We've been gradually (and now not so gradually) increasing the productivity of our machines since the beginning of the industrial revolution, in 1760. To the point where machines are quickly replacing humans.
And yet productivity advice is big business. YouTubers with millions of subscribers fill my feed and productivity 'experts' sell 100,000s of books and pack out conferences.
But by following their advice, are we optimising the wrong thing?
Their advice teaches us to work like machines and measure our output in units of work done.
Work being of two kinds, in the words of Bertrand Russell, "first, altering the position of matter at or near the earth's surface relatively to other such matter; second, telling other people to do so."
Today, we can replace 'tell other people to do', with - 'tell robots to do'.
Russell wrote that in 1935. We've spent the best part of a century struggling with the concept of using leverage, via machines (code, automation) to do that work for us.
Technology is available now to help us create great work without exerting great energy to achieve it. So why are we obsessed with getting better at productivity, when we should be getting better at working with machines who will always out produce us?
Humans are good at inefficiency, Productivity is for Robots - Kevin Kelly
What should we be doing instead?
Bringing innovative ideas to life and scaling them via code. Being creative and dreaming up new ways to fix problems AI can't comprehend. Being human and connecting with each other to build communities that make change happen. Creating media, ironically, like the productivity YouTubers.
There is no roadmap for this kind of work. Which means the machines can't do it. But most of us are not (yet) doing it either.
Sadly, our schooling brainwashed us to fit in. To be a cog in the machine. To follow the script and wait to get what was promised to us. To favour compliance over mischief. To follow the rules and never challenge the status quo.
But human compliance is now becoming machine compliance.
We're out on our own and there's no map telling us where to go. And that's scary, so we default back to being productive because it's easy to quantify and easy to plan. It's safe. It's less uncertain. And we like that.
And therein lies the danger - anything you can write down and teach someone else to do, a robot will be able to do 100x more efficiently than us.
The dangers of productivity
Productive people get a lot done. But at what cost?
The cost of not having time (or allowing time) to sit and think. To do nothing. To allow serendipity to occur during idle time.
"The bad rap that idleness has is a real problem because idleness is really the time when you solve problems. People say idleness comes close to sloth, which is not true at all. It is from idleness that the best things I've ever done have come." - Ricardo Semler
And what about the opportunity cost of frantically getting better at something that a robot will be better at than you soon - if it isn't already.
If we're obsessing over productivity hacks we're playing the wrong game. We're not working at improving our natural human talents.
To do that we need to get better at operating without goals. Because, in this new world, we don't know where the serendipity of creativity is going to take us.
Please pay attention to what is happening in the world right now. If you measure the work you do now in units of productivity or your job could be done by a robot
It's time we all get comfortable with uncertainty.
Look sharp, the second industrial revolution is coming.