The Productivity Paradox: How to Find a Comfortable Equilibrium

August 16, 2019
min to read
Francis Pedraza

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By default, most people will choose to do less. They’ll take the hammock: the extra sleep, recreation, relaxation, and vacation days. But because of competition, if one person chooses to do more, that person will gain market share, and eventually, everyone else’s gains are erased, because they have to keep up.

So productivity is an arms race. If you’re selling productivity, you’re only saving people time in the short term: your early adopters have an edge, until the market catches up and everybody signs up. What you’re really selling, in the long term, is abstraction: you’ll never have to do this stuff again, from now on, you’ll do more important stuff.

What is the Productivity Paradox?

If you increase productivity, you give people time back. If you give people the gift of time, they can do more with it, or they can do less with it. This is “The Productivity Paradox.”

The problem with this, as a sales pitch, is that most people don’t want to do more important stuff. They’ll do it when the market forces them to, but they’re not eager for it. Less important stuff requires less thinking, mental effort, and uncertainty. Washing dishes is meditative. Chopping wood is meditative. It’s nice. It feels productive. It becomes your identity. And as long as you’re still paid for it and respected for it by the group, why give it up?

On the other hand, doing more important stuff requires more thinking, mental effort, and uncertainty. Making decisions is stressful. Solving open-ended problems is stressful. There are lots of dead ends. Failure is unpleasant. Sometimes you’ll be paid and respected more for it by the group, other times less — the more important your role is, the riskier it is. Why bother?

productivity is an arms race

This is why very few people are motivated to save time. If you’re selling productivity, there are two types of people who are motivated to save time, and will become your early adopters: leaders and drowners.

Leaders come in all shapes and sizes, but they are the minority of people whom, if you give them the gift of time, choose to do more with it. Leaders buy opportunistically: they’re always looking for leverage.

In contrast, drowners are desperate. They buy because they need help. For whatever reason, they’re in a role where too much is expected of them, so they have to work longer hours on nights and weekends to keep up — it’s ruining their lives, and they hate it. Or, they’re in a role where they hate the work itself: although it’s relatively simple, it’s not a match for their skills or interests, and they can’t delegate it to anyone else.

Drowners are just like everyone else, except they’re drowning. They can only be relied upon to buy productivity solutions while they’re drowning. Once you save them with an initial solution, and restore equilibrium, they won’t buy more and more solutions: they’ll be satisfied. Because what normal people really want is a comfortable equilibrium. They only want change if their equilibrium is disrupted, or becomes intolerably uncomfortable. In all situations, what they’ll always buy is a comfortable equilibrium — you can count on them to do that.

For a productivity arms-dealer, leaders are a hard market to target. Although they’re a small percentage of the population — there are more drowners in the world than leaders — still, they’re a large enough initial market, but targeting them is hard. For every drowner, there is a likely population of other drowners with the same single need. But every leader tends to have several different needs. You can build a company on a single drowner archetype, but the only way to build a company on the leader archetype is to have the ability sell many different kinds of productivity solutions in sequence.

Whereas drowners want to restore a comfortable equilibrium, leaders want to win. Winning means different things for different leaders, depending on their goals, but it always means competition, and a drive for excellence: all leaders want to improve, because the faster they improve, the closer they are to achieving their goals, and winning.

maximize productivity

Because normal people maximize for equilibrium, they like the tools that once displaced their economic ancestors. Yesterday’s progress, which their ancestors bemoaned, can be appreciated as today’s convenience. They’re grateful to work with digital tools in an air-conditioned office, instead of doing manual labor with farming implements in the sweltering heat. But read Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath to remind yourself how normal people once felt about tractors. Progress is change: today’s enemy, but tomorrow’s friend.

So it is, that only a small percentage of the economy is truly competitive. The rest of the economy has the unpleasant experience of constantly being yanked from their comfortable equilibriums, because leaders disrupt these equilibriums by raising the bar and by selling productivity solutions to the minority of normal people that are drowning.

All of this is to say, that very few people are motivated to save time.People would rather make money than save money, and they would rather save money than save time. That’s because it’s easier to imagine what you might do with more money. More money means more pleasure. Saving money requires sacrifice, so it means less pleasure, but more protection. But saving time is the worst of all, because saving time means identity crisis.

Left alone with time, we don’t just feel bored, or lonely, we feel useless too. Leaders spend most of their time drowning in ambiguity, because everything that they have made clear, they have already delegated. They’re constantly finding more leverage by surfacing problems, scoping solutions, then delegating the final solution and implementation. That is, they’re constantly seeking abstraction.

Leaders are the opposite of normal people: they’re constantly trying to turn money into time; whereas normal people are constantly trying to turn time into money. Leaders are less anxious about ambiguity than normal people, because they’re confident in their ability to create value with time. So they’ll turn money into time, because they know how to turn time into even more money. They’re the ones who build the systems which everyone else runs, and which allow us to get stupider and lazier in most parts of our life.

Normal people drown in work, leaders drown in ambiguity. For normal people, ambiguity makes them question their value and purpose, and creates stress by forcing them to make sense of chaos. But leaders welcome ambiguity, because that’s where creativity, learning and growth come from.

To win the productivity arms race, leaders need to learn how to sell to leaders and drowners, until a tipping point is reached.

“The Master does nothing,
yet he leaves nothing undone.
The ordinary man is always doing things,
yet many more are left to be done.”

— The Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu
Translated by Stephen Mitchell

Francis Pedraza

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