The Productivity Obsession

In today's always-on workplace, employees crave any app that promises a chance at regaining control over their time.

Toby Melville / Reuters

In a hotel room on a recent business trip, nestled next to the telephone on the work desk, a little cardboard sign beckoned: “Help us make your stay more productive.” Not “restful” or “comfortable” but “productive.”

In the hotel room as in the office, productivity increasingly stands as the default measure of accomplishment. Rest and relaxation are optional affordances against the expectation that workers make profitable use of their time. A century ago, Max Weber identified the Protestant ethic driving the spirit of capitalism, and the belief that the “waste of time is the first and in principle the deadliest of sins.” This spirit is alive and well, as any quick perusals of Fast Company’s profiles­ of the most productive people would reveal. But what is the belief system underpinning these exertions in a secular, multicultural society?

One place to look for an answer: Apple’s App store, which, like Google Play, has an entire category of productivity tools. These software services include note-taking apps, brainstorming tools, and calendar assistants. With names like “Self Control,” “Omnifocus,” “Rescue Time,” even “Freedom,” productivity solutions offer liberation from as much as consolation for everyday demands. In providing mastery over incidental matters (what time management manuals have long referred to as “trivia”), human failings can be overcome.

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.”

Over time, technological developments have enabled workers to move away from a reliance on colleagues for support and instead trust in a system for getting things done. In the subculture of productivity, the aesthetics of activity becomes the guiding principle for charting a course that feels something like a career and a purpose. And, perhaps most importantly, there is the hope of control: The productivity industry offers the promise that IT users can reclaim ownership of their time in today’s always-on workplace.