We live in a world of empty slogans and meaningless mantras. But, of all the empty phrases in our culture, none are as damaging as productivity.
Productivity sounds nice. It sounds technical, efficient, and powerful. Most of us have bought into the idea that to be successful you have to be productive. You probably end most of your days looking at your to-do list and scolding yourself for being so unproductive.
Productivity used to be a term of art in the discipline of economics. Now, it is a multi-billion-dollar cash cow for the self-help industry. What does productivity mean?
The most common answer is the equally vapid phrase, “getting shit done.” But what shit are you getting done?
In the knowledge economy, productivity is meaningless. It is a leftover from the first industrial revolution. It might have mattered how many widgets you could crank out on the assembly line in 1950. But measuring the amount of thought you put into an article, design, or line of code is impossible. Productivity is an unmoored metric in the knowledge economy. It doesn’t measure anything worth tracking.
Productivity in Economics
In economics, productivity is the ratio between the output volume and the input volumes. It is a measure of efficiency. Economists look at productivity to see how efficiently countries and corporations are using capital and labor. In economic terms, the more productive you are, the more value you can create for the economy.
Productivity only makes sense as a ratio. The problem is that it has become increasingly difficult in the knowledge economy to measure the inputs that go into creating an output. Traditionally, economists look at hours worked. Payroll records are the most common way to assess the amount of labor used to create a given product or service.
This works well for most physical products. But it fails miserably with the kind of work lawyers, writers, designers, consultants, coders, and engineers do. If thinking is a major part of your job, traditional measures of…