On modern productivity

Tech Life

An anecdote

Spring 1989, Senior high school, Technical drawing class. Usually we had two consecutive hours on Saturday mornings, but that Saturday both the Math and English language professors were indisposed, so the headmaster asked our Art History & Technical Drawing professor if she was willing to extend her class to four hours. She agreed, and most of my schoolmates were happy, because she was the nicest professor, and her classes were always interesting and fun to attend. Her plan for the unexpected prolonged morning with my class was to split us in five groups of five students each, and give each group drawing-related challenges. One group, for example, had to draw a complex composition, creating all the correct shades and shadows. Another had to choose an object, like a car or a train wagon, and draw it ‘technically’, trying to recreate the blueprints for it. My group was given the photo of a house, and we had to draw its site plan.

I was chipper and excited, both because of the assignment and because the other four in my group were the smartest of the class. When you’re among people you get on well with, people who are bright, intelligent interlocutors, you just know that you’re going to create something valuable, whatever the scope of the task. However, while I got to work at once on the photo of the house, taking measurements and attempting to obtain a reliable scale of the place to start drawing the site plan, my group fellows soon started discussing about the tools. L. remarked to P. how expensive-looking his set of Rotring rapidographs was, and P. started showing L. how the different pens worked, why he thought they were the best on the market, and some techniques to draw perfect lines without ink smudges or irregularities, then S. and C. — both very good at math — exchanged tips to perform a series of calculations with some time-saving shortcuts. It was a pleasure listening to them, believe me, but I was beginning to think that, to complete the task satisfactorily, it was time to, erm, actually get to work on it.

The professor must have read my mind, because she approached our drawing desk, and after listening to what was going on, she made a remark along these lines:

Loving the tools we use is a good thing, because you work better, but they should never steal too much focus from the task at hand.

In other words, learn to love your work/what you do more than the tools you use to get it done.

22 years after

Today, a lot of the stuff I encounter on the Web, many of the personal blogs I read (by designers, developers, tech people and assorted geeks) keep reminding me of that anecdote. I notice what appears to me as sheer self-indulgence and general navel-gazing. I don’t want to single out anyone in particular, because I’m not exactly implying that you’re all talk and no work. Rather, what I seem to find everywhere is an almost fetishist relationship with the tools of the trade — whatever the trade might be. I see long dissertations about what’s the best application for writing to-dos, maniacally detailed and long-winded tips on how to choose the best stand for a laptop or for the iPad, essay-long blog posts on the differences between 12 types of fountain pens, tips on how to rearrange your office space, pamphlets on how to get the most of your day schedule, on which tools to bring with you for the ‘perfect minimal mobile office’, and so on and so forth. Everything’s meticulously ‘geekified’. Lately the phenomenon appears to have expanded, involving podcasts too.

I’m not saying that stuff is completely useless and a waste of bandwidth; on the contrary, when I have time to read it, I’m often utterly fascinated by such… literature, though I can’t but notice that all the authors seem affected by obsessive-compulsive disorder in varying degrees — from barely noticeable to remarkably disquieting. My concern does not regard that material and that trend I’ve just described, per se. That material and that trend, however, are clear signs of the current times. More and more professionals and freelancers today work from their home or mobile office. For someone who doesn’t get up and go to a factory spending 8–9 hours a day in front of assorted pieces of machinery, but instead has a completely flexible schedule and can sit at their computer according to workload, mood of the moment, and other variables involving people, social networks, weather, household chores etc., the whole concept of productivity acquires interesting and unprecedented hues.

We’re all aware — where by ‘we’ I mean professionals and freelancers whose work is generally all done with a computer — that our productivity is constantly challenged and fragmented by all kinds of distractions and interruptions this ‘always on’, ‘always connected’ lifestyle involves. And here lies the vicious circle: to improve our productivity we tend to look for pieces of advice, useful information, usually written by our own peers, to help us out of our own ruts, but all the time we devote to write and read and talk about the tools we use, the processes we employ, the time-saving tricks and whatnot, is a time we’re not using to actually get things done. Self-indulgently we say to ourselves that by reading all that stuff we’ll be able to perfect our organising skills and productivity, so for example we spend a few hours reading blogs about decluttering or explaining why these ten are the ten best to-do applications for the Mac and the iPhone, then we spend more time actually trying various applications to see which one is best for us, only to realise in some cases the harsh truth that was evident from the start: just grab a piece of paper and write the damned list of things to do today and do them one by one, already.

As I said before, this doesn’t mean that all those pieces of advice, tips and applications aren’t useful — I’m just pointing out a trend I’m noticing: a lot of attention and focus given to all kinds of tools which should improve our productivity, and which, almost paradoxically, may end up disrupting or fragmenting our workflow by adding interesting but sometimes unnecessary layers of abstraction.

Guilty as charged

It’s not the first time I say this, but it’s worth another mention, considering the topic. As my time before a computer that’s always connected to the Internet has increased, my creative writing has suffered. The time I used to devote to it has been decreasing dramatically over the years; inspiration has been generally weaker and more intermittent; curiously enough, though, never before have I talked so much about writing, going somewhat against the advice my drawing professor gave to the class twenty years ago — instead of focusing on my writing, on my production, I’ve shifted my attention toward writing in general, writing as a process, writing tools and so on. Again, perhaps not a bad thing in itself, but definitely diverting my energies from the task at hand — e.g. finishing the damn short story. Today the Web and the tools we have to instantly communicate (or should I say broadcast) worldwide are quite powerful, and are a constant invitation to talk about ourselves, what we do, our beloved tools, and so forth. And this is all fine and interesting and fascinating, yet I’m left with the feeling that we’re increasingly losing focus and diluting our productivity.

The Author

Writer. Translator. Mac consultant. Enthusiast photographer. • If you like what I write, please consider supporting my writing by purchasing my short stories, Minigrooves or by making a donation. Thank you!