Weekly Productivity Links, ‘The history of productivity’ edition

I’ve been watching The Men Who Built America on the History Channel this week, and it’s gotten me on a bit of a history kick. I started thinking about how our opinions about work and productivity have changed over time. It’s so easy to think of workplace productivity in exclusively modern terms, given that so much of it is dominated by technology that didn’t even really exist until the last couple of decades. Here are a few interesting historical tidbits about intelligence, efficiency and productivity in the modern (and not so modern) workplace.

Civilisation is making humanity less intelligent, study claims

Feeling mentally sluggish? Unable to stay focused? Well, it might be due to the cushy lifestyles that pretty much all of humanity leads these days. By “cushy lifestyles”, I mean: having shelter, buying food from a store, not getting hunted by wild animals. You know, luxury items. :) According to one theory, the lack of natural selection in the modern world has probably allowed gene mutations that reduce our cognitive abilities to flourish, and we probably reached our intellectual and emotional peak between 2,000 and 6,000 years ago. Don’t worry, it’s just a theory, and there’s another school of thought that says the real driver for our intelligence is the complexity of our social world, which has increased steadily over time.

Bring back the 40-hour work week

Salon takes a look at the history of over-work. Specifically, how time and time again it’s been proven that working employees too hard leads to reduced productivity. It’s easy to assume that today’s work environments are fundamentally different, but there’s a big mountain of data that suggests otherwise. Despite our comfy office chairs and all our gadgets to augment our work capabilities, we still need just about as much downtime as we always did.

How a Robot Will Steal Your Job

Looking away from history, and towards the future, here’s another article about how your next co-worker might be a robot. I took a look at some more examples of the coming robo-pacolpyse a few weeks ago. It seems like every week, there’s another new story about machines doing the work that only human hands had be previously capable of.

The Evolution Of The Knowledge Worker [Infographic]

Here’s a look at knowledge workers throughout history, and how information has been used to get things done. A nice illustration of the impact of information to the general workforce over time.

History of mobile productivity shows it started way back in the 1970s [More Infographics!]

For as much grief as I give smartphones for being a huge distraction-magnet, I have to admit they have opened up some huge possibilities to be more productive and work together more efficiently (sometimes to a fault). This infographic takes a look at the technical advances of mobile technology over time and shows how it has impacted our productivity.

Random historical productivity trivia

Are you feeling the need to earn a few nerd-points amongst your fellow lifehacker friends? Look smart and impress them by name-dropping some of these historical productivity icons:

The Hawthorne Effect

These famous series of workplace productivity experiments at the Hawthorne Works found that, well, pretty much anything you change will have a positive effect on your productivity… as long as you observe it… and the effect generally wears off after a few weeks. It’s a somewhat depressing phenomenon that can throw a wet blanket on your otherwise-exciting productivity self-experiments. But it also supports a more positive idea, that conscious changes in your routine will almost always bring some sort of gain, even if it’s short-lived.

Peter Drucker

Peter Drucker was one of the earliest thinkers about the information economy. In fact, he was the one who coined the term “knowledge worker” in 1959, as he saw a shift away from repetitive process oriented work, such as manufacturing, and a move towards people who “think for a living”.

W. Edwards Deming

Have you ever heard the saying “You can’t manage what you can’t measure.”? We’ll, W. Edwards Deming gets credit for it, although he never actually said it. In fact, he said many things that seem to indicate the exact opposite opinion. And he certainly should know what he’s talking about. He was one of the early pioneers of using analytics and testing in the workplace to increase efficiency and productivity.

Ernest Hemingway

In addition to being a famous writer, Ernest Hemingway seemed downright 21st century when it comes to efficiency. He worked at a standing desk, he kept detailed stats about his performance, he understood the dangers of multi-tasking (quote: “The telephone and visitors are the work destroyers.”). Here are some of his better-known productivity habits. For a more in-depth read, here is an interview with him from 1958 where he discusses the work of being a writer.

There’s your history lesson! Have a productive week, everyone!


One Comment on “Weekly Productivity Links, ‘The history of productivity’ edition”

  1. Fascinating! Great little collection of historical notes, the Hemingway interview is the best thing I have read for weeks!