The Effects of Technology on Work Productivity
A professor once said that after optimizing his work processes in the twenty years after first using a computer he had finally become more productive with a computer than without one. He said that in the late 80s.
It was a laugh line, but the joke would only be funny if it were a bit true.
It’s worth remembering that technological products are developed largely to make money for their creators. If it can make you more productive along the way, the makers won’t stop that, but it might not be their foremost concern either. (See Candy Crush.)
Games are obviously unproductive, but not all productivity technologies are productive either. Some tools are useful for work communication but enable all sorts of other evils. (See e-mail.) Other tools provide important information but can also serve as a never-ending time sink (See Wikipedia.)
For the past two years, I have worked on a project whose groundwork was laid during a trip to China with a paper notebook and no computer. I don’t think I could have made such plans if I had access to a computer and its opportunities for productivish distraction.
In China, without a computer, when I had an idea, I would write it down and think about it. If I have an idea now, I research indefinitely on the Internet, and it moves no further.
The technologies I have access to determine what work I do. The work I do does not determine what products I use.
It really should be the opposite. I should have clear goals in my life and determine what tools I may or may not need to achieve those goals. Instead though, I find that I have acquired a bunch of tools for a lot of random reasons (it was on sale; Will recommended it). Those tools make certain things easy and fun, so those are the things I do. Goals, schmoals.
I am writing this post on my phone on an airplane. If I had free internet access, I might be reading news instead. If my phone weren’t available, I might be reading a book I packed that is important to my work. The technologies I have dictate what I do.
Steve Jobs would talk about delight in the use of Apple products. That is great if you are an Apple shareholder. If you are a customer, it can be a big problem. Are you using a tool because it is delightful or because it is the best way to get what you want done?
But maybe I shouldn’t even be using R. Maybe I should use a whiteboard to plan what analyses I need to do. Or I should use mind mapping software. Or I should read a book on a related topic.
Sometimes I wonder whether people keep checking their e-mail not because they can’t stamp down on their curiosity about who has just written to them, but rather because answering e-mail is something they know how to do well.
I am confident in writing e-mails. I don’t know whether I can do what I need to do in R. Part of being a researcher is doing things that haven’t been done before and you therefore don’t know will work. Maybe I would be better off if I didn’t have e-mail. I would be a less efficient communicator, but communication isn’t an important job responsibility of mine. Why did I decide to get e-mail in the first place?
Oh, right. I didn’t decide. E-mail is free and fun. Therefore I have it.
And I only thought to even ask what my most important job responsibilities are and what technologies assist or impede their fulfillment because I am on an airplane without internet but with a phone. When the Internet becomes truly ubiquitous and batteries last forever, maybe even these tiny opportunities for thinking about whether our technologies enable our work will be gone.
This is not to say that I am anti-technology. I am just observing that I have adopted a variety of technologies and associated behaviors without seeking even a nominal answer as to how they will help me do things that are important to my work. Rather, I use them because other people use them, I have made a habit of using them, and they are easy.