Productivity is Dangerous

Published in December 2017, this article from The Outline is a funny but thought provoking take on productivity and the evils of LinkedIn.

You know who else was productive?

My personal rule is that if you aren’t quite certain that a certain action will be good for you and the world, you shouldn’t do it. Do nothing, which is likely to be pleasant and unlikely to hurt anyone. Few atrocities have been committed by people lying in bed, whereas the urge to Do Something has led to serious catastrophe. Productivity is extremely dangerous.

At every moment, you are hurtling through space at around 70,000 miles per hour, while also rotating along with the rest of the Earth’s surface at a speed of a thousand miles per hour. You’re filling your lungs with air, over and over, and as long as you’ve eaten recently, blood is taking nutrition to every part of your body and creating it anew. Even if you’re sleeping, your mind is always occupied with something. Do you really, actually, need to be doing any more than this?

Due to my own virtuous laziness, I still haven’t gotten around to de-activating my stupid LinkedIn account or unsubscribing from the “Medium Daily Digest” email blast. So every morning, I get messages asking me to click through to articles like “How I Optimized My Morning Routine To Get More Done Than ever — before 8 a.m.!” The people posting links like this have a sickness, and we need to stop it before it gets out of hand. Of course, if you actually click through to this trash, it’s a bit shocking to see what they actually do. Some guy is proud that he set aside his social life so that he could unleash four extremely psychologically damaging apps on the world by the age of 30. Or it’s like, “Congratulate Lisa on her new job as advertising director for Nestlé in Africa.”

Here’s a productivity idea: Just, fucking, don’t make shitty apps, or do advertising for Nestlé, or really for anything. I often see shit like, “Ten Habits I Have QUIT to Get More Done,” and I think, “Maybe quit writing posts like this.” If you’re waking up at 4 a.m. to write 1,000 words about how you write 1,000 words every day, what are you actually getting done? Just stay in bed. Whenever I am back in the Protestant centers of modern capitalism (New York or London, basically), it’s especially jarring to remember what it feels like to treat being busy as if it were a virtue.

Do you really, actually, need to be doing any more than you already are?

You know who else was productive? The most murderous people in human history. Yes, even them. Maybe I’m being facetious, but maybe I’m not. Actual fascism has re-entered our culture to the extent that Godwin’s Law has become less of an issue, and we might as well use the most extreme example. Think of everything history’s worst people “got done” — their actions took huge amounts of effort, requiring millions of people to wake up in the morning, go out into the cold, and really do something. And they could have just not done any of it. You can be sure that some of them wanted to stay in bed. All it took was for them to think a bit first before embracing this insane cult of action. If instead they had spent a few years lying around, reading, drinking, listening to music, just generally fucking about, the world would have been a lot better off.

Of course everyone needs money, but that’s not what this is about. When you need to work to survive, you do it for that reason, not because of a deep-seated terror of inactivity. Without fail, it’s the most privileged people who feel the need to Do Something. They don’t need food, they have something to prove. If history’s worst monsters could have just stayed inactive, yes, there still would have been odious people whose ideology needed to be eliminated, but that could have happened a different way.

And honestly, maybe we are odious people too, and our projects are awful. Not as bad as their projects, perhaps, but still in serious need of re-examination.

I’m sure you can come up with something to do which is actually worth doing. Reading, exercise, making jokes with friends, those all are probably good in most situations. Try altruism, charity, or political activism (but think very hard about the side you’re on, and the effects you will likely have). If you don’t like any of those ideas, however, or can’t find anything, you can just do nothing for now. It’s fine.

No one really cares what you do. What are you, like, 28 and college-educated, upwardly mobile? That’s who the advertisers on this website want to target, right? Think about it this way. You’ll be working for another 50 years or something. If you took an entire year or two off, to do nothing, to like, smoke weed and game, you could still bounce back without really affecting your long-term career trajectory. When someone steps back in the future and looks at your life output after you’re gone, that part won’t even matter. It will matter, however, if you do something awful.

Max Weber, the father of productivity studies, most famously theorized that Calvinists — who believed, and still believe, that everyone is born predestined either to be saved by God or condemned to Hell, despite the choices they make — worked fanatically to prove to themselves and to others that they are part of the minority elect  (those who will be saved by God and live with him in Heaven), and not the much larger group of reprobate, or damned.

“The elect is active, not passive; his activity is directed by his intellect, not by habit or feeling; the time span of his attention and his effort is lengthy, not brief; his activity is continuous, not intermittent,” writes Gianfranco Poggi in a summary. “He struggles to impose order and control over the things and people surrounding him.”

LinkedIn is a death cult.

Weber’s book, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, is still seen as a groundbreaking work of sociological theorizing, but few historians or economists think it is a good explanation for the rise of capitalism. However, in my attempts to link productivity desperation to our insane Puritan ancestors, I came across an explanation which is even more terrifying.

In the 2010 book, On Time, Punctuality, and Discipline in Early Modern Calvinism, Swiss Reformation scholar Max Engammare claims that the Calvinists fundamentally changed how we think about time. They replaced the Medieval Catholic conception of time, which was cyclical and based on recurring seasons and holidays, with a linear view of time, as something which was always essentially running out – and this, apparently, led to the requirement that we start arriving to things on time, which he claims did not exist previously.

“As Calvin constantly reminded his followers, God watches his faithful every minute. Come Judgment Day, the faithful in turn will have to account for each minute,” reads this summary. And John Balserak put it this way: “European Calvinists — who dispensed with the liturgical calendar and still today do not celebrate Christmas and Easter as religious holidays…introduced during the 16th and 17th centuries a view of time that was linear and finite. With this came an appreciation of time as precious [emphasis mine]. People learned to be on time for appointments, which had previously not been a concern.”

So then, if we cannot blame Calvinists for the rise of capitalism specifically, we may attempt to blame them for a much larger malady: That religious philosophy is responsible for that feeling that we are constantly losing time, as we hurtle ever-closer to death.

I would be willing to guess that if you grew up in a rich Protestant country, you know this feeling. I do. It’s what’s behind the perverted impulse to self-flagellate and ask, “What did I accomplish this year?” and it’s why we get jealous every time we find out that some accomplished famous person is younger than us. In the U.S., for example, it doesn’t matter if you’re Catholic or Jewish or Buddhist, we are all still basically Calvinists deep down. And to the extent that American-style capitalism has spread around the world, so has this basic outlook, to every corner of the globe. This has has got to be what’s behind those fanatical posts on LinkedIn and Medium.

That’s right. Everyone is thinking it. LinkedIn is a death cult. Becoming a guy that posts on Linkedin is essentially like joining a religious extremist group, but for first-world people that went to Stanford. You’re lost, you don’t know what to do with yourself, so you latch onto the dominant ideology, and throw your life into its service. If you were somewhere in the world else it might be radical Islam, or militant Buddhism, but you work in digital sales, so it’s just lots and lots of posting about how to get a promotion.

I had always thought that Weber was writing about the “protestant spirit” from a critical perspective, that the secular sociologist thought there was something insane about working compulsively to prove that you were born already destined going to heaven. But in reality, Weber thought that his native Germany needed to be more like the post-Puritan United States if it was going to emerge on top of the world.

He believed that “the modern world was not about to witness an impending reign of reason or an abundance of Christian compassion. Instead, the future promised a ceaseless global struggle over material resources and alternative modes of life. Only the most industrially competitive, politically dynamic, and assiduously hardheaded nations had a chance of becoming — or remaining — great powers and great cultures,” write Peter Baehr and Gordon C. Wells, summarizing Weber’s views around the publication of the book, which came out before World War I and then again updated afterwards. His country had to take cues from the religious, action-minded Americans, he thought, or else “Germany was in danger of becoming a laughingstock.”

I think it would have been better if Germany had become a laughingstock. As for me, I’m going back to bed.

“It’s not for everyone, it’s for you”

The Outline is a new kind of publication founded by journalists and storytellers. We want to help you understand the world better, feed your curiosity, challenge your assumptions, and show you something new.

Read more and subscribe to The Outline here

Back to top of the page