Machines Can't Flow: The Difference Between Mechanical and Human Productivity

More output, produced faster may be great metrics for machines, but for homo sapiens, the most powerful metric is engagement.

Workers punching the clock at the SKF roller bearing factory in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (Library of Congress)

At the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, it seemed machines could do anything. At that time, productivity experts predicted that machines and new technologies would mean we'd only have to work four hours a day. But, as we all know, that's not what has happened. Instead, the definition of human productivity merged with the definition of machine productivity: more work, faster pace, more efficiently.

We tend to think of productivity as maximizing output or quantity. How much can we accomplish? How many emails, calls, and meetings can we power through? We work hard to sync our productivity with time-management techniques.

A few years ago in a set of interviews, I asked people if they managed their time, their attention, or both.

Mid-level managers talked about their best practices for time-management, and at the same time, expressed their concerns: "I just can't get it all done. There's no way to keep up."

They expressed anxiety about the future: "Can I accomplish all these things?" And, angst about the past: "How could I have missed that deadline?!" Those who said they managed their time reported higher levels of stress and burn out.

In contrast, surgeons, artists, and many senior managers talked about managing both their time and attention. They didn't manage minutes and tasks. They focused on priorities and took a long-term view. Those interviewed described doing one thing at a time, and fully engaging in that moment with that activity. They reported more "flow" states.

What is engaged attention and what is flow?

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi coined the term "flow," which he describes as "being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one."

Surgeons, by necessity, have to manage time and attention. A vascular surgeon described a surgery during which the aorta above the vessels that feed the liver can only be deprived of blood for 30 minutes, or the patient will die. His advice to residents: "Slow down to speed up."

"When you go fast, and you're hurried and on the clock, you tend to make mistakes because you accept inadequate 'bites' into the tissue. You accept imperfections for the sake of expediency. Later, when you clamp off, the patient bleeds, and so you have to go back and do repair stitches. When you slow down, you take methodical bites that are perfect. You actually complete everything faster because you don't have to go back and clean up mistakes."

In an example from a midwife, the midwife reflected on the importance of process and outcome both in describing her experience of engaged attention. "I look not only at an 'objective' outcome. ... With birth, if the outcome only has to do with how much the woman bled or if the baby has a high Apgar score, then the whole process of giving birth gets lost and its importance disappears."

It's time to rethink productivity. More output, produced faster may be great metrics for machines, but for homo sapiens, the most powerful metric is engagement. Engagement is about process, outcomes, and quality. Engagement values the methods and the results versus focusing completely on the output.

The vascular surgeon who "slows down to speed up," operates on patients with engaged attention. He's in a flow state. When you're doing your best at a sport, like skiing, and you have that feeling of mind and body being in the same place at the same time, you're in a flow state. You can witness engaged attention when you watch children at play.

What if schools evaluated students and teachers on engagement versus today's standardized tests? Research indicates that engaged teachers are effective teachers. Engaged students aren't likely to drop out. They're likely to be cultivating every quality we could hope for: curiosity, initiative, resourcefulness, and mastery of material.

What if, at work, employees were measured on engagement? The most cutting-edge companies do this. and train telephone support personnel to engage with customers. This results in job satisfaction for the employee and increased customer loyalty and trust -- a desirable outcome. Companies that measure phone support staff on older productivity metrics look primarily at number of minutes on the phone and effectiveness at upselling customers -- measures of output.

What if we rethink productivity? Today, we define productivity for humans the same way we do for machines. What if we create metrics around engagement, for schools, for the workplace, and for our lives? Instead of evaluating output, we could evaluate process, outcomes, and quality.