Newport on Generations of Productivity Thinking

Thursday, January 21, 2021

If the name Arnold Bennett sounds familiar to you, it could be either because of a recent Deep Questions podcast by Cal Newport, a couple of podcasts from Alex Epstein's Human Flourishing Project, or (unlike me so far), you've read his How to Live on 24 Hours a Day.

Both Newport and Epstein hold him in high regard, but the following passage of his might seem troubling at first glance, particularly after a year of pandemic ... existence:

Image by Tania Melnyczuk, via Unsplash, license.
You don't eat immediately on your arrival home. But in about an hour or so you feel as if you could sit up and take a little nourishment. And you do. Then you smoke, seriously; you see friends; you potter; you play cards; you flirt with a book; you note that old age is creeping on; you take a stroll; you caress the piano ... . By Jove! a quarter past eleven. You then devote quite forty minutes to thinking about going to bed; and it is conceivable that you are acquainted with a genuinely good whiskey. At last you go to bed, exhausted by the day's work. Six hours, probably more, have gone since you left the office ...
What are we supposed to do? Crank widgets 24-7? (My apologies to David Allen.)

Not quite. Bennett is speaking to a new kind of person at the time, the Victorian white collar worker, and Newport humorously calls the above description, "steampunk social media." This he does because Arnold's audience and his share a similar "good problem to have:" a historically unprecedented abundance of leisure time.

Aside from Twitter, and my mostly "post-and-ghost" approach there, I don't do social media. But, boy, I could do with spending some time with friends over a card game! I might even light up at this point -- as I do every four or five years.

In truth, Bennett probably wouldn't frown on those things: He was describing a default routine and he saw alternatives that many people didn't, and with them, the too-common tragedy of wasted life.

Newport, I would hazard to guess, would agree: I recently listened with great interest and amazement at his off-the-cuff summary and criticism (13:10-26:07) of the history of thought regarding personal productivity. He sees this as having gone through three generations, with Bennett being in the first, the likes of David Allen in the second, and himself (and I'd add Epstein) in the third, where each successive generation successively loosens the bonds of thinking about the matter in terms of cranking widgets and embraces a more comprehensive view of the wise use of time in the context of a rich and rewarding life.

This is not to say that the earlier generations can be ignored. Newport himself admits he looks back to Bennett from time to time, and he gets the essential good of his message: We should be more intentional about how we spend our time.

Not only is there nothing wrong with cards, catching up with friends, or even the occasional cigar, those things deliberately chosen can be very valuable and enjoyable. But if that -- or anything else, including work -- is all one is doing, and it is by default, they are poor substitutes for a life lived thoughtfully and fully.

-- CAV


Snedcat said...

Yo, Gus, you write, "If the name Arnold Bennett sounds familiar to you, it could be..." Because of Virginia Woolf; because he wrote at least one marginally acceptable mystery short story with a brilliant opening scene and what I remember as routine drudgery after, the name of which escapes me; or because I went through a stage where I read him and Galsworthy and have since sickened of that stuff. Amusingly, it was two decades or more after I had read more than enough Galsworthy and Bennett that I read Woolf's perfectly apt description of their work:

Surely one reason is that the men and women who began writing novels in 1910 or thereabouts had this great difficulty to face—that there was no English novelist living from whom they could learn their business. Mr. Conrad is a Pole; which sets him apart, and makes him, however admirable, not very helpful. Mr. Hardy has written no novel since 1895. The [Pg 12]most prominent and successful novelists in the year 1910 were, I suppose, Mr. Wells, Mr. Bennett, and Mr. Galsworthy. Now it seems to me that to go to these men and ask them to teach you how to write a novel—how to create characters that are real—is precisely like going to a bootmaker and asking him to teach you how to make a watch. Do not let me give you the impression that I do not admire and enjoy their books. They seem to me of great value, and indeed of great necessity. There are seasons when it is more important to have boots than to have watches. To drop metaphor, I think that after the creative activity of the Victorian age it was quite necessary, not only for literature but for life, that someone should write the books that Mr. Wells, Mr. Bennett, and Mr. Galsworthy have written. Yet what odd books they are! Sometimes I wonder if we are right to call them books at all. For they leave one with so strange a feeling of incompleteness and dissatisfaction. In order to complete them it seems necessary to do something—to join a society, or, more desperately, to write a cheque. That done, the restlessness is laid, the book finished; it can be put upon the shelf, and need never be read again. But with the work of other novelists it is different. Tristram Shandy or Pride and Prejudice is complete in itself; it is self-contained; it leaves one with no desire to do anything, except indeed to read the book again, and to understand it better. The difference perhaps is that both Sterne and Jane Austen were interested in things in themselves; in character in itself; in the book in itself. Therefore everything was inside the book, nothing outside. But the Edwardians were never interested in character in itself; or in the book in itself. They were interested in something outside. Their books, then, were incomplete as books, and required that the reader should finish them, actively and practically, for himself.

Gus Van Horn said...


That is hilarious. Thanks for posting it.