On June 28, 2022, Mr. Caleb Schoepp published a provocatively-titled post, Productivity Porn. While I generally avoid productivity discourse, I decided to give the article a read when I saw it near the top of Hacker News. I discussed the phrase “productivity porn” with respect to a different article in my 2021 article, An Essay on Productivity, Production, and Productive Leisure. In that article, I offered the following description of productivity porn:
People who fall victim to the productivity porn siren song aspire to achieve some abstract concept of being productive, but without actually considering what they want to produce.Nicholas A. Ferrell
That is, productivity porn is the idea of production divorced from actual production.
Mr. Schoepp offered the following description of the concept of productivity porn in his piece:
Productivity porn is anything that after having been consumed makes you feel productive when in reality you didn’t actually do anything.Caleb Schoepp
Mr. Schoepp’s piece focused primarily on consuming content about topics such as business strategies or self-improvement without implementing the strategies or self-improvement methods. Here, I will examine a different productivity porn angle: productivity porn in an environment characterized by a readily available abundance of content.
Online Stores and Repositories
Online retailers transformed window shopping by producing storefronts with thousands, if not millions, of items available to browse, purchase, or rent with little-to-no effort. One can fritter away many hours sifting through books in the Kindle Store, games in the Steam Store (see post on DRM-free games on Steam), or movies on one of the myriad streaming services. The phenomenon is not limited to commercial enterprises. One can just as well spend a day searching through Project Gutenberg’s library of free e-books.
The danger of all of the storefronts and repositories I described above is that they can give rise to a certain species of productivity porn in consumers who do not peruse them with purpose. Time spent putting together a wish-list on Amazon or Steam is the sort of endeavor that may feel productive without leading to consuming any of the content on said wish list. Sales tempt consumers to check all of the products that are on sale, and perhaps to purchase some discounted products, but they do not necessarily lead to engaging with the fruits of said purchases or rentals. Although Project Gutenberg presents almost countless free books, one can easily spend more time searching the collection than reading the works on offer.
In this way, online storefronts and valuable projects like Project Gutenberg can facilitate the same kind of mindless, passive content consumption that people are wont to note is a symptom of big tech social media usage.
The abundance of readily available content available for purchase or rental or entirely free of cost leads to another content-related productivity porn issue: the backlog. I am hardly immune. Over the years I have accumulated many books and games that I have yet to read or play. I know others who have the same affliction.
Meaningful production with respect to a content backlog consists of activities ordered toward actually clearing the backlog. In the most basic case, that involves meaningfully engaging with the content in the backlog. It may also involve clearing books, games, or other media or items that may not be worth consuming – just because something was purchased on sale 10 years ago does not mean that it is necessarily worth engaging with now.
However, large backlogs, which are often accumulated through productivity porn-infused browsing and purchasing, are conducive to their own kind of productivity porn. It is easier to passively pontificate about a backlog or catalogue it as if one were a librarian than to actually engage with the content or remove some of the content entirely. Once a backlog grows to a certain size, it can take on the character of one’s own personal Project Gutenberg.
In my 2021 essay on productivity, I took the following position in the conclusion:
The concept of ‘productivity’ cannot rightly be divorced from actually producing something beneficial, whether material or immaterial. When considering how to become more productive, one must never lose sight of that which he or she wants to produce.Nicholas A. Ferrell
This principle applies to the phenomena I described above. Moreover, it applies to many similar cases that I did not discuss. For example, while I strongly encourage using RSS and ATOM feeds to curate and consume content, unmaintained feed collections can yield the same sort of productivity porn issues that I discussed with respect to storefronts and backlogs.
When browsing content, one should always keep at the forefront of his or her mind that, lest the person is a market researcher, the proper end of browsing content is to find content worth consuming and to actually consume said content. If I am looking at books on Project Gutenberg, the proper end should be finding a book that I will actually read. If I am browsing games on Steam or GOG, the proper end is finding a game that I will actually play, not merely admiring sales or purchasing a game that will collect digital dust for years on end. With respect to a backlog, one should consider whether the contents of the backlog are worth engaging with and proceed to engage with the items worth engaging with and to write off the ones that are not.
Because I am not in the often-unproductive productivity coaching business, I offer no specific guidance for achieving productivity in the areas this article is concerned with. The best methods may, in any event, vary from case-to-case. But assuming arguendo that production, here being acquiring and attending to meaningful content, is a good thing, “[o]ne should consider him or herself worthy of good and pleasant things now…”