Tuesday, March 15, 2016
Productivity and the Mormon Busyness Ethic (Part 2)
Now it came to pass, as they went, that he entered into a certain village: and a certain woman named Martha received him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, which also sat at Jesus’ feet, and heard his word. But Martha was cumbered about much serving, and came to him, and said, Lord, dost thou not care that my sister hath left me to serve alone? bid her therefore that she help me. And Jesus answered and said unto her, Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things: But one thing is needful: and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her (Luke 10:38–42).
Because managers feel compelled to somehow measure work—and because in most modern workplaces anything related to Taylor’s time and motion studies is irrelevant—they often simply measure hours worked. Sometimes they divide up the hours and assign them to various tasks. This measurement often has no direct connection to the actual product being produced (because most work today is not the easy-to-quantify factory work Taylor focused on), so managers end up measuring inputs in the productivity equation but not relating them in any meaningful way to the output (often because there is no way to mathematically connect the two). When this happens, management is simply focusing on activity, the more the better. And the message workers hear is that they should fill their days with many activities, regardless of whether or not they are actually productive activities. This measurement approach rewards busyness. It also rewards people for working more hours than they actually need to, creating a culture of workaholism, which is a good description of our American economic culture.
In America we put a premium on hours worked. American jobholders work more hours in a year, on average, than workers in Japan, Canada, Sweden, or the UK, to name a few. We even work more hours than the industrious Germans. According to statistics from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), in 2010 Americans worked on average 360 more hours than their German counterparts. That’s nine regular 40-hour workweeks, by the way. The discrepancy is partly due to Germany’s myriad holidays and legally guaranteed four weeks of vacation time. By contrast, the United States is the only industrialized country with no statutory minimum employment leave. Even the overworked South Koreans, who regularly top the list of workaholic workforces, are guaranteed ten days of employment leave per year. Australians get five weeks off. Most Europeans get four to six. And which country works the least? The Netherlands. The Dutch work 400 fewer hours annually than Americans do.
A different OECD study compared countries according to the combination of paid and unpaid hours worked. (Unpaid work includes such activities as cooking, cleaning, and shopping.) Interestingly, Mexico topped the chart and the United States came in ninth, ahead of South Korea (perhaps because the Koreans are so exhausted by their long workdays that they have little energy to work around the house). At the bottom of this list came the Belgians, preceded by the Danes, the notoriously hardworking Germans, the South Africans, and the French.
So Americans stack up fairly well against other nations in the total hours they work. And American Latter-day Saints, I think we could safely conclude, are probably above average in their industriousness. I suspect, on the whole, that Latter-day Saints are probably also more inclined than the average American to focus on activity for the sake of activity. In fact, we even categorize members as being “active” and “less active,” as if activity were the ultimate objective of our existence. If we are not keeping up with Sister Bustle down the street—who is raising six straight-A students, running a candle-making business out of her home, volunteering with the PTA, baking bread three times a week, winning awards for her flower gardens, taking in stray pets, and training for a marathon—we feel guilty. And this is only the cultural side of Mormonism. Add to this all the organizational demands that come from the institutional side of the Church (which adopted a corporate management mentality as part of the Correlation movement of the early 1960s),1 and it could easily be argued that we Latter-day Saints are among the busiest people on earth. We’ve taken the Protestant Work Ethic and transformed it into the Mormon Busyness Ethic. We even use a beehive as one of our most ubiquitous religious icons. What unspoken message does this send? Of course we don’t want to be lazy, but the unfortunate consequence of our emphasis on activity and busyness is that we too often confuse these with productivity.
The Power Nap
What is productivity anyway, beyond the simple ratio discussed in the previous post? What does it mean to be productive in your work, or in your life, especially in terms of your religion? Does it mean putting in a lot of hours? Does it mean filling those hours with activities intended to show management (or your fellow ward members) how indispensable (or faithful) you are? Has productivity come to mean nothing more than unfocused, activity-oriented deception, perhaps even self-deception?
A few years ago I worked with a woman (let’s call her Ruth) who was the busiest worker I have ever seen. Ruth was always on the go, always talked a thousand miles per hour, and seemed to have her fingers in everything. If anyone appeared to be indispensable, it was Ruth. Then one day she found another job. She left us. We wondered how on earth we would replace her. Fortunately, she left us a long and detailed list of her activities and responsibilities. It was an impressive inventory. But as we analyzed it with the intent to divide up her responsibilities among the rest of the staff, we gradually came to the conclusion that it was mostly a smokescreen. As we waded through her lengthy job description, we realized there was very little we really had to worry about. We ended up replacing Ruth, but the new employee received assignments far different (and more urgent) than the activities Ruth had been involved in. Most of her very busy activities simply vanished into thin air, and we never missed them.
As I think about this experience, I wonder what could disappear from modern Mormonism that wouldn’t leave a hole? The General Authorities speak often of reducing and simplifying, but when push comes to shove, we seem to be addicted to busyness. We somehow conclude that no programs or activities, regardless of how peripheral, are indispensable. But what cost do they exact in terms of stress and family dysfunction and mental health challenges?
So, I ask again, what is productivity? Let me give a couple of personal examples. I worked seven years as a magazine editor. What if, on a typical day, I spent an hour thinking about an important question, read a thought-provoking article related to the content of the magazine, took a few minutes to study a language issue in my style guide, visited with my coworkers about things that were happening in their lives—and these activities took up my morning? What if, in the afternoon, I then edited an outstanding article on raising a child with a disability? Would you call that a productive day? Would you consider it more productive than, say, sitting in a four-hour meeting in which no progress is made and no significant decisions are reached, then spending the rest of the day answering pointless e-mails, filling out bureaucratic forms, and putting out fires ignited by managers who are busily trying to justify their jobs?
Or, for the sake of argument, let’s say I spent four hours slipping in and out of consciousness while reading manuscripts, because I was tired. Would that have been more productive than taking a half-hour nap, then reading those same manuscripts in two very alert hours?
What does it mean to be productive? I think sometimes we worship appearances and forget substance. If we look busy, that’s all that matters. And what we measure has a great influence on how we spend our time. In 1948, President J. Reuben Clark jotted in his office diary a concern regarding the consequences of “appraising Church activities by business asset-liability procedures. [Can spiritual development and achievement be measured statistically, or will the use of statistical measures of success and failure in Church activities actually undermine spirituality by glorifying external piety? . . . Could efficiency become the end rather than spirituality?]”2 So, have we learned anything in the past sixty-eight years? Or have we justified President Clark’s fear?
So we might as well ask the obvious question. What would Jesus measure? The story about Martha and Mary from Luke suggests that he sees productivity in exactly the opposite places from where we’d normally expect to find it. The Beatitudes mention being poor in spirit, sorrowful, meek, hungering and thirsting for righteousness, being merciful, pure in heart, peaceful, and persecuted for righteousness’s sake. Nowhere does Jesus suggest a life crammed full of meetings, activities, programs, or a regimen of organizational demands that distract from the essence of the pure religion he preached, a religion focused on personal attributes and interpersonal relationships.
All Strung Up
Hugh Nibley once accused Latter-day Saints of giving “young people and old awards for zeal alone, zeal without knowledge—for sitting in endless meetings, for dedicated conformity, and unlimited capacity for suffering boredom. We think it more commendable to get up at 5:00 a.m. to write a bad book than to get up at nine o’clock to write a good one—that is pure zeal that tends to breed a race of insufferable prigs and barren minds. One has only to consider the present outpouring of ‘inspirational’ books in the Church which bring little new in the way of knowledge: truisms, and platitudes, kitsch, and clichés have become our everyday diet. The Prophet [Joseph Smith] would never settle for that.”3
And speaking of the Prophet Joseph, Elder William M. Allred said this about him:
I was with him in the troubles at DeWitt, Adam-ondi-ahman, and in Far West. I have played ball with him many times in Nauvoo. He was preaching once, and he said it tried some of the pious folks to see him play ball with the boys. He then related a story of a certain prophet who was sitting under the shade of a tree amusing himself in some way, when a hunter came along with his bow and arrow, and reproved him. The prophet asked him if he kept his bow strung up all the time. The hunter answered that he did not. The prophet asked why, and he said it would lose its elasticity if he did. The prophet said it was just so with his mind, he did not want it strung up all the time.4
Consider what the Prophet Joseph accomplished in his very abbreviated lifetime. When I come to the end of my working years, I certainly don’t want to look back on my career and say, “All I accomplished was that I stayed busy for forty years.” I would like to think it was a productive forty years. And I certainly don’t want to look back on my life and say, “My, what a busy life I’ve had.” I would want to consider my time on earth a productive sojourn. And no mathematical fiction will make me feel better about my failure if I fall short of that goal.
1. See Edward L. Kimball, Lengthen Your Stride: The Presidency of Spencer W. Kimball (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2005), 249.
2. D. Michael Quinn, J. Reuben Clark: The Church Years (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 1983), 106, bracketed text in JRC’s diary.
3. Hugh W. Nibley, Nibley on the Timely and the Timeless (Provo, Utah: BYU Religious Studies Center, 1978), 270–71.
4. In “Recollections of the Prophet Joseph Smith,” The Juvenile Instructor 27 (1892): 471.