Counterproductive: Time Management in the Knowledge Economy

Counterproductive: Time Management in the Knowledge Economy

by Melissa Gregg

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As online distractions increasingly colonize our time, why has productivity become such a vital demonstration of personal and professional competence? When corporate profits are soaring but worker salaries remain stagnant, how does technology exacerbate the demand for ever greater productivity? In Counterproductive Melissa Gregg explores how productivity emerged as a way of thinking about job performance at the turn of the last century and why it remains prominent in the different work worlds of today. Examining historical and archival material alongside popular self-help genres—from housekeeping manuals to bootstrapping business gurus, and the growing interest in productivity and mindfulness software—Gregg shows how a focus on productivity isolates workers from one another and erases their collective efforts to define work limits. Questioning our faith in productivity as the ultimate measure of success, Gregg's novel analysis conveys the futility, pointlessness, and danger of seeking time management as a salve for the always-on workplace.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781478002390
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 10/25/2018
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 216
File size: 9 MB

About the Author

Melissa Gregg is Principal Engineer and Research Director, Client Computing Group, Intel; coeditor of The Affect Theory Reader, also published by Duke University Press; and author of Work's Intimacy.

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A Brief History of Time Management


This history of time management begins with the experience of women in the home prior to industrialization. As is the case for many disciplines, the origins of scientific management are typically attributed to great men, in particular, the Taylorites auditing the assembly lines of capitalist industry. But considering the homes these men left behind every day is one way to appreciate the popular purchase of productivity methods as they emerged in tandem with formal business registers. This chapter unseats the commanding position of Frederick Winslow Taylor in the mythology of workplace timekeeping, offering a feminist account of the milieu that contributed to the enshrining of productivity principles in management lore. While Taylor is often regarded as the figurehead of scientific management, each section of this chapter will highlight women's vital role in the variations of efficiency engineering. The point of this exercise is not simply to correct the historical record; it is also to show that the commercialization of intimate space is not a recent phenomenon. My analysis illustrates that productivity practices have hardly changed in a century of application in the domestic realm. What has changed, albeit slowly, is the conception of work, whereby some tasks have become more important and worthy of measure in the market economy. The recent uptick in services that have long been concentrated or delegated within the household shows the permeability of this boundary. Airbnb, TaskRabbit, Thumbtack, and Etsy are just the most recent examples of the diverse assets and human resources that constitute domestic enterprise.

Time-management principles became mainstream in the home at the same time that they entered the factory not least because the men and women discussing the ideas in forums such as Manhattan's Efficiency Society socialized in private settings as much as at salubrious downtown hotels. From the beginning, scientific management was a front advanced jointly in the public and private spheres. This is the lasting influence of time-and- motion experts Frank and Lillian Gilbreth, the married couple who epitomized their trade by adopting Gantt charts to run a household of twelve children. Contemporary theories of work often imply that market logic only recently came to intrude on the sanctity of the family. Turning to history, we can see that this is a nostalgic view. Following the evidence presented in this chapter, we may even observe that it is women's experiences as homemakers at the turn of the twentieth century that anticipate many of the issues afflicting today's distributed workplaces in the quest for greater productivity.

Guidebooks for nineteenth-century housewives addressed a range of time-management problems, including how to cope with constant interruption and distraction, the neediness of others — whether husbands, children, or staff — and the challenge of juggling competing tasks. The diversity of women's household labor and its untrammeled reach across time and space led to the debilitating effects of what we now call "context switch," where reactive responses and constant "firefighting" wither the day away. In domestic handbooks, authors such as Catharine Beecher accorded structure to repetitive duties, touting incentive schemes and time-based competitions typical of today's gamification techniques. Given the relative absence of women from the paid work world at the time of management theory's establishment, these formative productivity practices rarely grace business school curricula. Active discrimination and moral surveillance erased women's intellectual contribution to productivity theory in keeping with the broader social imperative to confine their work to particular industries and domestic settings.

The expanding interest in scientific management and efficiency principles in the early 1900s included a significant agenda for organizing women's work in the home. The efficiency proselytizers Harrington Emerson and Frank Gilbreth each provide an epigraph for the domestic science celebrity Christine Frederick's Household Engineering (1915), acknowledging housewifery as demanding the highest acumen and skill. "Housekeeping is not only the oldest, most fundamental and complex of all professions," writes Emerson, "but modern success in it is more difficult to attain than success in factory, warehouse, transportation or shop, because it must be attained by women working alone, and with many purposes." Gilbreth is similarly effusive: "Nothing is more worth while than bringing efficiency into the home. When housekeeping becomes a science, as well as an art, when it is based on measurement — then it becomes worthy of the best brains and highest endeavor."

Middle-class women such as Frederick and Frank Gilbreth's wife and collaborator, Lillian, mixed progressivist principles, professional ambition, and patriotic duty in appealing to readers who were otherwise being tempted by new kinds of market-based employment. To encourage more women to remain in charge of the home front, Frederick and Gilbreth addressed U.S. homemakers as expert managers. In addition to the capacities they enumerated and encouraged in homemakers themselves, time-management techniques and delegation skills became part of a suite of strategies designed to formalize domestic service and attract a better quality of candidate for routine labors. As we will see, over the course of subsequent decades, the employment of time for specific duties gave middle-class women a sense of agency within, if not freedom from, home-based work. The solution to productivity pressures within the home often rested on outsourcing trivial tasks to others. This advice reflected the personal lives of Frederick and Gilbreth, who each employed secretaries to maintain their writing output. In Gilbreth's case, a cadre of support staff helped raise her large family even before the untimely death of husband Frank.


Home economics began as a civic movement prior to its transformation to a state-sanctioned science suited to formal instruction in schools. Its emergence at the turn of the twentieth century coincided with a series of social changes that included the growing recognition of women's right to education, the reformist spirit of progressivism, and the rise of scientific authority. The pioneer of home economics, Ellen Richards, was a trained chemist and the first female graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Her technical acumen, evident in works such as The Chemistry of Cooking and Cleaning (1882), found suitable application in domestic settings that were coming to be understood in terms of health and hygiene. Richards's preferred term for home economics was "euthenics," which she envisaged as a sister discipline to eugenics: "Where eugenics bred the perfect individual, euthenics would supply the ideal environment." Richards's book The Art of Right Living (1904) reflects this optimism in chapters devoted to "the factors that make up the efficient individual," including nutrition, physical motion, eating, sleep, amusement, exercise, pleasure, aim or purpose, environment, and health. Her goal for the home economics movement was to ensure "the freedom of the home from the dominance of things and their due subordination to ideals." This ability to triumph over "things" and focus on the right way of living is key to the efficiency thinking that would mark not only household management, but also reams of popular time-management instruction in the decades to come.

In the United States, the mid-1800s had already seen considerable attention paid to women's roles, as increased manufacturing and the growing availability of consumer goods moved previously self-sufficient home-based textiles, arts, and crafts to factories. Households were required to take on different functions, and the home became a site for spiritual and lifestyle practices, particularly in influential New England families who set the tone for appropriate social and economic convention. Domestic advice emerged as a genre of publishing in the 1830s. Much of the early literature illustrated practical steps for women to make a virtue of themselves and their residences. Women's position as heads of households entailed modeling an appropriate balance of self-denial and self-sacrifice in the business of sustaining life for others. The "cult of domesticity," as it became known, granted women a privileged place in society by encouraging them to embody the values of the nation — specifically, Christianity. Commenting on the importance of domestic manuals, Sarah Leavitt notes the significance of Evangelical Protestantism to middle-class life in the mid-nineteenth century: "Advisors saw instructions on the arrangement of the furniture and the types of wood used in the parlor not only as aesthetic concerns, but as symbols of honesty, faith, and good judgment." Through her taste and frugality, the home manager showed competence and spiritual devotion in equal measure. Demonstrating the proper use of time epitomized this general tendency.

The American Woman's Home (1869), by Catharine Beecher and her novelist sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe, is a hallmark of the period. The talented pair hoped the book would "elevate both the honor and the remuneration of all employments that sustain the many difficult and varied duties of the family state, and thus to render each department of woman's profession as much desired and respected as are the most honored professions of men." The co-authored text updated Catharine Beecher's earlier Treatise on Domestic Economy, for the Use of Young Ladies at Home, and at School (1841) to include insights from her experience as principal of the Hartford Female Seminary. Tailoring its advice to suit the changed circumstances affecting women following the Civil War, the manual was affordable enough for middle-class families to purchase and benefited from adoption on a growing number of vocational courses available to women.

Beecher and Beecher Stowe's guide, like Richards's, expresses the need for a life of ideals. These overriding goals provide a sense of purpose to determine which tasks matter in the exercise of daily duty. Section XXVII, "Habits of System and Order," offers the clearest instance of time-management instruction of this kind. Considering all the habits vital for success in the home enterprise, Beecher and Beecher Stowe write, none surpasses the virtue of rising early. Solitary moments at the beginning of the day provide respite and reflection away from the concerns of others. This process is crucial for assessing the right order of duties, such that

where a woman lacks either the health or the energy to secure a period for devotional duties before breakfast, let her select that hour of the day in which she will be least liable to interruption, and let her then seek strength and wisdom from the only true Source. At this time, let her take a pen, and make a list of all the things which she considers duties. Then, let calculation be made, whether there be time enough, in the day or the week, for all these duties. If there be not, let the least important be stricken from the list, as not being duties and therefore to be omitted. In doing this, let a woman remember that, though "what we shall eat, and what we shall drink, and wherewithal we shall be clothed," are matters requiring due attention, they are very apt to obtain a wrong relative importance, while intellectual, social, and moral interests receive too little regard.

This passage captures many of the persistent features of time-management practice that define the productivity genre. The emphasis on solitary reflection, taken in deliberate retreat from others' disruption, is necessary for calculating the merits of various activities in relation to a greater cause. Making a list of all the things that are considered part of her work allows the home manager to consider competing matters in relation to a larger value system. Importantly, she is encouraged to prioritize utilitarian functions in relation to intellectual, social, and moral interests. There is a broader perspective to maintain in this God-fearing era; the domestic duty housewives perform is a grave and sacred calling.

Preserving "good temper in the housekeeper" involves coming to terms with the inevitability of interruption. The lady should "calculate on having her best-arranged plans interfered with very often; and to be in such a state of preparation that the evil will not come unawares." Feminine qualities of cheer and diminutive care come to the fore in these passages. The Christian homemaker must acquire the disposition and discipline that will allow her to accommodate the demands of others willingly and with good grace. In this vision, time management is not a heroic art. There is no evident assumption that the housewife has the power to actually control her fortunes. Practicing domestic economy is a matter of creating a resilient structure that ensures refined calm in service to others and, above all, to God.

Racial and cultural superiority are two ideals the contemporary reader finds evident in Beecher and Beecher Stowe's manual. The Christian family state is "the aptest earthly illustration of the heavenly kingdom, and in it woman is its chief minister." The homemaker provides "the training of our race to the highest possible intelligence, virtue, and happiness, by means of the self-sacrificing labours of the wise and good." The righteousness of religious calling accords with hierarchical assumptions of cultural reproduction, a perspective that, in gesturing toward the ultimate purpose of moral engineering, has significant consequences. Through the superiority of her sex and race, the middle-class woman holds a position at the pinnacle of the household enterprise that is unchallenged in these works. The inevitable whiteness of progressive ideals enshrines an estimation of labor in league with the Darwinian spirit of the times.

The hierarchical organization of domestic economy underwrites the sisters' attempt to discuss "The Servant Problem," a complex popular debate in which American women struggled, in contrast to their British peers, to adopt an appropriate attitude toward hiring domestic help. "In England, the class who go to service are a class, and service is a profession," Beecher and Beecher Stowe write. The New World posed problems of acculturation to meet new egalitarian attitudes. Beecher and Beecher Stowe wonder why the well-bred "girls of New England" preferred to work in the factory or the office rather than service the needs of residences in the local community. Exercising their right to access paid work, American women "left the whole business of domestic service to a foreign population; and they did it mainly because they would not take positions in families as an inferior labouring-class by the side of others of their own age who assumed as their prerogative to live without labor." The servant problem, in essence, was that working as a subordinate to one's own kind went against cherished ideals of American liberty. Even domestic help arriving from foreign countries believed in these ideals, which made the girls difficult to discipline. In America, "the general character of society" made servants "cumbrous and difficult to manage." Formalized instruction, issued by the woman in charge of the house, provided the best means to avoid trouble.

The American Woman's Home instigates a protracted social effort to affirm the respectability of housework by according it scientific and philosophical consequence in addition to religious calling. Women who fail to adopt "the systematic employment of time," according to Beecher and Beecher Stowe, "are rather driven along by the daily occurrences of life; so that, instead of being the intelligent regulators of their own time, they are the mere sport of circumstances." Women's particular responsibility for time management is a test of character achieved through force of will and right habit. In this view, "There is nothing which so distinctly marks the difference between weak and strong minds as the question, whether they control circumstances or circumstances control them." The Beecher and Beecher Stowe tome deftly maneuvers among established customs, religious beliefs, and the increasingly secular movements of science and management. Other publications in the art of household management, such as the Lippincott's Home Manuals series, use diagrams to illustrate the appropriate chain of command in domestic duties. Lydia Ray Balderston's Housewifery: A Manual and Text Book of Practical Housekeeping (1919) draws on expertise gained while teaching housewifery and laundering at Columbia University and includes a version of the corporate organizational chart.

In these visions of capital, housewifery is a business run by a lady boss. The housewife's time is privileged and relieved by a host of daily and weekly duties delegated to others. At every opportunity, the woman of the household is encouraged to eliminate useless motions and enjoy increased "happiness minutes" within the family. Balderston's text shares tips for designing a home and arranging furniture to minimize motions and footsteps, from shortening the reach between benches and sinks in kitchens to reducing the number of arm gestures involved in making beds. Such materials prove the extent to which women's work was finding equivalence with the productivity principles guiding task work in the public, market economy.

Christine Frederick remains the best-known U.S. time-management expert of this period due to a series of magazine articles ultimately published as a book, The New Housekeeping (1912). Frederick got her break writing approachable synopses of scientific-management principles as household editor for the Ladies' Home Journal in 1912. Adopting the chitchat anecdotal style that would characterize time-management gurus for decades hence, Frederick used the setup of a conversation with her husband and his friends "the efficiency engineers" as the pretext to introduce her book Household Engineering (1915), which the Home Economics Association of America would publish in at least five imprints between 1915 and 1923. Frederick's tips to housewives endorsed strictures such as grouping together food supplies, saving steps between stations, adopting the correct height for surfaces and sinks, sitting for certain tasks, ensuring adequate lighting and ventilation, even recommendations for the most effective floor surfaces. Household Engineering pays close attention to the possibilities of optimizing time and minimizing distractions:

Plan definitely when you want tradespeople to call and insist that they do not call at other times. The special shelf near the kitchen or rear door on which supplies may be laid has been spoken of. Give orders that bundles, articles, etc., shall be left here with as little interruption as possible. Keep a supply of change in the kitchen. Running upstairs to a pocketbook, even once a day every day in the week, runs into enough time in a year to read several best sellers!


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Table of Contents

Preface  ix
I. Theory
Introduction: The Productivity Imperative  3
1. A Brief History of Time Management  22
II. Practice
2. Executive Athleticism: Time Management and the Quest for Organization  53
3. The Aesthetics of Activity: Productivity and the Order of Things  78
III. Anthropotechnics
4. Mindful Labor  103
Conclusion: From Careers to Atmospheres  127
Postscript: A Belated Processing  141
Acknowledgments  143
Notes  147
Bibliography  179
Index  191

What People are Saying About This

Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas - Natasha Dow Schüll

“This important genealogy of contemporary productivity practices takes us from the efficiency techniques of early factories to the time management systems of the postindustrial workplace to the productivity and ‘mindfulness’ apps that today's professionals employ—in an ambivalent mix of athletic striving and anxious hedging—to regulate themselves at and beyond the office. While some critics of the productivity economy are content to diagnose and naysay, Melissa Gregg challenges us to recuperate the potential for a less solipsistic, more equitable temporal orientation in the way that we live and work.”

The Problem with Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics, and Postwork Imaginaries - Kathi Weeks

“Revealing the relationship between productivity techniques, on the one hand, and the isolation experienced by modern workers on the other, Melissa Gregg helps us better understand the neoliberal workplace. A timely, innovative, and compelling work, Counterproductive will be met with great enthusiasm by a broadly interdisciplinary group of readers in sociology, political theory, cultural studies, women's and gender studies, and critical management studies.”

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