We’re in a productivity crisis, according to 52 years of data. Things could get really bad.
“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
I spent over 500 hours researching and writing this article. Those 500 hours were spent reading through dozens of books/studies in 10+ fields (history, economics, technology, philosophy of science, manufacturing, management, sociology, investing, innovation). I spent so much time because the topic was both much more interesting and complicated than I originally thought. And, as is the case with all of my writing on Medium, I use the blockbuster philosophy. This means I don't click publish unless I think it is one of the best articles that has been written on the topic.
As a result of going through the research process, I will never think about productivity in the same way. What I learned blew my mind over and over, and I hope it does the same for you as the reader.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. The “Great Boom” was supposed to last.
From 1870–1970, there was an incredible 50x increase in the productivity of the average manual worker. Let me break that down so it really lands for you like it did for me:
- 50x Increase: Imagine getting 50 hours of work done in one hour. Or imagine doing the work of 5o people by yourself.
- On Average: We’re not just talking about a 50x increase for the most ambitious, smartest manual workers. We’re talking about all manual workers.
To put the profundity in context, the “Great Boom” is one of the most amazing and under-appreciated events in economic history. The chart below captures its magnitude and uniqueness:
To more deeply appreciate this shift, consider the following:
- This is a unique event in all of history. “Modern humans first emerged about 100,000 years ago. For the next 99,800 years or so, nothing happened… Then — just a couple of hundred years ago — people started getting richer. And richer and richer still,” states Economist Steven Landsburg.
- Before it happened, the average American lived on about a dollar a day (in today’s dollars). “Before 1750, almost nowhere in the world were living standards something that we would call anything but miserable and poor,”according to economic historian Joel Mokyr. Economist Steven Landsburg adds, “Almost everyone lived on the modern equivalent of $400 to $600 a year, just above the subsistence level.”
- Before it happened, day-to-day life was brutal. “In 1870, farm and urban working-class family members [in the United States] bathed in a large tub in the kitchen, often the only heated room in the home, after carrying cold water in pails from the outside and warming it over the open-hearth fireplace,” according to economic historian Robert Gordon.
Bottom line: The people alive between 1870–1970 experienced unprecedented change. Now, imagine being an adult in 1970. Think about how you’d see the world…
Looking Back From 1970, You See A Wondrous Productivity And Lifestyle Boom
Below are a few examples of the changes and their implications. Of particular note are:
- The shortening of the workweek from 68 hours to 40 hours.
- The removal of child labor
- Wondrous technologies in the most important parts of life
- 100x increase in worker safety
#1: Shortening of the workweek from 68 hours to 40 hours
This means parents could be home with their children more, spend more time with friends, and spend more time on their mental and physical health.
#2: Removal of child labor
Many children started work at 4 years old and worked 12-hour days doing intricate work that benefitted from having small hands or dangerous work that required working in small places adults couldn’t reach. Around the same time that children were removed from factories, they were put in schools. As a result of this shift and an explosion of free public education, illiteracy went down 20x while school enrollment doubled. As a result, the seeds were planted for an educated workforce and society.
#3: Wondrous technologies in the most important parts of life
We see inventions like cars, elevators, automobiles, plumbing, heating/cooling, penicillin, and electricity. Collectively, these make life more safe, mobile, comfortable, and urban.
#4: 100x increase in worker safety
Worker safety means things like protection from accidents, disease, pollution, fires, etc. along with protections in the case of injury. As an example of the extreme shift that happened, 19th century US Steel workers had a one in seven chance of being killed before 50 and a one in three chance of being disabled, according to economic historian Brad Delong.
In addition, people started receiving benefits like health care, paid vacations, social security, and disability protection. This gave people a new level of safety knowing that they would be taken care of rather than their life being destroyed forever if something went wrong.
With these huge gains, it was no wonder that…
Looking Forward From 1970 You Could Envision Utopia
Given the massive change between 1870–1970, looking forward from 1970, you could confidently see the potential for another 50x boom because of the computer revolution and digital knowledge work.
The promise was that what machines were for our bodies, computers would be for our brains… except on steroids. Furthermore, rather than sending products/services around the world on planes and ships, we could send bits across the world instantly at zero cost.
The shift to digital knowledge work made it possible to imagine a knowledge work revolution that could eclipse the manual worker productivity revolution:
- 30-Hour work weeks with work being voluntary for many
- Freedom over what, when, where, how, and with whom you work
- Passion-fueled work that is creative and curiosity-filled
- Meaningful work that connects us to other humans and purpose
- Amazing technologies like living forever, all-powerful artificial intelligence, flying cars, etc
For example, in 1970, MIT AI pioneer Marvin Minsky predicted in Life Magazine that:
“In from three to eight years we will have a machine with the general intelligence of an average human being.”
Not only that, in 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt supported and the Senate passed a 30-hour work week bill. Though, it ultimately fell through. In 1956, Richard Nixon predicted a 32-hour workweek in the “not too distant future.”
In other words, if you were prone to optimism and living in 1970, you could imagine a work utopia in the 21st century.
But something odd happened…
Bizarrely, In 1970, Lots Of Things Started Going Downhill
“The simple claim that in modernity ‘everything goes faster and faster’… is transparently false.”
— Sociologist Hartmut Rosa in Social Acceleration
At the exact point you’d expect things to go from good to great, bad things started happening.
For starters, the productivity growth rate decreased significantly (known as the productivity paradox):
This phenomenon happened worldwide — not just in the United States. The following chart of GDP per hour (output per hour) growth captures the global phenomenon more precisely…
At the same time that productivity overall was increasing (even if the growth rate dropped), most of the productivity gains went to the top earners while the middle class stagnated. This is known as the Great Decoupling…
This stagnation is a big deal. When you stop believing that your kids will have a better life than you, you stop believing in the “American dream.” And according to a 2022 survey of 1,300+ people in 19 countries, 70% of survey respondents believe their children would be worse off financially — a significant increase compared to previous years.
Other examples of stagnation include:
- The price of energy is stagnant rather than decreasing.
- Transportation isn’t moving faster than decades ago (ie, cars & planes).
- Biotech innovation is ⅓ the rate compared to 20 years ago.
- Healthcare and education costs are increasing significantly without a commensurate increase in results.
- The average lifespan in developed countries is stalling.
- Agricultural innovation has decreased significantly for the first time in nearly a century.
- Large construction projects are more expensive and take much longer.
- And much more.
These before-and-after pictures of the physical world further capture what hasn’t changed in ways that words can’t:
In fact, the list of things going haywire in the early 1970s until now is so large and odd that there is an entire research-based, well-known site devoted to it called WTF Happened In 1971?.
To summarize: We have this unprecedented 50x rise in manual work productivity between 1870 and 1970. Then, at the exact time you’d expect things to have another 50x boost because of the computer revolution, things start slowing down.
The big implication: Ultimately, the productivity paradox points to a gaping hole in our general understanding of one of humanity’s greatest achievements — The Great Boom between 1870–1970. And, it’s more important than ever that we fill that hole now if we want it to dramatically improve everyone’s lifestyle and well-being in the future. Because, if we don’t, things could go from not good to plain bad…
The Productivity Paradox May Be The Most Important Societal Problem We Face
“The only way to raise living standards over the long term is to raise productivity.” — Ray Dalio
The Productivity Paradox is not an idle curiosity.
It’s life-changing and relevant for all of us. It impacts our lifestyles, careers, government, society, and economy at fundamental levels. Even if we don’t realize it, the effects of the productivity paradox already touch our lives in many ways…
For example, if societal and individual productivity growth continues to plateau or decline, it could mean war, generational lifestyle stagnation, our currency going to zero over time, the rise of communism, environmental catastrophe, and stalling of innovation.
Unfortunately, these aren’t wild predictions. They are extrapolations of what’s already happening now and backed up by history. This is not the first productivity paradox ever, so we don’t have to completely guess what the implications might be.
Let me expand on each potential future to let the severity sink in…
- War. Less productivity means a smaller pie for everyone to split. Escalating tension between the haves and have nots could devolve into conflicts (civil war, coup, etc). Famous investor and student of history Ray Dalio summarizes the situation: “When wealth and values gaps are large and there is an economic downturn, it is likely that there will be a lot of conflict about how to divide the pie.”
- Currency That Goes To Zero. Government debt will continue to skyrocket (less productivity creates less tax revenue). And if history is a teacher, governments will print more and more money to pay off that debt, which will cause more and more inflation, which devalues the currency. In a surprisingly extreme prediction, one of the world’s most successful and oldest (nearly 100 years old) investors Charlie Munger predicts (40 seconds into this video) that the US currency will go to zero in the next 100 years and shares many historical precedents of where extreme inflation led to the demise of democracies.
- Rise Of Communism. In difficult times, there is a backlash against capitalism and democracy and a rise in socialism. In a fascinating clip on the Lex Fridman podcast, Harvard-trained economist Richard Wolff shares the surprising stat that there was a huge rise of the Communist party. In other words, the more growth stalls, the more people there are calling for revolution, not just reform. In fact, one of the great management researchers of all time Peter Drucker argues that the prosperity from the manual work productivity revolution was the reason that the United States did not become Communist during the Great Depression.
- Environmental Catastrophe. The way we use resources to create energy is already unsustainable. Pollution will eventually destroy our world if we don’t learn how to create more energy and goods with dramatically fewer resources.
None of these futures are guaranteed to happen. But they are serious scenarios discussed by many of the smartest people in the world, and that alone is concerning.
Bottom line: This state of affairs is not sustainable. The consequences are predictable based on history. And those consequences have been already playing out and could get much worse.
There comes a point at which one has to declare a state of urgency, if not emergency. And that moment is now.
The productivity growth rate is a fundamental input that impacts lots of other things we care deeply about.
The productivity paradox is arguably the most important puzzle that will determine the future of our society and our careers. We are on a purgatory between hell and heaven. Hell of escalating conflict and stagnation. Heaven of a work utopia.
Given the importance of productivity, you would expect a few things to happen:
- It would be the headline of every major newspaper.
- World leaders would be constantly talking about it.
- Knowledge workers and companies would go all out increasing productivity.
Yet, not only is productivity growth rate not talked about, there is a huge backlash against it…
Inside The Productivity Backlash
At first, I thought the idea of a backlash against productivity was ridiculous. I wondered, how can someone be against the idea of getting more of what they want with less cost? But, as I read books and articles that I actually disagreed with at first, I became aware of the compelling points I could not ignore. I realized that I had only been looking at productivity through my own lens rather than empathizing with other people’s lived experience.
Below is a summary of the core reasons there is a backlash against productivity:
- More productivity doesn’t mean less work for employees. Workers feel pressured to work harder even as they become more efficient.
- Workers aren’t receiving the gains from their increased productivity. The gains in productivity are not redistributed to workers in a way they feel is fair.
- Hustle culture isn’t appealing. Many people aren’t excited about making every work moment more productive and filling every free moment with more work.
- As tasks are systematized, they can become boring and mechanical. Extreme specialization may be more efficient, but it can lead to simple repetitive work that is boring. Many associate productivity with being overly structured or mechanical. For example, one person I talked to for this article said that one of his bosses once said to him, “When you walk in the door, I only want everything below your neck.”
- Many are jaded by failed productivity experiments. Many productivity experiments fail and even make things worse or more frustrating (ie — lifeless call center agents reading empty scripts).
- Increased overall productivity has directly hurt certain groups. Rapid changes in society because of productivity growth inevitably disadvantage people who live in certain regions, who work in specific industries and professions, or who come from certain cultures. For example, outsourcing America’s manufacturing turned many company towns into ghost towns that now suffer from brain drain, falling property prices, poverty, and addiction.
While there are many signs of productivity backlash, below are some of the most apparent examples.
For one, there is now a whole genre of anti-productivity bestsellers…
For example, in Four Thousand Weeks, author Oliver Burkeman argues:
The modern discipline known as time management — like its hipper cousin, productivity — is a depressingly narrow-minded affair, focused on how to crank through as many work tasks as possible, or on devising the perfect morning routine, or on cooking all your dinners for the week in one big batch on Sundays.
We can also see the tension between pro-productivity and anti-productivity culture in these two opposing memes about the same incredibly destabilizing event of Covid:
For many, productivity culture is a tool that the ruling class uses in the context of capitalism to get as much work out of workers as possible.
For example, How Millennials Became The Burnout Generation, which was read over six million times, makes the case that capitalism is the root cause:
Until or in lieu of a revolutionary overthrow of the capitalist system, how can we hope to lessen or prevent — instead of just temporarily stanch — burnout? Change might come from legislation, or collective action, or continued feminist advocacy, but it’s folly to imagine it will come from companies themselves. Our capacity to burn out and keep working is our greatest value.
The late anthropologist David Graeber, author of Bullshit Jobs, which also started out as an article with millions of views puts the blame on the ruling class:
The answer clearly isn’t economic: it’s moral and political. The ruling class has figured out that a happy and productive population with free time on their hands is a mortal danger. (Think of what started to happen when this even began to be approximated in the sixties.) And, on the other hand, the feeling that work is a moral value in itself, and that anyone not willing to submit themselves to some kind of intense work discipline for most of their waking hours deserves nothing, is extraordinarily convenient for them.
Finally, this viral tweet below from former US Secretary of Labor Robert Reich encapsulates a growing sentiment against wealth. It implies that wealth cannot be achieved by entrepreneurs and innovators who start from nothing and who become more innovative by innovating amazing products and services that customers love:
As I spent more time considering all of this backlash, I felt like I was shifting between two realities. Sometimes I felt like people were unfairly judging productivity. Other times, I wondered, “Wow! Maybe there are enough things wrong about productivity that there is a deeper structural issue culturally or economically that I’ve been too biased to see.” (More on how I ultimately synthesized everything later in the article)
Bottom line: It is now cool to publicly be against getting more of what you value with fewer and fewer resources. For many, productivity has become a bad word from bad people (wealthy people) from a bad system (capitalism).
Not only are we having a backlash against productivity, but the productivity paradox is also almost completely hidden from day-to-day conversation or news…
We Think Productivity Is Skyrocketing At The Same Time It’s Stalling
I was born in 1981. I got my first computer when I was 10 years old — a black & white Mac — in 1991. Growing up, I was always told a narrative of being lucky to be alive during a time of incredible progress. I devoured sci-fi like kids eat candy.
The fundamental tentpole that the progress narrative rested upon was Moore’s Law, which had been true for decades and held the promise to continue for many decades more:
Moore’s Law is the pattern that approximately every 18 months, the price/performance of transistor chips doubles. Given that transistor chips are a core input of the digital world, we can see things getting better every year.
Not once in my first 35 years did I hear that overall productivity might actually be slowing down.
And apparently the same is true for many others. In the process of writing this article, I talked to several tech-savvy, well-informed friends and none of them knew about the slowing productivity growth rate. They thought change was faster than ever.
This gap between the narrative and the actual productivity stats was hard to reconcile at first.
On the one hand, I’d read articles about how AI is changing everything. Then, I’d read an academic study about how productivity growth from AI was invisible in statistics.
It all begged questions that sounded like zen koans — riddles one needs to be enlightened for in order to understand:
- How can things be slowing down when change is speeding up?
- If technology is the root cause of progress, how can technology accelerate at the same time productivity growth is slowing down?
To begin to understand these questions, we must first swallow a difficult truth articulated by PayPal co-founder and investor Peter Thiel:
“The first step is to understand where we are. We’ve spent 40 years wandering in the desert, and we think that it’s an enchanted forest. If we’re to find a way out of this desert and into the future, the first step is to see that we’ve been in a desert.”
— Peter Thiel
Technologist J. Storrs Hall, author of Where Is My Flying Car?, provides important context for why productivity paradox might be invisible — the people who are closest to the technology industry have the most trouble not seeing change:
I was somewhat shielded from the overall trend by virtue of being in computer science, which did in fact grow and increase in its capabilities at the rate the science fiction writers and futurists expected. So it took a while for me to come to the realization that there were a lot of technologies out there that were more like space than computers.
Next, we need to have a deeper understanding of the difference between productivity, productivity growth rate and technological change:
- Productivity. Workers creating goods and services with less labor and resources. It is the ratio of output over input.
- Technological Innovation. While innovations can improve technology, not all technological innovations increase the productivity of knowledge workers. For example, the smartphone is one of the major technological innovations in human history. At the same time, it has a negligible effect on the productivity of most knowledge workers.
- Productivity Growth Rate. Productivity growth rate is a function of how much productivity increases for a certain number of people over a period of time. Therefore, you can have a big technology that increases productivity, but if it only impacts a small group of people or happens over a really long period of time, it may have less of an impact on the productivity growth rate than one might expect.
With these distinctions, we are now poised to understand the most well articulated explainer for why we aren’t seeing a productivity growth rate increase from the computer and Internet revolutions. In his 784-page book, The Rise and Fall of American Growth, economic historian Robert Gordon makes the case that:
- The productivity impact of the shift to Internet-connected computers is much smaller than we think. In fact, We’ve already experienced most of the benefits from it (primarily between 1994–2004).
- The technologies (electricity, combustion engine) that came in the 20th century are much more impactful on our productivity than the computer revolution.
- There were other unique events that boosted productivity, which can only happen once such as women entering the workforce and a large percent of the population receiving formal education.
- The impact of the computer revolution is primarily on information, communication, and entertainment while the 20th century revolutions were much more broad and had a bigger impact on our living standards.
- “The equipment used in office work and the productivity of office employees closely resembles that of a decade ago.” In other words, people are primarily using computers to type up documents, browse the web, edit spreadsheets, send emails, create code, make designs, etc. The hardware and software we need for these activities already exists and is improving incrementally.
- Some incredible technologies can also negatively hurt productivity (at least for awhile). With regards to smartphones, Gordon points out, “Smartphones are used in the office for personal activities.” In other words, smartphones don’t help most knowledge workers be more productive. In fact, they may actually decrease production via tempting distractions we can hide from our employer.
- Finally, Gordon argues that many of the most hyped technologies (AI, self-driving cars, 3D printing, robotics, etc.) won’t impact productivity as much as we think or they will happen over a long enough period of time where we won’t see a big leap in productivity growth rate.
My initial emotional response to Gordon’s work started with incredulity. When I first saw the title, The Rise And Fall Of American Growth, it almost felt like clickbait to me. Given the narrative of constant progress backed up by the dizzying array of new things, the idea that productivity growth rate was slowing seemed silly.
But, as I understood what productivity growth rate actually measured, and I read his thoughts more closely as well as others in the stagnation school, I started to see this school as more and more compelling. Some others that influenced me include:
- Investor and PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel in his talk, We wanted flying cars and we got 140 characters
- Jan Vijg, author of The American Technological Challenge: Stagnation and Decline in the 21st Century
- Researcher Hartmut Rosa, author of Social Acceleration: A New Theory Of Modernity
- J Storrs Hall, author of Where Is My Flying Car?
- Tyler Cowen, author of The Great Stagnation
- Stripe co-founder Patrick Collison and researcher Michael Nielsen, authors of Science Is Getting Less Bang for Its Buck.
- And hundreds of economists writing about the productivity paradox.
For example, I started questioning the idea that we’re on the cusp of huge leaps in artificial intelligence any day despite all of the headlines that we are.
For example, I learned about the first step fallacy from AI pioneer and researcher Melanie Mitchell on the Jim Rutt podcast. In the podcast, Mitchell summarizes her academic paper, Why AI Is Harder Than We Think. Being in the AI field for 40+ years and seeing so many optimistic predictions of AI prove wrong, she wrote the paper as an attempt to understand and explain why. To write the paper, she collected several fallacies that hurt people’s ability to make accurate predictions of the future in AI, and the first one is relevant for any technology. It’s called First Step Fallacy:
If you’ve made what you call the first step towards solving a complicated problem, you’re not necessarily on the path to solving that problem because the path might not be continuous. So I stated this as narrow AI is on a continuum with general AI. That’s the fallacy.
….What Stuart Dreyfus, who was an engineer said, “It’s like assuming that the first monkey who climbed a tree was on the path to going to the moon because the monkey had gotten high in the tree.”
Interestingly, Yann LeCun, one of the most highly-regarded AI researchers in the world applies the same point to Large Language Models (LLMs), the approach that ChatGPT is built on:
In other words, we see AI doing amazing things (AI being the world chess champion / winning Jeopardy) and then we extrapolate all the way to AGI taking over the world in a few years.
Mitchell also talks about the difficulty of understanding how hard problems are in advance of solving them:
“Well, I guess like all of these fallacies, the problem is that we have so little insight into our own intelligence that we don’t know what things are … the things that are easy for us are so invisible to us. We don’t know how hard they are for machines. That’s part of the problem is that we don’t understand our own intelligence well enough to make predictions about how complex machine intelligence is going to be.”
A metaphor for this challenge is thinking about solving technologies as climbing a mountain. When you’re ascending a mountain, all you can see is the peak of the mountain you’re climbing. It feels like if you can just get to the top of it, the problem will be solved. But, the reality is that when you finally get to the peak of the mountain, with your better view, you’ll notice that there is another mountain in the distance for you to scale still. And so you can see how it is impossible to predict how many steps it will take to solve complicated problems where you’re not sure of what’s required to solve the problem.
As a result of persistently under-estimating problems, we think the future will come sooner. We’re smart enough to see and believe that building artificial general intelligence, upgrading the human genome, creating new forms of life, eradicating disease, or living forever are all possible. And we assume that we can do it soon.
In addition, I’ve noticed Paradigm Blindness. We think the current paradigm and rate will go on forever and apply to everything. We often can’t see the limits of the current paradigm until we sufficiently explore it. And, we can’t be sure what the next one will be.
We can see a lot of evidence for these fallacies. For example, in 1965, Nobel laureate and early AI pioneer Herbert Simon predicted that: “Machines will be capable, within twenty years, of doing any work a man can do.” Since then, there have been many waves of AI euphoria and wild predictions. As recently as the end of 2016, Elon Musk predicted that Tesla would have full self-driving by 2017. It’s now 2023, and there isn’t clarity on when it will actually happen.
AI breakthroughs are followed by narratives about how AI is imminent and about to change everything. The reality is that the advance does have a major impact, but its impact is spread over many years or decades thus impacting the productivity growth rate less than we might expect.
To summarize: Increasing our productivity growth rate is more complex than it seems at first. Now, you understand that complexity at a deeper level, you’ll be less trusting about article headlines proclaiming that a new technology is about to change everything as we know it overnight.
Unfortunately, rather than talking about productivity growth rate, it’s not even on the agenda. Rather than mobilization, there is backlash.
So where do we go from here?
To answer this question, let’s take stock of what has been covered in this article so far…
The Productivity Paradox Is The New Silent Spring
- We have a Great Boom between 1870–1970 (depending on where you stop measuring).
- At the exact point you think the productivity growth rate would skyrocket because of the computer revolution, it slows down. This is known as the Productivity Paradox.
- This slowdown has had a huge negative impact on society and has eroded the “American Dream.”
- If we don’t do something about the slowdown, things could get much worse: war, extreme inflation, communism, etc.
- Despite the importance of the Great Boom and Productivity Paradox, there’s a huge backlash against productivity, and the slowdown isn’t even talked about.
In 1962, Rachel Carson wrote the Silent Spring, which, for the first time, brought mass attention to the increasing effects humans were having on the environment. Her book served as a wake-up call that something needed to be done before it was too late. In the 2020s, we need a silent spring for productivity.
Given the backlash against productivity, many people have come to the conclusion that productivity is bad.
But, when you think through the implications, we don’t actually want less productivity as a society. We want more…
- We want energy to be more efficient in order to reduce climate change.
- We want more powerful and smaller supercomputers in our pockets for the same price.
- We want less waste filling up landfills.
- We want the things we buy to cost less while also getting better and faster.
On a personal level, whatever our goal is (meaning, happiness, aliveness, money, impact, connection), we want to get to it faster and easier with all else being equal. For example, given the choice of taking a 15 minute trip somewhere or taking a 4 hour detour, we will always choose the faster approach. Even if our goal is to maximize relaxation, we will take the most efficient path for that, which might be taking the longer, but more scenic route.
Things like bloat, burnout, dehumanization, and inequality aren’t the ultimate result of productivity. They are they result of other failures:
- They are the result of failed productivity experiments.
- They are the result of not redistributing the gains of productivity properly.
- They are the result of approaching productivity myopically rather than holistically.
- They are the result of productivity myths.
But, here’s what’s important to understand…
Failed experiments don’t mean productivity is bad and we should stop experimenting.
The myths about productivity shouldn’t define it.
To improve is fundamentally human.
We have drastically improved manual work productivity in the past using a proven framework, and we can re-use the same framework for knowledge work now.
Before we can redistribute productivity gains, we need to have productivity gains.
At the end of the day, productivity is a scapegoat, and it shouldn’t be. Rather than blaming productivity, we should be celebrating it. Rather than doing less experimentation, we should do more.
Anti-productivity backlash is an accurate acknowledgement of symptoms, but an inaccurate understanding of root causes.
Ultimately, what we really want is a new kind of productivity. We want a kind of productivity that is actually more productive, more inclusive, leaves us time for an uninterrupted personal life, and ultimately feels better — more purpose, more fulfillment, more aliveness, and less hurry.
So the question that arises now is, so what? What can we actually do about this productivity crisis on an individual level?
First, this is societal problem, and there are certainly many solutions that need to be considered at that level. But, I won’t write about it here because:
- This article is already 6,000 words, and I don’t want to make it 10,000. 🙂
- I don’t like writing articles where there isn’t a tangible action that readers can do to make a difference in their world.
- Solving complex societal problems is outside my circle of competence.
Fortunately, there is something we can all do at an individual level to make a big difference in our own productivity, which can then inspire others…
What You Can Do Now: Be Deliberate About Your Own Personal Productivity Growth
Productivity growth doesn’t just happen on its own.
In today’s work world, the implicit focus of most work is execution:
- Identify what work needs to be done
- Get it done
- In a given time frame
- At a certain quality
- With no defects
Execution is about doing the same thing over and over in the right way in the right-time frame and getting the right result. It’s about doing a lot of things right.
There is one problem with execution though. We don’t automatically become more productive just by doing the same thing over and over. Rather, once we become good enough, our performance typically plateaus. In academic circles, this is known as the OK Plateau. For example, think about typing and driving. You do these everyday without thinking about it, but don’t improve at them automatically.
To improve at execution, we need a whole different mindset that is counterintuitive. More specifically, we need an improvement mindset. The improvement mindset is counterintuitive because it’s an inherently inefficient process in the short-term that leads to massive productivity gains in the long-term.
With the improvement mindset, we focus on…
- Trying productivity experiments that may or may not work
- Learning more about best practices that will take a long time to pay off
- Discovering and trying out new tools
- Creating new habits that don’t exist
What’s important to understand is that the execution and improvement mindset are both important, but they’re also completely different. And, progress on them is measured in opposite ways.
For example, someone in the execution paradigm does the right thing over and over. They could get fired if they don’t produce enough or make a mistake. In the improvement paradigm, most of what one does doesn’t pay off. And when it does, it might only do so over years. But, the one thing that does payoff, may pay back all the mistakes and give a 1,000% return.
For example, it might take 50 hours to improve at one execution task by 10% (or 10 minutes per day). But, if you do that task everyday, you will save thousands of hours over your career because of the increased productivity.
The table below highlights many of the differences between the execution mindset and improvement mindset:
In my experience, the one big thing you can do first to develop an improvement mindset is to set aside five hours a week to deliberate learning, reflection, and experimentation. I call this the 5-Hour Rule, and many of the world’s top entrepreneurs, leaders, and innovators follow it religiously throughout their entire career no matter how busy they are. For example:
- Warren Buffett has spent 80% of his time ever since he was a child just reading and thinking.
- While President Obama was in the White House, he still set aside an hour for reading daily.
- Even as he was starting Microsoft, Bill Gates would still read an hour per day even though he got him at midnight on most nights. In addition, throughout his entire career, Gates spent an entire week just reading every year.
Unfortunately, setting aside time to deliberately improve one’s work is hard on multiple levels:
- Most people aren’t paid for learning
- It often takes away from execution time
- It requires a whole new, opposing mindset
- It requires a different way of measuring progress
- It’s almost never urgent
- It can be hard to do alone
As a result, many people procrastinate on deliberately improving their productivity.
For example, I first fell in love with learning when I was 16 years old. I re-invested everything back into books. However, as I got older, I realized I was procrastinating on learning certain topics that were critical, but that were hard for me. I also noticed that I wasn’t as deliberate about applying what I learned to my life. About 15 years ago, I created a whole accountability and support network so my friends and I could help each other learn and grow together. Over that time, I’ve literally done thousands of these calls.
More recently, I decided to make the structure public…
Resource For Deliberate Improvement
From April 3–April 28, I’m doing a month-long improvement challenge called Month To Master. During the month you:
- Select one micro-topic to learn (in a sea of information overwhelm).
- Build a curriculum to help you rapidly learn the micro-topic.
- Share what you learn each day on a co-learning call, in order to deepen your learning, connect with others learning the same thing, and build your audience.
- Reflect on how you could improve your learning process.
- Publicly share what you learn on social media so you can build a following and demonstrate your expertise.
This article was written with love and care using the blockbuster mental model. If you’re interested in creating your own blockbuster article, I have a year-long, in-depth training program that I personally lead. To learn more, fill out this application form.
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