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" . 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 . 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" .
Blogs and self-experimentation
The phenomenal growth of blogs during this same period  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!
-  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.
-  See Why We Believe What We Believe, Belief Engine (Skeptical Inquirer May 1995), and Science vs. the Belief Engine. Great stuff!
-  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.
-  See The State of the Live Web, April 2007.