The sorrows and joys of productivity

June 2, 2007

Merlin Mann, owner of productivity blog 43 Folders, has posted a well-circulated blog entry about the temptations of e-mail bankruptcy. He writes at one point, “I don’t know what the solution is apart from just trying to manage expectations. But how do you relate the scale of your debt without resorting to melodrama and without looking like a stuck-up douche nozzle?”

The last sentence in particular struck me as analogous to the problems of the art. As the more traditionally-acknowledged artist must avoid over-determinations of meaning in her art, the productivity artist must avoid making farce of his work; expectations must be managed preemptively, outside of the inbox, such that a total work is formed. This is how the productivity artist justifies his failure in responding to e-mail: by sketching the picture of his normally superior productivity and showing by comparison that not even he can tackle this “debt.” Above all, the seriousness of the production – and thus the necessity of its continuation – must be maintained.

When Emily Dickinson met an editor who displayed a little too much curiosity about her circumstances, she replied, “You ask great questions accidentally. To answer them would be events. I trust that you are safe.”

Mann continues:

Email is such a funny thing. People hand you these single little messages that are no heavier than a river pebble. But it doesn’t take long until you have acquired a pile of pebbles that’s taller than you and heavier than you could ever hope to move, even if you wanted to do it over a few dozen trips. But for the person who took the time to hand you their pebble, it seems outrageous that you can’t handle that one tiny thing. “What ‘pile’? It’s just a fucking pebble!”

E-mail builds until it requires an event to clear. Mann’s metaphor of stones reminds me of nothing other than Yoko Ono’s “Cleaning Piece,” which consists of a pile of stones with the following instructions:

Make a numbered list of sadness in your life. Pile up stones corresponding to those numbers. Add a stone each time there is a sadness. Burn the list and appreciate the mound of stones for its beauty.

Make a numbered list of happiness in your life. Pile up the stones corresponding to those numbers. Add a stone each time there is a happiness. Compare the mound of stones to the one of sadness.


The productivity artist is left with nothing to burn and a beauty he is too overwhelmed to see. He is exhausted from placing other people’s stones for them, and must state that exhaustion if he is ever to be appreciated. Even as the performance commences, a sequel is already unavoidable.


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