What’s Wrong With the Way We Measure Productivity

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What’s Wrong With the Way We Measure Productivity

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And how it disproportionately impacts women

Many of us wish we were more productive – so much so that we often feel immensely guilty about not getting more done by the end of the day.

A satirical article in The New Yorker’s Daily Shouts perfectly titled “I Thought I Would Have Accomplished a Lot More Today and Also by the Time I Was Thirty-Five” sums up the feeling of deep inadequacy that can come from not doing enough:

Is it 2 p.m. already? Ugh. I’ve done nothing today. I woke up, stretched, saw that I had six voice mails, ignored them, showered, ate three waffles, and then felt annoyed that I’m thirty-five and still don’t speak French. Wait, hang on. I didn’t shower. That was yesterday.

What we don’t ask enough is, what even counts as “productive”?

On its face, the answer might seem obvious: showing up, checking off tasks, producing outputs. In reality, what constitutes work is harder to pinpoint, especially when it involves things like creative thinking or supporting others, which are hard – if not impossible – to quantify.

But that hasn’t stopped employers from trying to measure it by coming up with increasingly exacting ways to spy on workers, including remote ones. Some use monitoring software, others track keyboard activity. In one case, a company snaps photos of workers at random intervals and penalizes them if they step away to grab coffee or use the restroom.

Obviously, employers have their own, self-interested reasons for wanting to control workers’ time. But part of the guilt trap is in the way we talk about our own productivity, which is either in terms of tasks completed, or hours “on the clock” (even if that just means staring at your inbox or having a company chat room open to appear online).

The “to do” list itself, which we take for granted as the basic building block of productivity, frames our value in terms of our ability to move through life in a linear, systematic way. The more things you can check off, the better.

While the format might be great for simple tasks, not all labor can be jammed into a neat list, and thinking that it needs to can lead us to value quantity over quality, quick completion over thoughtful deliberation.

It can also lead us to discount several highly-valuable forms of labor just because they’re hard to quantify, such as:

Relationship Work: Time spent emotionally supporting others is much more nebulous than building widgets or completing somebody’s taxes. It’s very unclear how long it might take to, say, help a child recover from a tantrum, or even talk a flustered coworker through a problem, yet this is some of the most important work we do.

While it’s well-known that women make up the majority of the workforce in explicit care fields such as child care, elder care, and nursing, even women in senior management positions do more relationship-oriented work.

According to a 2022 report from LeanIn.org and McKinsey & Company, women leaders do more to support employee well-being than men at their same level.

They also do more to foster diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). Despite the fact that this work “dramatically improves retention and employee satisfaction” (thus benefiting a company’s bottom line, since new talent is expensive to recruit and train), it goes unrecognized within most companies.

“Not surprisingly, women leaders are far more likely than men at their level to be burned out,” the report found.

It’s easy to see why relationship-building is undervalued. We don’t often put “listen to my coworker vent” on a task list. But what if doing so is deeply helpful to her, and indirectly helpful to you (because she’ll listen to your problems later, and maybe even open doors for you down the road)?

Thinking Work: It’s easy to see how thinking is important for knowledge workers like researchers, editors, and tech workers. But the desire and need to think critically is central to the human experience for most people, regardless of occupation, and it’s labor we should value, whether or not we can monetize it.

Author and Columbia University instructor Molly McGhee struck a chord with many when she recently said in a tweet:

I told one of my students to go home, stare out a window, and imagine her novel. “Like day dreaming?” she asked.

yes babe. what women call daydreaming men call thinking.

She went on to list synonyms to underscore her belief in the value of unquantifiable mental work:

daydreaming = thinking

imagining = thinking

obsessing over = thinking

fixating on = thinking

using your brain = thinking

pondering = thinking

meditating = thinking

reflecting = thinking

brooding = thinking

being in a reverie = thinking

remembering = thinking

Granted, it may be hard to prove that men feel more justified in daydreaming (though the fact that up until recently, the vast majority of authors, directors, architects, advertising executives, and other creative professionals were men seems evidence enough that at least a good portion of men have considered their thinking work plenty valuable).

Outside of explicitly artistic work, thinking critically and creatively has an important place in many jobs. It could allow you to think more big picture, come up with more effective systems, ponder nuances and social dynamics in order to better negotiate a deal or collaborate with a team. But all of this might feel like wasted time, until it isn’t.

Across gender identity and across all forms of work, we could likely all benefit from expanding our definition of “productivity”.

Fixating less on how many things we can get done, and more on what we care about and value most.

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