The threat to knowledge workers is not AI or automation. It’s their horrifying lack of productivity

Michael Simmons
Accelerated Intelligence
17 min readMar 21


Author’s Note: This article is part of a series on productivity that was researched and written over hundreds of hours (yeah, I know, I’m fun at parties) using the blockbuster philosophy. Below are the three other articles in the series:

  1. In 1911, a genius revealed a forgotten science of how to be 50x more productive without working more hours
  2. We’re in a productivity crisis, according to 52 years of data. Things could get really bad.
  3. The Brutal Truth About Life-Changing Opportunities We Overlook Every Day

Now back to your regularly scheduled programming…

As I dive deeper into the history of productivity, the more I see how we are unproductive at being productive. As a result, the GIF below feels more like a brutal truth than a humorous joke.

Most of us probably think we’re the person confidently demonstrating how to use the wheelbarrow.

I hate to break it to you, but that’s not us.

We’re the other guy. We’re hustling. We’re using the latest gadget (ie, a wheelbarrow). We can’t fathom being much more productive — especially when we’re already working our butts off.


Ultimately, there’s a major blindspot that sabotages us and stops us from properly using the metaphorical wheelbarrow. And, it’s not our fault. Until we see that blindspot, our potential is limited.

The Fundamental Productivity Blindspot Explains Why We Overlook So Many Life-Changing Improvement Opportunities Everyday

The Fundamental Productivity Blindspot is a vicious loop where:

  1. We can’t see the immense opportunities for improvement right in front us everyday.
  2. Therefore, we don’t devote much time to deliberate, continuous improvement.
  3. As a result, we don’t improve, which reinforces our initial belief that there’s nothing to improve.

The visual below illustrates the loop…

As a result of the blindspot in contemporary work culture, we get hit by the following five symptoms…

  1. We underestimate our potential to improve.
  2. We overestimate how productive we are day-to-day.
  3. We underestimate how unproductive we are day-to-day.
  4. We underestimate the incredible power of continuous improvement because compounding is hard to understand.
  5. We don’t understand what it means to be deliberate and systematic about improvement, so we settle.

It’s important to understand each symptom to fully grasp the magnitude of the Fundamental Productivity Blindspot…

Symptom 1. We drastically underestimate our potential to improve

In The Brutal Truth About Life-Changing Opportunities We Overlook Every Day, I share example after example of how, throughout history, we overlooked fundamental technologies sitting right in front of us for centuries. And one of the main reasons was that we simply could not see them. This phenomenon counters the conventional wisdom that as soon as some important innovation becomes feasible, somebody develops it.

Symptom 2. We drastically overestimate how productive we are day-to-day

On a day-to-day basis, there are many things that make us think we’re productive even when we’re not:

  • We cross off items on our to do list.
  • We work hard.
  • We feel productive.
  • We compare our productivity to the norms rather than the potential.

As a result of these, we confuse busy work with productive work like the cartoon below:

Symptom 3. We drastically underestimate how unproductive we are

It’s easy for “waste” that destroys our productivity to remain hidden.

For example, according to research shared by Cal Newport in A World Without Email, the average knowledge worker is interrupted every 20 minutes by a notification.

And for each interruption, there is a cost:

  • It takes an estimated 10–15 minutes of recovery time to get back to where we were, if we ever do.
  • We make more mistakes.
  • We lose time for deep focus, which is already very rare.

Yet, these costs are often hidden because they’re short and spread throughout the day. As a result we never see their cumulative cost illustrated by the infographic below:

Image Credit: Hub Spot

Symptom 4. We underestimate the incredible power of continuous improvement because compounding is hard to understand

Understanding both the power of compound interest and the difficulty of getting it is the heart and soul of understanding a lot of things.
Charlie Munger, Warren Buffett’s Long-Time Business Partner

The image below shows the power of small, hidden improvements in an even more tangible way…

On the surface, reading 25 pages a day might not sound like much. But, if we read just 25 pages of books per day, we can read 30–40 books in a year. That’s enough to develop a real expertise in a new area every year. That’s enough to help you do your job better, get a raise, and change the overall trajectory of your life.

Symptom 5. We don’t understand what it means to be deliberate about improvement, so we settle

Many people today proudly proclaim to be lifelong learners. They do so because they love learning and they try to improve whenever they can. They follow smart people on Twitter. They read their trade publication daily. They read a few books per year. And then pat themselves on the back.

However, as I’ve spent more time studying, practicing and teaching learning how to learn along with the history of productivity improvement, it has become more and more clear that what people call lifelong learning is more aptly called hobby learning (and sometimes even junk learning).

For example, I vividly remember experiencing this mismatch between being a hobbyist and a professional first-hand. Growing up, I played tennis competitively. In my high school, I could beat almost everyone with my weak hand. In my state, I was one of the top players, which meant I won most of my matches. But, when I tried to play top nationally ranked opponents, I couldn’t even stay on the court. It was embarrassing. When I eventually got to see the intensity of how they practiced, I understood why. These players often practiced twice per day. They had one-on-one coaching daily. And, they had trainers keeping them fit and helping them avoid injuries. In addition, they exclusively practiced with players at or above their level, which is why I rarely even saw them.

The same phenomenon happens with learning. We over-estimate our ability, because we don’t know what the levels above us look like…

First, very few people consistently set aside significant time for learning. Even fewer set aside time for learning how to learn better.

Second, most people don’t have the core frameworks for improving productivity that have been proven over and over throughout history. More on these frameworks later.

Summary: The Fundamental Productivity Blindspot in contemporary work culture lead to the five symptoms below…

  1. We underestimate our potential to improve.
  2. We overestimate how productive we are day-to-day.
  3. We underestimate how unproductive we are day-to-day.
  4. We underestimate the incredible power of continuous improvement because compounding is hard to understand.
  5. We don’t understand what it means to be deliberate and systematic about improvement, so we settle.

As a result of these, we get stuck in a self-fulling prophecy where:

  1. We don’t see opportunities to improve that are right in front of us.
  2. Therefore, we don’t invest enough time and rigor into improvement.
  3. As a result, we don’t improve.

Implication: The Fundamental Productivity Blindspot has vicious consequences. And, it may be a significant cause of the silent productivity crisis we’ve been in over the last 52 years.

Fortunately, there’s good news… really good news.

Because the bar is so low, I now believe that the average knowledge worker can become 50x more productive over the course of their lifetime if they are deliberate about setting aside time for improvement and improving how they improve.

The reason I believe that 50x is possible now is because I’ve spent hundreds of hours studying the incredible 50x increase in productivity over the 20th century, whose causes many seem to have forgotten. Here’s the history lesson you didn’t know you needed…

History Already Taught Us How To 50x Our Productivity

The most important, and indeed the truly unique, contribution of management in the 20th century was the fifty-fold increase in the productivity of the manual worker in manufacturing.
— Peter Drucker, father of academic discipline of management

Crazy, right?

I remember how floored I was when I first read the quote above. A 50x increase in productivity of the average person felt like a typo. So, I had to learn more…

First, I did a deep dive to understand why productivity boomed between 1870–1970. I thought I’d quickly find out the reason and then write an article on it. About 100 hours later, I published In 1911, a genius revealed a forgotten science of how to be 50x more productive without working more hours. Then, 100 hours turned into hundreds and one article turned into a series.

Throughout the process, I gained a deeper understanding for why the productivity of the average manual worker skyrocketed by 50x. And the ultimate conclusion I came to is perfectly summarized by Peter Drucker:

“In the decade after Frederick Winslow Taylor first looked at work and studied it, the productivity of the manual worker began its unprecedented rise… On this achievement rest all of the economic and social gains of the 20th century.”
— Peter Drucker

To summarize Taylor’s system for improving productivity, he:

  • Broke down each step of the production process into one-minute tasks
  • Studied how these tasks were being done at a granular level (time and movement tracking)
  • Systematically experimented to find the one best way to do those tasks.
  • Standardized the one best way across all workers.

I created the following cheat sheet to give a deep overview (full explanation here):

While this 50x productivity framework sounds basic, it’s deceptively powerful. It’s built on three timeless ideas that have increased productivity for eons — specialization, continuous improvement through experimentation, and standardization:

Timeless Productivity Principle 1: Specialization

Rather than having one person do 30 different tasks throughout the day. Have them focus on one and do it over and over. This simple insight is so powerful, because it means that workers:

  • Need less training
  • Are more focused because of less task switching
  • Get more done
  • Have fewer errors
  • Improve faster

Because of specialization on the assembly line, complicated craft skills that took years of apprenticeship to learn were replaced by unskilled workers who could learn how to do their one-minute task in a few hours and then get in 500+ reps of practice per day.

To consider the specialization’s scale of impact, consider the first page of economist Adam Smith’s magnum opus, The Wealth Of Nations. At a pin factory, just 10 employees are able to produce an astounding 48,000 pins per day as a result of a division of labor, in which each person specializes in part of the process. Smith estimated that if each of these 10 workers did every step of the process themselves, they’d collectively create just 200 pins per day. In other words, specialization boosted their productivity 240x.

Interestingly, the top investor in history, Warren Buffett, also considers specialization (circle of competence in his words) as one of his central mental models for making better investing decisions. He only makes investments in a very small set of companies where he has a comparative advantage in understanding the company’s value. And while we may not be investing billions of dollars like Buffett, we are constantly making decisions about where to invest our time and money.

Bottom line: While many knowledge workers consider themselves specialists, by the standards of the world’s most productive manufacturers, they are hardcore generalists.

Timeless Productivity Principle 2: Continuous Improvement Through Experimentation

If you are going to do kaizen continuously, you’ve got to assume that things are a mess. — Taiichi Ohno, Creator Of Toyota Production System

In order to eliminate waste, you must develop eyes to see waste, and think of how you can eliminate the wastes that you see. — Taiichi Ohno

Rather than settling for informal best practices, Taylor applied his version of the scientific method to continually experiment until he found the one best way. This often meant a several fold increase in productivity for each task… even if the task had been around for ages without improvement.

For example, In 1911, a genius revealed a forgotten science of how to be 50x more productive without working more hours, I share the incredible story of how Taylor was able to 2x the productivity for one of the oldest and most simple trades in the world — shoveling:

In 1898, Taylor was hired by Bethlehem Steel to make its 600 shovelers more productive. So, he endeavored to create a science of shoveling.

First, Taylor questioned basic assumptions: ‘For a first-class shoveler there is a given shovel load at which he will do his biggest day’s work. What is this shovel load? Will a first-class man do more work per day with a shovel load of 5 pounds, 10 pounds, 15 pounds, 20, 25, 30, or 40 pounds?’

Next, he answers these questions with time and motion studies combined with experiments on:

  • Kinds of shovels (they settled on 8–10)
  • Shoveling techniques (testing various distances, weights, and heights)
  • Management systems (Training employees on the scientific method so they can perform experiments. Standardizing the winning experiments into the company processes and culture. Providing bonuses to individuals rather than having a common group wage.)

After much experimentation, he found the optimal shovel load was 21 pounds.

Bottom line: If the productivity of a simple task like shoveling can be 2x’d, imagine the potential for improvement for more complex knowledge work activities.

Timeless Productivity Principle 3: Standardization

“Where there is no standard, there can be no continuous improvement.”
— Taiichi Ohno, Creator Of Toyota Production System

Taiichi Ohno is the Toyota executive most credited with turning the former textile company into the world’s leading automaker. He’s also known as the father of lean production.

One of the most impactful and surprising innovations he made in order to make this incredible feat happen is known as autonomation or the “Stop-Fix” approach.

In short, the Stop-Fix practice worked like this:

  • A standard for quality was set.
  • All of the employees were trained on that standard.
  • If there was a deviation from that standard, any employee had the power to stop the entire assembly line by pulling a cord at their workstation. This was unheard of at the time.
  • Management and employees then collaborated to solve the problem using the five why’s approach, which means asking “Why did this problem occur?” five times or until the root cause was identified.
  • The problem was fixed, and the assembly line would be restarted.

Here’s a simplified visual overview of the approach:

This policy is shocking when you consider how costly it was. A stopped assembly line could back up everything, from parts deliveries into the factory to shipping out finished vehicles. Not only that, all of the employees on the assembly line suddenly had nothing to do until the problem was fixed.

Amazingly, the approach was incredibly effective.

James Womack, author of The Machine That Changed The World, explains the degree of success in his book:

  • At first, the assembly “line stopped all the time”.
  • “Workers became discouraged”.
  • But over time, the “errors began to drop dramatically”.
  • While the line stopped more than a mass-production line at first, it ended up stopping way less.
  • Today, this system has a significantly higher yield.
  • “The amount of rework needed before shipment fell continually.”
  • “The quality of the shipped cars steadily improved.”

Bottom line: Through this counterintuitive, effective Stop-Fix practice, productivity and quality were dramatically improved. And a key to this practice working was having a standard for quality that was tracked and upheld. Most knowledge workers don’t have a standard and never hear any alarm bells even though they are being unproductive.

Side note: Many associate standardization with companies rigidly forcing employees to follow outdated and unnatural standards. But, the following Ohno quote demonstrates how standards don’t need to lead to rigidity in the system:

“There is something called standard work, but standards should be changing constantly… The standard is only a baseline for doing further kaizen [continuous improvement].” — Taiichi Ohno

All Of This Begs One Question…

While these principles of specialization, continuous improvement through experimentation, and standardization have been used for eons, it was during the 20th century that we took these principles toward their logical extremes.

Frederick Taylor was just the starting point. Building upon the success, manufacturers in the 20th century added their own innovations (assembly line, lean, agile, six sigma, total quality management, etc). Over time, the manufacturing industry gained the almost unbelievable ability to create incredibly complex things (ie — smartphones) for billions of people with incredibly low error rates at a surprisingly low cost. I’m still surprised when I get some electronic gizmo for $30 with hundreds of components delivered to my door the day after I click a button on a website. It’s easy to take this for granted.

As I learned more about Taylor’s approach and the productivity movement afterwards, I was left with a simple question that was hard to answer…

Why aren’t we just copying and pasting what worked in the past, applying it to knowledge workers, and calling it a day?

And, I’m not alone in asking this question. Below is a back-and-forth I had on Twitter with Rory Sutherland, bestselling author and vice-chair of the Ogilvy Group, one of the largest advertising agencies in the world:


The Bad News: We Don’t Seem To Be Learning From History

Around 1970, after incredible manual work productivity growth for nearly a century, something peculiar happened.

At the exact moment you’d think that productivity would skyrocket because of computers and the Internet, it stalled. This is known as the Productivity Paradox:

Then something else odd happened. After over a century of incredible results from specialization, experimentation, and standardization, we seemed to let go of many of these principles in the shift to knowledge work. The more I researched, the more I actually felt like we weren’t just standing still, we seemed to be moving backwards when it came to their application. I wondered…

  • Why do we seem to have gone the other direction and become generalists? Why are so many of us knowledge workers bouncing between meetings, messages, dozens of software tools, and the job we were actually hired for? The following survey of how employees in offices spend their time says it all:
  • Why does there seem to be so little experimentation? Why aren’t we rigorously looking at every task a company does and relentlessly improving it?
  • Why are companies investing less in training rather than more? In today’s world of work, most workers are expected to figure out things on their own, which means they build their own productivity system from scratch in their spare time without rigor.

The Big Opportunity

The Productivity Paradox was so serious and puzzling that Peter Drucker issued the following challenge for our generation:

“The most important contribution management needs to make in the 21st century is similarly to increase the productivity of knowledge work and knowledge workers.” — Peter Drucker

Now that I’ve been going down the productivity rabbit hole for a while, I’ve gotta say, I’m feeling pretty good about our chances of tackling Drucker’s challenge.

First off, with big shifts, things often get worse before they get better. It’s no different with knowledge work.

We’re just at the beginning of the biggest migration in human history — the shift to digital knowledge work. And, we’re still in our awkward teenage phase where we try to reinvent everything from scratch rather than look at what’s worked in the past. Soon, we’ll listen to our ancestors a little bit more and then add our own take.

Second, there’s this saying: “A problem well understood is a problem half-solved.”

The more we shine a light on this whole Fundamental Productivity Blindspot thing, the more folks will get all jazzed up about continuously improving knowledge work. At least, that’s my hope, and it’s why I wrote this article.

Finally, we don’t need to become mad scientists and reinvent the wheel.

Specialization, experimentation, standardization have worked for eons. We’re not using it enough for knowledge work. And, we can. It’s like we’re playing poker, and we haven’t played our best hand yet.

To start using these proven practices, we don’t need to spend hundreds of hours rebuilding our productivity system from scratch.

Instead, we can simply use a few simple habits to get momentum and then add more as we go:

  • Specialization: Get clear on your comparative advantage where you do things more easily, at a higher level, and while having more fun than others. Then, ruthless focus on it. The key is that over time you get closer and closer to your comparative advantage bullseye and spend more and more of your day on it.
  • Experimentation: Rather than just having a to do list, have a to improve list. And as you go through your day, try to make one small improvement on each thing you do as you do it. For example, after a meeting, reflect on how you could’ve made the meeting better. After a work session, reflect on how you could’ve increased your energy, reduced distraction, prioritized better, reduced errors, or improved quality.
  • Standardization: Define your standard of quality. Then, make sure everything you ship meets that standard. When an error is identified, stop what you’re doing, identify the error’s root cause, and fix it on the spot.

Making these changes matters…

How 50x Productivity Will Change Your Life And Make A Difference In The World

When we 50x’d the productivity of the average manual worker in the 20th century, the lifestyle of the average person skyrocketed. We went from a world without electricity and plumbing to our modern world with cars, planes, computers, and the Internet.

In addition, the workweek of the average manual worker decreased from 68 hours per week to 38 hours.

If we can 50x our knowledge work productivity and share the gains equitably across society, we can enter into a new golden era. And, the results are predictable:

  • A 30-hour work week or even less could become the norm
  • Higher standard of living for everyone
  • Class warfare will decrease as the pie gets larger
  • Poverty throughout the world can be eliminated
  • And much more we can’t even imagine

When we improve our own productivity drastically, we get promoted and earn more (while sometimes having the option to work less). We no longer have to carry the metaphorical wheelbarrow.

That’s a future worth fighting for.

There’s a famous saying that goes, “Where there is a will, there is a way.” The opposite is also true. We’ve found the way. We just need to find the will.

This article was written with love and care using the blockbuster mental model. If you’re interested in creating your own blockbuster article (from research to ideation to packaging to writing), I have a year-long, in-depth training program that I personally lead. To learn more, fill out this application.

If there’s a link to an Amazon book, it’s an affiliate link, which means I get a small amount of compensation when you buy the book. This compensation does not influence the specific books I recommend, as I only recommend books that I read and love.



Michael Simmons
Accelerated Intelligence

I teach people to learn HOW to learn / Serial entrepreneur / Bestselling author / Contributor: Time, Fortune, and Harvard Business Review