On Productivity and the Deep Life

Earlier today, a reader and fellow professor sent me an interesting question:

“Everything you write is underpinned by productivity discourse. As I note above, I do embrace your approach to writing and thinking—the need for sustained thinking in quiet (sometimes outdoor) places, its deep pleasures (as well as difficulties), and its contribution to a deep life—but the productivity language is an impediment for me…The pleasure in thinking and doing things well is such a deep-wired human pleasure, if we attend to it, and it feels (to me) diluted when it’s linked to productivity…Short question, then, is: could you promote deep work without linking it to productivity?”

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the connection between productivity and the deep life, so the timing of this question is good (though let me caveat the following answers by underscoring their preliminary status).

Let me start with the positive, the role productivity plays in crafting a meaningful life. I propose two responses. The first is that in many contexts, many shallow tasks — filing forms, pay taxes — cannot be sidestepped. If you can carefully organize these efforts and execute them efficiently, leaving a minimum footprint on your cognitive landscape, you leave more space for more meaningful endeavors. (It’s a cliche in the productivity world that the most organized people tend to have the most relaxing vacations.)

My second response builds on the following point made in the above question: “The pleasure in thinking and doing things well is…deep-wired.” I think this is absolutely true. Thoreau retreated to Walden Pond, in part, to do nothing — to just observe and live deliberately — but he also wrote a first draft of a book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, while in his cabin. He then left the pond to move in with Emerson, where he wrote another book, this one about his experience at the pond, then another soon after, Civil Disobedience. Thoreau found peace observing nature; but his real pleasure was in producing enduring work.

Which is to say that the human instinct to produce meaningful output — to see one’s intentions made concrete in the world (to paraphrase Matt Crawford) — is fundamental. Doing nothing can provide a transient respite to an overtaxed mind, but it’s not a state in which our species can thrive long term (see, for example, Victor Frankl’s powerful work on logotherapy).

These are the two side of the productivity coin: minimizing the shallow and amplifying the meaningful. It’s an objective, in other words, intertwined into the cultivation of a deep life.

This brings me to the negative aspect of the question: the distaste with the term “productivity.” I’ve heard this feedback often, especially in recent years, but almost exclusively from academic or academic-adjacent circles. This is, I think, largely a semantics issue.

Many frameworks in modern academic thought are influenced by labor politics. In this context, “productivity” is stained with an enduring Marxist critique of exploited labor. But when you recontextualize “productivity” from an aggregate industrial metric to an autonomous personal endeavor, its valence radically shifts from exploitation to empowerment. I’m happy, in other words, for some to replace the term “productivity” with a synonym if it makes it more digestible. What matters to me is the underlying importance of our instinct toward getting things done.

26 thoughts on “On Productivity and the Deep Life”

  1. You certainly don’t need to be an academic or academic-adjacent to have developed a distaste for the term “productivity”. Laboring (or being labor-adjacent) is more than enough. In this time of home-office it’s more obvious than ever – my LinkedIn feed (which I unfortunately must check due to my sales role) is full of posts about how important productivity is in these times. The true message behind these posts is clear: ignore your growing sense of existential dread, ignore your children, and produce value for our shareholders – or else!

    • In Drive, Daniel Pink argues that “engagement as a route to mastery is a powerful force in our personal lives. While complying can be an effective strategy for physical survival, it’s a lousy one for personal fulfillment. Living a satisfying life requires more than simply meeting the demands of those in control.”

      With that being said, I think productivity resembles work in autonomy where we’re engaged not forced to do the task.

    • Couldn’t agree more August – the sadly prevailing message at the moment is very much “work as normal”, when our landscape currently is far from normal!

  2. Author Robert Greene has the best term in my opinion: Alive Time.

    Alive Time: the time you spend doing deliberate and meaningful things (ex. reading, writing, exercising, meditating) that improve you and others, the time you feel really aware and alive.

    Dead Time: the time you spend aimlessly, doing things that offer you nothing in return (ex. reading endless twitter comments, checking endless Facebook posts you forget a few minutes later).

    If we replace the term “productivity” with the term “alive time” , we keep the benefits of Deep Life without the annoying term (I am not an academic but even I find the term a bit alienating).

  3. Hi Cal, this is a good piece today. I found myself feeling that the productivity terminology encodes not only getting things done, but doing them at all costs. That’s what bothers me the most about it, at least as I see in the media, books, etc. As if the way that one faces the task it’s only a matter of personal character and makes you feel weak and self-pity when the goals are not met.

  4. Since productivity has been hijacked by discourse on labor, and creativity has been hijacked by artistic creation, how about using “productive creativity”?

  5. Thanks for writing this. It’s an interesting perspective, that I mostly agree with, but I think it also misses some important nuances when it comes to both deep work and “productivity”. I think the tension is not between deep work, shallow work, and doing nothing, but rather between work that produces something, and work that is fulfilling and requires skill and concentration, but doesn’t produce something that’s tangible or easily quantifiable. Case in point: your Thoreau examples are about writing books. But what if he had instead used that time to teach neighborhood children, or care for elderly relatives? What would you call that?

    From an academic perspective: where do you place teaching, mentoring and service? Are they deep work, even though they don’t produce something easily tangible like books and papers? Are they shallow work and should be minimized? That doesn’t feel right. Or are they something else that doesn’t neatly fit into current conceptions of productivity and meaning?

    • Well put! There’s a variety of deep, meaningful work that people can engage in that doesn’t produce measurable output. And while we can argue that those things should fall under the umbrella of “productivity,” at least in theory, in practice, these intangibles have historically been tremendously undervalued (see, for example, the wealth of research on unpaid and underpaid care and domestic labor). Even activities that improve quality, if not quantity, of output are undervalued.

      So I’m not sure one can simply choose to decouple the term “productivity” from its common connotations, not without considerable effort. The fact that productivity==widgets produced is, if anything, clearer during this pandemic as parents fortunate enough to still have jobs are expected to produce similar amounts of work while caring for and educating kids, as if the latter is not in and of itself a sufficient form of productive work.

      That said, I would love to see American culture move away from worshipping the creation of things for money and start incorporating and appreciating things like time spent with family and time spend on oneself for the benefit of oneself (e.g. learning to cook, playing a sport, reading literature–things that are good for the body and soul but cannot be sold in exchange for money). I think that would very much be in line with the deep life without being especially “productive” in the traditional sense.

  6. I’m happy that you touched on this topic. I am a big fan of “Deep Work” and consider it your best book. However, the most powerful critique I have read on the book, on goodreads I think, is that the book’s tone is very capitalistic.

  7. This is a compelling response to a question that has also stayed with me while reading your work. I think we do need another term–I’m just not sure what it might be. One of the problems with productivity is its connection to labor and work. Perhaps we can dare to dream of a world where what we do for this kind of “deep-wired human pleasure” is not connected to the extraction of value from our labor. I recommend THE PROBLEM WITH WORK by Kathi Weeks (Duke UP).

  8. You say Cal that figuring out what matters is a key and I agree.

    I believe that deep within us we have a yardstick to measure our own performance with and what we are measuring changes as we develop.

    At one stage in life it could be productivity while at another it could be beauty. But at our core is our own perception of some sort of elegance (I like to think of it as) that we are striving to achieve.

    I believe if we strive to please this force within we we will achieve our external targets.

  9. It might be that “productivity” language makes the Deep Life (always?) merely a means to an end, rather than being an end unto itself.

    I’m reminded in this context of the classic work (in some circles) “Leisure: the Basis of Culture” by the twentieth century german philosopher Joseph Pieper.

  10. Nice piece.

    I think it also underscores the cross disciplinary ambiguity of the term ‘productivity’.

    It’s not always clear what counts as productive, or when you’re are, or are not being productive.

    If anything, true productivity (esp personal productivity) is probably often best measured in hindsight. This would be especially true for highly abstract creative processes, such as book writing.

  11. Why should productivity have outcomes? results? Isn’t it enough that a life well lived, with meaning, with understanding, curiosity, wich are all part of the same process, makes one feel like we are living life at its fullest potential? Maybe in the midle of this process we stumble against something great. I see a connection between creativity and living a relaxed life. The more i am stressed the less creative i am to solve circumstances, not problems. This thing about productivity is just angst, anxiety in disguesed, fear of incompletude. It is as if when one produces something, we get a kind of relief from the tension, i think it is this relief that people are searching for, not the outcomes per se. But this relief we get it when one lives a life with meaning and creativity, and even one can work for more than 16h a day without feeling overwhelmed. Its just simple and crude joy, why complicate things with theories about this or that, trying to make sense? we want to make sense because we live deluded, this delusion creates anxiety and the need for something, the gist for something, wich is that relief i talked about. In creativity there is no self importance, or the feeling of self importance, its just pure curiosity moving. What is difficult is to acept this kind of controled or sustained chaos, the one da vinci loved. creativity is the embrace of chaos, or better said, the limbo between order and chaos, both go together, just acept it.

  12. In my mind, productivity could be replaced with accomplishment sometimes. For example, spending time wrestling with the mechanics of understanding an organic chemistry mechanism would provide a sense of accomplishment for time spent in deep work without any real output measurement other than (finally!) understanding it.

  13. I think you’re exactly right in your diagnosis: Marxism and associated problematization techniques are widespread in academia. This leads many academics to overweigh structure and undervalue (undermine?) individual agency. The latter is almost anathema to them.

    I‘m a professor too and faced a similar (though much more hostile) reaction a few years ago when I recommended your book Deep Work to a colleague who asked me about navigating the challenges junior faculty face.

    I’ve simply stopped arguing with those who follow the gospel of low-agency, it’s a waste of time.

  14. I am thinking that for many of us, our work life has become so cluttered, as Cal has written about so much. I liken it to the city slicker who decides to go on safari but takes a ridiculous amount of excessive junk and gadgetry, not to mention creature comforts while the bush guide has the minimum and fares much better. We have clogged our work life with so much gadgetry that we cannot even do the thing we are supposed to be doing, much less what we would love to be doing.

  15. I’m glad you wrote about this. I think the term has a few difficulties aside from its “labour” connotations…. although they are a problem. There is a difference somehow between productivity and productive. Productive focusses on the outcome while productivity focusses more on… doing. The focus of society on productivity pushes the focus on doing. Productive focusses on the value (i.e. it was s productive conversation.) Growing up in a household that valued productivity has taught me the value of letting go of that expectation in actually being productive overall.

  16. “Many frameworks in modern academic thought are influenced by labor politics. In this context, “productivity” is stained with an enduring Marxist critique of exploited labor. But when you recontextualize “productivity” from an aggregate industrial metric to an autonomous personal endeavor, its valence radically shifts from exploitation to empowerment” A well crafted sentence!


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