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On Steampunk Productivity

The Steampunk Phenomenon 

Steampunk began as a fiction genre that imagines alternative histories in which technology never moves past the steam-driven industrialism of the Victorian Age. It portrays worlds ruled by retro-futuristic inventions, like heavy-geared automata and whirring Babbage-style mechanical computers.

It has since expanded into its own aesthetic, impacting both fashion and design, as well as a thriving community of makers who retrofit 21st century artifacts with the stained woods and brass knobs of the 19th century (c.f., the above picture of a steampunk modem).

One reason steampunk resonates is its intuitive physicality. Our modern world of plastic cases and digital chips is mysterious and sterile. A steampunk contraption, by contrast, is driven by pistons and valves that match our mental schema for how things function in the physical world.

This physicality is appealing (an idea fleshed out thoughtfully in Matthew Crawford’s wonderful manifesto: Shop Class as Soulcraft). Put simply, we’re attracted to things whose function we can concretely grasp.

From Novels to the Office

The reason I’m talking about steampunk is because I think its retro attraction can teach us something about modern productivity.

The standard knowledge work organization, like so many things in our contemporary world, runs in a mysterious and sterile fashion. Messages fly back and forth, comments are annotated to PDFs, Gcal invites flow freely — and somewhere in this digital busyness we march ambiguously toward getting things done.

If you’ll excuse the somewhat strained expansion of this term, the steampunk approach to professional effectiveness would eschew much of this sterile electronic freneticism and instead turn back to systems and artifacts that are more intuitively concrete.

I’m seeing this idea creeping into the world of productivity in the form of physical scrum boards, bullet journals, time blocks in high-quality paper notebooks and ink-marked deep work tallies.

I don’t quite yet understand the full contours of this steampunk productivity movement, but its basic motivation is clear: when we can embody our work in a clear, visual, physical manner, we can accomplish more, and do so with more satisfaction.

The answer to our economy’s distressingly stagnant non-industrial productivity numbers, in other words, might not be faster chat tools and better-featured shared documents, but instead a return to a more analog and hands-on relationship with our work.

25 thoughts on “On Steampunk Productivity”

  1. Cal

    I am a graduate Computer Science student in Germany. I can guess that you are working on workspace productivity and I am really looking forward to it.

    • Bullet journals are cool, but the danger is that they can become an end to themselves (a look at some of the elaborately decorated bullet journals featured on the bullet journal blog provides evidence). It reminds me of one of E.B. White’s essays in which he spent several pages describing all the tasks he needed to do on his coastal farm in Maine, but which he didn’t have time to do because he was too busy writing about them. I’ve made a couple of halfhearted attempts at bullet journaling, but ultimately found it more efficient to simply block off times in a standard day planner and maintaining a to-do list. I’ve read enough testimonials to know that bullet journals can be effective, but I don’t think they’re for everyone.

      • Yeah, I can see how they could become a little too time consuming if you let the process get out of hand. I’ll probably just keep it as something to consider for now: I try to keep my organisational stuff as simple and easy as possible, so I don’t want to over-complicate things.

  2. Excellent post, especially in view of the now well-known connection between handwriting/handwork and enhanced mental function.

    However, even as a devotee of writing things down by hand, I am bemused by the insistence on using a high-quality notebook for time blocks. Ordinary notebooks, obtainable anywhere, will serve the same function. The price of a relatively small stack of Black n’ Red notebooks is equivalent to my hourly rate. I’d rather give that time to enriching experiences than to a collection of prestigious notebooks.

    • Regarding the specific notebooks linked, they’re not disproportionately expensive. They have nicer and more durable paper than standard brand-name notebooks.

      The jump to the high-end from standard notebooks — both in price and quality — is similar to the difference between the standard and “dollar-store” notebooks.

      You generally get what you pay for. For an item you use everyday, quality can make a difference, especially when you consider the following concepts:

      1. making it pleasurable to use as an aid to engaging with your organization tools (as written by David Allen in a book), and
      2. the elevated status of a particular object aiding the focusing one’s attention on making the most of that work (as noted by Mr.Newport’s before, see “My Theory Notebook Routine” in the link below)

      But then sometimes cheap and cheerful material is better because it’s expended more easily and the user is more likely to follow inspiration.

      Different tools for different uses.

    • For whatever reason, the fact that the notebook is more expensive makes me more likely to stick with the plan I write in it…must be some weird cognitive bias that I’m hijacking to productive purposes.

    • I guess the preference for high-quality or standard notebooks is just personal. Using expensive notebooks actually has the opposite effect on me – it makes me feel as if only perfect, wonderful sentences could go into an equally perfect, wonderful notebook, which stops me from writing drafts altogether. Having a cheaper notebook makes my ideas and words run more freely because I’m not blocked in a perfectionist rut.

  3. Your post is timely for me, Cal. I’ve been lately fantasizing about buying tablets to turn them into single-function devices (deleting/disabling all but one app), and adding keyboards so I don’t have to use those infernal touch-screens. My end-goal is to have separate devices that act as, respectively, ‘video player’ and ‘clock’ (clock includes, calendar, alarm clock and radio and podcast-playing functions. The digital alarm clocks on the market have been very disappointing). I’m trying to capture some more intuitiveness and physicality, but I guess I still want it to be programmable.

  4. That’s the thing with physical objects – they (usually) don’t morph into something else right in your hands 🙂

    Could you imagine reaching your hand out to get a piece of paper to write a letter, and pulling instead a bunch of correspondence to sort through?! But that’s exactly what happens when you trying to write an email!

    It’s awesome that our pocket-size devices can be many things – a book (a whole library, actually), newspaper, planner, music player, camera, photo album, navigator, notebook, address book, phone, journal, to-do list, calendar, …

    If only it could stay the *same* thing long enough so as to not hijack our attention, and keep us in our productive flow!

    • I like how you say that things like smartphones “morph” into other things. That really hits the nail on the head for why I hate using smartphones. I usually only intentionally use the phone to text people but then while I have it out I automatically check my email, go online, etc, etc. Then twenty minutes later I think, Wow I just wasted a lot of time. And the same goes for if I’m going to use the phone to quickly look something up. I’ve only had a smartphone for a few months now but I’m probably going to switch back to my flip phone soon. I think I may have ADD and low self control but still I have no idea how so many people have smartphones! Just having one for the past few months has drastically lowered my ability to be productive.

  5. Interesting thoughts….

    I find making things physical–for example writing out a daily to-do list also gives us more realism around our finite time capacity because we’re constrained by the limits of the paper (and our desire to write or re-write items).

    To your brilliance!

  6. I love framing this kind of use as “steampunk.” I track my deep work hours on a piece of paper I pin up by my desk — just a tally mark for each hour, so that at the end of the month I can see which days were most productive (and, for example, learn that if I go over four hours I inevitably lose the corresponding time in the following day or two, so it’s a false economy), and though the chart is partly for motivation, it’s also because I see so much value in something that does just one thing. It can’t, as Misha says above, morph into something else on me. Nor can the paper diary into which I write future to-do tasks, before dismissing them from my mind.

    I work full time as a novelist (Deep Work, incidentally, is being passed around my community of successful, published authors like wildfire), and despite writing science fiction, I haven’t found anything more effective than my steampunk tracking systems.

  7. I agree. As Daniel Levitin and David Allen have shown, systems outside the brain help us to balance the brain’s central executive function with the opposing default mode network. So much of the deep work process is balancing these two brain states to produce high value results — through focussed time blocks and daydreaming periods to surface random new connections. A major effort is also to reduce the noise of our attentional filter that warns our cave dweller brains of danger (I.e., turn off all those email and slack pings). Some people find that visceral, physical objects like notebooks, cards, post its, Kanban boards and pens are so much more satisfying 1) to capture all those random thoughts, and 2) manipulatable so we can then categorize them later for 3) our executive function brain to focus on during deliberate time blocks.

    To all the blog readers: I wanted to recommend the Ezra Klein podcast that Cal did recently, when you want to take a break from your deep work. Thanks!

  8. Can someone please please tell me that when you do the “Quiz and recall”, do you first read and learn the material and then start quizzing yourself?

    I ask because if I ask myself a question and I don’t know a single thing on that whole topic then I can’t answer any of these questions so should I first spend time reading and understanding the material before I ask myself questions?

    Because I have cal’s 2 books (straight A and college) and it says recall WITHOUT looking at the material but if I don’t know a single thing (has happened to me due to procrastination) then isn’t this me wasting time, shouldn’t I first read the notes and understand and work them out before jumping to Q&R?


    Also isn’t quiz and recall basically flashcards in a way?

  9. Those old-fashioned and steampunk tools are great.

    Although I am a fan of “paperless” work, and always use google calendar, evernote and the such…

    I find that when trying to depict new ideas or sketch any kind of image or graphic, starting out with paper always yields the best results.

    To-do lists on paper are also a favourite of mine. I feel that the limited size of the sheet limits the number of itens, and it becomes more reasonable than endless items in a checklist on Trello, for example 😉

  10. I’ve always admired stories with a steampunk on it. I usually daydream about skies filled with airships and steam-powered machinery. This is quite a good read. Thanks for sharing this post.


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