Counterproductive Productivity

Of what use is productivity if it isn’t enhancing well-being?

Posted Sep 13, 2011

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Why did the four-day work week never take off?

It's easy to see why the idea gained popularity. Who wouldn't want more leisure time?

What made the idea of the four-day work week particularly seductive is that it seemed eminently feasible. We had made such great strides in terms of automating most of our chores (from washing clothes and cleaning dishes to vacuuming our floors) and manufacturing processes that it was certainly within our grasp, it appeared, to be as productive with a four-day work week as we had been with a five-day work week.

Why then did the idea fail?

To address this question, it is instructive to consider what is known as the Jevons paradox, which refers to the observation that increased fuel efficiency doesn't result in reduced consumption of energy. The consumption of coal, for instance, soared after James Watt introduced his coal-fired steam engine, which greatly improved the efficiency of Thomas Newcomen's earlier design. More recently, advancements in fuel-efficiency of automobiles hasn't resulted in lower overall consumption of fuel; rather, overall fuel-consumption has increased.

Jevon's paradox with hybrid cars

The term rebound effect has been used to refer to the idea that increased efficiency in any field doesn't necessary lead to lower overall consumption in that field. The rebound effect occurs because of behavioral adjustments that often compensate for the increased efficiency. So, for instance, enhancements in fuel-efficiency of automobiles triggered an increase in the number of cars, and an increase in average driving distances; likewise, the introduction of low-calorie foods triggered an increase in portion sizes. In both cases, the behavioral adjustments to the new technology more than compensated for the efficiency gain that the new technology afforded us.

I believe that a similar phenomenon is responsible for undermining the four-day work week. Even as technological advancements allow us the potential for more leisure time, we make behavioral adjustments that more than compensate for the time is freed for us. Indeed, if anything, it seems that we work harder and more feverishly than before, especially in the US. Unlike most other developed countries, where the average work-time has decreased over the past several decades, Americans are working harder than ever. Beginning in 1950, under the Truman administration, and continuing with all administrations since, the US became the first known industrialized nation to explicitly forswear a reduction of working time. A 2007 estimate suggests that, the average number of work hours has increased by a whopping 247% (or over two-fold) over the 57 year period (1950 - 2007).

At first blush, it may appear that this is a good thing: if we are more efficient than ever, and top of that, we are working harder than ever, we must be much more productive than ever. This is a good thing, right?

Well, not necessarily.

There are two main reasons why greater productivity isn't necessarily a good thing, and to understand the first reason, let's go back to the concept of the four-day work week. One reason the four-day work week is attractive is that most of us feel that, if we had extra leisure time, we would use it to pursue those things that we find truly meaningful: time with family or friends, pursuing a hobby that we love, etc. As numerous studies on happiness have shown over the past few years, our well-being depends critically on devoting a sufficient amount of time to those activities that we find meaningful. So, from the perspective of leading a fulfilling, meaningful life, it makes sense to work harder only if doing so makes our life more fulfilling and meaningful-and not if working harder makes us more miserable.

So, ask yourself: are you working harder because your work makes life more fulfilling and meaningful? Or are you working for other reasons?

I don't know about you, but it seems that the average American doesn't really enjoy work. If the reason we work harder is because we enjoy our work, then most of us would be happy to go back to work, and we would have restaurants that are called TGIM (Thank Goodness It's Monday) and not TGIF (Thank Goodness It's Friday). We wouldn't have increased incidences of heart-attacks on Monday mornings (compared to any other time/day of the week), and we wouldn't feel most depressed on Sunday evenings (more than any other time/day of the week), and the overall happiness-levels in the US would be higher now than they were in the 1950s.

No, we don't work harder because we enjoy our work. Rather, we work harder so that we can earn more money, and so that we can feel, at some level, more important and more successful. We work harder because we are not content to be happy; we work harder because we want more than our neighbors have. And once we get on that gravy train, it's difficult to get off it.

The second reason why productivity is not necessarily a good thing has to do with what economists call, negative externalities. Imagine two people engaged in a trade: one gives the other some money in return for a widget. We are all coached to think that this type of exchange is a good thing; both parties benefit from it, and if the trade is taxed, the whole society benefits from it. Further, we are coached to believe that the greater the number of such exchanges, the better off everyone is.

But is this true?

What if, to produce the widget, someone other than the people who benefit from the trade-a third party-has to pay. What if the widgets are made of rainforest wood that supports a microenvironment or that in the process of making the widget, child labor is used? The important thing to note is that almost all trade involves some negative externality or the other.

I must hasten to add that I am not an anti-capitalist; so, in other words, I am not saying that trade is bad. Rather, what I am suggesting is that there's such a thing as over-trading: there's a limit beyond which the negative externalities of trading outweigh the benefits of trading.

And judging from the viewpoint of not just animals, birds, fish, and forests (see the excellent book Commonwealth by Jeffrey Sachs), but also from that of future generations of humans, it would appear that we have far surpassed the ideal point of trade volume. (See video The Story of Stuff.) We have reached a point at which, as a world-community, we would be better off reducing the amount of trade volume, rather than increasing it. In other words, if negative externalities are taken into account, we would be better off with a world that is less productive than it currently is.

But, rather than worry about negative externalities and macro-level effects of productivity, consider  something that's closer to home: your well-being. If you feel overworked, think about why you feel compelled to work harder. Is it because you truly enjoy your work or is it because you have, without really thinking more deeply about it, subscribed to the notion that hard-work-is-good-no-matter-what?

This can be a deeply disturbing question since most of us take the value of hard work for granted. So, it can feel like a rug has been pulled from under our feet if the value of hard work is questioned. But, as Peter Drucker, management guru from the 1950s, said, "nothing is less productive than to make more efficient what should not be done at all."

Another thought-leader, Gandhi, echoed a similar sentiment in saying, "There's more to life than increasing its speed."

Even if you don't change your work-habits, think about whether you are using your work to enhance your well-being, or you are being used by an ideology that has long stopped paying you meaningful dividends. Over time, pondering about this question will hopefully steer you towards making better choices.

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