Productivity apps facilitate the pleasure of time management, which is ultimately the pleasure of control. Their various platforms offer strategies for closure and containment, from shutting down email and non-essential communication to identifying peak performance periods and ideal moments for efficiency. Productivity techniques deliver an enhanced relationship to time by focusing only on what is important, maximizing opportunities for optimal work “flow.” In technology design, the ultimate user experience hinges on securing this state of uninhibited flow as quickly as possible.
The consumer appetite for productivity techniques reflects an environment in which work has spilled over from the office to the train, airplane, hotel room, even bed. Productivity tools offer to protect workers from the creep of jobs that lack clear beginnings and ends, whether in hours clocked or outputs produced. For professionals today, productivity apps take the place of the secretary in managing social traffic, curating discretionary appearances, and organizing life’s logistics. Ironically, these personal productivity innovations have appeared as knowledge jobs became impossible to measure on old metrics of time and location. Productivity software arrived in tandem with a managerial call to “do more with less.” In the parlance of productivity, this translates to “work smarter, not harder.”
The mutually reinforcing appeal of productivity in HR and IT departments is that fewer resources are required for a job. If workers can be encouraged to demonstrate their own efficiency, to see this as a badge of honor, this weakens collective demands for more colleagues to share the load.
It wasn’t always the case that workers sought technological assistants to demonstrate their productivity. It took a series of management innovations to teach individuals that a record of activity could prove their superiority and distinction from peers. Lillian and Frank Gilbreth, industry consultants who introduced photography and film to the stop-watch measurement of Frederick Winslow Taylor, pioneered the use of new machines, like the chronocyclegraph, for capturing motion. Filming the micro-movements of workers, these technologies appealed to workers’ enthusiasm for being captured on screen and having their performances recorded for posterity just like actors. Watching their performances, workers learned how to streamline their work for greater output. Time and motion studies normalized the manager’s view of a world waiting to be optimized.
As computers became more commonplace, and mainframes showed the awe-inspiring efficiencies of information processing, office workers faced new battles to keep pace with the speed and logic of machines. Personal-computer software replaced the tickler file and desktop organization as trusted art forms for systems thinking. The most popular productivity tools on the market today allow workers to create a system for tasks that is itself predictable, even if the tasks populating the system may not be. This idea is captured in the tagline for the popular productivity package, Evernote. Their premium upgrade package “keeps your progress predictable, even when the workday isn’t.”