Strategist, Speaker, Designer, Instigator

The myth of productivity

Pretty much as long as there have been ways for people to interact online, there have been articles written about how that kind of thing is killing productivity. Email and MUD/ MUSHes were killing productivity when I was at University, then Email and the Web and IMing were killing it at work in the 90s. Lots of employers went to great lengths to block domains like Yahoo and Hotmail to keep their workers from being distracted by personal communication. One client of mine in the early 00’s blocked most of the internet to their employees, with only what was deemed ‘necessary and productive’ being allowed. Did this work? I didn’t see any numbers on it, so I don’t know for sure. I do know that it made people feel resentful, and that just as they felt they weren’t being treated with respect, they didn’t treat their employer with respect. They’d come in late and cover for each other, take 2 hour lunches, spend as much time as possible in the break room, pass paper notes back and forth between their cubicles… I can’t imagine all that stuff didn’t have a negative impact on their productivity – perhaps a bigger one than access to Friendster would have had.

These days, we’ve started to see numbers. Today, this article came across my twitter feed (via @jmacdonald): Social Media at Work – How Social Media is Destroying Productivity. The numbers are big, yes. And with attention share this high, I buy that there’s an impact on productivity. But that’s not what bothers me about this article. What bothers me is the smug tone of condescension there at the end: “The next time you think about checking a social media site, consider how much time and energy it will actually take.”

When an individual checks a social media site, says the article, it takes them “a whopping” 23 minutes to get back on task. I’m not sure how whopping 23 minutes is – and even if it is a long time, is it necessarily a bad way to spend that 23 minutes? If I were to spend 23 minutes investigating GreenGoose, which I discovered on Twitter this morning, is that (a) whopping or (b) bad?

Granted, GreenGoose is relevant to my line of work as well as being interesting enough to hold my attention for a few minutes. But how do we know that a significant percentage of what people get from their social networks isn’t relevant? Just because it’s social doesn’t mean it’s not productive – I’ve had some of the most productive hours of my career over lunches with friends.

And even if the stuff we’re reading on Twitter and Facebook and the like isn’t directly relevant to what we do for a living, who’s to say that’s inherently bad, either? PNAS studies tell us that daydreaming – formerly considered a shameful waste of time – is actually good for productivity. When we daydream, we are actually improving our problem-solving skills and making ourselves more productive, not less. And conversation is also considered a good productivity-boosting break, according to many sources including this recent Forbes article.

And what is social media but one giant conversation?

So why is the time we spend on social networks such a problem? What’s behind the condescension? I suspect it’s a few things:

1. It’s sneaky. Because surfing Facebook or Skyping with friends is done in the same place, in the same posture, as actual work, it can be done clandestinely – unlike, say, pushups or a cup of coffee and a chat about Doctor Who. This leads us to be suspicious – is she really working hard on that report, or is she IMing about xfactor with her sister in New York? We hate to feel like someone’s getting away with something, or pulling the wool over our eyes. So maybe this is part of the reason for the stigma. But let’s face it – how many of those hours of face to face ‘study group’ back at school did we actually spend studying? Yeah.

2. It’s sneaky. Because we do these things in the same place, in the same posture, as we do our work, it’s hard to draw a line. it requires real discipline to sit down and write that article instead of spending another 20 minutes poking around xkcd and Thought Catalog. Believe me, I know. I speak from experience. But that doesn’t mean we can’t do it – it’s just a new kind of discipline to be learned. And any number of studies (and experience) have shown that when people are treated like children, they behave like children – curtailing freedom in one way will usually only lead to rebellion through other means. What about time management training? That might help us learn how to cope with these temptations.

3. Different is still suspicious. It is a genuine fact that I get a very large percentage of the things that inspire me through conversations and other social means – and because my friends and loved ones are spread across the world, I get most of those through the magical interwebs. In my line of work I suppose this is ok, but perhaps it’s still looked on with suspicion by lots of employers. Some might argue on the basis of the quality of what’s out there in the social media world. But here’s the thing – what are businesses and publishers and content creators, for better or worse, watching to clue them in to what to make next? That’s right: conversations.

Maybe I’m being pollyannish again. Maybe the problem is really as bad as some say it is, and our businesses and schools are about to collapse because of social networks. But I can’t help but think that if we ditched the alarmism and applied a bit of common sense and personal responsibility to this issue – the same kind of common sense we’ve applied to other, similar, issues in the past – we could make a lot more headway.