Counter productivity

2021.01.27 by Josh Erb; 702 words.

There is extremely strong social consensus in the tech world around "productivity." You'll often see people post on their blogs about how they are "a bit of a productivity nerd" as they share the latest workflow, tool, or method that has revolutionized the way they work day-to-day. I mean no offense to any of these exuberant bloggers - and if they are truly passionate about this, then who am I to shoot them down? - but every time I stumble on one of these blogs, I feel a bit sad. Because they have completely missed the point.

Here's my few cents: focusing so much on productivity is counter productive.

I feel this way for a few reasons. First, and for what feels like the most self-evident reason, if you spend all of your time reading productivity blogs or onboarding onto the latest to-do list or project management tool, what are you actually accomplishing? I'd be willing to wager cold, hard cash that folks who are single-mindedly focused on improving their productivity don't actually get much done each day outside of researching and evaluating new tools and methods for becoming more productive. Don't get me wrong, I'm guilty of this too. I can't tell you how many times during the work day that I've thought to myself, "This thing I'm currently doing is really inefficient. There's got to be a way for me to fix that." The problem is, the moment I have that thought, the game is over. I almost always catch myself an hour and a half later reading my third or fourth blog on the usefulness of an app I'm going to download, use twice, and then forget about. What I'm saying is that this tendency actively harms my ability to work.

Second, and perhaps a bit less evident on the surface, I think that focusing on productivity is a pernicious way to keep yourself from learning and being creative. In tech, we like to think of ourselves as practical and efficient problem solvers. But we most certainly are not the most practical and efficient problem solvers in our field. Those honorifics are reserved for the machines we program. No engineer can churn through their daily tasks like a machine can. Machines are singularly focused, extremely fast, and they don't need to stop to use the bathroom or grab lunch. My conceit here is simple, because it is impossible for us to be as productive as the machines we program, I believe that the best engineers are those who instead focus their energy on learning well and thinking creatively about what problems to design for the machines to solve.

My point about learning is uncontroversial, I hope, but my emphasis on creativity might be surprising for some. But let me double down, I think that creativity is the most important trait an engineer can have. This comes back to my framing above, that I'll reiterate again: it's the job of the machine to solve problems as quickly as possible; it's the job of the engineer to come up with creative instructions for how the machine might solve these problems. If the engineer is focused on solving problems quickly and not taking the time to think creatively about how the problems might be otherwise understood, then she's always going to feel inadequate compared to the machines she spends all her time with.

And so yeah, it's an uncharacteristic thing for a software engineer to say, but I don't believe that productivity - in the sense that most people have of the word - has very much to do with your competence as an engineer. It's merely an indicator of how fast you are moving. And are there any situations were the speed of an object ever reflect the potential value of an object?

The advice I try to live by? Don't focus on productivity nearly as much as you feel like you should. Taking that pressure off yourself is likely going to make you more productive and give you the space to grow.

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