I don’t (only) want to do more faster. Do you?

productivity (Photo credit: Sean MacEntee)

Since my wedding in September 2011, (when we took a week off locally afterward), I haven’t taken more than four days off in a row. My last extended vacation was in May 2005, three weeks in Mexico.

I’m taking a month off, starting today — but will still blog here three times a week. I’ll also be working on a book proposal and one or two short articles, but only after the first 12 days of rest, relaxation, seeing friends and family, recharging my spent battery.

In the past 12 months, I’ve:

published my second book; done dozens of media interviews and speaking engagements to promote it; written a new afterword for the paperback, which is out July 31; hired an assistant to help me with all of this; negotiated more speaking engagements; addressed two retail conferences in Minneapolis and New Orleans; gotten married in Toronto; helped my husband deal with kidney stones; had my left hip replaced and done 3x week physical therapy for two months; served on two volunteer boards, and additionally visited Chicago and Toronto for work.

Oh, and blogging here three times a week, working with a screenwriter on the television pilot script for Malled (not picked up), and writing for a living.

Kids, I’m fried!

Time to not be productive, which leads me to this essay raises an important question, and one especially germane to any economy premised on “productivity”:

But there are sectors of the economy where chasing productivity growth doesn’t make sense at all. Certain kinds of tasks rely inherently on the allocation of people’s time and attention. The caring professions are a good example: medicine, social work, education. Expanding our economies in these directions has all sorts of advantages.

In the first place, the time spent by these professions directly improves the quality of our lives. Making them more and more efficient is not, after a certain point, actually desirable. What sense does it make to ask our teachers to teach ever bigger classes? Our doctors to treat more and more patients per hour? The Royal College of Nursing in Britain warned recently that front-line staff members in the National Health Service are now being “stretched to breaking point,” in the wake of staffing cuts, while a study earlier this year in the Journal of Professional Nursing revealed a worrying decline in empathy among student nurses coping with time targets and efficiency pressures. Instead of imposing meaningless productivity targets, we should be aiming to enhance and protect not only the value of the care but also the experience of the caregiver.

The care and concern of one human being for another is a peculiar “commodity.” It can’t be stockpiled. It becomes degraded through trade. It isn’t delivered by machines. Its quality rests entirely on the attention paid by one person to another. Even to speak of reducing the time involved is to misunderstand its value.

The only thing this industrial mindset — speed the production line! –– produces in me is frustration and annoyance.

I also attach value to the production of:

deep friendships; a happy and thriving marriage, my own physical and mental health, daily, and weekly, periods of rest and reflection.

I recently asked a friend, who out-earns me by a factor of 2.5, how she does it. The answer was to quadruple my workload, and at a speed I think probably, for me, unmanageable.

My book “Malled”, which describes my 27 months working as a part-time retail sales associate — supplemented by dozens of original interviews with others in the industry — has brought me paid invitations to address several conferences of senior retail executives. I suggest to them every time that focusing solely on UPTs (units per transaction — i.e. why they try to sell you more shit unasked for, than you want) and sales per hour is not the best or only way to go.

But numbers are safe and comforting. When corporate players hit their numbers, they keep their jobs and get their promotions/bonuses. Metrics rule.

Except when they don’t.

I once spent an hour talking to a female shopper in our store. Turns out we had a lot in common. She spent $800, which remained the single largest sale I ever had there. She also asked if I knew a good local psychotherapist. Not many people would have asked that question of a minimum-wage clothing clerk, but she’d clearly decided to trust me. I did know one and recommended him.

A year later she returned, glowing, with one of her teenage daughters, to thank me for helping her survive a very tough transition in her life.

That “transaction” is completely meaningless in any economic sense.


— it enriched the therapist, who well deserved a new client.

— it enriched my customer’s soul, which needed solace.

— it enriched her three daughters’ lives as their mother found help she needed.

— it enriched my heart to know I’d been able to make a good match and help her.

But these powerful emotional connections are routinely dismissed as valueless behavior on any corporate balance sheet — because they can’t be quantified, measured and compared to other metrics.

Which is why I have such a deeply conflicted relationship with capitalism.

How about you?

Do you think working harder and faster is our wisest  or only choice?

33 thoughts on “I don’t (only) want to do more faster. Do you?

  1. Great post! In response to your question: When buying a product or service you have to pick 2 of these 3 options: Quality, Low Price, Customer Service. You can’t have all 3. Which 2 would you choose? Which 1 would you sacrifice? (It seems to me the woman in your story chose Customer Service and Quality. Kudos to her! 🙂

    1. Well, I’d hoped for it to be 100% leisure but that’s not to be the case. It will be refreshing to be away for so long, and I will be happy to return at the end. I had hoped for some wildly exotic getaway but $$$ intervened and my hip is still not nearly 100 percent. So this is, I think, a good compromise…some time home in Canada, then some time in Vermont, both familiar enough to be comforting but with new things to explore and enjoy.

  2. I think in a lot of ways I *needed* to become a stay-at-home mom. I was exhausted working and working towards something as impersonal as a pay-check. I realized I needed that hard work to count for more than what I was getting at the office. I work harder than I ever did at my previous job (or maybe just completing stranger tasks… like cleaning up poop or wrestling). I still go to bed tired every night, but now content.

  3. I think it’s up to each of us to really sit with what we *know* is true, not just what others expect or reward us for when we make more popular or prestigious choices.

    It’s great you were able to make that choice and are now enjoying it.

    So many people work at jobs they hate because “they have to” when they can choose other ways to live that are perhaps more difficult or unusual.

  4. Very well said! That was the whole reason I quit my full-time corporate job. I couldn’t reconcile the fact that I was giving more time and energy to my workplace than to my husband and daughter… and to myself. By the time I got home from work, I was tired and grumpy and no fun to be around – how is that good for my family? While we have to make different financial choices now and we have to think about every dollar we spend, the time I get to spend with my daughter now is sooo worth it. I hope you enjoy the break. As you say, a wonderful opportunity to reconnect with people – very nurturing for the soul.

    1. Thanks for sharing this.

      I think corporate life, especially, makes little to no allowance for our human/family needs. I miss some elements of working in an office — like, hm, twice the income I made six years ago! But, like you, I enjoy the control over my time and space.

  5. Excellence is at the heart of what you have accomplished. You showed a deep and abiding love not just for your writing, but every aspect of your life. Great things take time and are nurtured in relationship.

  6. Maybe we all need for this to get out of control, so it will implode on both sides. And the possibility for us to stand strong that our values and caring actually mean the world to us. I believe we are starting to notice we need each other more than we realized. Thanks for bringing it to focus for us. Love your work. Laura

    1. Thanks so much! The challenge is figuring out what “out of control” really is. I think by the time you’re sucked deep into the maelstrom (and committed financially so you can’t get out easily) it’s tough.

      I decided a while that I work to live, not live to work. I enjoy my work and work very hard at it. But I do not own a lot of things that cost me $$$ (i.e. a huge mortgage, new car, etc.) and will force me to keep my nose to the grindstone past the point it’s healthy or interesting intellectually.

      1. It takes being a contrarian — and cheap as hell (aka frugal) — to live low(er) than your means and lower than your educational or socioeconomic status might otherwise dictate. A great book on this is “The Millionaire Next Door.” We do not have millions, but our retirement fund is much larger than most only because we don’t have kids and have stayed in a 1 bdrm apartment for years. We could have “traded up” to a much larger place with all its attendant costs and then we would not “have been able” to save for retirement. BS. You set your priorities and behave accordingly. I pray for the health and strength to retire to France…that will take $$$$. That which I don’t spend now, I can spend later (I hope!)

  7. Perfect. Your insights are wonderful.

    A month ago, I just dumped my mobile phones and tried to live each day without one. And it has worked. It had slowed me down, allowed me to do things I want to do. The output of my businesses…same. I just want to live life slowly and savor the main things that make me happy.

    Thanks for sharing. I wish you a very “unproductive” break. =>

    1. Thanks…so glad this struck a chord with you.

      Today was Day One of vacation and I’m thinking. Um….Now what? 🙂 Oh, yeah, move sloooooooowly. Read for pleasure. Take lots of pix. I took a nap today at 4pm and slept like the dead from sheer exhaustion.

  8. Thanks for this. I absolutely take time for life. I try to figure out how to fix things around the house, donate clothes and furniture to others, eat at home (like, all the time and it involves cooking and preparing food for the week), and invite friends over to share a tray of cheeses and a glass of wine. I might splurge and meet them at a coffee house, but my drink of choice is usually a large decaf. I also barter my editing services (I’ve been a professional editor almost 15 years) for things like book covers with other independent publishing types. Three of my covers are the result of a barter arrangement. I once bartered a developmental edit on a manuscript for my share of a hotel room at a writer’s conference. I’m a big fan of barter. And there are days that I go internet-free (today is not one of them, obviously) because I think it’s important to connect with real-life.

    Hope everybody’s having a great weekend. Cheers!

  9. “a deeply conflicted relationship with capitalism”

    You took the words right out of my life. I work in finance by day, and I hate it. Everything about the way they operate, reducing people to numbers, non-tangible meaning to the shredder pile, and humanity to the recycling bin (corporate eco-friendliness at its best), is just… appalling.

    But I’m aware also that this isn’t utopia. Regardless of who’s to blame, this is the way the world works, and I know that if the money industry didn’t work this way, I the individual would be in a LOT more strife right now. It sucks.

    On work though – we all know that, smarter / more effectively or productively doesn’t necessarily mean “harder” in the traditional nose-to-the-grindstone sort of way, but a lot of us can’t quite commit our attitude to this knowledge. Changing mindset is a slow business. But I’m thankful to see that it is changing, however slowly.

    1. I admire your ability to do that. I have never done well in jobs with a flavor like that…and journalism is corporate but usually disguised somehow in its greed…

      I think the notion of “productive” is difficult. I plan to blog about my new assistant and I admit, she is super productive for which I am grateful.

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