Journal tags: productivity

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Work ethics

If you’re travelling around Ireland, you may come across some odd pieces of 19th century architecture—walls, bridges, buildings and roads that serve no purpose. They date back to The Great Hunger of the 1840s. These “famine follies” were the result of a public works scheme.

The thinking went something like this: people are starving so we should feed them but we can’t just give people food for nothing so let’s make people do pointless work in exchange for feeding them (kind of like an early iteration of proof of work for cryptobollocks on blockchains …except with a blockchain, you don’t even get a wall or a road, just ridiculous amounts of wasted energy).

This kind of thinking seems reprehensible from today’s perspective. But I still see its echo in the work ethic espoused by otherwise smart people.

Here’s the thing: there’s good work and there’s working hard. What matters is doing good work. Often, to do good work you need to work hard. And so people naturally conflate the two, thinking that what matters is working hard. But whether you work hard or not isn’t actually what’s important. What’s important is that you do good work.

If you can do good work without working hard, that’s not a bad thing. In fact, it’s great—you’ve managed to do good work and do it efficiently! But often this very efficiency is treated as laziness.

Sensible managers are rightly appalled by so-called productivity tracking because it measures exactly the wrong thing. Those instruments of workplace surveillance measure inputs, not outputs (and even measuring outputs is misguided when what really matters are outcomes).

They can attempt to measure how hard someone is working, but they don’t even attempt to measure whether someone is producing good work. If anything, they actively discourage good work; there’s plenty of evidence to show that more hours equates to less quality.

I used to think that must be some validity to the belief that hard work has intrinsic value. It was a position that was espoused so often by those around me that it seemed a truism.

But after a few decades of experience, I see no evidence for hard work as an intrinsically valuable activity, much less a useful measurement. If anything, I’ve seen the real harm that can be caused by tying your self-worth to how much you’re working. That way lies burnout.

We no longer make people build famine walls or famine roads. But I wonder how many of us are constructing little monuments in our inboxes and calendars, filling those spaces with work to be done in an attempt to chase the rewards we’ve been told will result from hard graft.

I’d rather spend my time pursuing the opposite: the least work for the most people.

Reader

I’ve written before about how I don’t have notifications on my phone or computer. But that doesn’t stop computer programmes waving at me, trying to attract my attention.

If I have my email client open on my computer there’s a red circle with a number in it telling me how many unread emails I have. It’s the same with Slack. If Slack is running and somebody writes something to me, or @here, or @everyone, then a red circle blinks into existence.

There’s a category of programmes like this that want my attention—email, Slack, calendars. In each case, emptiness is the desired end goal. Seeing an inbox too full of emails or a calendar too full of appointments makes me feel queasy. In theory these programmes are acting on my behalf, working for me, making my life easier. And in many ways they do. They help me keep things organised. But they also need to me to take steps: read that email, go to that appointment, catch up with that Slack message. Sometimes it can feel like the tail is wagging the dog and I’m the one doing the bidding of these pieces of software.

My RSS reader should, in theory, fall into the same category. It shows me the number of unread items, just like email or Slack. But for some reason, it feels different. When I open my RSS reader to catch up on the feeds I’m subscribed to, it doesn’t feel like opening my email client. It feels more like opening a book. And, yes, books are also things to be completed—a bookmark not only marks my current page, it also acts as a progress bar—but books are for pleasure. The pleasure might come from escapism, or stimulation, or the pursuit of knowledge. That’s a very different category to email, calendars, and Slack.

I’ve managed to wire my neurological pathways to put RSS in the books category instead of the productivity category. I’m very glad about that. I would hate if catching up on RSS feeds felt like catching up on email. Maybe that’s why I’m never entirely comfortable with newsletters—if there’s an option to subscribe by RSS instead of email, I’ll always take it.

I have two folders in my RSS reader: blogs and magazines. Reading blog posts feels like catching up with what my friends are up to (even if I don’t actually know the person). Reading magazine articles feels like spending a lazy Sunday catching up with some long-form journalism.

I should update this list of my subscriptions. It’s a bit out of date.

Matt made a nice website explaining RSS. And Nicky Case recently wrote about reviving RSS.

Oh, and if you want to have my words in your RSS reader, I have plenty of options for you.