Why Productivity? Why Gratitude?

by feanor16001 min read30th Aug 20135 comments

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Gratitude
Personal Blog

I recently did a series of online seminars where productivity guru Jason Womack tried to apply his advice for academics.

The productivity advice was good but not especially new after having read a lot of anti-akrasia posts on LW; EverydayUtilitarian recently wrote a great summary of these kind of ideas here. I suppose the fact that the advice wasn't new to me means LW has been doing a good job of bringing in good instrumental rationality advice from elsewhere.

But the most interesting parts of the seminars weren't actually ways to be more productive.

One is a question: why do you want to be more productive?

After asking themselves this, some people might realize that they don't actually need to be more productive. Why get more things done? If you work as a certain kind of corporate drone, becoming more productive might not make you or anyone else much better off. Perhaps you are rearranging the deck chairs on the titanic, becoming better at a job or project when you should be doing something else entirely. If your goal in work is to make you and your family better off, then it might be counterproductive to employ strategies that make you less happy or take you away from your family.

Alternatively, if you realize you have all kinds of really great reasons to be more productive, this should encourage you.

The other big non-exactly-productivity idea I learned about was gratitude.

The most obvious reason to send people thank-you notes is that it will make them happy, and is just the right thing to do. Another good reason you have probably heard of is that it will make you happier, like keeping a gratitude journal.

What I didn't realize before are the tangible benefits of sending thank-you notes. Jason Womack says he tries you send one a day, and has had many people respond by offering to do some project with him. I recently started sending out more thank-you emails to people who have helped improve my work, and have already had someone respond by offering a large and totally unexpected benefit (a letter of recommendation). It seems like sending out more thank you notes is just an all around win.

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Good piece. One minor point I wanted to expand upon, though:

After asking themselves this, some people might realize that they don't actually need to be more productive. Why get more things done? If you work as a certain kind of corporate drone, becoming more productive might not make you or anyone else much better off. Perhaps you are rearranging the deck chairs on the titanic, becoming better at a job or project when you should be doing something else entirely. If your goal in work is to make you and your family better off, then it might be counterproductive to employ strategies that make you less happy or take you away from your family.

Productivity need not be confined to your career. You could seek to become more productive in your hobbies or even more productive in spending time with your friends and family.

Furthermore, productivity need not be confined to doing more things. It could be doing your existing tasks more quickly and efficiently. In fact, many people cite "free more time to spend with friends and family" as their core reason for wanting to be more productive.

In other words, productivity need not be confused with busywork, and I suspect this is primarily an artifact of linguistic heuristics (similar brain procedures get lightly activated when you hear "productivity" as when you hear "workout" or "haste" or even "forward march").

If productivity were a currency, you could say "have I acquired more productons this week than last week with respect to my current goal?" If making your family well off can be achieved by lounging around in the pool splashing each other, then that is high family welfare productivity.

For me, gratitude doesn't feel like a behavior that I choose to engage in in order to reap psychological and interpersonal benefits. Rather, I find I have this profound gratitude for the fact of my stupendously improbable existence, and I'm productive in order to express this gratitude.

This nicely doubles as an ethical standard. When faced with choices, I can ask myself "which option best expresses my gratitude for my existence?" and that works for me.

I find I have this profound gratitude for the fact of my stupendously improbable existence

Don't you mean, "happiness"?

A very interesting post, and one which I'm compelled to expand on a titch.

If your (1) 'productivity' isn't furthering your goals I can't imagine why you would call it efficient. If anything, using more of your time and energy on things that don't matter to you is very nearly the opposite of efficiency as far as I'm concerned. Productive people shouldn't be wasting their time; that seems almost as obvious to me as the idea that rationality shouldn't make your decision making poorer.

In terms of gratitude, basic etiquette is really astonishingly rare considering how effective it is (2) at getting what you want. People love to be thanked, love having their opinions considered, love to be praised; they don't seem to care/notice if the politeness is affected or genuine. Politeness costs virtually nothing in terms of cognitive resources, just a bit up-front in forming the habit, and is an incredibly useful tool. It always surprises me how few people grasp that.

  1. I'm using the universal "you" here; this isn't directed at the OP or any other individual person.
  2. Although, then again, it's rarity might be the reason it's so effective for me.