In 1829, Agathon-Jean-Francois, Baron Fain, wrote a memoir of his time serving as secretary to the emperor Napoleon. A reader searching for details about great battles or power struggles will be disappointed by Fain’s strange little book. In the preface, he warns that he is not concerned with events. His subject is not the life of the great man; “it is his day.” Every inch the self-effacing secretary, Fain does not obtrude, or reveal his own opinions about the emperor’s decision-making, but provides an intimate picture of the work habits and routine of a man at the head of a vast multinational operation, administering the affairs of kingdoms and colonies while conducting large-scale wars and maintaining political control of a France that had just undergone a cataclysmic revolutionary upheaval.
Napoleon was, of course, governing before the invention of modern office equipment, and much of the work Fain describes concerns the management of paper. There are “dispatches brought by special courier and parcels sent directly by each minister”; correspondence that arrives in the regular mail; committee reports and accounts and letters from every imaginable kind of specialist, from engineers to geographers to a professor chosen to commission a portable library of great works for the emperor to take with him on campaigns. There are handwritten notes from functionaries, and petitions that desperate citizens stuff into the pockets of visitors entering the Tuileries Palace. Arrivals must empty their pockets, and a team of secretaries sifts through everything and distributes the letters to the correct departments, making sure that nothing is lost and anything important is taken to the emperor. Only “the bizarre delusions, the ridiculous poems, the correspondence from lunatics,” are burned. Everything else has to receive attention.
Fain describes details such as the emperor’s specially made desk, shaped like “a violin or a snuffer-stand,” narrow in the middle and wide at the ends, allowing him to confer closely with someone sitting across from him while keeping huge piles of paper accessible on either side. Napoleon doesn’t like to write, and his spelling and penmanship are atrocious (something even the discreet Fain is forced to admit), so his correspondence is dictated, the stenographers using special shorthand symbols for his favorite turns of phrase. When Napoleon leaves the room, his secretaries scramble to pick up papers from the floor—if the emperor has dealt with something, he drops it to show it has been answered.
Fain’s memoir wasn’t translated into English until 1998, when an enterprising San Francisco publisher released it under the title Napoleon: How He Did It. Presenting the emperor as a case study in professional productivity was a calculated appeal to CEOs and would-be corporate titans, people who faced (or at least flattered themselves that they faced) similar problems of prioritization and time management. In the two centuries since Fain managed the emperor’s workflow, many of the tasks performed by Napoleon’s staff had been automated, but as the publisher put it in a foreword, “once a computer has done its work, the decisions remain to be made by the executive mind.”
In Counterproductive, a fascinating recent history of productivity, the Intel researcher Melissa Gregg shows how the Napoleonic self-image of the executive as emperor, utilizing his valuable time to move people and resources around like pieces on a chessboard, has a disavowed double: the anxious, harried striver, using mindfulness apps to find temporary respite from the incessant information flow. The modern concept of productivity is usually traced to the work of Frederick Winslow Taylor, whose 1911 book, The Principles of Scientific Management, advocated a systematic analysis of individual tasks and the adoption of standardized methods to tackle them. The scientific study of work soon found its way from the factory to the office. In early productivity books, the office worker is instructed on the most efficient way to organize a desk and the number of movements it should take to file a document, his work understood much like that of his counterpart on the assembly line.
Since the Fifties, such literature has grown like Japanese knotweed over the shelves of airport bookstores, and its authors have filled hotel conference rooms with eager seminar attendees. Manuals such as James T. McCay’s The Management of Time (1959), Alan Lakein’s How to Get Control of Your Time and Your Life (1973), Stephen R. Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (1989), David Allen’s Getting Things Done (2001), and Charles Duhigg’s Smarter Faster Better (2016) are responses to a fundamental shift from a prewar understanding of corporate work as a cooperative endeavor to a neoliberal one, founded on the idea of competition, in which workers are encouraged to think of themselves as independent entrepreneurs, selling their skills to the corporate buyer. Gregg calls this “executive athleticism,” a culture in which the workplace is an arena for showy feats of individual productivity.
The army of secretaries and messengers that survived into the twentieth-century workplace has vanished into the cloud, and during the pandemic, so has the office itself. In this respect, the story is unexpectedly circular. Napoleon did not commute. His “cabinet” was a concentric arrangement of increasingly public offices and conference rooms with his bedroom at the center. Over time, that cabinet separated itself from his home and became the corner suite downtown. Now it’s back in the spare bedroom, or on the kitchen table.
The retreat of the white-collar workplace into domestic spaces may be temporary and partial, but it has undeniably accelerated the shift in office work from an activity conducted at a certain place within a certain span of time—eight hours a day, forty a week—to a set of tasks that are layered between other tasks, whether that’s homeschooling, personal administration, socializing, housework, or leisure. We hop on a video call. A child walks in. We toggle between open documents and browser tabs, reading emails and occasionally looking at our phones. We cook and eat a meal.
For many knowledge workers, particularly those indoctrinated into the culture of executive athleticism, the dissolution of the communal workplace has brought on a crisis. If you’re used to performing for a manager, and to assessing that performance by keeping tabs on your colleagues, the sudden isolation can induce paranoia. Are you working hard enough? If you’re not logging the same number of hours as your rival, is that okay? How will you even know? The manager has also vanished into the cloud, or at least into a little window on-screen, a presence no more tangible than a TikTok video or a photo of your cousin’s new baby. If you can’t be sure how much work is enough, is it ever safe to stop? One of our fundamental modes of freedom is the ability to control our own time, and for some workers newly liberated from the office, the scope of this freedom has increased. For others, the need to demonstrate productivity, coupled with the absence of familiar modes of measurement, means that nothing seems to suffice, and work begins to saturate all areas of life with an insistent but unfulfillable demand.
If your identity as a useful employee is bound up with this ethic of athletic overachievement, the “unprofessional” conditions at home can feel deeply undermining. It’s hard to see yourself as a white-collar Olympian when your desk is scattered with crayons.
In Counterproductive, Gregg nods to the familiar history of Taylorism, but points out that the concept of productivity has as much history in the home as the factory, a fact that brings it much closer to the current homeworking experience than might be expected. The nineteenth-century idea of domestic science was an attempt to systematize the tasks and duties of the housewife. In The American Woman’s Home (1869), by Catharine Esther Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and her elder sister made explicit comparisons between women’s work and that of masculine figures such as Napoleon:
Let any man of sense and discernment become the member of a large household, in which a well-educated and pious woman is endeavoring systematically to discharge her multiform duties; let him fully comprehend all her cares, difficulties, and perplexities; and it is probable he would coincide in the opinion that no statesman, at the head of a nation’s affairs, had more frequent calls for wisdom, firmness, tact, discrimination, prudence, and versatility of talent, than such a woman.
The Beecher sisters subscribed to the conventional ideal of a Victorian woman as a servant and helpmeet, the “angel in the house” whose task within the domestic sphere was achieved by suppressing her own desires. “The family state then, is the aptest earthly illustration of the heavenly kingdom,” they wrote. “In it woman is its chief minister. Her great mission is self-denial.” Pandemic-era workers struggling to focus while overseeing Zoom preschool are facing problems of time management that were explicitly addressed in The American Woman’s Home. A good housekeeper was advised to
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. So complicated are the pursuits and so diverse the habits of the various members of a family, that it is almost impossible for every one to avoid interfering with the plans and taste of a housekeeper, in some one point or another. It is, therefore, most wise for a woman to keep the loins of her mind ever girt, to meet such collisions with a cheerful and quiet spirit.
The inevitability of distraction and the indistinct boundary between work and personal life were already pressing issues before the pandemic. With the advent of smartphones and remotely accessible corporate networks, the workplace was already breaking back into the home, bringing with it all the well-known problems we understand under the euphemistic heading of “work-life balance.” For some, the solution involves setting boundaries and supporting social norms that prevent the encroachment of work. For others, mostly young single men steeped in the neoliberal culture of executive athleticism, the dissolution of the boundary between home and work has become something to celebrate, even accelerate.
The demand for productivity has mutated into an ethos of constant self-optimization. We’re encouraged to hunt for “life hacks,” to use “one simple trick” to read 300 percent faster or get flat abs or learn Mandarin in under an hour. We go to work on ourselves, treat ourselves as the object of a kind of transformative labor, the aim of which is to escape the experience of work as work altogether and replace it with a sort of joyous transcendence. The self-improvement guru Tim Ferriss promises tools to help us “Escape the 9–5, Live Anywhere and Join the New Rich.” No part of his life remains unhacked. “I’ve been experimenting with different breakfast options for decades,” he shares in a 2016 blog post. Me too, though perhaps not in the same way. Elsewhere he offers his thoughts on “sex as a doorway to a higher perception” and “building a bulletproof personal-finance system.”
Others take things even further. The biohacking scene is built around tinkering with your body, improving functionality or performance with DIY cybernetic devices or biochemicals: RFID chips, sensors, or so-called smart drugs. Transhumanism—transcending human physical boundaries—is merely an extreme byproduct of the human-potential movement of the Sixties.
Half a century later, we can now see that the inward focus of all those retreats and meditation workshops has had an insidious effect, promoting the questionable notion that stress and alienation can be eliminated through personal optimization, divorced from wider social and political questions. If the stress imposed by the metastasization of work into every part of life has become intolerable, the promotion of “mindfulness” privatizes the struggle, substituting yet more individual work (why are you not good enough at emptying your mind?) for collective action.
The German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk has a more positive view of self-optimization. In his long and opinionated tome You Must Change Your Life, he argues that our obsession with growth and training is a secular form of monasticism. Once, religious ascetics performed spiritual exercises to bring themselves closer to God. In a society that doesn’t universally accept that goal, we’re left with a sense that striving for self-actualization is desirable, even urgent, but without agreement on its purpose.
Sloterdijk takes the title of his book from the famous last line of Rainer Maria Rilke’s poem “Archaic Torso of Apollo.” Wandering through the Louvre some time before the First World War, Rilke is confronted with a fragment of ancient statuary and experiences a luminous presence bursting forth, silently issuing a command. “There is no place / that does not see you. You must change your life.” For Sloterdijk, the statue “sets up an unconditional overtaxing” that “oppose[s] the pragmatic consensus that one can only demand of people what they are capable of achieving in the status quo.” At the core of what it means to be human, he argues, is a confrontation with limits, an encounter with impossibility. “What is the human being,” he asks, “if not an animal of which too much is demanded?”
Skeptical of the contemporary power of art or religion to fulfill this demanding role, Sloterdijk suggests that “the only authority that is still in a position to say ‘You must change your life!’ is the global crisis.” Writing in 2009, Sloterdijk seemed to be invoking climate change or the financial crash, but the coronavirus pandemic bears out his thought. We’re accustomed to being confronted with banal messages about living our best lives, being the change we want to see, going beyond something or other to achieve our goals. Ordinarily these messages feel utterly vacuous, because they treat ancient questions about the good life as trivial, a matter of consumer choice. The pandemic has stripped comfortable people of routine, sociability, status, and distraction. With this suspension of norms, we are being asked, in an unprecedented way, to think again about the demand for productivity, the meaning of work, and the purpose of our striving.