Productive? What for?

Tuesday, March 08, 2016

Is the "Cult of Productivity," as Jeff Whittlestone claims at Quartz, preventing you from being productive? It's a question well worth considering:

"Productivity" has become such a buzzword that it can seem like it's the goal in itself. But productivity is useless if what you're producing isn't meaningful or helpful to you or others in some way. The reason we really care about productivity -- or the reason we should care -- is that it allows us to do the things we care about as well and effectively as possible. Productivity isn't a goal, but rather a tool for better achieving our goals.

When we think about productivity like this, I think it's impossible to be productive without also being present. To be productive in the most meaningful sense, we need to be able to step back and ask ourselves what goals we really care about, and why. We need to be able to pay attention to how we're feeling at any given moment, acknowledge when we're distracted or unmotivated, and look to understand why and what we can do about it. We need to be continually checking in to make sure we're working towards thing that are really important to us, and not just mindlessly doing things that make us feel productive (like clearing unimportant emails rather than actually sitting down to work on that big project). [bold added]

And this is a direct result of the fact that, as novelist-philosopher Ayn Rand argued, your life is the standard by which you should guide your choices. Productivity can only make sense in such a context, and becomes a mere buzzword or floating abstraction outside of it:
The Objectivist ethics holds man's life as the standard of value -- and his own life as the ethical purpose of every individual man.

The difference between "standard" and "purpose" in this context is as follows: a "standard" is an abstract principle that serves as a measurement or gauge to guide a man's choices in the achievement of a concrete, specific purpose. "That which is required for the survival of man qua man" is an abstract principle that applies to every individual man. The task of applying this principle to a concrete, specific purpose -- the purpose of living a life proper to a rational being -- belongs to every individual man, and the life he has to live is his own.

Man must choose his actions, values and goals by the standard of that which is proper to man -- in order to achieve, maintain, fulfill and enjoy that ultimate value, that end in itself, which is his own life.
Whittlestone's suggested remedy -- of being more deliberate -- is worth thinking about:
... Being deliberate about how we spend our time is essential for being productive in the meaningful sense: for effectively working towards things that are important to you. But being deliberate doesn't mean "getting things done" for the sake of it, or always being goal-focused. Sometimes being deliberate means consciously choosing to simply experience life without worrying about whether you're "getting anywhere." Above all, being deliberate forces you to be present: to keep returning to and paying attention to your experience in the moment, what you feel, and what's most important to you.
I differ from Whittlestone in that I regard even "simply experiencing" things to be a legitimate goal since we all do need to relax now and then.

An unexamined life is not worth living, as the saying goes. But to examine one's life, one must ask, "What for?" as a matter of habit.

-- CAV

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