The productivity myth: A case for doing less but being more

I have been fascinated with Keanu Reeves for a long time. I think he might be the only actor that I truly bother admiring. I love that he spanned Bill and Ted and the Matrix, inhabiting those iconic roles at the polar opposite end of some continuum with funny feel good at one end and blow your mind sci fi at the other. But mostly, I am intrigued with how little he says, how he disappears from the public’s eye reportedly without a smartphone, and how when he does say something it is deep and wise.

“Keanu, what do you think happens when we die?” “I know that the ones who love us will miss us.”

Artists like Keanu seem to give themselves permission to be alone with their thoughts, to take time to process experience. The practice of deep reflection is seen in their work as they age. It gets deeper, more nuanced, more interesting, more human.

“It’s O.K. to not engage, to let the world separate from you a little bit, he assures us. Just watch me”.

I find this inspiring and completely counter cultural to the business world I inhabit.

In the business world we soon learn that we need to be productive, make things, do things, or cynically, at least be seen to be productive. The faster we can go from idea to product the more money we will make for investors. The more we can fill slides with words and numbers, the smarter I look and the safer I will be in my job. The more I talk in meetings, the more it will be known that I am here, I am relevant. Look how busy I am, I don’t have time to meet with you this week, but if you can schedule time with my assistant a month from now we can rush through a 30 min conversation where we can convince each other that what we are doing is important. The faster you can teach me the thing I need to know, the faster I can apply it it to being more productive, as so on…

The result of this worldview is that people are stressed and burnt out. The vast majority of employees are disengaged and we are killing our natural environment through overuse and carelessness. Younger workers are jumping from company to company looking for purpose. Older workers are stuck in jobs so they can pay their mortgages, school fees, college plans, healthcare. Temporary and casual workers are at the bottom of the pile and are expendable living in fear that they wont be able to feed their families and have a safe place to live.

At the core of the problem is the belief that people are cogs in a wheel, and only useful in so far as they are productive and contribute to profit. It is an insidious system that benefits those on the top of the pile, and exploits those on the bottom.

It is also an instrumental view of people, and one inherited from back when societies thought slavery was ok, and it was fine for children to work in factories.

Why do we buy in to this world view that we are valued most when we are useful and productive, when what we actually yearn for from others is care, wisdom and inspiration? It is this disconnect that I believe is leading to many people feeling deeply dissatisfied in their work and careers.

Could we do what Keanu does and actually do less but be more?

What might happen if we all did less busy work, but more reflective work?

What might our society’s look like if we all listened more and spoke less. Did less, but were better people?

Could we become better teachers?

Could we become better coaches?

Could we become better parents?

Could we become better learners?

Could we deal with more complexity?

Could we cope with more uncertainty?

Could we make better long term decisions?

Ironically as we replace humans more and more with machines that are more productive than us, we will be left with the kind of work that requires us to do less and be more.

We may as well get ahead of this agenda and begin today.

Thanks to
Tim Denning
for his Keanu obession inspiring mine

Photograph by Karwai Tang / Getty