Productivity – Part 1

This is the beginning of a series on productivity.

With the majority of people now having an increase of time on their hands — due to lockdowns — discussions regarding how to most effectively use such time are very relevant. However, these discussions also very mixed. This will be my own interpretation.

To start with, “productivity” is the term we will use to describe the effective use of time. It then follows that the more effective uses of one’s time will be considered as increases in productivity. The issue with discussions about being productive, however, is that most people simply conceive of productivity as doing more in the same amount of time or doing the same amount in less time.

This is misguided, in my opinion. While time is clearly a major factor in productivity — in fact, it is integral to the definition which I just offered — it is not the target variable. Or, only a target variable. In a well-informed productivity-framework, one must conceive of time as both a measure and a target. It functions as both a proxy for better approximating the correct tasks to work on, as well as a direct marker of efficiency.

“Ordinary people think merely of spending time, great people think of using it.”

Arthur Schopenhauer

This awareness of, and concern for, both effectiveness and efficiency will be central to this series. Efficiency is becoming a progressively more outdated — or, oversimplified — conception of productivity, with every step forward in time. It’s not that it isn’t important, only that the landscape is changing.

Efficiency is to productivity what eating is to survival. It really is important. However, things can be important, and still be less important than other things. Crucially, effectiveness is to productivity what breathing is to survival. The former factors only become important once the latter prerequisites have been satisfied.

The efficiency error

Efficiency should be our primary concern only if I’ve got the date wildly mixed up and it’s actually 1918 and we both work on an assembly line for Henry Ford. If I have the date correct though—and I’m relatively confident that I do—we live in a different time and this conception of productivity is becoming more outdated by the day.

What I mean by this, is that our notions of productivity still reek of the First and Second Industrial Revolution. While some have adopted new ways of looking at the world of output and have adapted well to the Digital Revolution, far too few have made the shift in mentality. We live in a time where you could literally get up and do nothing but write a few lines of computer code each day, and in a few months be a billionaire. The productivity of today is not about more, or faster—it’s about doing the most valuable thing.

As the management consultant Peter Drucker said: “Efficiency is about doing things right. Effectiveness is about doing the right things.” In order to be more productive, we must be far more concerned with effectiveness than most of us currently are. This applies to all realms of life; be it at work, in our relationships or the things we desire only for ourselves. From this point onwards I will speak more in a professional or personal development sense, however, the general philosophy surrounding productivity and effectiveness being dependent on what you do—not necessarily how well you do it—rings true irrespective of life domain.

Admittedly, doing the most valuable thing sounds easy in theory, but definitely faces some hindrances in practice. In times gone by, from a productivity standpoint, we were predominantly limited by factors such as what we could construct or distribute, and how long it took to do so. This is the essence of the First and Second Industrial Revolutions.

We live in a different time now, though, and the major limiting factor appears to be how to deal with the abundance of information and distraction. For this reason, doing valuable work— being effective, or productive—requires first knowing what you should do, then subsequently navigating anything that will derail progress on that task.

Scaling that vein of thought, if the current trends persist, I see this resulting in certain skills—which I have distilled down to two broad categories—becoming increasingly more valuable as time continues to elapse. These skills, in my prediction, will be the foundational traits required in order to be more productive—and therefore successful—in the future. The traits are, again, simple in theory. Though as things currently stand, few seem to either recognise their importance (or actually recognise what I am proposing, except disagree), or are simply not investing the effort and energy into doing so.  

Skill for the future #1: The ability to think critically

As the production—and politicisation—of information goes up, being able to parse out the wheat from the chaff, the science from the pseudoscience, the truth from the mistruth is going to be one of the most vital skills of the 21st century—and beyond. Quite simply, as the rate of information creation and transmission continues to rise, knowing what to pay attention to, and what to believe, are becoming progressively more valuable.

This, in a broad sense, is the skill of critical thinking.  However, critical thinking goes beyond that. Not only should you have the ability to sort through the information that is presented to you, but to also have some semblance of what has been held back. The danger of not doing this is evident in the heavily edited, soundbite culture of our news media. Any spokesperson, politician or high-end business person that a certain media company has an agenda against—or because they simply know it will attract more eyeballs, as ultimately that’s their economic incentive—can  have the whole meaning of their statement reversed, and be made to sound unintelligent, immoral or both if the media company simply removes the words “now what I’m not saying is…” and then proceeds to start the soundbite from that point onwards.

For reasons like this, not only should you listen to the story with a critical ear but try to conceive of which parts of the story—or whose story—is not even being told.

This idea interacts and overlaps quite heavily with Tyler Cowen’s concept of metarationality. In my understanding at least, metarationality is an awareness of where your own skill or knowledge set ends, as well as how to locate who might have the missing elements you require. It is the conscientiousness and humility that one must have around their own circle of competence, and the reasoning skills that allow you to expand that circle with the recruitment of the right help—be it people or resources.

However, as the politicisation of information goes up—as well as the strength of social media and web-based algorithms— our circle of competence becomes increasingly shackled to the echo-chamber we inhabit. Competence, therefore, is executing the correct social signals in order to survive.

While pandering to your own echo-chamber might provide short-term benefits, it is not the most fitness preserving long-term strategy. From a group-selection perspective, groups are strengthened by variation. Heterodoxy of thought and the presence of dissidents increases any group’s adaptive potential—provided the cohesion of the group can withstand the internal challenge.

On a more personal level, critical thinking is important, because it is the skill of seeing through the praise, or the promise, to find the problems.

Without the ability of critical thinking, as mentioned above, one will continue to re-engage with confirmatory information—consciously or not—creating an ideological positive feedback-loop; resulting in the deepening of boundaries between your own echo-chamber and those that believe the opposite. The outcome of this is that your own conception of the truth—as well as the various problems intertwined with it—will become progressively more transparent, until eventually it is invisible to you and disappears altogether. Just like they say that privilege is blind to those that have it, so too becomes the truth if you completely let go of its thread.

A simple example of this need for critical thinking to be maximally effective is as follows. Many money-driven individuals place undying faith in the free market, as from an ideological perspective this is what they want to be true. However, from a more pragmatic standpoint—in the sense of actually interacting with reality—understanding the flaws of the free market, and seeing the problems for what they are, is likely to yield a view and understanding that is much more conducive to actually developing a business that will make substantial amounts of money.

This need for seeing reality for what it is, as well as the problems it contains, is the basis for knowing what is effective, and what is not. Efficiency can be improved with little consideration of reality, effectiveness cannot.

Skill for the future #2: The ability to concentrate & avoid distraction

Sure, I could have said, have unique and useful skills, however, that is predicated on the ability to concentrate. Super-stimuli (modern technologies that are engineered to overwhelm our evolutionary programming, such as highly palatable foods, porn, video games, illicit drugs etc.) are becoming more and more powerful as the days go by, and the world is becoming increasingly more complex. For this reason, concentrating, adapting and learning new skills or how to use novel technologies is going to also become more valuable.

This brings us back to the point about our new conception of productivity being more strongly tied to the selection of the task, not the speed of its completion. If you’re trying to be more productive by simply doing more in less time, then your time is almost undoubtedly limited. The process of automation will be making your efforts much less valuable overtime, regardless of how fast you work. This is because quite simply you can’t work faster than a computer, you can only work smarter… At the moment.

Consider emails for example. If one of the major tasks you do on a daily basis is send emails, as is the case for many knowledge workers, then you might want to ensure you have some more valuable skills to fallback on. As email software improves, we now have a variety of already pre-packaged replies to select from, or if we are typing out a lengthy email “ourselves” then we have the continuous predictive suggestions being offered to us, which we only need to hit the “tab” key to make use of.

To any individual worker, this might seem like they can be more productive because they can send more, and longer emails, with fewer spelling errors, in less time. They pat themselves on the back after punching out emails all day and consider themselves a productivity-machine. But are they?

The increased automation of the email process reduces the barrier to entry as well as the ability to distinguish human-based value considerably. If we were to go back in time and compare two emails, one from a masters graduate with an IQ of 110, and another from a high school drop-out with an IQ of 90, the contrast would be rather evident (though IQ isn’t everything).

Now, however, your email software does half the job for you and Google can do four-fifths of the rest. Kids who haven’t even reached puberty yet can write long, sophisticated and impressive sounding emails with little more than a rough idea of what they are talking about, a few pushes of the tab-key and the typing of various words into Google followed by “synonym.”

This is just one example, but hopefully it is illustrative of the broader concept. In order to produce value, you must be able to do things that are complex and not easily automatable. This is not to say that email is devoid of all value, but a significant amount of it is. Charlie Munger, Angela Merkel or Kanye West would still be able to put concepts and ideas into an email that could not be done by anyone else in the world—but can the same really be said about you? The medium is just a conduit for value, or lack thereof. The primary source of value is found in doing what others can’t.

That is why concentration and avoiding distraction are massive factors in success and will likely progress further in that direction as we continue marching on into the future.

In order to develop refined skills and an array of complex knowledge, you must be able to concentrate. The science of learning is becoming increasingly clear that you must pay attention, and wilfully struggle against your lack of understanding, in order to generate the requisite changes in your brain. Learning to deal with this discomfort and developing your ability to stay on task will translate into knowing more, greater skills and the completion of more (hopefully valuable) projects. Conversely, the learning and productivity process is significantly diminished every time you succumb to the temptation of checking social media because the current task got difficult, or the interruption and fragmentation of concentration provided by a multitude of alerts and notifications. 

The importance of the ability to stay on task is supported further through the notion of time is money. If you can do something (that is already considered important) faster, sure, that is more valuable. I’m not disagreeing with that. What I am saying though, is that people tend to get caught up in trying to do things faster, without even considering what is the right thing to do.

Very often, the most valuable thing to do is something that takes time, and this is because time is valuable; it is the only resource we never get back. However, the lack of ability to concentrate, stay on task and develop the requisite skills for effective problem solving cause many to opt for shorter-term projects, because they can provide faster gratification and still be achieved with the attention span of a toddler. You don’t want this to be you. Start caring about your ability to focus and avoid distraction; it may have a larger influence on your future than you think.


To conclude, I will reiterate the key points:

Think critically. Attempt to see the world the way it is and for the problems it contains. Reflect and assess if you are working on the most important thing, or just the easiest thing. When you work out what you should be doing, do it, effective and efficient aren’t synonymous. When things get difficult and your concentration begins to wane, don’t shirk away and pick up your phone for a dose of tension relief. Push through this discomfort and stay on task. It’ll improve your brain, and your life as a result.  

And with that, I will leave you with this quote from one of the wisest men to have ever existed, Warren Buffet: “Some things just take time. You can’t produce a baby in one month by getting nine women pregnant.”

I am fascinated by the power of knowledge; in particular, how through its implementation we can build a better life for ourselves and others. Most specifically, I am interested in ideas related to rationality and morality. I believe we can all be benefited by having a concern for both probability as well as people. As a student, I am studying Artificial Intelligence. As a professional, I work in mental health case management. When I am not doing one of these things, I am very likely writing for my blog, recording an episode for the "PhilosophyAu" podcast, hanging out with my nan, reading a book or, occasionally, attending a rave. A previous version of myself obtained a bachelors and a masters degree in sport science and was the Manager of Educational Services for a leading health and fitness company.

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