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How productive was Pepys?

January 18, 2012


Today Wikipedia blacked out in protest of SOPA, and people joked that worker productivity would soar as a result. (Doubtful.) Pre-blackout, I was thinking about what productivity really means, prompted to consider the question by a figure with no opinions on SOPA whatsoever: the 17th-century London diarist Samuel Pepys.

I’ve been reading Pepys’ famous diary on my Kindle in fits and starts, and I follow the entertaining Twitter feed of @samuelpepys (you should, too). Many readers are surprised at Pepys’ lechery and the pints of wine he knocks back, but it was his–by modern business standards–sheer unproductivity that made the strongest first impression on me.

Most of the days described in his diary follow the same pattern. He sets out from home to run errands for his employer, Edward Montagu, or conduct other business. The people he’s looking for are sometimes home, but more often they aren’t. So he might walk to a local tavern to see who’s inside. Invariably, he’ll run into other friends and business associates and stop to have a drink with them. He’ll call on his Aunt Wight or another relative. And pretty soon, it’s time for supper–usually with company–and then bed. A management consultant would have fired him on the spot.

Yet Pepys was far from unproductive. He was an ambitious and successful civil servant, capable of long slogs of politically vital work when required. He was an accomplished amateur musician. And there’s the diary, which he kept daily for almost nine years straight.

With only their internal GPS and hearsay to guide them on their treks around London, Pepys and his contemporaries had no choice but to put themselves in the way of new people and things, experiences they couldn’t control or predict. They learned to live with uncertainty, and used their down time to (mostly) good effect–networking, talking politics, and making plans. How many model workers today can say that?

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