It was late 2016, and I was drinking a bad cup of coffee in a cramped meeting room. My manager's manager sat across the table from me.
Without warning, he stared me dead in the eye and asked the impossible.
'I want you to find a way to measure their productivity.' He said, unblinking.
‘Ah, fuck…’ I thought as I slurped my coffee, ‘that old hospital pass.’
The future was not a bright one for my manager’s manager, it turned out. But I’ll talk more about that at the end of this article.
Productivity is a measure of what you get out, divided by what you put in.
Put little in, but get loads out? Happy days. Put loads in, but get little out? You’re mugging yourself.
It’s a measure that works well on a macroeconomic level, to describe the growth and competitiveness of nations. It also works well when you’re producing something, normally in a factory where you know exactly what goes in and what goes out.
At the time, I was working for a major high street retailer. The staff in our stores were hard working, inventive, and great with people. Their work covered all the usual tasks, of course. They would unload lorries and unpack pallets. They'd put stuff on shelves and scan items.
If you've ever worked a minimum wage job (and I've had my fair share) then you know the deal.
You know there's more to it than all that.
You recognise the regulars and say hello. You help people out. You see problems and fix them where you can. You (sometimes) stay late to help out. You brighten someone's day with a simple smile. You'd find that specific bottle of booze in the back that would make a holiday that much more special for that one customer and their family.
In short, you would be a human being. Far, far more than the sum of your tasks.
Yet there I was, being asked to reduce their work to a single measure. A measure which, for shop floor workers, nobody in the business had been able to gauge before. I was not the first to be asked to find it. I would not be the last to fail.
When I talk to people about productivity, it has become the entire point. The problem is that when we focus so much on it, we risk losing track of what really matters.
We want more and more output, all the time. It doesn’t matter what it is, and we’ll put in whatever it takes to get there.
Perhaps we've done more today than yesterday. Perhaps we've worked out longer and harder this week. Perhaps we've answered all our emails. Perhaps we've finished the to-do list.
That's great. But what's the payoff?
There's a great game you can play online for free called Universal Paperclips. It starts out simple enough - make a paperclip, sell a paperclip. Then make some money to buy more wire to make more paperclips.
Then keep going.
Make improvements. Buy machines to help you make more paperclips. Use the profits to increase marketing. Use the new profits to help you make more paperclips AND invest in artificial intelligence to... you get the idea.
After some hours, the game ends when you've converted all the matter in the known universe into paperclips.
Congratulations! You win?
We were optimising for productivity all along, but there's a nagging feeling that we lost something along the way.
If you’ve ever read a self-help book or been on the internet at all, you’ve probably encountered ‘personal productivity systems’.
A personal productivity system promises efficient work and greater output. (As an example, take a look at David Allen’s ‘Getting Things Done’.) You figure out what your tasks are and you order them into a system that helps you do them more efficiently.
I've gone through my fair share of these systems. I've read countless self help books and articles, watched endless YouTube videos about how I can do more with less.
The main thing I've learnt, after all that, is that it feels really good to feel productive:
But did any of your productivity help you reach your goals in life? Did it match up with your motivations? With your desires? With your real interests? With your responsibilities?
If it doesn’t, we’re putting loads in and getting little out. We’re mugging ourselves.
When we fixate on our productivity, it's easy to forget what matters the most.
Things start to go sour for our mental health when we think we should do more, but don't end up doing it. Or when we set goals that are too hard, and don't hit them. Or when we set goals that are too low, then punish ourselves for setting such pointless goals in the first place.
At its most basic level, if we don't finish our tasks for the day, what does that say about us? Perhaps we're not good enough.
And it gets worse.
Go on social media and you will almost certainly find someone who is currently 'CRUSHING IT!!!' - whatever it is. Now, not only have you not 'done the thing', you know someone else who has ‘done the thing’.
Then add to that the glut of truly awful 'productivity porn' that’s out there, and it becomes a recipe for disaster. Why? It doesn't actually help anyone be more productive. It just makes us feel bad.
For example, I'm willing to bet you've read that 'you've got the same number of hours in the day as Beyonce'. The logic goes that, because of this fact alone, you can achieve just as much as her.
This is - to put it lightly - total bullshit.
It’s like saying ‘you've got the same number of bank accounts as Jeff Bezos'. Sure, that might technically be true, but it doesn't make any sense.
The thing about Beyonce is that she has an almost infinite number of hours in her day, if she wants them. This is because - drumroll - she has access to enormous wealth and a gazillion people working for her. Does she need a few more hours in her day? Fine - spend some more cash and hire some more people.
In short, Beyonce is definitely a fantastic role model. But she is a terrible point of comparison.
Social Comparison Theory tells us that we compare ourselves to others through our judgment of their progress.
The problem is, the more we try to quantify that progress, the more polarising it becomes in our heads.
Did do the thing? Good!
Didn’t do the thing? Bad!
If we carry on comparing ourselves to others we might get more done in the short term, but we risk a lot of damage along the way.
Teddy Roosevelt called comparison ‘the thief of joy'. In an age where productivity is so exalted and comparison with others now so easy, the combination can be potent, and dangerous.
There's this hunch I've had for a long time: we already know what's important, and we know what we need to do.
We don't need a productivity system to tell us what it is.
A system can be a fine thing, of course. It can support what we do, and for many it's a really helpful thing to have. Myself, I have a set of goals I work towards and a way of keeping track of them each week. It works for me, and I like it.
But it must be the means to the end, not the end in itself.
In the past, I've used elaborate systems to hide from difficult questions. I've spent months of my life in a holding pattern about what to do next, comforted by the many and well-organised tasks I had laid out before me.
To be clear: it's okay to not know what to do.
I’ve been there many times and I’m sure I’ll be there again. But having an elaborate ‘bullet journal’ or CRUSHING!!! our to-do lists isn’t going to help us.
It will fill our time and make us feel busy, and that will be a waste of our energy. And during a global pandemic, a lot of us are short on energy.
Many of us are lucky enough to have a job. Or a goal in mind. Or a customer to help. Or a report to write. A parent to care for, a child to raise, a partner to build a relationship with.
We don't need to put any of that into an elaborate system, or to track it within an inch of its life.
We just need to get on with it - in whatever way feels best, at whatever pace suits us and without the guilt of comparing ourselves to others.
So how do we get out of this endless cycle? Luckily, there’s a way.
Time to say goodbye to motivational posters and 'hustle' accounts on Instagram. Motivation comes from within - everything else is secondary (or trying to sell you something).
Take some time off from the internet and your phone, sit down with a blank piece of paper and a pencil, and sketch out the important things in your life. It doesn't matter how you do this, just go with what feels right to you.
You are worth more than the sheer number of things you do today. You are not a better person on the day you work out, or the day you hit inbox zero - you were always that amazing to begin with.
If you're going to have a to-do list, just put one big thing on it each day. If you can only do one big thing, you better make it count. Anything else is a bonus.
But return to (2) occasionally to make sure your priorities are set right.
The irony of this approach is that I’ve ended up doing more of what I love, not less. At the same time, I worry less and less about how much I’m doing and instead focus more on whether or not it’s the right thing to do.
This brings its own challenges but, then again, I sleep much better at night now.
So what happened to my manager’s manager? Months after that meeting in the cramped office, he was fired. Less than a month after that, to the surprise of exactly no-one, he took a position at Amazon.
I write a newsletter about the internet. It's called Internet Connection. There's a few hundred of us that fall down the rabbit hole every other week. Want to come along for the ride? Drop your email below.