Two healthy habits have stuck with me since my recent vacation: tea in the early quiet morning and reading. Instead of escaping into movies or tv shows in the evening, I’ve been reading the books that line the walls in every room in my house. Most of these books, surprisingly or not, are biographies, or histories, or philosophies—heavy on anthropology.
Anthropology: (n) the study of human races, origins, societies, and cultures. The science of human beings; especially: the study of human beings and their ancestors through time and space, and in relation to physical character, environmental and social relations and culture. (source, Merriam-Webster)
Anthropology is my favorite study.
Google “anthropology”, though, and, according to the algorithms set by our society, it is a store that isn’t even spelled the same as the study of humanity that wins the popularity information contest. But I don’t think it’s because our society is concerned with being snappy dressers. No, my study of anthropology leads me to think it’s because we’re entirely obsessed with productivity.
Productivity: (n) the rate at which goods are produced or work is completed. (source, Merriam-Webster)
Of course, looking back in time, it’s easy to see how we got here. Population booms, wars, advances not only in life expectancy, but human rights expectancy, innovation—TRUE innovation. We created machines to help us, processes to control us, and at the end of the day, the people who made the most of anything made the most of everything.
Henry Ford not only made cars, he made the assembly line. Thomas Edison not only invented light bulbs, he invented mass production by extending the “work day” beyond natural limits and cycles of light and darkness. J.P. Morgan proved efficiency was wealth by controlling a lot with a little, and ended up as the trademark for monopoly (literally and figuratively).
But let me stop here for a moment. I admire these men. Their biographies, along with other industrialists, make a proud showing in my library. But it’s the industrialists who first make me suspicious about productivity.
Andrew Carnegie once did a study on machines to determine the best way to get the most out of them. He found that machines that ran at full capacity were LESS efficient, producing less than those running at 75 to 80 percent. So too with men, he subsequently learned when he applied the same principles.
Ironically, Carnegie was one of the first businesses to try the socialist movement of “8 hours work, 8 hours recreation, 8 hours rest” for his workers in 1878, according to author Kenneth J. Kobe, in his book, City of Steel. I say ironically because he cancelled the policy when his team couldn’t show it was worth the return on his investment.
Fast forward 36 years, and the Ford Motor Company was among the first U.S. Companies to cut the standard work day to eight hours, but also doubled worker’s pay. Do you know what Ford’s team found? Ford’s profit margins doubled within two years after implementing this change.
There are three things that stand out about this history to me:
1. Fewer hours at work make people more productive. (It’s still true. Check out this infographic.)
2. Higher pay still led to doubled profit. (Versus our stagnant pay increases in the USA since the “recession.”)
3. People used to fight long and hard to protect workers rights, believing it unsafe for people to work long hours in conditions that were adverse to health. (Did you know May Day is celebrated around the world as a labor day because May 1, 1886 was when the United States instituted the 8-hour work day? Why the delay Ford, et al.?)
Most of us no longer work in physically demanding roles on assembly lines or at production plants. But yet these standards are still the foundation for how we view our responsibility to work. I say “foundation” because with both the elevation to more thought-based work and technology that makes it easy to “connect” to work, most people work more than the 40-hours we say we do (which incidentally means your salary is lower than you think it is).
And what do we have to show for it? Some may argue more wealth. And perhaps they’re right.
But I’m not concerned with wealth. I’m concerned with well-th. Certainly there’s a vast volume of health research coming out concerning the negative health effects of sitting so much, being on devices and computers so much, eating at our desks while we work, etc. so were arguably not healthier.
So I turn the page in my reading habits from history to philosophy to see what some of the greatest thinkers think about productivity. Well, they don’t think much of it, honestly, and certainly they don’t equate it with well-th. In fact, after reading and rereading many treatises, I find that the most common themes for well-th include answers like spending time in nature, creative and free expression, relationships, meaning and purpose.
Quantity of work is not on that list anywhere (although in a future blog, I may make a case concerning Objectivism, which could prove interesting counterweight to this last statement).
Being a bit of a scientist (though completely amateurish compared to my philosophical and anthropological leanings), I think about this in the context of my own life, realizing I am an “n” of one. If I mark more things off my list in a day, do I feel like I’m living well? My first answer is surprisingly “yes, sometimes.”
When? I think some more, wading through items on my mental to-do list that make met feel like I’m living well. Honestly, laundry is the first thing that comes to mind, followed by making quiche or focaccia or risotto, brushing the dogs, sweeping my hardwood floor (but not running the sweeper!), and watering my garden and house plants. I also agree that when I complete a chapter in the fairy tale I’m writing, I feel like I’m living well. Sometimes I even feel well raking the leaves and mowing the lawn and shoveling snow.
But what about work, do I never feel like I’m achieving well-th with work?
I think again. Yes. Once again my answer is “yes.” When? Today. With computers and phones put away, I met with a group of people facing a problem and, through a two-hour conversation, we made sure we understood the issue, discussed it, conjectured, analyzed, questioned, and came up with a solution. Later, after turning all my devices on airplane mode, I summarized the plan on paper. I felt well-thy after that too. Then I realize, I have lots of examples like that in my history.
So what’s the common theme?
The common theme is that none of those activities on either list is about speed or quantity. I do not race to hang my laundry on the line or fold it, nor do I race to water the plants or sweep my floors. Rather, those activities slow me down, pull me out of my mind and into the present moment. I notice a butterfly flitting by or a new bud on my cactus or the way the early evening light makes my hardwood glow.
Likewise, I don’t race through business meetings, nor do I multitask when summarizing strategic plans or writing articles. I let the language of each ease like a river finding its way along the terrain to its best natural course.
So maybe this is productivity. Or is it just production? In either case, I’m creating utility and value. I’m just not doing it with speed and quantity in mind…but then again, my mind and I aren’t on an assembly line.
Postscript—two posts in a row after a stretch of no posts? Maybe it is productivity! But here’s another truth, I’m traveling for work and sitting high above a major metropolis in a thunderstorm after working three more-than-12-hour days. I’m caught up on my journal (handwritten) and waiting for a missing piece of inspiration to fall into place for the next development in my fairy tale. With no daughter to taxi or talk with, no dogs to walk and no friends to share a drink with, I find myself longing to write a letter. Because writing is my way of finding, as Siddhartha would say via Hesse. It’s my acknowledgement that I strive to be a writer, and thus must spend my time accordingly. It’s also my peace, my joy and my way to meaning and purpose.
SIDEBAR: a few of my favorite quotes about productivity.
“It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it. Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were all well invested. But when it is wasted in heedless luxury and spent on no good activity, we are forced at last by death’s final constraint to realize that it has passed away before we knew it was passing. So it is: we are not given a short life but we make it short, and we are not ill-supplied but wasteful of it… Life is long if you know how to use it.” –Seneca
“How we live our days is, of course, how we live our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time. A schedule is a mock-up of reason and order—willed, faked, and so brought into being; it is a peace and a haven set into the wreck of time; it is a lifeboat on which you find yourself, decades later, still living. Each day is the same, so you remember the series afterward as a blurred and powerful pattern.” –Annie Dillard
“Perhaps it’s that you’re searching far too much? That in all that searching, you don’t find the time for finding? … ‘When someone is searching,’ said Siddhartha, ‘then it might easily happen that the only thing his eyes still see is that what he searches for, that he is unable to find anything, to let anything enter his mind,because he always thinks of nothing but the object of his search, because he has a goal, because he is obsessed by the goal. Searching means: having a goal. But finding means: being free, being open, having no goal. You, oh venerable one, are perhaps indeed a searcher, because, striving for your goal, there are many things you don’t see, which are directly in front of your eyes.'” –Herman Hesse
“He who works much doesn’t work hard.” –Thoreau