Productivity and the Goose that laid the Golden Eggs

Most of the misunderstandings concerning productivity appear because productivity gurus measure productivity with time as the variable. If only we could manage time more effectively, we would get more things done, the thinking goes. This is true insofar that one is doing piecework where each actions takes a certain amount of time so that work volume is directly proportional to time. Although many people are still paid in the old fashioned way by the time they put in, most products are more accurately measured by the value they add regardless of how long it took to create this value.

From my perspective, the amount of value that can be created on average over time is limited by individual creativity. In other words, a person is capable of producing X amount of value and another person is capable of producing Y amount of value. If a person creates a lot of value in a single day, you can rest assured that very little of the same kind of value will be produced the next day. It simply averages out. To understand this, think of the goose who lays one golden egg a day. The goose may be considered highly productive during the hour during which the egg is laid. Naively one would expect that with proper time management, the goose would be able to lay an additional egg every hour. Obviously that is not how it work. If the goose was asked to do that, it would quickly burn out.

As I said, I think we each have the capability to produce a certain amount of value each day without burning out. If left to our own devices, that is exactly how much we will produce.

We will have

  • a certain amount of creative energy
  • a certain amount of physical energy
  • a certain amount of social energy

Productivity is not about doing biceps curl with your left hand while brushing your teeth with the right hand. It is about using the above mentioned reserves most optimally. This is NOT done by maxing out each capacity (think of the goose). A certain amount of energy must also be spent maintaining the capability.

This is something our culture is not very good at, but consider this.

To use any given resource, you absolutely must consider THREE things

  1. Extraction
  2. Maintenance
  3. Expanding

Extraction is the process of taking the energy. Productivity should not be about about maximizing the rate of extraction. Let’s repeat that three times. Productivity is not about maximizing extraction. The rate of extraction rate must not be maximized. Maximizing extraction is bad. You must not maximize extraction! Yet this seems to be what many gurus are preaching. It is certainly the way the career-reward system is set up.

Without maintenance, think of the United States infrastructure, for example, the system eventually crumbles. Without maintenance, the system can not be sustained. If the system is not maintained, it eventually dies with a whimper as extraction is limited as well. Maintenance is what the goose does to recover from laying the egg.

The importance of expansion is obvious. As well as maintenance, the system should be improved. This does not mean bigger or more, it means better. With expansion, the system stagnates and eventually gets crushed by non-stagnating competitors, and so some energy must be used towards that end as well. Expansion is what the goose does to get better at laying eggs.

Productivity must consider all three aspects. Ignoring one of them is fine in the short term but destructible in the long-term. Naturally there are short term incentives to ignoring maintenance and expansion in the short term, but this results in long term costs: Working a dead-end job, letting bridges collapse, running the world on non-renewable resources. Productivity, therefore, is not about expending time more efficiently, it is not about about expending more energy, it is about expending more energy either. It is about expending energy most efficiently.

This is exactly what happens when one says that work expands to fill the time alloted. This is also the reason why more free time does not result in more things getting done (see here and here). More free time does not result in more energy unless the previous energy is uses to expand capacity. Usually when just leaving a job (which pretty much only focuses on extracting as much as possible from you) a lot of energy must first be used on maintenance to rebuild yourself.

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Originally posted 2009-01-11 17:42:17.