Learn, Make, Teach.

Category: Productivity


Is This Legible?

You breathe in.

Your hand rests on the door handle.

Your first day.

I can do this, you think.

You push the door open and stride into the room.

You make your way to your desk, shoulders back, conscious of your posture, your smile, keeping a brisk, “can do” attitude about you.

Projecting confidence.

You look out.

They’re all spread out. Some have their heads down. Others are lounging with their feet outstretched, sending an unmistakable message:

“We don’t want you here.”

Some have piercings. Others seem quiet. Still others look ready to go, but not wanting to seem too eager. Can’t know what the others would say, after all.

A pencil, restlessly tapping.

One whispers to another. They laugh.

If I don’t turn this class around, you think, none of these kids are going to graduate.

How do you do it?


Every year, all across the country, teachers –

(You know, that profession that we all agree is critical for the functioning of a healthy democracy? The one we can’t manage to pay very much?)

– face situations like this one.

It’s scary, and frustrating, and difficult, and rewarding – all at the same time.

But really, this situation isn’t much difficult from ANY situation where we need to change things for the better.

You come in with high hopes. You KNOW there’s a gap between where things are and where they should be.

Imagine you’re this new teacher. You’ve got this room full of vaguely-threatening, disrespectful, unmotivated kids. You know for a fact that if you fail them – if you can’t make this happen – they’ll all be worse-off.

How do we go about making a change?

First things first – we need to know how we’re being graded. We need a measure.

It might be scores on a standardized test.

It might be their grade point average.

It might be improvement in reading.

While some measures might be better than others, we need a measure, regardless.

Once we’ve determined a measure, we need to understand what our current score is. In other words, we need a baseline.

If we have an objective standard we’re trying to meet, we need to know how far off we are.

Once we know how we’re being measured, and we know where we currently stand…

We need to know where we’re going.

In other words, we need a standard.

What does our score need to be to qualify as a success?

Are we far behind? Just a tad off?

Knowing which it is will determine a lot about how we proceed.

This process:

1. Defining the measure;

2. Establishing a baseline;

3. Setting a standard…

…is the starting point of all improvement.

It’s not just a way of trying to improve a class, but the exact same framework you’d use to start a business, perfect your physique, learn a language, or colonize Mars.

This, here?

Is the starting point of everything.

The foundation of all success.

And we can summarize it in one word:



I’d like to switch subjects for just a moment, to:

(And yes – I bet you know where this is going…)

The birth of scientific forestry.

The 18th century in Europe was one of rationalization.

Everywhere, science and mathematics were being applied to traditional practices. The hope was that, by applying reason and modern knowledge to time-honored ways of doing things, progress could be accelerated.

Scientific Forestry was the name for this process of rationalization as applied to traditional forestry practices.

If you were a landholding noble in the 17th century, forests were incredibly important. Wood was the primary fuel source, important not just for heating your keep in the winter but also as an engine of war. Fire was necessary for metal smelting, not to mention crafting arrows.

Imagine that your neighbor, the Duchess of Flapjack, had been making sorties into your territory. War seems to be on the horizon. It’s critical that you begin to marshal your forces and make preparations.

A steady supply of wood will be instrumental to your success. But how much wood can you expect from the nearby forests this year?

This question of wood production was incredibly difficult to answer. Oftentimes the exact outline of a forest was unclear. How big was it, exactly? What kind of trees were in it?

Local people had a rough idea – one that perfectly suited their traditional uses of that particular resource – but nothing approaching the accuracy required by local government.

Enter scientific forestry.

Assayers were dispatched to establish the exact boundaries of a forest. Tree counters wandered around, marking trees and making exact tallies. Experiments were conducted to figure out how many cords of wood could be expected from a certain species of tree over a given period of time. “Top Producers” were ascertained.

For the forest scientists (Forstwissenschaftler) the goal was always to “deliver the greatest possible constant volume of wood.”

A measure was defined (cords of wood produced…)

A baseline was recorded (historically, the forest produces X cords of wood…)

And a standard was established (could we somehow engineer an increase to 2X cords of wood?)

Entities were named, scored, measured and tallied.

The chaos of the forest became legible.

It is through these layers of abstraction – these human categorizations – that an incredibly complex reality becomes real to us for the first time. We are literally able to see the trees within the forest.

Heinrich Cotta – the father of scientific forestry – had a word for this new, abstracted forest entity: the Normalbaum.

Cotta and his followers used this layer of abstraction to apply scientific principles to the management of natural resources. Thinking in terms of Normalbaum – of, not a tree, with all it’s inherent complexity, but of a number on a spreadsheet – allowed a kind of “forest accounting” to emerge.

As Tore Frängsmyr, J.L. Heilbron, and Robin E. Rider write in The Quatifying Spirit of the 18th Century:

”The annual accounting of the bureaucrat had to be linked with a long-term plan of resource management based on scientific principles. One prominent Forstwissenschaftler , Friedrich von Burgsdorf, called the common problem “keeping the forest’s books,” and defined procedures to follow in terms of the quantities of interest to forestry science.[62] The bond between forestry science and cameralism was the conversion from an amount of wood to its value. From that point, the practitioners could go their separate ways, the cameral official to the preparation of the Geld-Etat , or monetary budget, and the forestry scientist to the Forst-Etat , the budget that compared the yield to what the forest could bear over time.“

It is hard to underestimate what a revolution this was – and what a monumental effect it had on forestry the world over.

Once mathematical abstractions made the forest and it’s output legible, forest scientists began to experiment with different methods of management.

Undergrowth and brush were cleared away.

Insects that damaged valuable tree species were eradicated.

Less-productive trees were replaced by better-producing ones.

And, finally, trees were planted in grids to allow easier access and better care.

Germany (where Cotta’s teachings were implemented) experienced record yields. Their wood production dwarfed that of neighboring states, and provided a lasting economic benefit.

Scientific forestry became the dominant model of natural resource management the world over. Many of Cotta’s principles are still in use today.

Historian Henry Lowood observed (as quoted by James Scott in Seeing Like a State):

These innovations “produced the monocultural, even-age forests that eventually transformed the Normalbaum from abstraction to reality. The German forest became the archetype for imposing on disorderly nature the neatly arranged constructs of science. Practical goals had encouraged mathematical utilitarianism, which seemed, in turn, to promote geometric perfection as the outward sign of the well-managed forest; in turn the rationally ordered arrangements of trees offered new possibilities for controlling nature.”

In the beginning, there was the forest;

In the end, there was the Normalbaum.

The abstraction had become reality.


We will finish the story of the Normalbaum next week…

For now, let’s return to the concept of Legibility.

The universe that surrounds us is infinitely complex.

Through interaction, even seemingly simple systems can take on breath-taking levels of dynamic variance.

In other words:

The world is fucking confusing.

Without legibility, this world is too complex to affect, too complicated for man or woman to master.

It’s a world that is, at it’s depth, religious; dominated by old gods.

The application of abstraction is, in this sense, mankind’s greatest skill. Simplification begets pattern recognition; pattern recognition begets improvement.

It is for this reason that legibility is the foundation of all improvement, all creation, all invention, all progress.

To close the loop on our well-meaning new teacher:

How do we improve the performance of the class?

Well, first, we probably want to figure out their names.


You’ll probably make a seating chart, and ask everyone to stay in the same seat all year. That way, you’ll memorize their names faster.

Makes the class a little less intimidating.

Maybe you have a conversation with each student individually.

What struggles are they facing?

What are they good at? What’s hard for them?

The picture becomes a bit clearer for each student. You have a little more context now. A little more understanding.

You check with an administrator. It turns out, each of them needs a minimum 3.0 GPA to graduate this year.

That’s your measure. Now you know how progress will be judged.

You go around to each of their teachers, tallying their existing grades and doing some math. You figure out everyone’s existing GPA. The class average is only a 2.0.


That’s your baseline. That’s where you’re starting from.

You now know that for each kid to graduate, they’ll need to raise their individual GPAs to 3.0. You resolve not to let a single kid fail.

That’s your standard.

All attempts at improvement must start with legibility.

You can’t get the kids to graduate without learning their names.

You can’t solve a problem you can’t define.

Just like you can’t get wood from a forest…

Only from a tree.

What could possibly go wrong? 🙂

The Factory Floor

This post was originally an email sent to the Better Questions Email List. For more like it, please sign up – it’s free.

Not going to lie – this week’s email comes out swinging a bit. Not 100% sure it works.

I debated sending it at all.

In the end, there’s nothing to do but trust the process and hope it lands.

Let me know your thoughts at the end. You can always reply right to this email; I read every one.

Is This The Factory Floor?

I’d like to point out something that you likely take for granted:

The language of work has seeped into everyday life.

This occurred to me, of course, while I was reading a textbook on Lean Manufacturing and wondering how I could apply it’s lessons to my personal life…

(This is what you read in your spare time too, right? Of course it is.

My next project – a productivity course called “Against Productivity” – is about this sort of thing.

If I’m being honest, though, I’d be reading it anyway.)

Consider love, the least “businesslike” thing we do.

What’s the most common, most cliche advice on love?

The thing you’d hear in any marriage book, dating book, relationship book…

From any therapist, sexologist, or advice columnist?

“Relationships take work.”

Laura Kipnis, in her wonderful book Against Love: A Polemic (from which I have shamelessly stolen my title), underlines the point:

“We all know that Good Marriages Take Work: we’ve been well tutored in the catechism of labor-intensive intimacy.

Work, work, work: given all the heavy lifting required, what’s the difference between work and ‘after work’ again? Work/home, office/bedroom: are you ever not on the clock?

Good relationships may take work, but unfortunately, when it comes to love, trying is always trying too hard: work doesn’t work.”

Of course, relationships aren’t the only thing we’re taught “take work.”

If you want to be a good person, you probably believe that you need to be working out

Or working on yourself

Or “doing the work” in therapy.

With all this “work” going on it’s not surprising that we’re all obsessed with productivity…

But it’s important to understand how new this concept is.

How To Lift Heavy Things

Taylorism (the “scientific management” system spearheaded by Frederick Winslow Taylor in the 1880s) is where our modern sense of “productivity” begins.

Taylor’s goal was getting the worker…

(“so stupid and phlegmatic that he more nearly resembles in his mental makeup the ox than any other type”, in Taylor’s words)

…on the factory floor to lift more and more heavy shit.

Anything that got in the way of this (say, a brief moment to enjoy the sunshine) was waste.

As Stanley Buder puts it in Capitalizing on Change: A Social History of American Business, “Taylor…substituted a mechanical work pace based on repetitive motions for the worker’s freedom to use his body and his tools as he chose.”

From this came the idea that it is an unqualified good to get ever more output from the same amount of input.

No matter what.

Enjoying the sunshine can go fuck itself – we have screws to tighten!

So, let me make a bold claim:

Productivity is dehumanizing.

But what do we really mean, when we say something’s dehumanizing?

We mean we are removing the biological – the human.

What defines the biological?

Redundancy, variation, diversity – in other words, randomness.

Capitalism abhors the random.

After all, economies of scale only emerge when every Big Mac is identical…

When the experience is guaranteed no matter what town, or state, or even country you’re in.

A Big Mac is a Big Mac is a Big Mac.

Unreliability means uncertainty and uncertainty means lost profits.

Businesses need reliability, because reliability means you can calculate a profit margin.

To achieve this, systems must be constructed, and then subordinated to.

Redundancy is eliminated.

Variation is reduced.

Diversity becomes monoculture.

As Taylor himself put it:

“In the past, man has been first; in the future, the system must be first.”

This is the logic of the factory floor: an unending conveyor belt attended to by automatons.

Pure, logical, productive, and efficient.

In other words, inhuman.

(This is the system’s greatest weakness…but that’s a discussion for another time.)

Now let’s move this unrelenting logic of the factory floor to “knowledge work” –
You know, the stuff that’s creative, requires originality, involves personal interaction….

The human stuff.

People are just so damn variable.

Our day to day performance changes depending on how we slept, whether we’ve had sex in the last week, whether we’ve gotten enough sunlight, whether our blood sugar is too high (or too low).

These squishy bits might help with survival, but they’re terrible at work.

If that’s the case, why the drive to be more productive?

Why the creeping dread that our inboxes are full, our schedules packed, our phantom phones buzzing in our pockets?

Excess Capacity Goes To The Bosses

The lie was that increased productivity at work would mean more free time at home.

This has been the promise of all since technology since the wheel.

As recently as 2013, Ross Douhat wrote in the New York Times that we were experiencing “a kind of post-employment, in which people drop out of the work force and find ways to live, more or less permanently, without a steady job. So instead of spreading from the top down, leisure time — wanted or unwanted — is expanding from the bottom up.”

Wonderful. How’s all that awesome free-time treating you, post-employment?

In fact, technology almost never “frees up” time for leisure. Excess capacity always goes to the bosses.

More time means higher standards and more demands on that time. After all – if you can respond at midnight to a work text, why shouldn’t you?

We saw this with household labor. The promise of the dishwasher, washing machine and vacuum cleaner was they would provide household workers more free time.

Instead, standards of cleanliness rose with the excess capacity, and now mom is on her hands and knees cleaning the bathroom tiles with a toothbrush instead of reading Proust in the garden.

(Happy Mother’s Day, by the way!)

What this expansion of “work time” does is suffocate our “work-less” time.

“Work/Life balance” is a meme in our culture because one always overlaps with the other. There’s never a clean break.

So, rather than becoming more productive at work and finding ourselves with oodles of free time…

We find ourselves becoming more productive at work, and having less free time as a result.

And so, why not try what worked for the boss – and turn the tools of scientific management on ourselves?

And so Taylor waltzes into our homes, clipboard in hand.

Our desperate hope:

If we can become more productive in our vanishing “free” time…

We can cram more life into less hours.

Kanban Boards – popularized inside Toyota manufacturing plants – in our kitchens, helping keep track of chores.

Bullet journaling – “the analog method for the digital age that will help you track the past, order the present, and design your future” – to keep track of self-care.

Sex, intimacy, and date nights – scheduled across a shared Google Calendar.

We’ve bought into the belief that because business is effective, it must be good; 

And so the tools of business can help us live a decent life.

But they can’t.

Because business is about efficiency;

And efficiency is about process;

And efficient processes cut variety, chance, and waste;

And thus, efficient processes are dehumanizing.

And living a good life is all about being human, with all the messiness that entails.


You and I both know what the ultimate extension of this thought process looks like.

You and I have both seen the logic of the factory floor applied to living things.

Because a slaughterhouse is just another kind of factory.

No words

Just one pure moment of silence

Don’t worry.

You’ll never see it coming –

you’ll be far too busy.


Because I don’t want to end it there…

And because I stated at the beginning that I’m working on a course on productivity…

What’s to do about all this?

I have a few thoughts:

1. Productivity needs to be, first and foremost, hedonistic.

By which I mean, it is designed to produce pleasure in your life. Fuck your boss, fuck your job, fuck your sidehustle –

The goal of productivity is pleasure.


2. Productivity needs to be humanizing.


We don’t build a system so that we can imprison ourselves in it.

We need to build a system that is human; one that allows for serendipity, for aesthetic joy, for the days when we just don’t feel like getting shit done.

It’s not about doing more. It’s about being effective in our human pursuits.

If you’re wondering what that looks like in practice…

Well, I’m working on it.

Stay tuned – I’ll tell you when it’s ready.


Slack In The Rope

This post was originally an email sent to the Better Questions Email List. For more like it, please sign up – it’s free.

Is there slack in my rope?

Here’s something that is sometimes hard to remember:

Maximal is not optimal.

Imagine, if you will, a highway.

Really picture the flow of cars down this highway…

Fast ones, slow ones, tractor trailer trucks, sedans…

All speeding along.

If we’re checking out this highway in the early afternoon, we might see a smattering of cars.

Not too many, everyone moving at their own pace, perfectly content.

This highway is not at capacity.

We are not maximizing the number of cars on the highway, despite how happy everyone is.

Now, imagine we come back and check out this highway in the middle of rush hour.

A very different picture:

Cars stuck in gridlock, beeping and honking, crawling along.

No one’s particularly happy. In fact, scowls are the order of the day.

In this case, we are maximizing the number of cars on the highway…

But we still aren’t at optimal capacity, because no one’s going anywhere.

In both instances, the highway’s throughput – the rate at which cars get to where they want to go – is lower than it should be.

In the early afternoon, throughput is down because the number of cars is too low.

During rush hour, the number of cars is way up – but throughput is still down, due to congestion.


Maximal is not optimal.

Let’s put this another way:

Any system that is operating at maximum capacity is not operating at it’s best.

This is a hard one to swallow.

Imagine your calendar.

Let’s say I want to optimize your productivity – help you get as much done as you can within the allotted time.

One approach might be to maximize the amount of tasks you do.

I could fill up every available moment of your schedule. Every single white space on your calendar, filled up.

By doing so, I’m guaranteeing you will complete the most tasks possible…


Unfortunately (or fortunately, if you care at all about quality of life), this is not the case.

Because as the week goes on, you will become more and more burnt out…

More and more tired…

More and more stressed…

And your productivity will decline.

Pretty soon, you’ll be lucky if you’re staying upright at your desk, much less getting anything done.

Maximal is not optimal.

Adding any more tasks to your schedule results in diminishing returns – a reduction of throughput.

So, very often, when I work with people who want to improve their productivity, I achieve almost immediate results by…

Taking things off their calendar.

Just like the highway has the optimal throughput by finding the sweet spot between more cars and less cars…

We find the sweet spot in our work by balancing more with less, and work with rest.

One final metaphor:

Imagine you are climbing a mountain.

It’s steep. You’re miles up.

Everywhere around you is wind, and jagged rocks, and ice, and death.

You scan for the next hand hold; you can feel the strain in your forearm.

Your muscles are tiring. They’re screaming as the lactic acid builds, and builds, your entire bodyweight balanced on a few tiny fingertips…

But you see noting.

No hold.

No crevice.

A dead end.

And at that very moment of realization, you feel your fingertips slip away…

And the mountain begins to recede into the sky.

You are falling.

Certainly to your death, were it not for…

The rope.

The rope you tied around your waist.

Ask yourself now, as you fall…

Ask yourself the only question that matters:

Is there slack in my rope?


Some Cool Stuff For You To Read:

I wrote a blog post about creativity – and why certain ideas are your responsibility, even now. Read it, then go make a bunch of shit and share it with me.

Do you like cool, creepy old woodcuts? Of course you do. Here are some incredible ones: The Drolatic Dreams of Pantagruel.

Have a good week.

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