The Limits of Self-Help Productivity Lit

The genre offers a belief system that helps workers through their days, in spite of its spiritual vacuousness.

Yannis Behrakis / Reuters

In Charles Duhigg’s recent book on efficiency, Smarter, Faster, Better, he notes the deterioration of Americans’ synchronized experience of time with this compelling observation: “In 1980, more than 90 percent of the American workforce reported to a boss. Today more than a third of working Americans are freelancers, contractors, or in otherwise transitory positions.”

This idea sets up a central premise of the book: that the burden of efficiency now falls, more often than in the past, on the individual. Knowing “how to set goals, prioritize tasks, and make choices about which projects to pursue” is, Duhigg argues, the difference between productivity and sheer survival. Or, in the words of the management icon Peter Drucker, “Working on the right things is what makes knowledge work effective.”

The responsibility workers feel to self-manage has created a new kind of anxiety, for which books like Duhigg’s act as moderators. With Smarter, Faster, Better, Duhigg has written a manual for an elite kind of worker—a class of employees who already have some say in how they spend their time. For these readers, productivity tips are a kind of recreational sermonizing that confers further cultural capital where it is needed least.

Traditionally, time-management experts have offered specific formulas and decision trees that, they claim, transcend the standard to-do list, from Alan Lakein’s “Drift, Drown, or Decide” to David Allen’s “Do it, Delegate it, or Defer it.” Duhigg avoids these aphoristic methods of cognitive training (habit formation was the subject of his last book) and instead focuses on strategies that cut across industries and scenarios. Chapters on motivation, teamwork, focus, and goal-setting precede tips on managing, decision making, innovation, and absorbing data. These core themes are held together by a selection of memorable characters and stories that play to Duhigg’s strengths as a writer. In the crowded market for productivity aids, this meta-approach is novel. It acknowledges that there is already a surfeit of calendar tools, coaches, and apps vying for attention in the quest for self-discipline.

Duhigg’s interest is in the more subtle personal and psychological challenges of working well, and if these preoccupations sound familiar to those of other management gurus, his examples show how these ones matter differently today. In an age of automation, for instance, focus is a matter of toggling between varying states of technologically-mediated cognitive assistance. This is the main obstacle many workers face as constantly-connected machines put out an endless number of requests for action. “Advances in communications and technology are supposed to make our lives easier” Duhigg writes. “Instead, they often seem to fill our days with more work and stress.”

When it comes to productivity self-help, the lessons imparted are, at best, findings from research that most people don’t have the time to read. At worst, they are truisms recycled with scant acknowledgment from much earlier examples of the genre. Duhigg, though, tends to transcend these two fates by recognizing that management fads are part of the problem. For instance, he notes, when GE instituted “SMART” goals—“Smart, Measurable, Actionable, Realistic, Time-specific” deadlines for assignments—employees spent hours bringing their tasks in line with the new criteria, and “much less time making sure the goals were worth pursuing in the first place.” Similarly, organizations that encourage “stretch goals”—audacious objectives beyond what’s actually realistic—tread a fine line between inspiring innovation and thinning workers’ confidence. These examples show that productivity theories are often hard to put into practice. Applied generically, across large companies that house many complex functions, simple formulas can generate perverse outcomes.

In the world of productivity self-help, success comes down to whether a regimen can be implemented and then adhered to. One may not be a theater director, factory owner, aircraft pilot, or phone designer, but the implication is that adopting some of the same strategies as these people will help one succeed. For most, the fate of passengers or million-dollar budgets are not at stake in their day jobs. The real test of self-help principles is whether a charismatic leader’s insights can withstand the ordinary messiness of everyday life.

One of the most poignant aspects of Duhigg’s book is the appendix, which illustrates his efforts to apply the techniques of the book in the act of writing it. Photographs act as tangible souvenirs of so many struggles to stay focused. A handwritten note (“Why read this paper?”) on top of an academic article on childhood motivation includes optimistic bullet-pointed replies: “It will help me finish the book”; “It will help me solve how productivity works.” To some readers, this editorial intimacy may prove to be a touch too ironic: It fans the lingering question of why Duhigg needs to be any more productive, given that he is already such a successful journalist and author.

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Self-help literature is a way of imagining personal triumph in the act of reading: “The reading of a book on the attaining of success is in itself the symbolic attaining of that success. It is while they read that readers are ‘succeeding,’” the literary theorist Kenneth Burke wrote in 1938, when the industry for self-help was barely in existence. Even then, he was prepared to claim that “readers make no serious attempt to apply the book’s recipes” in the majority of cases. He went on:

The lure of the book resides in the fact that the reader, while reading it, is then living in the aura of success. What he wants is easy success; and he gets it in symbolic form by the mere reading itself. To attempt applying such stuff in real life would be very difficult, full of many disillusioning problems.

Burke placed self-help in a longer history of oral and written communication offering “strategies” for handling “typical and recurrent” scenarios. Like ancient proverbs, Burke writes, the lessons imparted by today’s efficiency gurus teach readers “what to expect, what to look out for” in the course of a typical day. Heeding these signs can summon the right attitude to propel action and ensure that the most important tasks get done.

So, to dismiss Duhigg’s book as common sense is to downplay the work of popular genres in producing satisfying resolutions to the contradictions that are part of the business of life. The upbeat texts put out by gifted writers like Duhigg provide a (temporary) salve for the tensions at the heart of capitalism. These books, and their popularity, reflect the fact that the practice of productivity-maximization is a necessity in a culture in which managing oneself is a requirement of the condition of freedom.

It is a necessity, though, whose implications deserve inspection. The productivity imperative personalizes corporate cost-cutting mantras to “do more with less” and “work smarter, not harder,” but decades of wage stagnation have shown what little benefit workers derive from delivering all these efficiencies. Duhigg’s book would be more helpful if it offered a rationale for its lessons—namely, to what end should workers be more productive? For their own good or for their managers’? Who are the bosses, anyway, in a world of decentralized, algorithm-dictated labor? Is productivity even the right measure for a working environment in which predictable jobs are in decline?

The very title of Duhigg’s book suggests a troublesome chain of equivalence, a belief that being smarter and faster is necessarily better. In Duhigg’s words, productivity is “the name we give our attempts to figure out the best uses of our energy, intellect, and time as we try to seize the most meaningful rewards with the least wasted effort.” Smarter, Faster, Better is “about getting things done without sacrificing everything we care about along the way.”

The only issue with this objective is that what “everything we care about” consists of is largely taken for granted, even though today’s workplaces and societies are full of people who don’t care about the same things. This is precisely the context in which productivity has become such a convincing and self-evident buzzword—it is an accommodating aspiration for people inhabiting a world in which activity trumps meaning. Productivity offers a belief system that helps workers through their days, in spite of its spiritual vacuousness.