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

productivity
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.

Yet:

— 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?

You Can’t Quantify Kindness: Our Statistical Obsession

Chicago graph clim
Like this....but with feelings! Image via Wikipedia

Great piece in The New York Times by Alina Tugend about our growing — and misguided — obsession with measuring everything in our lives:

Numbers and rankings are everywhere. And I’m not just talking about Twitter followers and Facebook friends. In the journalism world, there’s how many people “like” an article or blog. How many retweeted or e-mailed it? I’ll know, for example, if this column made the “most e-mailed” of the business section. Or of the entire paper. And however briefly, it will matter to me.

Offline, too, we are turning more and more to numbers and rankings. We use standardized test scores to evaluate teachers and students. The polling companies have already begun to tell us who’s up and who’s down in the 2012 presidential election. Companies have credit ratings. We have credit scores.

And although most people acknowledge that there are a million different ways to judge colleges and universities, the annual rankings by U.S. News & World Report of institutions of higher education have gained almost biblical importance.

As the author of a newly released book about working retail I haven’t once (honest!) checked my amazon ranking number.

Seriously, what good can it possibly do?

Will my hips suddenly shrink or my bank balance double? I wish!

My thesis about why retail associates are so horribly paid is linked to this data obsession: you can’t measure kindness!

Think about the very best salesperson you ever met — (or hotel employee or waiter or nurse or teacher).

The EQ — or emotional intelligence — the skills that really left the strongest impression on you, are probably not their technical mastery of that new Mac or their grasp of the essentials of calculus, but how they helped you: with patience, humor, calm, grace.

All of these are essential qualities we simply cannot put on a graph.

And that which we cannot measure, we do not value.

I was in the hospital in March 2007 for three terrifying days, on a IV with pneumonia, from overwork and exhaustion. (Don’t ever get pneumonia — it makes you cough so hard, for hours at a time, you can break a rib.)

I finally begged the nurse to swaddle me tight in a cotton sheet, like an infant, to ease my aching muscles. She never raised an eyebrow at my weird request, but did it at once, with a compassion that I will never forget.

That healing quality of care, invisible, unmeasured and therefore too often undervalued, is not inscribed anywhere in my medical records.

It should be.