The territory of the post-professional

Posted on | November 5, 2012 | 7 Comments

Here is the start of a paper I’m working on for the ‘Data, Memory, Territory’ workshop at UWS in November. It is lonely writing in a foreign hotel room! So I post it here in case anyone has any feedback. Given the frame for the event I’m hoping to develop the relationship between time, mastery and territory, including the imposition of temporality and control in the colonial sense that I think Dourish and Mainwaring mean in this paper (pdf). More thoughts welcome.

Measuring productivity through GTD and life-hacking

‘Getting Things Done’ (GTD) and ‘life-hacking’ applications allow users to accomplish their goals and reclaim appropriate space-time perception in the face of network culture’s immersive and distracting potential. Through a range of measures, from shutting down email and non-priority communication to quantifying peak performance periods for maximum efficiency, GTD apps facilitate the pleasures of individual productivity. With names like ‘SelfControl,’ ‘Omnifocus’, ‘Rescue Time’ and ‘Freedom’, their intent is to offer liberation as much as consolation: to provide mastery over extraneous matters and the fallibility of memory to ensure optimal work flow.

This new software industry solves the difficulty workers and individuals face in the battle against new media technologies’ distracting potential. But it is also a technological solution to an ontological and empirical problem. The networked nature of contemporary work makes it possible to deliver more information than ever before, and hence more requests for employees’ attention than it is possible to action. This poses significant risks to the wellbeing of workers faced with the psychological challenge of managing information and communication requests largely on their own. GTD apps suggest that access to the plenitude of data available in online networks can lead to an inability to accomplish routine tasks, whether professional or domestic (as the application ‘Remember the Milk’ illustrates). Chronic, habitual online connectivity – our compulsion to connect – raises important questions about interest, self-surveillance, agency and will.

Emanating from the male-dominated fields of IT design and hacker subcultures, GTD illustrates the shift towards ‘algorithmic living’. The services provided by productivity apps include turning human behaviour into data and code for measurement, and thus potential adjustment and improvement, through a quantified self. In this sense, the connection between GTD and hacking lifestyles dating back to the beginnings of the World Wide Web require exploration. The GTD worldview approaches personal and professional tasks alike as challenges to be overcome through efficient programming. It rests on an innate technological optimism that has characterised key moments in the history of the Internet. What this latest manifestation of tech-utopia suggests is that there may be a growing section of the population for whom the ability to act without the prompting of computer platforms is either undesirable or unthinkable. In practice, GTD applications respond to as much as they may also exacerbate the fallibility of human memory in the face of data overload.

To focus on the technological dimensions of GTD alone however is to miss some significant lineages that also assist in understanding its function. ‘Getting Things Done’ is one of the most successful titles in the broader suite of time management publications that have been a feature of office life over the course of many decades. GTD owes a debt to this longer legacy of management self-help and discourses of professionalism that typified mid-century modernity – the classic period of Fordist production. As the ranks of middle management swelled in the organization era, the genre of business self-help served as a training ground for a generally male business class seeking to secure reputational capital and the benefits of life-long employment. In flexible, decentralised organizations today, time management has been one of the most prominent of techniques cultivated by individuals to maintain productivity and employability. No longer satisfied by the predictability of a company career, employees have increasingly gained fulfillment through proximity to ‘projects’ and ‘networks’, just as their employers offered the benefits of ‘flexibility’ as opposed to stability. With their emphasis on streamlined workflow, the efficiency logics of GTD apps epitomise these broader cultural trends. They evolve in tandem with management protocols inviting employees to display autonomy and responsibility by ‘working smarter, not harder’. Yet the significance of these survival skills in today’s employment market is their distance from the career path underpinning earlier efforts at professional strategising. GTD’s individualised response to workplace inefficiency is a marker of the inchoate labour politics of the ‘precarious’ white-collar worker.

The self-sufficient worker downloading GTD apps today takes on the imperative of productivity in spite of a generalised lack of employment and institutional security. In this present period of cognitive capitalism, the distinction between ‘material’ (manual) and so-called ‘immaterial’ (mental) labour dissolves, since the source of surplus value even for highly trained workers results in similar forms of ontological precarity. As distinct from Fordist modes of production, in cognitive capitalism the worker’s experience of surveillance moves from externally imposed discipline to internal self-management. This explains the freedom workers feel in identifying with imperatives that are directly productive for capital. The combined effect of these changes, in which the whole of one’s life and personality are available for profitable benefits, calls for careful scrutiny of the perceived benefits of productivity at an individual and social level.

The difference between time management in the organizational era – defined by ‘to do’ lists, clock time, and a highly gendered division of labour – and GTD in the network era – where employees at all levels are equally responsible for their productivity – is thus also the difference between professional and post-professional subjectivity. This is a work context in which traditional forms of management surveillance are less obvious since the innate value of productivity is no longer questioned. But it is also a moment in which the commonsense tenets of individualism and freedom have become so embedded in technology design that a cooperative politics of resistance is significantly impaired.

The philosophy of time management underpinning productivity applications takes a particular notion of time for granted. It assumes that time, like the worker, can be disciplined in line with the imperatives of capitalist production, and it does this in an unquestioning way. Using feminist theories of time that have emerged in the wake of the ‘corporeal turn’ and the rise of affect theory, this paper questions the default definition of ‘time’ in ‘time management’. GTD’s faith in technology as the salve for broader ontological insecurity offers an interesting take on questions of data and territory insofar as it illuminates technology’s role in users’ everyday attempts to control the unpredictable terrain of labour and ‘life itself’. But comparative analysis of time management manuals and GTD apps, along with feminist philosophy and cultural theory, can critique ‘the order of things’ that is life-hacking’s mandate to reproduce. It can further reveal the neat fit between the GTD outlook and the isolating but not inevitable tendencies of neoliberal biopolitics.

Selected references

Berardi, Franco (Bifo) 2009, The Soul at Work: From Alienation to Autonomy, Francesca Cadel and Giuseppina Mecchia (trans), MIT Press, Boston.
Berlant, Lauren 2011, ‘After the Good Life, an Impasse: Time Out, Human Resources, and the Precarious Present’, Cruel Optimism, Duke University Press, Durham.
Bliss, Edwin C. 1976, Getting Things Done: The ABC of Time Management.
Boltanski, Luc and Ève Chiapello 2005, The New Spirit of Capitalism, Gregory Elliott (trans)., Verso, New York.
Cherny, Lynn and Elizabeth Reba Weise eds., 1996, Wired Women: Gender and New Realities in Cyberspace, Seal Press, Seattle.
Clough, Patricia Ticineto 2010, ‘The Affective Turn: Political Economy, Biomedia, and Bodies’, The Affect Theory Reader, Melissa Gregg and Gregory J. Seigworth eds., Duke University Press, Durham, pp. 206-225.
Collis, Jack and Michael Leboeuf 1995/1988, Work Smarter Not Harder, Revised ed., Harper Business, Sydney.
De Peuter, Greg and Nick Dyer-Witheford 2009, ‘Cognitive Capitalism: Electronic Arts’, Games of Empire: Global Capitalism and Video Games, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis
Dourish, Paul and Scott Mainwaring 2012, ‘Ubicomp’s Colonial Impulse’, Paper presented at UbiComp 2012, Pittsburgh, PA, Sep 5-8.
Foucault, Michel 1988, ‘Technologies of the Self’, in L. H. Martin, H. Gutman and P. H. Hutton eds., Technologies of the Self, University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst, pp 16–49.
Gill, R. & Pratt, A. 2008. ‘In the Social Factory? Immaterial Labour, Precariousness and Cultural Work’ Theory, Culture & Society, Vol. 25 , Nos. 7-8, pp, 1-30.
Gregg, Melissa 2011, Work’s Intimacy, Polity, Cambridge.
Grosz, Elizabeth 2010, ‘The Untimeliness of Feminist Theory’, NORA: Nordic Journal of Feminist and Gender Research, Vol. 18, No. 1, pp. 48-51.
Mills, C. Wright 1973/1951, White Collar: The American Middle Classes, Oxford University Press, New York.
Mitropoulos, A. 2006. ‘Precari-us?’ Mute Magazine. January 9.
Rose, Nikolas 2006, The Politics of Life Itself: Biomedicine, Power, and Subjectivity in the Twenty-First Century, Princeton University Press.
Sennett, Richard 1998, The Corrosion of Character: The Personal Consequences of Work in the New Capitalism, W. W. Norton, New York.
Streeter, Thomas 2011, The Net Effect: Romanticism, Capitalism, and the Internet, New York University Press, New York.
Whyte, William H. 1956, The Organisation Man, Harmondsworth, Penguin [Originally published 1956].
Zuboff, S. 1984. In the Age of the Smart Machine: The Future of Work and Power. Basic Books.


7 Responses to “The territory of the post-professional”

  1. The Map is the Territory - event mechanics
    November 5th, 2012 @ 11:22 am

    […] has a very interesting work in progress paper up on her blog on “The territory of the post-professional“. We sometimes share very similar research interests. I’ve also looked at questions of […]

  2. Dan
    November 12th, 2012 @ 6:50 pm

    For implementing GTD you can use this application:

    You can use it to manage your goals, projects and tasks, set next actions and contexts, use checklists, and a calendar.
    Syncs with Evernote and Google Calendar, and also comes with mobile version, and Android and iPhone apps.

  3. Steve Lambert
    November 15th, 2012 @ 4:01 pm


    I designed SelfControl. I’m also an artist and a professor…

    Your piece got me thinking.

    The idea that seeking liberation through GTD has it’s own traps is compelling. The idea of David Allen’s brand (in all senses of the word) of GTD is that one implements all this to be truly free of the demands of everyday modern life. Free to pursue… whatever you may want. And in order to achieve this liberation, you have to follow a relatively strict system. Perhaps it’s a trade of sorts.

    Granted, GTD isn’t always implemented well, and the “life-hack” side of things can be especially creepy.

    However, I think there’s a strain of GTD that’s not about managing or mazimizing your time, but to free yourself from the demands that would occupy all your time. The audience for GTD doesn’t work in a factory with regular blows of the whistle and a guy telling you what to do. They get emails at all hours. Their workplace is in several locations, they have amorphous demands, create their own project and their own solutions. Without some system, they’re in a purely reactive mode, can quite literally waste time redoing actions, and have little real freedom. With GTD, they have a way of managing these demands – categorizing things and determining what needs to be done now vs later vs never – and focusing on the work that, hopefully, they care the most about, for their livelihood and for their well-being. It’s about making the best of a bad situation. I hope I’ve done this justice because it would be interesting to get your thoughts on it in relation to your draft above. I haven’t read Nudge ( but I imagine it could shed some light?

    (Also, I think there was a Wired article about David Allen’s background in some type of spiritual/culty religion thing that he rarely speaks about. I think the lineage of GTD is also drawn from that. Though I’m sure the history of management books had an influence as well. Might be worth looking at.)

    I created SelfControl more in that spirit of escape. I wanted to be able to turn off my email (and other sites) for myself – to deliberately create time for me to create that even I couldn’t sabotage.

    If there’s a neoliberal biopolitics it’s that we’re always in service of our superiors, right? Taking time for oneself is a form of liberation. Making conscious choices is too. When used well, GTD and these hacks can move people from a reactive mode to a more conscious mode. Less about workplace inefficiency and more about workers trying to reclaim the few aspects of their lives that they can.

    Again, when implemented well.

    Hope this is helpful…

  4. melgregg
    November 16th, 2012 @ 4:07 am

    Thank you Steve, I’m so excited to hear from you. Lots to talk about in response to this – I really appreciate your thoughts.

    The spiritual/religious aspects you mention in relation to Allen are not surprising to me – they are also certainly noticeable in some of the time management manuals I’ve been reading from previous decades. There is something about the shift from the ‘protestant ethic’ to the secular post-Fordist model of work that is interesting here. The notion of time that is pivotal to alternative philosophies – including “Eastern” religions – comes up in a few of the more self-help style manuals. eg.

    The conditions of work and neoliberal liberation you describe are so useful and all too familiar; it is the kind of scenario I wrote about in my book, Work’s Intimacy, and it is that experience that has led me to investigate strategies like GTD. Your app and others have offered help to many people – not only those coping with the chronic overload of information work in general but especially those without the stability or comforts of ongoing supported salaried work (the rare benefits of which now include free courses in time management, etc).

    What troubles me about the GTD technofix at a more fundamental level is the idea of freedom that is desired in these applications. My colleague Tom Streeter has been discussing this in terms of how freedom in the US context usually means freedom defined negatively, as freedom from obligations and responsibilities… This is an enduring and utopian image of what technology can deliver, but maybe not the kind of reciprocity we need to resist problems of labour.

    Anyway, I hope we can be in touch as this research gets going. Thanks again.

  5. Steve Lambert
    November 17th, 2012 @ 12:35 am

    Super fascinating. Perhaps it’s an echo of what happened in the 80s – people giving up on improving society so they decide to focus on self-improvement. And today, if you’ve given up on improving the workplace, you change your way of interfacing with your work.

    Definitely be in touch. These ideas interest me – especially the different notions of freedom (I did this talk a while back: If I can be of any help, let me know.

  6. Kate Bowles
    November 29th, 2012 @ 10:27 am

    Hi Mel

    This is great. Quick thought: territorially, the organizational era and the networked era haven’t separated, which is why for many workers GTD is about multiwindowing on the border between self-time and clock-time in workplaces that are stilll regulated by corporate time tracking software.

    Professional hierarchies in workplaces like ours strongly demarcate the status differences between those on the clock (professional staff below a certain rank) and off it (other professional staff and academics) while placing casual academic staff in a bizarre netherworld of both and neither, paid in hours but working outside them. I think if we’re all using GTD apps to cope with the strangeness of this, this is as much to do with the appification of work through wireless mobile devices as it is a sign of a temporal shift from one era to another.

  7. melgregg
    November 29th, 2012 @ 3:24 pm

    Thanks, Kate! This is really helpful. I am currently stuck thinking about the status hierarchies you’re pointing to in terms of the differently felt experience of surveillance (productivity as self- or other-imposed… though it’s not easy to make that distinction either). Anyway, the appification of work is an amazing phrase. Heard here first!!

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