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Welcome to the Post-Productivity World

November 5th, 2011 · 33 comments

The Age of Productivity

September 8, 2008 was an important date in the world of self-improvement writing. Yet almost no one knows this.

To understand what happened on this date we should return, briefly, to 2004 — the early days of blogging. It was then that a web programmer named Merlin Mann stumbled onto a powerful formula: blogging about becoming more productive. He called his site 43 Folders, a tribute to the tickler file from David Allen’s Getting Things Done system.

43 Folders’ timing was good. A new generation of tech-savvy knowledge workers needed help navigating a work environment defined by information overflow, and Mann offered them a tantalizing promise: with the right combination of high-tech productivity tools, you could find your way into a utopian state where work becomes effortless.

Especially if you used a Mac.

In 2005, when Clive Thompson wrote his famous “Meet the Life Hackers” feature for The New York Times Magazine, he quoted Mann as a spokesperson of the new tech-driven self-improvement movement.

43 Folders’ subscriber count shot past the 100,000 mark and Mann was able to quit his programming job and support himself full time with his writing.

This was, to use my own terminology, the birth of The Age of Productivity. Mann paved the way to a powerful ecosystem of blogs that focused on how to become more efficient.

Gawker Media’s Lifehacker blog became its most popular site, eventually cracking Technorati’s top 10 list. Lifehack.org became a major force. Leo Babuta paid off his credit card debt with an ebook that merged Getting Things Done with Zen philosophy.

This was a good time to be telling the world how to become more productive.

But then we get to September of 2008.

The Post-Productivity World

It was on the eighth day of this month that Mann posted an odd little essay on his personal blog. He titled it “Better.”

It was the tantrum of a talented writer whose pursuit of readers had led him astray. He expressed frustration with the superficiality of online writing, calling it “a diet comprised mostly of fake-connectedness [and] makebelieve insight.”

“All I know right now is that I want to do all of it better,” he wrote. “Everything better. Better, better.”

The impact on 43 Folders was immediate. That same day, Mann posted a short note on 43 Folders saying that the site was no longer a “blog about productivity.” He would, instead, help people embrace the hard work of “making something that you love — and making it better.”

I rarely hear people mention the 43 Folders transformation, which may have to do with the fact that soon after Mann had his first child which turned his attentions understandably elsewhere.

But its impact, I argue, was profound.

Survey the current landscape of self-improvement blogs. It’s no longer popular to post about productivity pr0n. The idea that all that stands between you and workplace bliss is the right OmniFocus configuration no longer holds its allure.

The Age of Productivity began its decline around the time Mann, its Prometheus, turned his back on it. We are now in a new age, one in which the big picture trumps the small. What matters in this new age is your work philosophy — not your systems.

  • Mann’s new work philosophy, for example, focuses on creating excellent things that you care about.
  • My Career Craftsman philosophy, to name another example, focuses on becoming excellent to provide the capital needed to shape a compelling career.
  • Tim Ferriss, by contrast, rethought what currencies matter, moving emphasize from money to time — with profound effect.
  • While Leo Babuta has quietly and effectively molded Zen Habits in the spearhead of the Minimalist movement, perhaps the most successful of the recent re-imaginings of work.

Productivity, of course, is still important. Most mature work philosophies require that you can organize what’s on your plate. But when you’re guided by a philosophy, this organization becomes the easy part. Your drive to accomplish what you believe needs to be accomplished has a way of sweeping away the ineffective.

It’s hard to judge an era while still in the middle of it, but from all accounts I think this Age of Workplace Philosopher represents an exciting shift in our thinking about work and happiness. The more seriously we struggle with the question of “What defines a good working life?”, the better off we are. (And I mean “seriously struggle;” falling back to a vague, unverified cliche, like “follow your passion!”, no longer holds water in this new age.)

I miss 43 Folders, and am still hoping that Mann will soon return to more regular updates on how his new philosophical outlook is taking shape. In the meantime, I’ll continue to struggle away with the growing number of other writers who have taken up Mann’s call to move our online conversation, dare I say it, productively forward.

(Photo by zen)

33 thoughts on “Welcome to the Post-Productivity World

  1. Graeme says:

    Great post, Cal. Just curious if you’re aware that Mann has a podcast on Dan Benjamin’s 5by5 network: http://5by5.tv/person/merlin-mann. It’s pretty good.

  2. Santi says:

    As usual, great post Cal! Hope everything is going well for you at Georgetown!

  3. Daniel Wong says:

    This is by far the most insightful post I’ve read about the productivity movement.

    As someone who is really into maximizing and optimizing my life, the transformation that has occurred in this arena– from productivity to post-productivity– has been mirrored in my personal life.

    In this information age we live in, it’s not possible to do everything you want to do simply by using a better system or set of productivity techniques.

    Instead, you need to choose the path of intentional abandonment of everything good, in pursuit of only the best. I think that’s what is at the heart of the post-productivity movement.

    Thanks for the hard work you put into writing this article, Cal. Great read!

  4. HonestB says:

    The Back to Work Podcast that Mann does with Dan Benjamin is really excellent, albeit in a weird, kind of meandering way. If you’re missing 43Folders, give it a listen.

  5. Cal, I’m pleased to have found a great quote related to this insight [the new age]. “Problems cannot be solved by the same kind of thinking that created them.” Albert Einstein. Sometimes you just gotta go meta!

    Saving the praise for last I want you to know the precision, clarity and depth that permeate your writing ( books as well) most certainly inspire me to write daily as I have started doing. Your approach to decoding patterns (because they uncover mechanisms/relationships) has such insight built into it cracks me up just thinking about it. :D Thanks for the thoughts!

  6. Cal, I hope all goes well at Georgetown. We missed your inspiring posts. Mary

  7. Sophia says:

    I think it is high time for posts like these!

    Myself, I have become disappointed with the lack of explicit work philosophy / work ethics in so may productivity resources – books, blogs, etc. They have dealt with all kinds of things that I had no real need for, and omitted that one thing I was eager for.
    I even ended up thinking that there is something wrong with me for wondering “Why work?”

    The fact is, when the going gets tough – and it’s just a matter of time before it does – one will need to have a damn good answer to “Why do I work?”
    And it has to be an answer that can withstand any doubt, any hardship – and still give one reason to look forward to work.

    The more seriously we struggle with the question of “What defines a good working life?”, the better off we are.

    Absolutely.

  8. Nathan says:

    Hey All-

    This is a great post! I was wondering what you think of its relation is to the First things First philosophy that came out in the mid 90s by Covey et al.? the approach described in that book has some similarities with what you are suggesting here. One would definitely need to separate out there notions of a principle driven life and your notion of passion. However, I feel like in this book they accurate classify a lot of the approaches at time management, and do a great job of working through the issues that you are suggesting here.

    They make time management and work more about doing the right things, or worded differently doing the things that align with your vision, than just about being productive. I wonder if we are not just cycling back to this ideology and may find wisdom from looking at what this work uncovered.

    ::nathan::

  9. Sam says:

    I love Merlin’s change in focus and I love your description of the productivity “movement” now. The less we can focus on tools and more on how to utilize those tools in a meaningful way the better off we’ll all be.

  10. Vivian says:

    Love this post. Like others, I’ve seen this parallel in my own life as well, and I’m sure in no small part thanks to Merlin’s suggestion back in 2008 (wow, was it really that long ago?) I also see this shift in the movement as sort of parallel with David Allen’s concept that, until you can get the runway level under control, it is impossible to consider what happens at the 40,000-ft. level. It seems like the productivity world finally got the runway under control via all the productivity pr0n, and then had the clear head space to realize that it’s not about living on the runway.

  11. Mike Vardy says:

    Cal,

    This is one of the most insightful pieces I’ve ever read on this topic. I agree that there has been a shift, and Merlin seemingly triggered it.

    Perhaps we’re at a point where productivity and mindfulness are working side by side, so we’re being productive at the things we really want to be productive in, as opposed to being productive for productive’s sake.

    Again, fantastic piece. Thank you for putting it out there.

  12. Charles Betz says:

    Culture trumps execution. This blog is saying the same thing at the level of the individual.

  13. Vanish says:

    Tremendous post. Really enjoyed it.

  14. mjw says:

    It appears prior to the watershed that you point out,the productivity discourse was focused on “quantity” and that “quality” is now rapidly gaining importance. Nice insight, thanks Cal.

  15. Cameron Plommer says:

    I too really enjoyed this post. The storytelling aspect was entertaining yet insightful.

    As a follower of Mann and Allen I care deeply about this subject. I really think that many of the worlds problems could be solved by practicing productivity better and having strong work philosophies. I struggle on my blog for example balancing traditional productivity tips with philosophy and guiding principles.

    Like others have mentioned Mann’s podcast on 5by5.net with Dan Benjamin is really excellent. Mann is such an interesting personality that’s he is entertaining regardless of subject.

  16. Study Hacks says:
    Great post, Cal. Just curious if you’re aware that Mann has a podcast on Dan Benjamin’s 5by5 networ

    I wasn’t. But several people recommended it to me. I’m looking forward to listening to it.

    Cal, I hope all goes well at Georgetown. We missed your inspiring posts. Mary

    Thanks Mary. I’m loving it here. I will write more.

    This is a great post! I was wondering what you think of its relation is to the First things First philosophy that came out in the mid 90s by Covey et al.?

    Covey had some great ideas. He recognized that having a philosophy to your life was key. I think this is being rediscovered.

  17. Busy Signals says:

    @Nathan: Interestingly, FranklinCovey themselves seem to be thinking about FTF more lately. Their new workshop, The 5 Choices, has a lot of very modern research and information-overload content, but seems to re-emphasize FTF concepts (roles, goals, big rocks, weekly planning) and de-emphasizing the Franklin-style planning models (daily planning, values, priority-coded lists, etc.).

  18. Pingback: Doing vs. Planning
  19. Courtney Leeds says:

    Nathan made an astute observation when he mentioned the similarity to Covey’s work. I love Covey but, I especially love one of his mentors, Peter Drucker. This post seems to be a short history of how the self-improvement blogosphere came to the realization of Drucker’s distinction between efficiency and effectiveness.

    I think more important than September 8, 2008 would have to be 1967, the year Drucker published “The Effective Executive.”

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