For the management theorist and the economist alike, the concept of productivity is very well-defined. Productivity is a number: output divided by input. When you start to poke at how the word is used colloquially, however, its meaning is considerably less clear. This is particularly evident the more abstract and specialized our roles become.

A worker with light markers attached performs a task for a long-exposure photograph to be analyzed by the Gilbreths
A worker with light markers attached performs a task for a long-exposure photograph to be analyzed by the Gilbreths.

The quaternary sector of the economy is so named because it is three additional degrees abstracted away from the primary sector, which encompasses most variations on taking things out of the ground. Unlike it, the secondary and tertiary sectors—manufacturing and services, respectively—the quaternary is concerned with mediating information as a substance in its own right. The existence of the quaternary sector is not technologically-driven—artists, journalists, managers and bureaucrats are quaternary—but its growth can indeed be at least partially attributed to the insinuation of the computer.

The management consultant's concept of productivity is especially well-adapted to describe what goes on in the primary and particularly the secondary sector, which the role was invented to optimize. The macroeconomist's concept is complementary: more output with the same input is proportional to the same quantity of output with less input. This, the theory went, would translate into more leisure time, a proxy for quality of life.

We in the quaternary sector have a unique relationship to this concept of productivity. Contemporaneous to this essay is a handy microcosm that demonstrates the phenomenon quite aptly: NaNoWriMo. The goal is to produce a 50,000-word novella within the month of November. Why thirty days? If it was just a matter of producing a string of fifty thousand words, a decent typist ought to be able to do that in two. Yet it's still a challenge when amortized to a little under 1,700 words a day, so something else is clearly going on. What about preparation? Doesn't count. You can spend as much time as you want to prepare for the event. Take all year. Take ten! And the results? Unsurprisingly mediocre: on average about 16% of registrants even finish, and far fewer successful exits actually amount to something more substantial than a personal exercise.

How would you define productivity for such an excursion? How would you quantify it? How do you compare productivity across time and between people? How do you determine what is productive enough?

Let's consider the abstract process of highly-synthetic quaternary work as a full-fledged artifact—which it is, in the sense that it is designed to produce certain outcomes. Indeed, any consideration toward improving productivity is an attempt to engineer this process. Now:

An artifact can be thought of as a meeting point—an interface in today's terms—between an inner environment, the substance and organization of the artifact itself, and an outer environment, the surroundings in which it operates. If the inner environment is appropriate to the outer environment, or vice versa, the artifact will serve its intended purpose.

Herbert Simon, The Sciences of the Artificial, page 6

The process in question can be understood as an interface between an inner environment consisting of that which has to be tamed in order to produce results in the outer environment, where those results are felt, and that is how I intend to treat it. When I can, I'm also going to drop the unfamiliar term quaternary and just use creative, since just about all creative work is quaternary, and very little quaternary work isn't creative.

Inner Environment

The inner environment concerns the properties of the generalized creative process itself, irrespective of its context. We can then present to the outside as a unitary black box, with inputs going in one end and outputs coming out the other.

Infungible/Weakly Substitutable Inputs
We say an object is fungible when there are functionally identical copies of it. The word is usually used in the context of money, probably the most fungible substance around. This is not the same as substitution, which is to switch for something similar, but different. An apple, controlling for its condition, is fungible over the set of similar apples, and in some contexts it can be substituted for a pear, and in others, an orange. Creative work typically entails that if you want a particular result, you have to do whatever it takes to get it, and if you don't want to do what it takes, you'll have settle for something else—assuming that's even possible—and you'll be right back in the same situation.
All production of objects, to be sure, is discrete, but when the numbers get big and smooth enough, there is a tendency to pretend it is continuous. If you are a factory worker and you produce, on average, 100 widgets an hour, plus or minus one widget is a rounding error. Any meaningful trends are only going to be visible at the week or month level. Creative work, by contrast, tends to produce one artifact at the scale of days, weeks, months, or even years. N±1 results in the creative realm can make or break a career. Indeed, a career—or even an entire lifetime—isn't long enough for such results to average out.
Of course, you can only count things that are the same. To what extent, as a creative professional, can you really say you've even done the same thing twice? Even somebody like a journalist, whose job is to produce only one class of artifact—articles all of a roughly similar magnitude—no two take exactly the same amount of effort, from days—or even hours—to weeks or months of work.
Non-linear as ƒ
At least as often as some trivial nonsense goes viral, somebody's magnum opus goes thud. The ratio of what goes in to how it cashes out is completely up in the air. You can put in X and get a million X out, or you can put in a zillion X and get nothing out, and this will vary wildly from one excursion to the next. In addition to the ratio of inputs to outputs, the process itself is non-linear, accelerating as we gain better comprehension of what we're doing.
Because of its parceling into big blocky discrete chunks, each with a nonlinear payout, creative work is in some ways more like gambling. Unlike gambling, however, with fixed bets, fixed odds, and well-defined events against which one is betting, we find ourselves investing arbitrary amounts of effort to remain in the limbo between winning and losing for an equally arbitrary time period.
Path-Dependence/Memory Effects
In gambling, moreover, all bets are independent from each other. The outcome of any one draw does not affect the outcome of any that come before or after it. In creative work, which tends to depend on cycles of probing and feedback, the order absolutely matters.
Dead Ends/Incomplete Information
Creative work is not only sensitive to the sequence of operations, it also isn't especially forthcoming about what the correct sequence even is. This condition will lead us to do things in the wrong sequence, or even do what in hindsight are the wrong sub-sequences entirely. A likely cause is that by definition, we start the work without the information we need to finish it.
Combinatorial Clown Car
Solving any complex problem means breaking it down into a set of smaller problems, recursively, until you have a set of problems which are each small enough to solve. Much like the sequence of operations—which is fed by this pattern of subproblems—it is not immediately obvious, and probably not what you think it is. The penalty for getting the structure wrong is at best that you have to go back and make it right, and the odds of getting it wrong, since
elements yield 4
combinations, can quickly get enormous.
Team Dynamics
So far, everything in this list has concerned solo efforts. When you add other people, you have to factor in communication overhead. The ratio of communication channels to team members is roughly quadratic:
: 1
. As your team grows, your gains in productivity are lost to communication overhead, unless you spend yet more overhead figuring out how to partition your process, quite literally so members of the team don't have to interact with each other so much.
I considered filing this under outer environment due to its liminal character, but controlling optics invariably is an ingredient in the sausage: Irrespective of the degree to which you are productive, progress is something you will likely have to regularly and conspicuously demonstrate. Unless you're independently wealthy or the creative work you're doing is a hobby, you likely have a boss, client, publisher, or some other kind of patron. The goal here is to convince them that you're moving forward at a satisfactory-enough pace to keep the all-important money flowing. Ironically, this involves a diversion of resources that ultimately slows down the realization of your original objective. We assume, however, that slowing down is not as bad as having to stop completely.

I imagine a spectrum where at one pole we have an assembly line worker, and on the other we have a mathematician trying to prove a famous conjecture. The productivity of the former is constrained only by physics, and may glean a few percent here and there with better tools, methods, and discipline. The latter, by contrast, may have the best tools, methods, and discipline, spend an entire career working diligently, and still not succeed. We live somewhere in between.

When you produce small units which are all the same, when you start your task with all the information, materials and tools you need, when your task has been already decomposed and set in the correct sequence, when you have an ocean of sample data telling you what normal is, when you have bleached all endogenous sources of uncertainty from the process, and your team—if you have one—either interacts perfectly as a unit or otherwise barely interacts, then you can start talking about productivity in the classical sense. We, on the other hand, have to conceive of it differently.

Outer Environment

Let us suppose, then, that we have managed to coax the black box of the inner environment to a stable equilibrium of material results and managed expectations. Now what? Well, let's start with the proximate issues and move out from there.

Is it eating your life?
Creative work has a tendency to consume far more resources than get recorded in the accounting books. There is a point at which this is inevitable, and another at which it ceases to be acceptable. When the former crosses over the latter, there is a problem.
Is it paying you enough?
It may seem crass to talk about money, but we in the quaternary sector have a unique relationship to it. We don't actually need much, but if we don't have enough, we can't perform. Simply put, can you think about somebody else's abstract, distant problem when you are faced with very close and urgent problems like making rent? Money problems—especially cash flow problems—kill the golden goose of creativity.
Are you subsidizing the outcome any other way?

This point has to do with esoteric concepts like Pareto optimality, but it's nevertheless pretty graspable: Are you making somebody else much better off than you're making yourself? Moreover, are you hurting yourself to make somebody else much better off? Are you hurting yourself only to have them end up not much better off either? Consider:

A software developer goes to work at a company. Three months into the job, they put the finishing touch on something they've been noodling on for years. The employment contract says part of the deal is to surrender all inventions to the employer, who patents it, puts it in a drawer, and forgets about it. Now the developer can't use their own invention developed on their own time, and to add insult to injury, the employer never uses it either.

Are you okay with any power you may be conferring onto others?
People very often pay us to achieve ends that are considerably more exotic than just earning a little—or even a lot—of money. We may indeed be arming people who turn out to be our enemies.
Are you okay with any harm you may be directly causing others?
Like, say, the customers? Are you helping them, or are you helping to parasitize them?
Are you okay exporting negative externalities to the environment?
The environment here is not just the ecological environment, but also the social, cultural, economic and political environment. Negative externalities are of course the bad side effects that occur as a result of doing something else. Consider a certain social media website that may have inadvertently influenced the outcome of a certain election, or another that can't seem to get its Nazi problem under control.
Are you okay with potentially screwing over your future self?
A question I regularly ask myself is what happens if this works? If something I make really takes off—an unlikely, but far from impossible proposition—am I on top of it, or am I underneath it?
What about somebody else?
Even if you manage to stay on top, others might not be so lucky. This doesn't even have to be a morality play, because what goes around, comes around. Namely: What's it going to take to skyhook you far enough out of the firing range of anybody harmed—or more importantly, perceive themselves to be harmed—by your success?

The point of this segment of the analysis, if it wasn't already evident, is: what does it mean to be productive if what you are producing is bad? Or even if it is good for you, it may be bad for others, who may endeavour in turn to make it bad for you. Seems a little risky, dunnit?


In the wake of all this navel-gazing, contemporary consternations around productivity seem decidedly parochial:

Am I doing enough? Am I earning my keep? Am I slacking off? Am I procrastinating too much? Is my boss demanding too much of me? Are my colleagues pulling their weight? Are we doing better than our competitors, or are we doing poorer?

It would seem that the reason we care about productivity is because we are concerned about being productive enough, both in absolute and comparative terms, and being able to tell a credible story of productivity, if not to onlookers, then at least to ourselves.

I'm going to make the radical suggestion that at any given instant, you probably can't tell the degree to which you are being productive. I more than hinted at it above.

I grow increasingly skeptical of the universality of setting priorities. Priorities are not the same thing as dependencies: dependencies are events that have to happen in order for other events to happen. Priorities are simply the sequence you want the events to happen in. Dependencies should always take precedence over priorities, because that's what's going to end up happening anyway.

In a similar vein, I am skeptical about the range of applicability of the concept of procrastination, because it assumes there is something more important we should be doing. More specifically I suspect what typically gets called procrastination to be a misdiagnosis. Putting off tidying the garage because you're working on your writing project is procrastination. Tidying the garage instead of working on your writing project is something else entirely.

To wit, I am skeptical of the concept of a creative block. I suspect the phenomenon is more like a creative lacuna, a gap or vacuum of missing content. The notion of an obstacle assumes the metaphysical precept of ex nihilo creativity, that our capabilities are mysterious cosmic gifts that enable us to create something out of nothing. A block, therefore, is something to be overcome, through discipline and conditioning, atop a foundation of inborn fortitude. I do not believe this, because information is infungible, and has to come from somewhere. A more fitting story is that we operate over information that we get from the world around us, and that insights come from unexpected places, and that some results come sooner when we don't try to force them. Under this paradigm, procrastinating by tidying the garage is very likely an optimal use of time, whereas forcing yourself to sit at your desk and stare at your screen is not.

If my characterizations of either the inner environment or the outer environment are even close to accurate—and one wouldn't be without the other—then we should be insisting on systems of procurement, contracting, and project management that reflect the idiosyncrasies of our enterprise.

Namely, everything is a bet. All of it. At every scale. Some bets are more likely to pay off than others, but they are bets nonetheless. Forcing yourself to sit at your desk and write 1,700 words every day for a month is a bet. Taking one of those days off to tidy the garage is a bet as well.

In addition to drilling down to the elementary level, the gamble bubbles all the way up. Our bosses, clients, and patrons very rarely compensate us enough to earn our converting their bet into our guarantee. They must be made to acquiesce that they are betting as well, and what they stand to gain is often considerable. As long as they can perpetuate the fiction that there ought not be a risk or uncertainty on their end, we will continue to ask ourselves stupid questions like if we're working hard enough to satisfy them.

This situation further distracts us from the ultimate gamble of whether the goal we're working toward will improve the world that we then have to live in, or harm it. If we want any control over that outcome whatsoever, we have to start talking about new strategies for managing our time and (our clients') money. The strategies are out there, but will continue to sit idle until we pick them up. This is something we are going to have to demand.