Productivity is a Moral Issue

Productivity is a Moral Issue


I like to feel productive. I like to scratch things off of lists, and to look around my desk at the wasteland of completion and creation that I have wrought. It makes me feel like a Big Man.

I also "enjoy" looking down my nose at people who have trouble with this. I say "enjoy" in quotation marks because although it gives me tiny doses of dopamine reinforcement, that "well at least I'm not like that" (implied: "I hope"), even in the moment I know that this mentality encourages egoistic separation from the people I love and tolerate.

But these petty, unhealthy reasons are not the only reasons why I adhere to the rites of weekly reviews, Todoist, and GCal. Sure, the use of these tools reduces my stress in the face of life-oriented commitments and semi-emergencies, but that still begs the question. Why do I care? Why does doing any of that matter, beyond the shear "thrills" of money, sex, and accomplishment which accompany productivity at some frustratingly oblique and indirect distance?

I could easily just start listing practical incentives, like a job, a life partner, a house whose roof doesn't leak. When we complete tasks that contribute in a tiny way to big "important" deliverables like those, we call those tasks "productive" because there is little immediate feedback on it. Part of the emotional landscape of adulthood is the fact that, in theory, we no longer pursue goals which can be instantly gratified.

We fill this gap in our egos with a new moral status called "being productive"; we declare that it is "good" to be productive, which somewhat incentivizes adults to continue with work that will not only benefit themselves but also others. The engine of civilization runs on this moral energy of people wanting to feel productive.

But if I were to just slap the label "altruism" on these behaviors, it would not ring true. First, it makes us feel too good to be really altruistic. Second, there is that delicious moral superiority which is a necessary factor in the stickiness of this social concept, a feeling that slips close to emotional sadism. But most of all, the "charity" connotations of the word "altruism" do not capture the two-way process that I think is actually at work.

The best reason to be productive, and the reason that we have evolved to value this trait, is so that people trust us.

We have a moral obligation to inspire trust. Some more than others; police officers and doctors treat trustworthiness as a job qualification. But all of us who live in a society necessarily, by definition, rely on other people, and other people rely on us.

The impact of our own personal productivity on the trust in any relationship is directly proportional to the closeness that relationship. To inspire trust in the driver of another car on the interstate, I must be depended upon to be able to complete one or two projects a year and to engage with a few simple ongoing ones: get the car inspected, get my license renewed, know and respect the traffic laws, etc. To inspire trust in my spouse, I must be able to track and complete dozens of tasks and project every day, and to be able to speak intelligently about all of them.

These networks of trust are how civilization gets done, and in order for me to earn my place within it, I need to prove (every day) that if you need me to do something, a) I will recognize whatever explicit or implicit relationship we have with each other, b) I will not forget or otherwise lose track of what you need from me, and c) I will eventually deliver on it.

To some reasonable percentage of success, across all of my relationships. No person or system is perfect. But the more productive that I can be, that is, the more that I can habitually make good on those three bullet points above, the more trust I will engender in my network of relationships and the more that I will strengthen our ability to be more than the sum of our parts.

This whole post is, rather transparently, a way for me to rail from some semblance of moral high-ground against the people on whom I am actively waiting for something right now. Or who seem to always lose my emails, or who never read my meeting agendas. I want them to know that this is not about me wanting them to do my bidding; this is not about power or control. This is about how damaging it is for me not to be able to trust them.

We all know that when we are not trustworthy, we victimize ourselves by injuring the relationships that would otherwise make our lives better. But what many do not realize is that failing to build trust hurts the other person too. Now they are deprived of the benefits of the relationship through no fault of their own. They make a request or ask a question, and then immediately their anxiety starts to rise. Have they already lost my email? How soon should I follow up? How many follow-ups did it take last time? Do they act this way with everyone or just me?

That's why I say that we have a moral obligation to behave in a way that engenders trust in our relationships. It would be nice to live in a world where our own character flaws only impact ourselves, but that is not the case. Check out Todoist; read Getting Things Done; embrace Outlook's categories; do whatever you need to do. There are solutions to these problems. You don't have an excuse anymore.

Everyone is "busy", but some people still manage to cultivate healthy and functional relationships based on trust. So what's your problem?



The Six Categories of Improvised Weapon, or How Categories Can Free You

The Six Categories of Improvised Weapon, or How Categories Can Free You