Produce or Perish?
Seems like a bad deal to me.
The summer I worked at the United States Postal Service I got a good lesson in what it means to be judged on your productivity.
It was before my senior year of college (1991), and I had a position as a “summer casual,” essentially a temporary worker that would allow the full-time people to take vacation without slowing the delivery of mail down too terribly. This was in my hometown of Northbrook, Illinois, a Chicago suburb, and the jobs were handed down by word of mouth. A friend’s older brother had done it for years, then that friend started, he got his friends in, and so on.
My hope was that I’d be a substitute mail carrier like my friends, but I failed the driving portion of the job during onboarding1 and was instead given work inside as a “mail handler.” A mail handler does pretty much what the job title sounds like, moving mail from one spot to another along the line towards a customer’s mailbox.
I had a number of different tasks, including being part of the team that sorted the local from the out-of-town mail after it’d come in from the collection boxes.
My first couple weeks on the job, when three or four of us would gather ‘round a big table in order to sort the letters from the flats, the local from the out-of-town, I was an active hindrance to the process. It was embarrassing, so I strived to get better, and I did.
About a month into the job, as I was flying through the sort as quickly as my brain and hands could manage, one of the full-time mail handlers said, “Whoa there hoss, you’re making the rest of us look bad.” At first, I thought it was a compliment on my improved speed, but after the sort was completed, I was subjected to a longer discourse.
He told me that it was important for me to recognize that the work should take as long as the work was expected to take, that people had come in, done some measurements and observations and determined with some precision the amount of time and manpower necessary to process and deliver the mail. If it had been determined that four people could sort the incoming mail in 60 minutes, but in reality it took 45, then that task required only three people, and which of the four people did I think wouldn’t be kept around to do the work?
Message received. We were meant to work hard enough to get the job done, but not crush ourselves to be as fast as possible, therefore proving that under ideal circumstances we could either do more work, or that fewer people could do the same work.
Some of you are shaking your heads about lack of efficiency, or maybe muttering something about government waste and taxpayer money. At least, this is how twenty-one-year-old me initially reacted.
There’s some things we should recognize, however. For one, in reality, the United States Postal Service is a model of efficiency, literally the best postal service in the world.
And whenever you hear about how the USPS “loses money,” it’s important to recognize that the budget deficit is the result of a requirement that the they fund post-retirement health care costs for 75 years into the future, a requirement that no other public or private entity is held to. Without the requirement, the USPS would post annual operating surpluses.
More importantly, we should recognize that the USPS isn’t a business. It’s a government service. We don’t judge the Defense Department on their profitability, do we?
What became clear in the rest of my time at the post office was that in reality, there was no reward for doing more work except…more work. I learned this the hard way myself by being more competent than one of the other summer casuals who was on the overnight swing shift (2am to 10:30am), and was promptly moved into that slot for the last two months of the job.
I also recognized the difference between me, a kid who was going to back to college in the fall, and the people who were going to spend their lives as handlers, sorters, and deliverers of mail. Their work had to be done in a sustainable way, even as they aged, even when they were not 100% physically or mentally, or when the volume of mail would quintuple during the holiday season.2
I was heading for a life where my work would come with considerable time for slack, taking a bathroom break at my will, chatting up your co-workers at their desks, or even more non-work activities while at work, as I’ll get to in a moment.
A significant proportion of the mail handlers and carriers were veterans of Vietnam, having received preferential hiring into the Civil Service after the war. At the age where I was sorting mail for the summer, they were risking their lives in a pointless conflict on the other side of the globe. Over the 4th of July weekend, one of my friends who also worked as a summer casual asked a supervisor if he was going to go see the fireworks, and the supervisor replied, “I haven’t really enjoyed explosions much since I saw an ammo dump go sky high while up to my waist in a rice paddy outside Da Nang.”
I think this guy was half yanking our chains, but only half. I wasn’t going to begrudge these people for working hard - and it was hard - but no harder than necessary to do the job for which they’d been hired.
In fact, maybe that was something worth emulating.
I’ve been thinking about productivity this week after reading a New York Times article on, “The Rise of the Worker Productivity Score.” The article describes an actually occurring dystopia in which workers are monitored moment-to-moment through surveillance software installed on their computers in order to measure their “productivity.” This kind of oversight is already ubiquitous in warehouse and delivery work. (Perhaps you remember the controversy about Amazon denying and then having to admit that their drivers routinely pee in bottles in order to stay on track.)
This productivity surveillance has even invaded the work of hospital chaplains, responsible to attend to the dying and grieving, who are rated on a points system, which resulted in what one of the chaplains called “spiritual drive-bys” as she would hope that a patient may be asleep so she could quickly record credit for a visit.
The awake and dying can be real time sucks, don’t you know?
I ranted and raved about that angle at Inside Higher Ed already, so here, I thought I’d spend some time thinking about the broader cult of productivity in America.
In many ways, there’s nothing more “American” than being “productive” which maybe explains why books on personal productivity are among the biggest selling titles of all-time, and in any given year.
While these titles are ostensibly positioned as self-help and self-empowerment, they are almost universally oriented around how you can do more, often explicitly in “business.”
The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey has reportedly sold 40-million copies since its debut in 1989. While this is ostensibly a book about getting in touch with the important values that underly “success” as an actualized human being, what success looks like is essentially a relentless march up the corporate ladder.
Charles Duhigg recently testified at the Penguin Random House/Simon & Schuster anti-trust trial, revealing how the millions of dollars he received in book advances was nice and all, but the real dough was to be made doing speeches for corporations based on his books, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, and Smarter Faster Better: The Transformative Power of Real Productivity.
I’m struck by this phrase, “real productivity,” which suggests there is such a thing as unreal or fake productivity. Actually, this is true, as shown in the Times article, where people report various workarounds to fool the tracking software, including an automated “mouse jiggler” that will register as activity by the software.
But this is not what Duhigg is talking about. “Real productivity” suggests two underlying assumptions are true: 1. Productivity is an important, if not the most important goal, and 2. There is a correct way to be productive.
The marketing copy from Smarter Faster Better…is illustrative.
At the core of Smarter Faster Better are eight key concepts—from motivation and goal setting to focus and decision making—that explain why some people and companies get so much done. Drawing on the latest findings in neuroscience, psychology, and behavioral economics—as well as the experiences of CEOs, educational reformers, four-star generals, FBI agents, airplane pilots, and Broadway songwriters—this book reveals that the most productive people, companies, and organizations don’t merely act differently. They view the world, and their choices, in profoundly different ways.
Some people, “get things done,” others don’t, and which do you think is better? Which do you want to be, the doer of things that get done, or its opposite?
It is almost bizarre not only how pervasive this mindset is, but that it has been correlated with being virtuous. I have had people literally tell me that they feel guilty when they read books because it’s time away from doing something “productive.”
The twin assumptions that productivity is a raison d'être, and there is a correct way to be productive, underpin pretty much any book in the genre. Even books like Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity by David Allen and The 4-Hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss, which promise to make productivity a source of liberation, take for granted that productivity is the goal.
It’s worth wondering if it’s impossible to be, I don’t know…happy, if we’re not somehow achieving maximum “productivity?”
The reality for most people is that someone other than the person working to be maximally productive in their job is likely benefit more than the person working at maximum productivity. The workers subjected to the tracking software are largely miserable. I imagine the people tasked with monitoring the productivity of others also aren’t having a ball.
But there’s people above those people who are making lots and lots of dough by squeezing maximum productivity out of everyone below.
Enter the phenomenon of “quiet quitting” has migrated from TikTok to the mainstream news. As described by Amina Kilpatrick at NPR, quiet quitting looks like this:
Closing your laptop at 5 p.m. Doing only your assigned tasks. Spending more time with family. These are just some of the common examples used to define the latest workplace trend of "quiet quitting."
To me, that sounds like doing your job, not quitting it, but that we call this behavior “quiet quitting” suggests how far the cult of productivity has penetrated the public consciousness.
The idea that your employer owns every moment of your time during working hours is, well, messed up, and I would argue, good for neither employees, nor employers.
I’ve apparently been quiet quitting my jobs for my entire life, and didn’t know it.
In my first post-college job as a paralegal at a large law firm, I worked to become sufficiently proficient at my (rather rote) tasks in order to have extra time to write short stories on legal pads at my desk because I knew that I needed to improve as a writer if I wanted to get into grad school.
At my post-grad school job as a market researcher, if I was ahead of the timeline on a project, I would write short humor pieces on my computer, some of which turned into my first book. Because that was a particularly enlightened firm, they even gave me extra time off that I needed to finish the book on a very short timeline.
Sometimes, in that paralegal job I also worked until Midnight because we were under a deadline pressure for a hearing. I once even slept under my desk for a few hours, rather than take the time to go home and come back.
In the market research job, I might be in the office past 11pm if we had night time focus groups, and then be back by 8am if something had to be done in the morning. Other times I might not come in until noon, if work wasn’t pressing, particularly if there was another night of focus groups. I missed one Thanksgiving meal with my family because a computer file for a presentation that was being given the Monday after the holiday was corrupted and needed redoing in its entirety.
In short, I did the work I was asked to do, delivered it on time, and usually above expectations. I received raises and promotions. No one monitored my moment-to-moment activity.
At the paralegal job, the senior partner overseeing the massive piece of litigation I worked on for almost the entirety of my two years took me out to lunch when he found out I wasn’t going to law school to try to convince me I had a bright future in the profession.
He was a nice man, so I didn’t tell him “That’s what I’m afraid of,” but it is what I was thinking.
I’d seen how the associates - who were just a few years older than me - were judged on the productivity metric of the billable hour, and did not like the looks of it. I really did not like the looks of it when the 2nd year associate I’d worked most closely with - no better way to forge a quick bond than reviewing documents in a Hartford warehouse for a week - died in a car accident in an ice storm because he had to get back to the office from his wife’s parents’ place in Indiana after a holiday.
I like to think I both work hard and am pretty productive. I publish several hundred thousand words of my writing every year, and produce another decent-sized chunk that may never be published, but which seems a lot like being productive anyway.
You won’t find me at my desk every weekday from 9 to 5, but you might find me there at 11:31am on a Sunday morning as I’m typing these words because I want to deliver this newsletter to the people who have subscribed.
As with those post-college and post-grad school jobs, I am absolutely productive enough, and even more importantly, I genuinely look forward to most of what I have to do each day. I’ve had a lovely morning finally pulling together all the thoughts that have been swirling in my head about this topic all week. And then some people are going to read those thoughts? Amazing.
This feels like success to me.
People who want to have an existence outside their jobs aren’t “quitting” their jobs. If the reward for more work is simply more work, doing more work that someone else profits from seems like a form of madness.
Figuring out how to have sustainable, fulfilling existence seems like it should be the goal, no?
That we put so many obstacles between that goal and the individual, and then make it the individual’s responsibility to figure things out by becoming more “productive” seems like the deeper problem.
I feel like these two articles on productive tracking and quiet quitting are describing the symptoms of a disease I feel very fortunate to have dodged thus far.
But what’s the cure that’s going to work for everyone?
This week at the Chicago Tribune, I offer my hope that the attempts to ban books will instead have the Streisand Effect, and draw more readers. That said, this stuff is getting very scary.
At the New York Times, we get a solid roundup at the end of testimony in the PRH/S&S anti-trust trial. The conventional wisdom at the start of the trial was that the government had little shot of stopping this merger, but some of the judge’s questions indicate some skepticism for the PRH/S&S side of the case.
At Vulture, Emily Hughes has the “best horror novels” of the year (so far).
Nicholas Evans, author of The Horse Whisperer, one of those unexpected publishing phenomenons, has passed away at age 72.
In case you missed it, this week I published the 2nd installment of “Books I Wish More People Knew About,” in which Teddy Wayne, author of The Great Man Theory, recommends a book by someone very close to him.
No requests are waiting in the queue, so no new recommendations this week, but remember that all books linked here are part of The Biblioracle Recommends bookshop at Bookshop.org. Affiliate income for purchases through the bookshop goes to Open Books in Chicago.
Affiliate income is $183.70 for the year.
Make me up my production, people, and request your book recommendation by following the link below.
Now, I’m off to do two productive things: 1. Walk the dogs, who are looking at me longingly, and 2. Get deeper into Anthony Marra’s Mercury Pictures Presents, which has completely charmed me over its first 100 pages.
If you’ve read and enjoyed this post, or The Biblioracle Recommends in general, please consider a paid subscription. It’s very motivating to my productivity.
Long story that maybe I’ll tell some other time.
The degree of concentration it takes to sort mail into the cases was significant. When I was in charge of sorting the corporate mail, I would put a Grateful Dead bootleg on my Walkman and try to get in the zone.