The Cult of Productivity
Coffee: Productivity Tool or BEST Productivity Tool?

Written by Natalie Luhrs

I'm a lifelong geek with a passion for books and social justice.

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May 25, 2016

Coffee: Productivity Tool or BEST Productivity Tool?

Coffee: Productivity Tool or BEST Productivity Tool? (Shinya Suzuki, CC BY)

The cult of productivity is a hard thing to resist.

So many pretty pictures of gorgeous planners layouts, imported planners, custom planners, different pens and paper to try out and it’s all wrapped up in the idea that we’re all supporting each other in our goals (and yet: some animals are more equal than others) and yet. Yet.

For me, the point is to reduce the amount of thinking I have to do on a day to day basis around what I want or need to do.  Knowing that I always pay bills and balance our bank accounts on Thursdays means that I don’t worry about it other times. Writing down things I need to do at work means that those things actually get done. Keeping an editorial calendar means that I know when I need to sit down and write posts and newsletters.

And all that means that if I want to spend an entire day mainlining Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, then I can do that guilt-free because I know that everything else has been or will be handled at the appropriate time.

For me, there is freedom in structure.

You don’t need to buy anything or give anyone money to learn how to get shit done

You really, truly, don’t.

Here are the basics of pretty much every productivity system out there:

  • Record and organize the stuff you want to accomplish. Paper, text editor, clay tablet, whatever.
  • Break it down into smaller pieces and put it into some sort of reasonable order–in project management terms, this is called developing your work breakdown structure (WBS) and your critical path (PERT charts are fun, too).
  • Finally, work on your projects a little at a time.

The caveat is this: getting shit done doesn’t mean success–at least not success in a capitalist society, by which I mean lots of money–is guaranteed..

Productivity “gurus” and prosperity gospel

And the world is full of people who want to sell you the dream that success can be guaranteed. But only if you pay $2,500 for their six week online course. Only if you pay $97 for their meditation coloring book that will help you visualize away the bad energy that’s blocking you. Only if.

Only. If.

And once you’re on the hook, you believe, because you have to–it’s a sunk cost fallacy (I loathe the headline but the article is good). You’ve invested all this money, why isn’t it working? The problem must be with you. You’re not trying hard enough. That’s the lie they sell you to keep you on the hook. It’s prosperity gospel re-written with a New Age or secular focus and the only person making any money is the person leading the revival.  No, the universe does not “speak to us through cash flow” as a marketing email I received earlier this week stated.

Kelly Diels talks about this as part of her series of posts on the “Female Lifestyle Empowerment Brand”: On the ‘Mental Triggers’ of Online Marketing, The Female Lifestyle Empowerment Brand, Assessing Who Deserves Your Money, and Why We Should Be Skeptical of Makeover Stories.

While I was writing this, I received an email from a list I’m on with someone’s sad history and how they’ve managed to bootstrap themselves up into prosperity and freedom and they want to help me, too–but for a price. I wonder how many fish she’ll catch with her inspirational story. Which just happens to be shaped like every other rags to riches story I’ve ever read.

I don’t begrudge people making a living.

I do begrudge a system that disproportionately advantages a small subset of people. In this case, the advantaged people are primarily conventionally attractive, white, cis, straight. Mostly women–men have more latitude in how they look when they’re trying to build their “brand”. I begrudge a system that takes advantage of people who have very little to use.

It starts to feel a lot bit like Landmark Education, which I had an encounter with in the late ’90s.  They didn’t get any money out of me (thank goodness), but it was very much Not A Fun Experience.  One should never feel like one has to run a gauntlet of sales people haranguing you for not believing in your potential as you try to leave. Because you don’t have $500 for their dumb course and when you tell them that they tell you that if you really wanted it, you’d find a way to pay for it.

And here’s the money quote from that article about Landmark:

The profitable field Landmark helped pioneer is now crowded with life coaches, time-management gurus, and productivity bloggers. Like David Allen’s Getting Things Done or Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Landmark is just one of dozens of quasi-philosophies that promise to empty your inbox and fulfill your personal goals.

Everything old is new again.

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  1. Ros

    I love this. I always get nervous about people setting up a business from a blog, whatever that business looks like. But when it is selling you ‘how to be like me’ serious alarm bells gonna ring.

    What I like are the people who tell you that you don’t need a magic notebook or a special pen or any stickers AT ALL. You can do this with common sense and the back of an envelope.

  2. Rain

    You know, maybe it’s a little deeper than that? People *will* pay for what they value. It’s why I don’t do free or discounted services, ever. If a woman truly can’t afford my service, odds are good she has other priorities that are more fundamental and true needs. I support those needs being met. I would NEVER say to a woman, “If you value it enough, you’ll pay for it.” because in my head that’s a given, to speak it at them is manipulative and shitty. It implies that there is something askew with what they do value.

    It’s okay to value “I have $27 in my bank account for the next two weeks and rent is coming.” more than you value a doula, or a motivational course, or a planning system. It’s healthy even, and anyone who tells you otherwise is not out for your best interest.

    The thing is? I think women, men too but mostly women, often haven’t always got the freedom to simply say, “No thank you.” and feel ok about it. I had some Landmark runins in the late 80’s and early 90’s. I did The Forum, even. I hated that manipulative, guilt-laden high sales guilt crap. Healthy boundaries go both ways and those people are not encouraged to develop truly healthy boundaries. They were a great lesson in who NOT to be, when I began marketing my own services 25 years later.

    • Natalie Luhrs

      I’ve been reading a LOT of Internet marketing stuff, Rain. And there’s a lot of cult of personality, a lot of makeover stories, and a whole lot of eerie parallels and patterns. I do think it’s possible to do this sort of thing in a way that is ethical–but I also think that requires a lot of thought and self awareness (both of which you totally have!)

      I’ve bought a fair number of online classes and whatnot over the years and got value from most of them. But there are a lot of people peddling snake oil, too.

      I don’t see how the pattern of offering a freebie, putting someone on your list, then trying to sell them on a course you’re offering is any different from a Tupperware party. There are ethical ways to have a Tupperware party and unethical ways to do it. I’ve been to both kinds.

      Edit–Rain, I just reread your comment and I think I misread you because holy shit I was tired yesterday. I think your policy of not offering freebies or discounted services to reel people in is great and I totally support you in being paid for your work. Boundaries is a really good way of describing it–Landmark certainly doesn’t respect boundaries and I definitely feel like a lot of the ways people are being ‘triggered’ to buy things is through manipulation of boundaries.

  3. Deirdre Saoirse Moen

    I don’t know if you’d put these things together before, but let me connect some of the dots – most of the planner cult started with LDS, including Stephen Covey, Franklin Covey, etc. Partly that’s having to manage a lot of tasks with large families, and partly it’s the fact that LDS churches (at the local level up through bishoprics) are completely lay led.

    Landmark, of course, was started by Werner Erhard, who previously started est, and before that, was a Scientologist. Scientology came out of a lot of the self-help movement in the 40s & 50s as well as the post-WW2 movement toward industrial efficiency, some of which is encoded into Scientology doctrine.

    Both movements (LDS & Scientology) are huge on bureaucracy, though it’s my understanding that LDS is far bigger on meetings, where Scientology will just make you jump through 23 hoops for everything.

    • Natalie Luhrs

      Deirdre, I didn’t realize that about Covey. I’ve known for some time about the connection between Landmark and est–ever since I started researching them after my run-in–but didn’t know about the Scientology angle. I also keep thinking about the Gilbreths and their work on efficiency, particularly around their efforts in household efficiency as described in Cheaper by the Dozen, which I adored when I was a child.

  4. Dawn Incognito

    Thanks for the link to the Mother Jones article about Landmark. That comment thread was illuminating.

  5. Selki

    Eek, Landmark. A friend of mine from college got sucked in and then dropped several of us cold when we wouldn’t join her. It took over a decade for her to re-surface, and we haven’t had substantial discussion so I don’t know if she’s really free.

    I didn’t know that about the Coveys, either!

  6. N J Magas

    My secret? I retroactively add things to my planner that I’ve already accomplished, just so I can have the jittery satisfaction of crossing them out immediately afterward. It gets the ball rolling. It’s like an addiction. I HAVE to complete the other things on the list to get my next crossing-out fix. Thus, a week’s worth of tasks are finished in three days.

    Except for paying credit cards and washing dishes. Those always get pushed down to Sunday. Always.

    • Natalie Luhrs

      I do the same thing! Especially if the thing I have just done is annoying–I want credit, dammit. Laundry is the thing that always gets pushed to weekends for me.


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