The 7 Habits of Highly Efficient People

2020-09-13 20:00:00 +0100


"Working makes me happy, right?" Asks the efficient worker. Photo by Tim van der Kuip on Unsplash

If you've been around leftist social media recently, you've probably heard about what some call the productivity pay-gap. Simply put, the productivity pay-gap is the idea that despite a drastic increase in worker productivity since the late 1970s (69.3% to be exact), workers haven't seen nearly as great of an increase in their average hourly pay (just 11.6%). It's no surprise workers are getting more productive: the late 20th century came with enormous technological developments that radicalized the way we work. Today, everything that can be automated is automated, and the number of different tasks we know how to automate only seems to grow by the day. Futurists are split on what this progress will ultimately bring about, but one thing is for sure: we need to change the way we think about work.

It is told by many techno-optimists that radical automation will bring about a sort of post-money society where things become so cheap that the cost of living a healthy life will reach zero and everyone can do away with working. While that is indeed a pretty thing to think about, the numbers say otherwise. This is the free markets' way of saying "hey, you know all that work you accomplished thanks to technology? Yeah, that doesn't count." With the rising cost of the education that gets you into the workplace and the house that keeps you coming back, it doesn't take too much for workers to put together the fact that they're going to need to come to some sort of compromise with the system to make up that chunk of their productive labour they're missing.

For many, the solution is simple, but only in the most complicated way imaginable. If workers are only getting payed to work the machines who do all the heavy lifting, they're just going to have to work those machines a lot harder.

Self Improvement: Working the machines a lot harder

Competition is a very fundamental component of capitalism on pretty much every level. Capitalist thinkers will frequently talk about the ways in which companies go head to head. Some will render processes more efficient, and some will cut costs. Others will try to make better products, but it's hard to compete with the cost cutting game. Or maybe they just keep releasing the same product every year with minor feature updates and a new number; it totally depends on the company's mission (or lack thereof). However, less talked about is the ways that employees compete with each other. It's pretty much the same game: whoever makes the best products the fastest gets the most credit and ultimately more money. How do you stay competitive in the workplace?

Ideally, you shouldn't have to think about this sort of thing. Your coworkers shouldn't be your competitors, they should be your teammates. You shouldn't be fighting, you should be working together. Unfortunately, not everything can be my collaborative utopia because the fact of the matter is that most workplaces don't operate in this manner. Whether or not they're explicitly competitive, they definitely feel like it. For a more collaborative arraignment, you would need to get everybody on board. It's way easier to simply work on yourself and ignore what everybody else is doing (until they start doing it better than you, that is). This is perhaps where we could draw the line between self-help practices and collective improvement, which I will get back to later.

So, you're in the office or factory or where ever it is you do what you do, and you feel like you haven't yet reached your full productive potential. You really, really want to optimize your time there so that your employer can get the full value out of your presence in the workplace. What to do?

Well, the 20th century has a number of lovely people who'd like to sell you the solution to all of your problems

A brief history of the solution to all of your problems.

For an early example of self-help literature, we ought to turn to Dale Carnegie and his extremely popular book "How To Win Friends and Influence People." I wouldn't call this book influential in terms of its content by any means; ask any self-help critic about it and they'd probably say the genre has been regurgitating the same talking points for the last century. It was perhaps very influential in what it asked of the reader: to actively be someone they are not. Even if this framing is subtle, it's definitely there, and it can be felt across the following century of self-help literature. The most infamous example of it is the persistent recommendation to simply smile, regardless of whether or not you're happy. More generally, such books have proposed a sort of standard that aspiring "good people" should try to live up to, instead of more genuinely offering an explanation of what it means to be "good" and offering the reader the opportunity to take it upon themselves to learn what goodness means in their own life.

Only a short while afterwards, the world went to war for the second time. Only this time, a ruthless authoritarian dictator was rounding up the Jewish people of Europe and sending them to his concentration camps where they were subjected to horrors we today can't begin to imagine. Among these individuals was Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl. Miraculously, he survived. How precisely he managed to survive not only the ever-looming reality that one day, he may be murdered or die of illness, but also the psychological pressure that lead the majority of inmates to commit suicide was the subject of the book he wrote following his liberation: "Man's Search for Meaning."

This recounting of his experiences in the Holocaust laid the groundwork for his theory of logotherapy: a new way of approaching psychoanalysis. To oversimplify it, the big idea behind logotherapy is that life is fundamentally meaningful and that meaning can provide a means to overcome pretty much any challenge imaginable. In fact, one of Frankl's big claims is that most mental illnesses are actually misdiagnoses of a lack of a sense of purpose or meaning in life. One of the most fundamental axioms behind logotherapy is the idea that you, as a purely conscious individual, can independently analyze and respond to both your physical and mental condition. This means in a very roundabout way that you are distinct from how you feel. Pain, depression, anxiety and happiness are all simply feelings in your head that can be worked around by your conscious mind.

This idea was huge, and self-help authors ate it up.

The modern-day Goliath of self-help Stephen Covey himself quoted Viktor Frankl and his book throughout "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People," first published in 1989. Viktor Frankl's teachings were particularly relevant to the first habit Covey proposed: "Be Proactive." Many may know "proactivity" to be a vapid business buzz word in today's world, which isn't entirely wrong, but in its essence, proactivity has a lot to do with agency. The "proactive" person is in charge of their own life. It's the opposite of what he calls "reactiveness," or the state of reacting to events instead of preparing for them. Covey says that this principle leans heavily on the axiom presented in "Man's Search for Meaning." In other words, while Frankl was being tortured in the Holocaust, he found himself capable of escaping that pain by separating his conscious mind from his body. Instead of reacting to the torture by wallowing in the pain, he proactively made the decision to maintain a positive attitude.

If all this sounds like astral projection to you, I know. I get that feeling. If it also sounds like acute victim shaming, I agree! Logotherapy bills itself as the truth you need to hear to overcome adversary, not necessarily the truth you want to hear. Not that potentially being right (Frankl's ideas can be controversial) makes you any better of a person to talk to when in need.

That brings us today. The self-help industry is bigger than ever, and with all of this influential material behind us, modern hustle culture begins to make a little more sense.

Astrally projecting your way through Corporate America

This take on what it means to be agent is dangerously powerful. The reason for this has a lot to do with the way we've set up tracks to lead people to the exact place the industrial system needs them to be.

Let's take a moment to move away from the world of business and into education. I'll use software engineering as an example, since it's what I'm most familiar with. What kind of person wants to grow up to be a software engineer? Well, there are certain qualities an employer might look for in a prospective software engineer. First and foremost, they must really love learning new things. Technology is progressing so fast that developers need to constantly learn new frameworks and languages to stay competitive on the job market. Next, they should to have a strong sense of orderliness. Developing disorganized software just gets exponentially harder the more you work on it. Keeping everything in line is a hard task that demands lots of attention to detail. Third, you need to truly love your work. This is especially prevalent in the video game industry, where developers are asked to work so much overtime they basically ought to sell their home since there's no use in owning property you never visit. To work those kinds of hours, you really, really need to be able to hold your work in a really high regard, almost as a sort of art. You've got to feel like a digital Leonardo da Vinci, pouring code into your keyboard like it's your Mona Lisa because if it isn't, you're going to lose faith before burning out. Not everyone fits this description, so why do so many people feel the need to go into software engineering?

This problem exists across lots of STEM fields and is very evident when you consider the number of people who switch to an arts degree sometime during their first year at university. Still, many do make it through school and enter the work force. Before we ask how people do it, it's important to understand exactly why people do this.

It should come as no surprise to anyone that society, particularly our educators and parents, set expectations for us, many of which are unhealthy. For example, success and wealth are enormous priorities. These two things are both achievable by pursuing a career in software engineering along with being a doctor, lawyer and research scientist. These priorities almost always seem to come before doing the things that we know will bring us happiness. I may want to pursue philosophy at university, but I know computer science will make me more money. In turn, I judge others who don't make that connection, only furthering the stigma.

While this arrangement might suck for us, it's great for industrial society. The system needs more engineers, not (necessarily) more philosophers. So, it isn't for nothing. The people in power recognize this fact and act on it. Otherwise, perhaps it a natural progression of behavior in industrial society. Regardless of where you stand, the fact of the matter is that people are finding themselves in places they don't want to be en masse. What do we do?

According to our self-help gurus, if your body can't leave your environment, your mind's got to leave your body.

To them, it's sort of like the logic behind Viktor Frankl's experience and the experiences of all the prisoners of war modern self-help authors cite. You’re in a place you don't want to be, so you project yourself to a different place. You visualize a world you want to be in, and you use that visualization to escape the pain of the present. For Frankl, that meant reframing his situation in a more positive light and clinging onto his positive attitude. The same applies to the workplace. If you're trapped in a job you hate, you've got to do everything you can to see the bright side, because life fundamentally does have meaning. You can find meaning in your job if you look hard enough; meaning that will get you through the dreaded low points.

If you feel uncomfortable with the fact that I just compared the workplace to the Holocaust, that's precisely how I felt upon my second reading of "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People"; a realization that's gone on to shape much of the way I look at structures in our society today.

It should be obvious that the workplace and the Holocaust are literally nothing alike. One of the most relevant differences here is that, surprisingly enough, you can actually choose your job. Nobody chose to be sent to a forced labour camp. This finally brings me to one of my biggest issues with modern self-help culture. So much time is spent discussing how to change your internal environment, whereas not nearly enough is spent talking about how to change your external environment.

Really, actually, unironically being in charge

Stephen Covey and like-minded individuals talk a lot about "reactive" people in a nearly dismissive way. However, the reality is that people (except maybe the extremely stoic among us) are affected by our environments. While Covey's solution was to work on the internal component of the issue, or in other words, picking and choosing what to feel and what to suppress, the same logic of agency can be applied to change your environment. You are in control of your own mind. You don't need to regurgitate the scripts handed down to you from society, saying you need need need to go into a STEM field and make lots of money. You can do whatever you want! You have the power to choose your own path through life, and anyone who tells you to suck it up and work harder isn't worth your time.

The same goes for managers and leaders who have spent too much time pushing these principles on their workers because it's what seems to generate better results in the short term. Simon Sinek, a self-help author himself who focuses on leadership, often cites the example of the retail sector. Every year, retail companies witness an insanely high turnover rate. Given how much it would cost to thoroughly train all new employees and develop a real company culture, they instead opt to toss them on the job and just see how it goes. In reality, the cost of constantly searching for new employees is, in the longer term, equal to how much it would cost to build a climate where employees enjoy coming to work. The only difference being, of course, that more people are happy. "Making the best of it" is a short-term solution to a very long-term problem.

Workers, students and all people in the grips of bureaucracy shouldn't have to manipulate themselves in order to find happiness. We shouldn't need to live in a world that doesn't care for us. We should be able to work together to create an environment that serves us all, so that we don't have to spend so much time servicing ourselves. Society has told us to stop being ourselves, and self-help literature has made that possible. Every day, people find themselves trapped in a world they hate with no way out. Frankl was right; the world really does lack meaning. The "meaning" we've been given too often fails to fall in line with what really matters to us. Understanding what matters to you is the first step. From there, you can create a world that makes you truly happy.