All of the sentences above involve the use of metaphors. “The essence of metaphors,” Lakoff and Johnson argued in Metaphors We Live By, “is understanding one kind of thing in terms of another.”
(Sidebar: The Metaphors We Live By was one of the most influential books I read as an undergrad. It’s a mind-blowing read that’s well worth the time and money. Use the link above to grab yours from Amazon.)
Many of us don’t realize the power of metaphor even though our thinking is inherently metaphorical. For one thing, humans are generally very visual creatures, which is precisely why visual aids to goal setting help motivate us to actualize our goals.
But the more fundamental point about metaphors is that they have a powerful effect on our behavior. Since our behavior is partly determined by how we think about things, changing metaphors can have a powerful effect of changing behavior. Another important fact to remember is that metaphors do their work below the cognitive level – we don’t think about the associations, yet we act on those associations.
Take the way we think about time, for instance. Here’s the basic metaphor:
TIME IS MONEY
Though we generally think that we’re just making a quip, the reality is that we begin to think about time as though it were money. We think in terms of saving and spending time. We talk and think about actions that cost us or lost us time. Lastly, we think about giving each other time.
The point: it’s not that we think time is like money – rather, we begin to think about time in the way we think about money. Despite the fact that time can’t be saved, spent, lost, or given.
This view of time is related, but different, to another operating metaphor: that more quantity leads to more quality, or MORE IS BETTER. Thus, in the productivity community, getting more things done is inherently thought to be better than getting less done. We check our lists, not for the quality of the task, but the quantity of the tasks, and leave aside the question of whether or not the task actually brought about anything of value. Who cares? I got 43 things done today.
Of course, one of the most powerful metaphor sets involves the use of color. This became even more apparent to me when I started designing the Daily Productivity Heatmap and the Daily Productivity Planner because of my use of colors. I stated in my post about Heatmapping that I decided not to use black because it had a very negative connotation. Dark things, in our usual usage, have negative value.
But I also had to explain orange and red, which we normally use to communicate caution or importance, respectively. Think about all of the orange things that are used as warning signs, or how red is used to arrest our attention.
I’m sure many of you instantly thought “STOP!” after the second image, even though no word indicated the meaning of the symbol.
Another thing that confused people about the Productivity Heatmap was that I presented time in a circular fashion rather than in a linear fashion. Understanding time in the circular way more clearly shows the relationships between the hours, days, weeks, and years than the linear fashion does – and it should be noted that understanding time in a linear fashion is a very recent metaphor in human culture.
I worry about how the “Getting Things Done” phrase is affecting our thinking and practice. For one thing, it already carries with it the implicit MORE IS BETTER metaphor, which should make us pause to start with. But it also carries with it the idea that PRODUCTIVITY IS ABOUT THINGS. The combination of those two metaphors is that MORE PRODUCTIVITY EQUALS MORE THINGS DONE.
If metaphors affect our behavior, then it’s time to abandon Getting Things Done as a metaphor. Productivity is not about things, and getting more done does not necessarily make us more productive. Sometimes the best thing that you can do to boost your productivity is to quit doing so much.
Remember that metaphors do their work below the level of our cognitive awareness. On the one hand, we can know that productivity is not about things and that getting more done does not necessarily make us more productive, yet on the other, we can still understand and behave under the GETTING THINGS DONE model.
Which of the metaphors that you live by need some revision?
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