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Why Be Productive?

image of businessman with four full arms running

Whenever I go online, I am inundated with productivity advice. It may be because it’s still the early days of a new year, and with a new year comes a fresh market for those who made resolutions to get more done. Or it may be that the algorithms serving me content have learned that I can’t help but hate-read articles with titles like “Nine CEOs reveal their favorite productivity hacks” and thus shovel more and more productivity articles onto my various feeds, greedy for my clicks and indifferent to my disdain.

Productivity advice is also simply popular. The New York Times best sellers list, for example, consistently features books aimed at enhancing your productivity. Atomic Habits has, at the time of writing, been on the list for 216 weeks; Adam Grant, the author of Hidden Potential: The Science of Achieving Greater Things has sold “millions of copies” of his various productivity/self-help-for-the-LinkedIn-crowd books; and my now-polluted news feeds tell me I absolutely must check out Feel Good Productivity, which challenges the idea that productivity is all about toil and sacrifice, and dares to ask: “But what if there’s another way?”

There is nothing inherently wrong with wanting to be more productive. But the productivity industry thrives on feelings of inadequacy and insecurity in a system that is constantly demanding more of people. It’s worth asking: what are the potential ethical concerns with productivity advice, and why should we care about being more productive in the first place?

Productivity advice can come in different forms. Some give you practical tips to get more done during the day, with suggestions for specific tools or ways of blocking off your time. Others tell you to get rid of the things that are distracting you; social media and screen time being common scapegoats. Others still focus on your motivation or mindset, or get you to develop systematic ways of thinking and approaching your problems.

Regardless of the type of advice, the common denominator of your productivity failures is you. Despite consistent trends of people feeling increasingly under pressure, stressed, and burnt out amid an uncertain economic climate, the source that is consistently identified as being the cause of lackluster productivity is not an overly demanding system, but a lacking on the part of the individual.

We might think that the very last thing that people need right now are suggestions about how to get even more done when they feel like the demands they already face are overwhelming. The productivity industry, however, does not question the expectations one faces to be productive but takes for granted that any failure to meet those expectations is personal.

Of course, one might want to find ways of being more productive precisely because the demands of work and life are getting in the way of other important, non-work-related projects one wants to accomplish. If that’s the case then the abovementioned best sellers will have plenty of solutions for your productivity woes.

But the productivity industry cannot sustain itself by producing contented individuals who are able to achieve their goals. Instead, it thrives on the insecurities and anxieties of those who feel pressure to do more, and helps to reinforce those anxieties by providing ill-supported and inconsistent advice.

Consider a recent trend in the productivity sphere: the realization that simply pushing yourself more to try to get as much done is ultimately counterproductive, and that you need to take breaks every so often (so that you can be more productive later). So I might wonder: is it okay for my productivity if I play video games every once in a while? According to Feel Good Productivity, sure, it’s something you can do if the day is a write-off, and not something to beat yourself up about; according to Atomic Habits, it’s a waste of time, something to distract you from developing better habits; according to Hidden Potential, playing a video game like Tetris can be beneficial in that doing so can help you process trauma better.

That different productivity guides classify the same act as sometimes bad, sometimes neutral, and sometimes actively therapeutic is indicative of the shaky and inconsistent grounds of the productivity industry (in this example: somewhat insipid common sense, personal anecdotes, and curated scientific studies, respectively). While many of the best-sellers will claim to be backed up “by science,” it’s clear that there’s no rigorous standard that any of these authors is being held to. In practice that means you either need to adhere to one system, or else be paralyzed with the knowledge that no matter what you’re doing to try to be more productive you are most likely, according to one or more of these guides, doing the wrong thing.

Another common thread that runs through a lot of the contemporary productivity industry is that you are much less likely to get something done if you do not, in some way, want to do it. This insight is the basis of Feel Good Productivity, which states that the first step in being more productive is feeling good, which in turn leads to reducing stress, giving you more energy, and then, of course, producing more. Hidden Potential makes the same claim: one needs to turn “I have to” into “I want to” in order to hit the relevant metrics one hopes to achieve. Simply buckling down and grinding out hours isn’t going to help, these authors claim: you need to allow yourself the opportunity to explore, play, and have fun to become more productive.

This advice might sound somewhat benign, but there are at least two reasons to be skeptical of its value.

The first is that the system that has created the productivity advice industry inhibits your ability to follow that advice. It would of course be nice to have the space to be able to explore, play, and have fun when trying to build up motivation and accomplish one’s tasks, but performance pressure that is present in many industries, along with demands that allow for less detachment from our work and increasing feelings of shame for not staying connected does not provide the conditions necessary for good-feelings-based productivity. While one’s mileage will certainly vary when it comes to the demands one faces in day-to-day life, that productivity advice is so ubiquitous is reflective of a system that demands more from us, not one that allows us to take our time and enjoy ourselves.

Second is the notion that “feeling good” should be put to use. While it’s likely true that, on average, people can get more done if they’re feeling happy as opposed to, say, stressed and miserable, feeling good presumably ought to be the end of one’s actions, not the means to simply do more.

The question as to why one should be more productive in the first place is not one that I ever recall seeing in any productivity guide. But it is a question worth asking before trying to become someone who tries to get more done when, chances are, the demands you face are already high enough.

The Culture of Crunch: The Video Game Industry and Overwork

Banner for the game "Red Dead Redemption 2"

This month sees the release of one of the most highly anticipated video games of the year, Red Dead Redemption 2. The game is created by video game supergiant Rockstar Games, known best for their Grand Theft Auto series of games. However, the co-founder of Rockstar Games, Dan Houser, has recently been the target of controversy for expressing in a tweet, as well as in an interview with Vulture that employees at Rockstar had, in weeks leading up to the game’s release, been working “100-hour weeks.” While later clarifying that Houser did not mean to imply that all employees were working such hours, or that it was mandatory that any employee do so, the statement nevertheless reignited discussion about the seemingly ubiquitous occurrence of “crunch” in the video game industry.

“Crunch” is generally defined as a period in which employees put in work weeks much longer than 40 hours, often unpaid, in the weeks or months leading up to the completion of a project. Take This, a non-profit that describes itself as “serving the game community/industry that provides resources, guidelines and training about mental health issues in the game community” describes in a whitepaper that crunch is often the product of setting of unrealistic deadlines, and that employers feel that it is required for “creativity and esprit de corps”. Take This describes typical crunch times as involving 60 to 80-hour work weeks, although some in the industry have reported even more significant demands on their time. For example, one of the early catalysts for more public discussion of crunch came in 2004 in a blog post by spouses of employees of Electronic Arts, who describe periods in which employees worked up to 12 hours a day, seven days a week.

Take This also describes the toll that crunch takes on the mental and physical health of employees: “Long work hours might mean giving up sleep, eating poorly, overindulging in caffeinated drinks, and otherwise abandoning healthy habits”, with “major risk factors for health problems that include insomnia, depression, heart disease, stroke, and on-the-job injuries”. Studies reported in the whitepaper also strongly support the idea that crunch is actually detrimental to the quality of the finished product, as well as the company itself: excessive crunch time tends to result in more numerous software defects and lower critic ratings, and more significant costs to the company in terms of dealing with employee turnover.

It seems clear that there are a number of ethical problems surrounding crunch in the video game industry. First and foremost, even if crunch does end up producing a higher quality video game (although we have seen reason to think that it doesn’t), it seems that detriments to the mental and physical well-being of employees are costs that outweigh any potential benefits. It would then seem to be a generally unethical practice to make significant crunch mandatory.

However, while companies like Rockstar have clarified that there is no explicit expectation of crunch from its employees, there may be more subtle factors that result in employees feeling as though engaging in crunch is expected of them. For instance, Matt Webster at gamesindustry.biz describes a number of practices that can create the appearance of implicit requirements for crunch from employees, and that companies have an obligation to try to avoid. Webster suggests a number of best practices, including setting realistic expectations for completion, regularly seeking feedback from employees measuring their health, and curbing rewards for bad behaviors; for example, Webster notes how encouraging someone for working excessive hours with praise like “She’s just passionate” reinforces detrimental behavior.

Webster’s observations speak to a second ethical concern surrounding the crunch phenomenon, namely concerning the obligations that companies have towards their employees to try to try to mitigate the effects of crunch. Eliminating the effects of crunch will take more than just explicitly decrying the practice: one may also be required to try to establish a workplace culture in which employees do not feel implicitly obligated to engage in crunch. In addition to the above best practices, Webster suggests that those in leadership positions ought to modify their own behavior to set the right kind of precedent for their employees. “Like the behaviors you want to see”, Webster recommends, adding “if you believe everyone should leave at six o’clock…then leave at six.”

We have seen that given the detrimental effects on employees, employers have moral reasons not to require crunch. However, since crunch can be a product not only of explicit policy but of implicit behavior, the actions of those like Hauser, someone who does not require crunch but still engages in it, may still be morally problematic. After all, if all of your bosses are working 100 hours weeks, you will no doubt feel pressure to start putting in a lot of overtime yourself.

One final worry has to do with how we as consumers of games that are partly the result of crunch ought to behave. Jessica Conditt at Engadget, for example, reports mixed feelings when appreciating the artistic qualities of Red Dead Redemption 2 while knowing that many of those qualities were the product of significant crunch at Rockstar:

“While I admire these in-game moments, they’re also the ones that shake me out of Red Dead Redemption 2‘s spell the most abruptly. The more beautiful the scene, the more obvious how much talent and work has gone into it, the more I think about the people behind it and how many 80-hour weeks they might have endured; how their emotional and physical health must have fared; how many family milestones they may have missed. The more I think about crunch.”

Conditt suggests that, as a minimum, both those in the video game industry and consumers of games ought to engage in an open discussion about consequences of crunch. Given that according to some estimates Red Dead Redemption 2 is expected to sell 25 million copies in the first six months after its release, we can hopefully expect a lot of conversations in the near future.