Productivity culture, cognitive triage and the pseudo-commensurability of the to-do list

For a couple of years I’ve been striving to empty my e-mail inbox on a daily basis. It doesn’t particularly bother me if I don’t succeed and I often don’t. I go through phases of doing this daily and then, for whatever reason, fall out of the routine. I’ve rarely had to spend more than a hour a day on e-mail this way because there’s only so much that accumulates in the space of twenty-four hours. It’s left me with a firm conviction that e-mail is only really a problem if the quantity exceed a certain point (e.g. if dealing with a day’s e-mail always took a few hours or more) or if you don’t attend to it regularly. Obviously, it can be difficult to attend to it regularly for all sorts of reasons. That in fact is why I write this as someone who does ‘inbox zero’ for a couple of weeks at a time rather than as a continuous feature of my life. But from my point of view what I formerly experienced as a real problem now just seem as if I was doing it wrong. It used to stress me out a lot and, at least when I’m in a phase of emptying my inbox daily, it just doesn’t stress me out at all. I drink coffee, listen to Today on Radio 4 and have cleared my inbox by the time I start my day.

What struck me this morning however is that this process can have unforeseen consequences. It’s not a case of ‘stress’ caused by e-mail giving way to an absence of stress but something more subtle than that. I tweeted earlier today:

I was suddenly struck by the horrible repetitiveness of this process. Had the character limit not precluded it, I would have likely added a fourth line: “continue daily until death”. Well actually I probably wouldn’t because of how unspeakably depressing a sentiment that would be in the absence of the navel-gazing contextualisation a blog post like this would provide. Nonetheless I’ve been thinking about that feeling all morning. It quickly passed but it was an arresting sense of the intrinsic pointlessness of practices conducted in this mode.

I say intrinsic because it has all sorts of extrinsic benefits: by dealing with e-mail in this way I neutralise it as a source of stress, I ignore my inbox for the rest of the day*, I have more time and energy for the things I care about etc. But in and of itself, the practice of ‘inbox zero’ is devoid of value: it’s a kind of cognitive triage, systematically attending to what is urgent in order to free up resources for what is important. That at least is what it’s supposed to do. But I think the instrumentalism of triage practices, desiring to do something as quickly as possible because you’re fundamentally irritated by the fact it’s necessary and want to get it out of the way, risks seeping into how other activities are engaged with.

What provoked that slightly despairing feeling in me this morning was the exercise of going from e-mail to omnifocus: clearing my inbox, clarifying the necessary actions ensuing from those e-mails and filing them in my organiser. Suddenly the various lists contained within that organiser grew dramatically – in one case going from 10 items to 20 items. My problem is that while some of those tasks were incredibly dull, others were not and yet the way I framed them led me to see them all as problems to be solved. They were irritants, barriers to a conceptually incoherent state I was implicitly seeking to attain in which everything I’d ever have to do was now done.

This is the mentality that cognitive triage generates: things are conceived as obstacles to be eliminated rather than activities to be enjoyed. As the list gets bigger, it becomes harder to see the individual ‘to do’ items as activities in their own right. They are reduced to uniform list items and nothing more. Things you enjoy and things you despise are given equal weight. The logic of the to-do list is one of commensurability and this is the problem with it. The process of triaging combined with the logic of the to-do list can lead to an evisceration of value: the potential goods internal to activities, those experiences of value that can only be found through doing, get obliterated by the need to cross items off a list. There’s a relational richness to practical activity which can easily be obliterated at the level of phenomenology by the tendency of ‘productivity’ to give rise to ‘mindless busyness’. This is how Heidegger describes it in What Is Called Thinking?

A cabinetmaker’s apprentice, someone who is learning to build cabinets and the like, will serve as an example. His learning is not merely practice, to gain facility in the use of tools. Nor does he merely gather information about the customary forms of the things he is to build. If he is to become a true cabinetmaker, he makes himself answer and respond above all to the different kinds of wood and to the shapes slumbering within wood – to wood as it enters into man’s dwelling with all the hidden riches of its nature. In fact, this relatedness to wood is what maintain the whole craft. Without that relatedness, the craft will never be anything but empty busywork, any occupation with it will be determined exclusively by business concerns. Every handicraft, all human dealings are constantly in that danger. The writing of poetry is no more exempt from it than is thinking.  (pg 14-15)

In other words: your desire to ‘get things done’ obscures the fact that you actually like many of the things you’re doing and, as a statement about moral psychology, if you forget this fact then you’re much less likely to enjoy doing them. Being in a rush to get something done runs contrary to attending to the task itself. Unfortunately, it is only through attentiveness that we derive value from practical activity. Focusing on the next thing you have to do squeezes out awareness of what you are presently doing. Wondering how quickly you can get something done makes it hard to focus on the logic of the task itself. Seeing something as an obstacle to be overcome precludes experiencing it as a source of fulfilment. Productivity culture or rather the various forms of triaging it encourages can easily undercut many of the things which motivate it in the first place e.g. seeking to perform mundane tasks more efficiently in order to have more time to write.

*Well actually I don’t but at least I recognise that it’s blind compulsivity that undermines this rather than any practical necessity.


Categories: Outflanking Platitudes, Sociological Craft

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