A review of Melissa Gregg’s “Counterproductive”


I’ve been sitting on a new version of my ‘The Book I’m Writing’ post for a few weeks because I’m not super happy with how it’s turned out. The guts of the post is that, having read Foucault, I’d like to have each chapter talk about the ‘birth’ (read: contingent construction) of an idea that forms part of work as a technology of power. One of those concepts is the idea of Productivity, which seems to have emerged at some point during the industrial revolution as a way of talking about labour power and time.

When I put out a call to #twitterstorians about the existence of a cultural history of productivity, They were unanimous in recommending Melissa Gregg’s Counterproductive: Time Management in the Knowledge Economy. Now that I’ve read it I can say it’s not the book I was looking for, but it is very good, and it’s going to be quite useful.

The book is an attempted genealogy of time management rather than productivity per se. Gregg begins with the contention that the history of time management “begins with the experience of women in the home prior to industrialisation” (22). This is in line with the claims Ivan Illich makes in Shadow Work, that the historical transformations that brought work into existence – the establishment of centralised factories, the movement of people off land and into urban settings, and the transfer of most labour to paid and contracted ‘jobs’ – were entangled with he processes usually collected under the title ‘Industrial Revolution’.

Gregg closely reads several examples of manuals for housekeeping by women – the work of Catherine Beecher (Harriet Beecher Stowe’s sister) of 1841, Ellen Richards from 1882, Lydiia Ray Balderston from 1919, Christine Frederick form 1912, and Lillian Gilbreth from the middle twentieth century. From the works of these women, Gregg draws out the initial model of time management – the segmentation of tasks, prioritisation, delegation, and the beginnings of mindfulness in the form of “Solitary moments at the beginning of the day “ that “provide respite and reflection away from the concerns of others” (26). From there, Gregg connects these initial domestic treatises about time management first to the self-help gurus of the 1960s and 1970s (Bliss, Covey, Adair, Allen and others), and then to the proliferation of time management apps in the 21st century.

Gregg convincingly argues that the Taylorist notions of efficiency that came to dominate work throughout the 20th century and beyond were influenced by the rhythms and assumptions of domestic housework. She uses the work of Peter Sloterdijk to frame efficiency as an “athletic” pursuit, with workers striving as athletes for personal improvement in service of productivity: “To reach this level of superiority, workers are invited to embark on a schedule of disciplined training that culminates in a state of relaxed confidence” (69).

The goals of ascetic and athletic time management are to foster self-discipline and asociality – that is, the achieve a separation from the distractions that others bring:

“Each of these versions of productivity orthodoxy involves a vision of mastery and control that entails freedom from obligation but not from work. The inconvenience of other people, the mutual dependence that collective liberation requires, pales into insignificance compared with the accomplishments of the individual.” (91)

Athleticism and asceticism are extremely useful capacities for considering the history of productivity, and Gregg’s powerful provocation that productivity is an increasingly anti-social technique of the self is food for thought. Her departure point – manuals for women’s management of the household – is also a reminder not to let the gendered dimensions of work drop from view. Gregg writes: “our current combination of mental and manual labour is not dissimilar to that of traditional women’s work: immaterial labour involves generating affect, a sensibility, or a feeling. As Arlie Russell Hochschild established, ‘Service with a smile’ is the ultimate form of suppressing one’s own well-being to please others” (104).

For Gregg, productivity reaches its apotheosis in the neoliberal moment, where through time management self-help, the precarious contemporary worker has successfully internalised the management relation. Or, to put it another way:

“Employees experienced a change in power dynamics as team-based workplaces came to vogue and productivity ideals became per-facing. It was no longer the manager standing watch to observe an individual’s outputs that characterised the assessment of productivity. The colleague and the client took over as the overarching influences pressuring workers to stay busy on and off the job.” (75)

This is the Panopticon, realised through techniques of workplace management..

Gregg’s most interesting intervention is the compelling connection of productivity and mindfulness. Both techniques, after all, require discipline and disconnection from others, and lionise the individual. The difference is that the aim of mindfulness is to repair the burnout that productivity-focused time management in the ‘always on’ 21st century inevitably causes:

“In contemporary workplaces, productivity’s demand for prioritisation and efficiency – the informal registers of professional competence … – typically occur without training or support. In this environment, mindfulness offers a mode of repair and solace form the combined psychological and organisational requirements placed on workers. Through specific instructions that assist in recalibration and refocusing, mindfulness emphasises being over doing, at least for short periods. It therefore flips the default rationale of productivity even while its techniques reaffirm many of the same lessons of time management gurus of decades past.” (110)

Running throughout Gregg’s work is a keen critique of the ways neoliberalism mobilises productivity and time management. It’s the connection between self-management ad individualism that drives neoliberal capitalism towards anomie and solipsism, and it’s very visible in time management texts: “Productivity turns the workplace into a contest among individuals who vie for the ultimate neoliberal victory: the opportunity to remove themselves from the demands of the social” (96). This anti- or asocial goal explains the decline of union membership and other forms of collective worker solidarity.

She argues that, by bringing the focus constantly back to the individual as entrepreneurial subject, “productivity genres ensure the myopia necessary for professional commitment while simultaneously diminishing awareness of the work of others. Time-management training has the effect, if not the function, of obliterating recognition of collegial interdependence in contemporary workplaces” (54). She concludes that “[w]hen everyone is personally challenged to be productive, discussion of adequate resources or additional colleagues to share the load become close to irrelevant” (127-8). This is, I think, the most compelling point in a book full of insightful connections and admirable intellectual clarity.

I am less convinced by Gregg’s conclusion. I won’t go into detail, but for me the argument starts to fall apart. I grew increasingly confused about the relationship Gregg saw between mindfulness and productivity, and I was completely unconvinced of the merits of mindfulness as a practice of resistance to productivity, even if I was convinced by its utility as a rite of repair. Given Tom Slee’s arguments about the gig economy in What’s Yours is Mine, I was also completely unconvinced by the arguments about co-working spaces as potential sites of resistance to precarity.

Nevertheless, Gregg’s closing “Principles for post-work productivity” maintained the clarity and insight of the earlier chapters. They collectively call for quite a radial break with the legacies of industrial work – the eight hour day and the career – using the raw material provided by self-management and the dissolution of the connection between work, space, and time to build new “work limits”. In a neoliberal world of ‘always-on’ work, Gregg’s call for work limits is as timely as it is essential.


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