Melissa Gregg on her new book, Counterproductive

Interview by Ilana Gershon

Ilana Gershon: When did the argument for Counterproductive come to you in the process of researching and writing?

Melissa Gregg: After I came up with the title, because I didn’t want to change it! The title helped me pursue two related ideas. First, that productivity is a misplaced goal in information jobs, since work is about the mind as much as the hand. Second, that for all the talk of freedom and flexibility in the modern office, we do not appear to be thriving with the newfound ability to manage ourselves. This is unfinished business from my last book, Work’s Intimacy. I wanted to understand the origins for the types of productivity pressures expressed by the workers I had interviewed at the dawn of the smartphone era. Back then, we had no language to explain the simultaneous sense of compulsion and pleasure that came with online connectivity. The vocabulary of labor seemed totally inadequate. I had always been fascinated by self-help genres for business, so taking an auto-ethnographic approach to time management texts and tools soon revealed obvious consistencies in genre and form despite the technologies of the period. From there, the components of an analysis came together. The rituals and refrains of charismatic gurus could be placed in the broader history of religious thinking embedded in capitalism. I also came to appreciate that much bigger ideas – like life priorities and mortality – were at stake in ostensibly utilitarian “Getting Things Done” principles, just as they were underpinning many of the actions of my earlier research participants.

Ilana Gershon: You trace the evolution of advice around time-management, and I have started to think of analyzing advice to be the act of using social analysis to unpack others’ social analysis.  What did you discover about how people’s social analysis has changed by looking at transformations in advice?

Melissa Gregg: Over the course of a century, productivity pedagogy created a belief that social engagement can be engineered. In the examples chosen for the book, this command-control view becomes progressively more self-centered and egotistical, especially as we arrive at the more recent technology fuelled acolytes of life hacking and mindfulness. The social is hardly tolerated in time management advice, since it is volatile, unpredictable and a source of distraction. Meanwhile social analysis is avoided in any explicit way because it is the prompt for unwelcome reflections on the structural conditions of privilege, including wealth and education that affect an individual’s sense of what is important versus trivial. At the start of the last century, productivity gurus recommended disciplined routines to achieve goals in a finite temporal order. But more recently, the affective condition of hypermediated life calls for different methods and techniques. Today time and self-management is less about order and more about artistry – crafting and curating experiences and building the psychological infrastructure to withstand surges in intensity.

Ilana Gershon: You write: “Personal productivity is an epistemology without an ontology, a framework for knowing what to do in the absence of a guiding principle for doing it.” (98) – one of the many elegant and transportable sentences in this book that opens up space for a sharp critique of capitalism.  How do contemporary technologies for time management reflect this insight that personal productivity is an epistemology without an ontology?

Melissa Gregg: There is a constant expectation of activity in the workplace that technology certainly facilitates. Task management enabled through our devices is becoming obligatory, driving us forward without any need to reflect on what truly guides our efforts, or what an end result would be. Doing has replaced believing. Meditation is interchangeable with dry-cleaning as just another thing To Do. As more of us work in the shadow of financial capital, with no link to the real sources of wealth extraction, we kid ourselves that efficiency and commitment will translate to rewards. The thing about software engineering is that it can give you the most elegant way to do something without ever drawing attention to what you are doing or why. Focusing on the example of time management, Counterproductive is seeking a way back to these questions of ethics and morality in work.

Ilana Gershon: One of the more powerful points in your book is the insight that organizations no longer are responsible for coordinating time, that “the injunction to use time resourcefully now falls on everyone.” (130)  How we are allowed to manage our time has become part and parcel of power relationships. What strategies have you seen that might make our working relationships to time more humane for ourselves and others?

Melissa Gregg: Within teams of peers, it requires trust and communication. There are so many unspoken and legacy notions affecting our efforts to be good colleagues. These beliefs can create assumptions about availability and responsiveness that prevent our ability to rest and recharge. Institutions are insatiable, so prioritize clear conversations about when you are willing to work. We fear letting people down just as we worry about losing our job. But the myopia of knowledge work is one of the biggest obstacles to building relationships with others, especially those who don’t enjoy the remaining semblance of security attached to the employment relation, who experience time very differently. My hope is that this book generates alternatives to the corporate calendar so that more of us can find the power and pleasure that comes with working and living on our own terms.  

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