On the Source of Our Drive to Get Things Done

In a recent essay for the New Yorker, I take a closer look at the growing popular dissatisfaction with the concept of “productivity,” a trend I underscore, in part, by citing some of the comments from readers of this newsletter.

In my piece, I focus on the precise economic definition of this term, which measures the output produced from a fixed amount of input. I argue that many knowledge workers resent the fact that the responsibility for maximizing this notion of productivity has been put solely on their shoulders. In the context of office work, I claim, the decision to make productivity personal has been largely negative.

There is, however, another definition of this term that I didn’t discuss in my New Yorker piece, but which is also worth investigating: its colloquial interpretation as a tendency toward activity and measurable accomplishment.

I increasingly encounter a strain of critique that dismisses this interpretation as an example of false class consciousness, arguing that we strive toward arbitrary fitness goals, or feel compelled to carefully document a dinner on Instagram, or race to finish reading the latest hot novel, because we’ve internalized a culture of production designed to ultimately help the capitalists exploit our labor. Or something like that.

Here I think reality is way more interesting and complex. Consider, for example, a paper published earlier this month in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, written by Marissa Sharif, Cassie Mogliner and Hal Hershfiled, and titled: “Having Too Little or Too Much Time is Linked to Lower Subjective Well-Being.”

This paper reports on the analysis of two large-scale time use data sets spanning over 35,000 Americans, and find that while it’s true, as expected, that having too little discretionary time lowers subjective well-being, the same unhappiness is also shown for having too much.

As the authors write:

“Having an abundance of discretionary time is sometimes even linked to lower subjective well-being because of a lacking sense of productivity. In such cases, the negative effect of having too much discretionary time can be attenuated when people spend this time on productive activities.”

Contrary to the critical assumption that the drive to produce is primarily culturally mediated, these results hint at something that many feel intuitively: there’s something deeply human, and therefore deeply satisfying, about succeeding in making one’s intentions manifest concretely in the world.

At the same time, of course, we also feel intuitively that when we subvert this drive by putting onto our proverbial plates more than we can possibly conceive of accomplishing, the resulting sense of overload leaves us deeply unhappy.

The allure of productivity is therefore a complex one. We cannot dismiss it as the result of the evil master plan of mustache twirling capitalists. We also cannot embrace it as an unalloyed good. It’s a human drive tangled with the contradictory imperatives of culture.

Which is all to say, our relationship to productivity is a topic that certainly requires some more careful examination.


(It’s here that I should probably mention that we’ve been attempting some form of this examination in recent episodes of my podcast, Deep Questions. If you don’t already subscribe to this show, you should!)

16 thoughts on “On the Source of Our Drive to Get Things Done”

  1. “as an example of false class consciousness, […] because we’ve internalized a culture of production designed to ultimately help the capitalists exploit our labor.”

    Why, oh why, does the a theory which has profound theoretical inadequacies *and* has had a demonstrably disastrous real-world impact continue to hold way among westerners?

    Marxism has some truth to it for sure, but then so does flat-earthism (there is an earth, and it is in fact generally round in two dimensions). You just can’t successfully iterate on a philosophical anthropology with as many holes as Marxism and its descendants (neo-Marxism, Critical Theory, etc. etc. etc.) have.

    Thanks, Cal, for pushing your readers & listeners to look deeper, without going on a rant like I just did. 😉

  2. I have long believed that although we can “have it all” at some point or other, we absolutely cannot and do not “have it all at once, all the time”. We go through life alternating between having too much of “it” – time in this instance – and too little of it.

    As a young, single woman in a new town in the pre Internet age (1980s – I am that old). I had way.too.much.time. Worked ended at 5:00. That left a lot of hours until it started again the next morning. I did indeed enjoy the productive and belonging feeling that I got at work, coding in the ancient languages of the mainframe. But after work? No Internet, no smart phones, no meetup, no dating apps. The evenings and weekends were, frankly, empty and a little painful.

    A few years later, as a working parent, I’d have given almost anything for an hour. Or two. Please?

    Then, when I had my own business, and I took on more than I could accomplish, time became a burden. With every hour came more tasks than bandwidth. Time was pain.

    It has not all been bad. Throughout my working life there have been several runs of years or months where I have been in the ‘sweet spot’. A feeling of job well done, and to do lost ticked off at the end of the work day. A commute to transition, and a good home life. Maybe for 30% of my working years?

  3. Jordan Peterson frequently mentions the neuroscience concept that (roughly) “positive emotion is created when you make progress towards meaningful goals.” Too much time would indicate not enough meaningful goals. Too little time probably indicates either goals not clear enough that you allow suitable time for rest and recovery, or spinning wheels on goals you are not making progress on. (For example someone else’s goals that are poorly defined.) (Rule VII in Beyond Order “Work as hard as you possibly can on at least one thing and see what happens” touches on it a bit. Any YouTube video found by “Jordan Peterson Anxiety” (or Goals) will also cover it.)

    • Great point Kurt, I was about to mention Peterson’ work in this area. A lot of the existential angst people express around productivity seems more about lack of meaningful goals (and/or discipline to pursue them) in their own life being projected onto higher-level abstractions (economic systems, society etc.)

  4. I am glad to see you considering some of these broader ideas, but I think that there are some mistakes in the framework you present.

    The article you cite is not helpful, because the sample studied is exactly the one that would have internalized the ideas of productivity that are tightly tied to capitalism (i.e., the American labour force). The article is, at best, about the relationship between well-being and productivity in a capitalist culture, and I would not draw universalist arguments about “deeply human” drives from it. I think you might be much better served by considering other examples like reverse-strikes, in which workers go out of their way to work (for free) in order to improve public services like roads (this happened, e.g., in 50s and 60s Italy).

    I also think we should be more mindful of comments like “evil master plan of mustache twirling capitalists”. It’s a naive, bombastic statement that reveals the lack of nuance in this argument.

    Critiques of the relationship between productivity and meaning in capitalist economies are not about evil capitalists having some world conquering plan. Capitalism (like any system that endures) reaches an equilibrium in which it’s tendencies become normalized, seen as universal and ideological. Marx’s critique, for example, was not anti-productivity (even a casual read of his formulas shows this – labour is what increases value, and value is fundamentally defined through amount of labour). It is about who benefits from that labour. Academics and most other knowledge producers are actually poorly positioned to understand this because most of our labour’s value is kept by us — we use the output to publish papers in our names, use this to get grants and publications and citations and recognition, etc. Very little of our value produced goes to others without it being tied to us.

    Ultimately, my read of the critique of productivity and meaning in capitalism *not* to be that work should be abolished, or that it carries no meaning, or that it leads to no benefit to the worker. Instead, it is that the ideology of capitalism requires workers to turn an ever-increasing amount of labour into value at ever decreasing monetary returns for them and increasing for the capitalists. As a result, capitalism erodes the relationship between work and meaning. If we care about productivity and well-being and truly believe that there is a universal relationship there, then the question becomes not how can we be more productive, but how can we make sure that the productivity we are generating is meaningful to us as workers within a system where we get appropriate returns for the value we generate. And some (many?) of us think that this is impossible under capitalism, and that efforts to increase our productivity without first putting in the collective work to overhaul the system within which we work are wasteful.

    • Very good comment. The desire to achieve goals and for recognition are universal, but good luck finding that at many capitalist workplaces.

      I’m also skeptical that there are individual solutions to the ruinous effects of over-competition in a zero sum game – but there may be marginal gains to be had.

    • Excellent comment — thanks. I think there is a great potential for a fruitful conversation between critiques of capitalism/productivity and the ideas Cal has focused on re: deep work/deep life, but it seems like his engagement with the former is always just a little off.

  5. By impression of reading your post, and the linked paper is that the notion of “productive” or “productivity” might be too vague to be really useful. For example, in Study 4 in the paper the authors describe productive time as “his use of time would feel useful, accomplished, fulfilling, helpful, purposeful, and/or worthwhile”. It’s easy to come up with examples of things that would be “productive” under this definition for the person reporting, but not to their employer: writing letters to friends and families, hosting a podcast, writing a blog. Conversely, there may be things you need to do to earn a living that do not feel fulfilling, helpful or purposeful to you. Maybe instead of a blanket term like “productivity” we should be more precise about what it is we’re actually talking about?

  6. It’s such a shame to see this paper discussed here. A short brief reading reveals two fundamental problems with the study, even if it is peer reviewed in a high ranking journal. First – the way discretionary time was measured was by asking participants about – “how many hours [minutes] do you spend on your own free-time activities?”. Additionally – life satisfaction was mesured as a repeated evaluation of “how do you feel about your life these days”. These measurements alone make the conlusions ofthe paper highly questionable.

    Furthermore, the statistical worth of the findings is nill. Despite such a large sample size and multiple additional variables, the authors’ model predicts only 0.3% of the variance. This is simply noise at best – and impossible to achieve any significant inference from the findings.

    While the discussions on motivation and purpose are significant I wouldn’t relly so much on the above quoted paper as any form of evidence.

    • “Despite such a large sample size and multiple additional variables, the authors’ model predicts only 0.3% of the variance.”

      This makes a certain amount of sense. We all have different needs. I’ve always needed a fair amount of “down time”, while my wife considers time not working to be wasted and tries to fill every minute of her days. I’ve seen people on all ends of the spectrum. Even what constitutes “down time” varies from person to person and from day to day. Some days I want to sit and read a book; some days I want to do yard work. It just depends.

      Part of the issue with studies like this is that we have adopted an engineering approach to lifestyles. We’ve accepted that there’s one solution that fits everyone, and try to push everyone into that mold. Any advocates of “optimization” are guilty of this. This is the other side of the coin: because a certain amount of free time works best for SOME people (at statistically insignificant levels), we therefore should shoot for that.

      There’s also the definition of “free-time activities”. Studies of how much work was conducted by people in various times are notorious for messing with this. The term is so broad that ultimately the definition depends on the preferred conclusion of the researcher.

      What we should do is acknowledge that everyone’s different, and focus on what works best for us. What works for 99% of the planet is irrelevant to us, except as a tentative guide; we need to figure out what our own best situation is.

      • If anything, a more meaningful study that takes into account different people’s differing need for free time would be a longitudinal study. Over the course of a few years, keep track of how much free time fluctuates, and how it correlated to said individual’s well-being.

  7. This is a highly insightful exploration of our nuanced relationship with productivity. I agree with your assessment that the demand to constantly maximize productivity can be stressful for many knowledge workers, and it’s evident that this ‘always-on’ culture can lead to burnout. It’s also fascinating to think about the subjective well-being associated with our perception of ‘productive’ time.

    The distinction you’ve made between economic and colloquial interpretations of productivity is particularly valuable, because it provides a more comprehensive understanding of the concept. It seems there’s a balance to be struck between being productive, which gives a sense of accomplishment, and not overloading ourselves with more tasks than we can handle.

    It also makes me wonder about the role of qualitative aspects of productivity that we don’t measure traditionally, such as the satisfaction derived from creating something or the joy of learning something new. Perhaps part of the dissatisfaction comes from a limited view of what productivity means and what it encompasses.

    Your essay has provoked some interesting questions. How can we redefine productivity in a way that serves our mental health and personal fulfillment rather than solely economic output? How can we incorporate leisure and rest into our understanding of a ‘productive’ day? This is indeed a topic deserving of further examination.


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