly on things that I have to do to get to things I want to do. I think from this point on it's mainly pure discipline.

September 11, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterBrock Tice

> I think from this point on it's mainly pure discipline.

This is a great observation. I think there's a natural progression. 1) learn to swim. 2) notice it needs improving. 3) work to improve. 4) realize should be a paraglider? Overall, it's a process of mastery. You've seen my [ Leonard | http://matthewcornell.org/search/node/leonard ] references, and I think he's spot on - reaching plateaus, etc. Also, I think we make progress on self-management, which allows us to do more, which might feed into *expecting* ourselves to do more... I'm working 2 too, I think. In general, we should not be discouraged. This Stuff Is Hard - I continue to maintain that we're not built for this kind of work/life-style. Otherwise, it wouldn't be that tough!

September 11, 2008 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

Great post, Matt!!! I am so lucky to have you as a collaborator and friend.


September 15, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterTara Rodden Robinson

I like Merlin's definition, but I would tend to go with the idea that productivity is about being able to consistently finish all the work you intend to accomplish at your own terms.

That makes it clear, simple and - mostly importantly - personal.

September 15, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterAdrian Koh

It goes both ways. NYT besteller!

September 15, 2008 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

Great insights Matt!
Here are my two cents. Three reasons why productivity is so popular:
- it helps reflect on current life
- allow to dream about the future
- it's a way to facilitate change and make things happe in life

Last point is the key as it's undelines the importance of next action which is the only way to move forward.

September 16, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterRafal

Here's my interpretation of your points:

> it helps reflect on current life

o by freeing up our brains to notice
o by identifying what we're doing, then reviewing

> allow to dream about the future

o someday/maybe
o realize the potential to make things happen through small steps (see next)

> it's a way to facilitate change and make things happe in life

o big time!

Great points. Thanks, Rafal.

September 16, 2008 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

Adrian, thanks for your take on this. Your answer made me think. It is essentially "finish what you start," which assumes it's all important (recall Covey, though). Not sure what "at your own terms" means. I agree keeping it personal is crucial - that's what our work is all about. Thanks for reading.

September 16, 2008 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

I believe that the focus on productivity is not about control, and instead it has to do with creating channels of opportunity.

Better time management and greater "productivity" gives us more of the life we want, which seems to echo your definition somewhat.

"Doing more" is nonsense by itself as busyness is a weak proxy for the things that are most important to most of us. Having said that, there are probably a few benighted souls who just want to "keep busy."

Here in Jamaica where I live, the concept of "keeping busy" is largely a foreign one, and is simply subordinate to other pursuits -- a major cultural difference.

On the reasons why there is no leading scholarship on time management...

2 reasons:

1. it belongs to no particular school, and therefore falls through the academic cracks

2. there are few academics leading by example, and seen to be demonstrating new levels of productivity (by whatever definition.) Research into time management is necessarily research into one's own habits, and this destroys the objectivity that academia says is needed to conduct proper experiments. There are simply easier subjects to study... like how to schedule jobs in a continuous manufacturing setting (which happens to have been my Master's Project.)

My 2 cents!

P.S. I studied operations research and industrial engineering which is (be definition) supposed to be a field of study that includes time management, but in reality doesn't begin to.

September 25, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterFrancis Wade

Francis, you're in top form with this comment. I really appreciate your perspective on why Time Management isn't (and possibly *can't*) be an academic field of study. Your point about "creating channels of opportunity" is big. Thanks a ton!

September 26, 2008 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

Yes yes yes.

I followed your link at Lifehack, and boy am I glad I did. This is exactly what I'm trying to get at with the "Toward a New Vision of Productivity" series.

I would say that a lot of people are unhappy, and when most of us look at what makes us unhappy, work is pretty close to thetop of the list. Along comes GTD and it promises to make us better at work (whatever that is, whether you're an executive or a grunt, self-employed or corporate, although I'd argue that it applies better in corporate settings than elsewhere). Get better at work and a lot of that day-to-day unhappiness goes away, or at least receded for a while.

But there's still more. GTD is pretty close to a perfect system for getting things done, whatever those things might be, but it falls short of a perfect system for being fully productive at making life work. Maybe Allen's new book will fix that, but I doubt it -- though I sure am up for seeing him try! My off-the-cuff feeling is that the next step is more specialized -- that it consists of shaping a few general principles to fit different social and work contexts, and maybe entails a rethinking of the value of work altogether. Living in the richest economy in the world, it's hard not to feel like something's wrong when so many of us bust our humps and never feel secure! So maybe work itself is off, or maybe our psychology of work is off.

Whatever it is, posts like this are a good step towards taking that next step.

December 23, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterDustin

Great to hear from you, Dustin. I think you're right on here re: happiness. Here's the sequence your comment inspired: GTD frees mind, mind realizes unhappy, mental conflict occurs until new equilibrium established. In other words, is the risk that clearing our heads makes space for realizing how unfulfilling our work is? Why is it so many of us don't find our work fulfilling? In other words, the How to get control of work leads to asking the Why about what we're doing. Productivity doesn't beget purpose. It should be the other way around.

> the next step is more specialized ... shaping a few general principles to fit different social and work contexts, and maybe entails a rethinking of the value of work altogether... Living in the richest economy in the world, it's hard not to feel like something's wrong when so many of us bust our humps and never feel secure! So maybe work itself is off, or maybe our psychology of work is off.

Really good questions. I think we've become out of touch with our materialism, but I think the next few years will bring that back into focus. With so much wealth we forget that it's the basics that count.

> Whatever it is, posts like this are a good step towards taking that next step.

Much obliged. Thanks for stopping by.

(P.S. Here's Dustin's post, which brought him here: [ Toward a New Vision of Productivity, Part 1: Transformation | http://www.lifehack.org/articles/productivity/toward-a-new-vision-of-productivity-part-1-transformation.html ].)

December 24, 2008 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

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