the Dark Side of Productivity

“Direction is much more important than speed” — attributed to Feynman

In the 1990s movie “Dumb and the Dumber”, the protagonists drive a good five hours in the opposite direction before they realize their mistake. They realize that they do not anymore have enough money to go to their destination, or home, or to eat or even to sleep.

I did not accidentally drive in the wrong direction for such long distances yet but I have had one too many experiences in my life which feel similar. When I was a software developer, we often wrote code only to realize later that the requirements have changed. Project plans had to be redrawn because the scope of work had changed. All this, while maintaining intense focus and rigour on productivity and efficiency on these attempts which went nowhere.

Productivity, efficiency, optimization — these are the buzzwords of our society — my suspicion is that these were not that high on society’s priorities even until as recently as thirty years ago. I remember my childhood days where except during exam time, my parents never checked on what I was up to. This is true for all my childhood friends too. We used to play gully-cricket, talk to each other, play seven stones and marbles too. All unsupervised with no focus on improving our skill.

Today, however, as far as I can see, there is tremendous focus on not wasting time. All our hours are occupied with something or the other — either activities that will help us grow or help us relax. Yes, even relaxation is scheduled in — whether it be weekend movies/dinner-out or quarterly vacations. I have been guilty of this attitude, so not judging anyone here — just observing.

Well, how can this be bad? Growth is important and balanced life is very important. But my contention is on how we are going about them.

For example, it is not uncommon to see many spending a good portion of their lives on careers that may or may not hold any real meaning or purpose for them. It is important to take a step back periodically to ponder on the direction one is going in. Productivity, efficiency and optimization are important, even critical, for improving our lives but only when directed well.

The other issue with efficiency is the tendency to use the minimum number of resources (effort and time) that one can get away with in order to achieve something. Well, this works well in a happy path where nothing goes wrong but in real life, life happens and plans constantly get upended — so, without sufficient factor of safety, one will most likely fall short of achieving their objective. So, it may be better to buffer our plans for contingencies and as a result, be a little less optimal.

I had been a through a phase of life where I thought sleep was coming in the way of living a full life. Now I realize that sleep is a strategic tool for improving productivity. During sleep, our body doesn’t just repair its muscles, our memories from the day also get organized. During this process, sometimes solutions to certain persistent problems present themselves. It is said that James Watson arrived at the “double Helix” structure for DNA in his dream. I have my own experiences of arriving at solutions to certain thorny problems during sleep. This aspect of sleep can serve as good analogy on how we can expand our thinking about productivity.

Productivity is non-linear while its measurement units are linear. When going about it the right way, productivity may seem low in the beginning but will grow in leaps and bounds later on. Also, there are situations where action drives productivity and there are times when action inhibits productivity. E.g., in stock investing, more wealth can be created in buying and holding (right) stocks than engaging in trading stocks (action!). Changing a well-set, optimized process for the sake of bringing in something new typically results in reduction of productivity — ironically, this kind of behavior is almost an annual feature in large bureaucratic organizations.

It is not enough to be busy, so are the ants. The question is: What are we busy about? — Henry David Thoreau

Ecosystem productivity also significantly affects individual productivity. One can grow in career, learn and develop themselves more at growing organizations while one will not see similar kind of growth in struggling or mediocre organizations — this is independent of individual ability or productivity. Coding/programming “productivity” is much higher in technology companies such as PayPal, Amazon etc as compared to many other organizations despite them allocating large budgets for application software development.

An individual could have grown her/his wealth significantly in countries such as US, India etc in the last couples of decades (by simply investing in index/large cap funds) as opposed to many countries in Africa. This is not because individuals in US and India are more capable but because the broader ecosystem is lot more supporting and enabling in these countries.

“The key is not to prioritize what’s on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities.” — Stephen Covey

To clarify the title, I’m not against productivity — I’m all for “specific” productivity and I do not care so much for “general” productivity. So instead of pursuing productivity blindly, now I first try to understand what productivity means in the specific context by understanding the purpose behind productivity. Then I try to build skills and capabilities that are required to realize this purpose, finally go about realizing the purpose. This incorporates non-linearity in short term and allows me to capitalize on the large productivity gains in the long run.

So, next time, before you install a productivity app on your phone or adopt the latest hack in the never-ending evolution of to-do lists, it may be a good idea to pause and see if it needs optimizing at all, or even doing at all — not all action leads to value.

You only have to do a very few things right in your life so long as you don’t do too many things wrong.” — Warren Buffett

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Thanks for your time. In this newsletter, I share my learnings that can help you improve your decisions and make meaningful progress on your goals and desires. I share stuff that I have personally experimented with. To this extent, this is not traditional “self-help” advice.

If you wish to reach out or want to know more about me, follow these links:

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