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On productivity, discipline and guilt
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One of the things I’ve been thinking about is productivity. You see, I suffer from constant guilt that I’m not being productive enough, and as I shifted to a work-from-home model, this guilt has been gnawing away like a worm in my brain.
This is a pretty stupid state of affairs. I know I’m far more productive when I can set my own hours and work around the ‘blind spots’ of the day where I procrastinate. The literature backs me up on this: a Stanford study found a 13-22% performance increase among people working from home  and Phillip Hunter synthesized the state of affairs: improved productivity, better health outcomes, the works.
One of the most fucked-up things about today is this mental link between time spent on a task and productivity. This is possibly an artifact of a time where the number of hours spent at a mechanical task could predict a factory’s output, and where such factories were the overwhelming force in society.
The accidental architects of the Industrial Revolution originally found it difficult to implement the kind of working hours and discipline that they would later be infamous for.
The very recruitment to the uncongenial work was difficult, and it was made worse by the deliberate or accidental modelling of many works on workhouses and prisons, a fact well known to the working population, notes Pollard. From domestics to agricultural folk, people did not take too kindly to the idea of set hours for work. I’m vaguely reminded of Bukowski, complaining in Factotum:
“How in the hell could a man enjoy being awakened at 8:30 a.m. by an alarm clock, leap out of bed, dress, force-feed, shit, piss, brush teeth and hair, and fight traffic to get to a place where essentially you made lots of money for somebody else and were asked to be grateful for the opportunity to do so?
The Bukowskis of their time were broken down, notes Pollard. Once at work it was necessary to break down the impulses of the workers, to introduce the notion of 'time-thrift'. The factory meant economy of time and, in the Webbs' phrase, 'enforced asceticism'. Bad timekeeping was punished by severe fines, and it was common in mills. Discipline ... was to produce the goods on time. It was also to prevent the workmen from stealing raw materials, putting in shoddy, or otherwise getting the better of their employers'. It allowed the employer to maintain a high quality of output, as in the case of John Taylor and Matthew Boulton in Birmingham, and of Samuel Oldknow at Stockport.
Works Rules, formalized, impersonal and occasionally printed, were symbolic of the new industrial relationships. Many rules dealt with disciplinary matters only, but quite a few laid down the organization of the firm itself. 'So strict are the instructions,' it was said of John Marshall's flax mills in 1821, 'that if an overseer of a room be found talking to any person in the mill during working hours he is dismissed immediately - two or more overseers are employed in each room, if one be found a yard out of his ground he is discharged ... everyone, manager, overseers, mechanics, oilers, spreaders, spinners and reelers, have their particular duty pointed out to them, and if they transgress, they are instantly turned off as unfit for their situation.'
Albert Camus, 1941: The gods had condemned Sisyphus to ceaselessly rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, whence the stone would fall back of its own weight. They had thought with some reason that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor. . . The workman of today works everyday in his life at the same tasks, and his fate is no less absurd. But it is tragic only at the rare moments when it becomes conscious. Sisyphus, proletarian of the gods, powerless and rebellious, knows the whole extent of his wretched condition.
But this Sisyphian rock-work doesn’t apply everywhere. Especially not today, when ideas are more valuable than rote mechanical work. I have a bias here: I’m a science fiction writer and a researcher, and I make my living based on the strength of ideas that I generate. Ask any programmer how they solve bugs or find elegant solutions and they’ll tell you it wasn’t by staring at the same piece of code for eight hours.
As if that wasn’t enough, we have Thoreau, writing in 1842 :
The really efficient laborer will be found not to crowd his day with work, but will saunter to his task surrounded by a wide halo of ease and leisure. There will be a wide margin for relaxation to his day. He is only earnest to secure the kernels of time, and does not exaggerate the value of the husk. Why should the hen set all day? She can lay but one egg, and besides she will not have picked up materials for a new one. Those who work much do not work hard.
Well, bully for Thoreau. Unfortunately, my eight-hour day has been shot to pieces by an endless slew of notifications, emails, Zoom meetings that have to compensate for multiple timezones, and the like. When not performing these sometimes-vital exercises (not all meetings are useful), the mind is in a constant state of guilt. There are 24 hours to a day, so should be not be working? An entire culture of productivity hacks and ‘time management’ and #hustleculture comes into play. The expectation we put on ourselves is to be plugged in, from the first email of the day to the last Twitter hot take.
As far back as 1817, Oliver Mann began to champion ‘Eight hours labour, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest’. Tom Mann and others picked up the idea again in 1884 : “Eight Hour Leagues” formed in both England and the United States, and by 1917 employers had distilled the modern eight-hour day.
Modern neuroscience backs up the idea. Time and time again, we’ve found positive links between leisure and creativity ; a review of the literature, including anecdotes from inventors and Nobel Prize winners, shows us that idle time is critical for problem-solving and idea generation .
Eight hours labour, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest. It’s a fairly simple idea. I’m going to print this in my home office and stick to it. And as for the guilt, we have Camus, whose ‘secret calls, invitations from all the faces’ seems, at first glance, to mirror all too well the Twitter-email-and-Zoom horrors of the day:
All Sisyphus' silent joy is contained therein. His fate belongs to him. His rock is a thing. Likewise, the absurd man, when he contemplates his torment, silences all the idols. In the universe suddenly restored to its silence, the myriad wondering little voices of the earth rise up. Unconscious, secret calls, invitations from all the faces, they are the necessary reverse and price of victory. There is no sun without shadow, and it is essential to know the night. The absurd man says yes and his efforts will henceforth be unceasing. If there is a personal fate, there is no higher destiny, or at least there is, but one which he concludes is inevitable and despicable. For the rest, he knows himself to be the master of his days.
Life, it seems, it not without its absurdities.
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 Hunter, P. (2019). Remote working in research: An increasing usage of flexible work arrangements can improve productivity and creativity. EMBO reports, 20(1), e47435.
 Pollard, S. (1963). Factory discipline in the industrial revolution. Economic History Review, 254-271.
 Baird, B., Smallwood, J., Mrazek, M. D., Kam, J. W., Franklin, M. S., & Schooler, J. W. (2012). Inspired by distraction: Mind wandering facilitates creative incubation. Psychological science, 23(10), 1117-1122.