Productivity and the Mormon Busyness Ethic

By Roger Terry



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Work is an important aspect of what it means to be Mormon. When we talk about the early Saints, we talk about how they wore out their lives helping to build the Kingdom. For example, a few years ago, Dieter F. Uchtdorf spoke about John Rowe Moyle, who worked for years as a stonecutter on the Salt Lake Temple.

Every Monday John left home at two o’clock in the morning and walked six hours in order to be at his post on time. On Friday he would leave his work at five o’clock in the evening and walk almost until midnight before arriving home. He did this year after year.1

Although we don’t have to walk six hours to get to work, in other ways our lives can be just as challenging. Our bishops and stake presidents usually have demanding careers in the first place, not to mention families. And then we ask them to give another twenty hours to church meetings and administrative duties each week.

And what about the rest of us? If we are not keeping up with Sister Bustle down the street—who is raising six straight-A students, running a candle-making business out of her home, volunteering with the PTA, baking bread three times a week, winning awards for her flower gardens, taking in stray pets, and training for a marathon—we feel guilty.

So, does wearing out our lives in good causes mean that we are productive?

Maybe, but maybe not.

For nine years I taught operations management at Brigham Young University’s Marriott School of Management, and one of the topics I taught was productivity. The first year or so I preached the corporate party line, namely, that increasing productivity is a near cure-all for woes experienced by both businesses and economies. But then I took a closer look at the idea of productivity and discovered something unexpected. Not only does productivity improvement produce some distinct disadvantages for both the labor force and the economy in general, but also, when it comes to measuring productivity, the numbers get as slippery as a greased pig and are as meaningful as mud. Even more important, the way we measure productivity in businesses sometimes produces unintentional results, such as encouraging unfocused activity instead of the productive use of time. I believe this organizational tendency has had a significant effect on how we Mormons live our religion.


Playing with Numbers

The basic formula for calculating productivity is the simple ratio of output/inputs. This seems straightforward enough, but on a national level, this simple ratio can become a quagmire of confusing statistics. For example, when the Bureau of Labor Statistics measures productivity, it excludes many categories of economic endeavor, such as general government, nonprofit institutions, and paid employees of private households. Compounding the difficulty is the fact that in our economy less than 20 percent of workers produce tangible (read “easily quantifiable”) goods. The rest of us are secretaries, salespeople, lawyers, bus drivers, editors, insurance agents, managers, custodians, computer support technicians, and others who perform services to keep the economy running. The only way to estimate the output of this majority is to translate their services somehow into dollars. This dubious figure is then adjusted for inflation and divided by the number of hours these people work. And here we run into a second problem. The Bureau of Labor Statistics has no idea how many hours most people work. The government doesn’t know how many lunch hours stretch to 70 minutes, how many workers leave the office early for a dentist appointment or soccer game, or how many managers burn the midnight oil. In addition, the government doesn’t even pretend to know just how a manager’s activities affect the company’s product or service.

To compound the measurement dilemma, the mixture of outputs and inputs in the economy is not constant from year to year. In fact, as manufacturing declines as a portion of the economy, easily measurable production and labor figures make up a smaller portion of the whole with each passing year. This means that the government’s productivity statistics can’t be compared to themselves accurately over time, and they certainly can’t be compared with productivity statistics from other countries. In other words, the numbers are virtually meaningless or, worse, deceptive. Every time I see a newspaper article boasting of America’s productivity gains, I am reminded of the quip “Torture numbers and they’ll confess to anything.”

This predicament improves only slightly for an individual business. Corporate executives may feel they have a pretty good handle on the quantity of product their workers turn out and how many hours these people work, but total product/labor hours is still a single-factor measurement. In other words, it measures only labor productivity. But what about all the other factors that influence productivity, such as capital investment, research, energy, raw materials, and technology? If a manufacturer invests in new equipment and the firm’s labor productivity rises dramatically, does this mean the laborers are working harder or more efficiently? No. It may mean the exact opposite. The entire productivity gain may be due to technology, and the workers may be underutilized. Because of this dilemma, some have tried to come up with a total-factor measurement, translating all inputs into dollars and using this figure in the denominator of the ratio. This presents a different view of productivity, but with total-factor measurements, how do you know which factor is actually affecting the final quotient? It’s extremely difficult to quantify exactly how much of the productivity increase is due to one factor and how much is due to another.

How does the output/input ratio translate into spiritual or ecclesiastical terms? What is it we as a church are trying to produce? And how efficiently are we doing so? Can we improve our “productivity?” Mormons are world-class number crunchers when it comes to record keeping and statistical measurements of religious devotion. But what is it we are really measuring? Are we measuring the right things?

If our ultimate “product” is the saving of souls in the Kingdom of Heaven, measurement is impossible since we generally won’t know if a soul is saved in the Kingdom of Heaven until the Final Judgment. Given this little roadblock to productivity measurement, we instead find ourselves measuring other things, such as attendance at meetings, tithing worthiness, and numbers of temple recommends.

We do a lot of things in the Church. We sit in meetings, go to the temple, make handouts for class, organize handcart trek reenactments, take meals to the ill or aged, help neighbors move in and out, read our scriptures, and hold family home evening. We are a busy people. But is the work we do productive work? With all our work, are we producing something worth producing? Again, productivity theory gives us an interesting lens through which to consider this question.


The Service Economy and Quality

Perhaps the most significant issue regarding productivity measurement for the economy as a whole and for many individual businesses is that the United States has increasingly become a service economy. Measuring the productivity of service workers is notoriously difficult, to say nothing of increasing it. For instance, how do you measure the productivity of a bus driver? Number of stops per hour? Can you increase her productivity without destroying the quality of the product? How do you measure the productivity of a night watchman or a customer service clerk at Walmart or a receptionist? How do you even define their product?

Behind these questions, however, lies an even more important question: Why do we want to measure the productivity of workers in the first place? The only reason an organization might want to measure productivity would be to increase it. Why? Because increasing productivity is seen as a universal positive in business. But what if the attempt to increase the productivity of most workers is actually counterproductive?

Some businesses produce a tangible product, and yet the work that goes into that product is inherently unquantifiable. Take the work of a magazine editorial staff, for instance. How do you measure an editor’s productivity? Pages edited per day? Articles per month? If the total printed pages of the magazine are fixed and do not vary from week to week or month to month, you can’t really increase the total output. You can decrease the input by reducing staff, but this may affect the quality of the product and the morale of the remaining editors. What about circulation? Obviously there’s a connection between editorial work and circulation, but measuring that connection accurately is impossible. Is the level of a magazine’s circulation a function of quality, or of effective advertising, or of overall economic conditions, or of something we would have to call serendipity or dumb luck, or of some completely undefinable factor? How do you assign the credit for increasing subscriptions (or the blame when they decrease)? With a magazine, as with many other products, quality is perhaps the most important issue. But measuring quality statistically is virtually impossible. It is too subjective. Quality, like beauty, is largely in the eye of the beholder. Robert Pirsig, author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, went crazy trying to define quality. For these reasons, trying to measure the productivity of a magazine editor is an exercise in futility, and the very act of measuring work may create stress, deflect the editor’s focus toward meaningless activity, and therefore be counterproductive.

Mormons are in much the same boat as the service economy. Our product is intangible, but we still have the compelling feeling that we should “improve” our productivity. But how do we improve our spiritual productivity? By becoming more honest? By strengthening our testimony? By increasing in righteousness? None of these are easily measurable.

Sometimes we make a dubious connection between internal spiritual health and external actions or symbols. We can tell that Brother Jones is righteous because he testifies at every fast and testimony meeting, has a nice house with a healthy family, is succeeding in a respected profession, and has just been called to the high council. But external appearance can be deceiving. And sometimes we deceive ourselves with external indications of our own supposed righteousness.


The Busyness Ethic

Because managers feel compelled to somehow measure work, they often simply measure hours worked. Sometimes they divide up the hours and assign them to various tasks. This measurement often has no direct connection to the actual product being produced, so managers end up measuring inputs in the productivity equation but not relating them in any meaningful way to the output (often because there is no way to mathematically connect the two). When this happens, management is simply focusing on activity, the more the better. And the message workers hear is that they should fill their days with many activities, regardless of whether or not they are actually productive activities. This measurement approach rewards busyness. It also rewards people for working more hours than they actually need to, creating a culture of workaholism, which is a good description of our American economic culture.

In America we put a premium on hours worked. American jobholders work more hours in a year, on average, than workers in Japan, Canada, Sweden, or the UK, to name a few. We even work more hours than the industrious Germans. According to statistics from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, in 2010 Americans worked on average 360 more hours than their German counterparts. That’s nine regular 40-hour workweeks.

And American Latter-day Saints, I think we could safely conclude, are probably above average in their industriousness. I suspect, on the whole, that Latter-day Saints are probably also more inclined than the average American to focus on activity for the sake of activity. In fact, we even categorize members as being “active” and “less active,” as if activity were the ultimate objective of our existence. And this is only the cultural side of Mormonism. Add to this all the organizational demands that come from the institutional side of Mormonism (which adopted a corporate management mentality as part of the Correlation movement of the early 1960s),2 and it could easily be argued that we Latter-day Saints are among the busiest people on earth. We’ve taken the Protestant Work Ethic and transformed it into the Mormon Busyness Ethic. We even use a beehive as one of our most ubiquitous religious icons. What unspoken message does this send? Of course we don’t want to be lazy, but the unfortunate consequence of our emphasis on activity and busyness is that we too often confuse these with productivity.

Let me illustrate with a personal experience. A few years ago I worked with a woman (let’s call her Ruth) who was the busiest worker I have ever seen. Ruth was always on the go, always talked a thousand miles per hour, and seemed to have her fingers in everything. If anyone appeared to be indispensable, it was Ruth. Then one day she found another job. She left us. We wondered how on earth we would replace her. Fortunately, she left us a long and detailed list of her activities and responsibilities. It was an impressive inventory. But as we analyzed it with the intent to divide up her responsibilities among the rest of the staff, we gradually came to the conclusion that it was mostly a smokescreen. As we waded through her lengthy job description, we realized there was very little we really had to worry about. We ended up replacing Ruth, but the new employee received assignments far different (and more urgent) than the activities Ruth had been involved in. Most of her very busy activities simply vanished into thin air, and we never missed them.

As I think about this experience, I wonder what could disappear from modern Mormonism that wouldn’t leave a hole? The General Authorities speak often of reducing and simplifying, but when push comes to shove, we seem to be addicted to busyness. We somehow conclude that no programs or activities, regardless of how peripheral, are indispensable. But what cost do they exact in terms of stress and family dysfunction and mental health challenges?

So, I ask again, what is productivity? I worked seven years as a magazine editor. What if, on a typical day, I spent an hour thinking about an important question, read a thought-provoking article related to the content of the magazine, took a few minutes to study a language issue in my style guide, visited with my coworkers about things that were happening in their lives—and these activities took up my morning? What if, in the afternoon, I then edited an outstanding article on raising a child with a disability? Would you call that a productive day? Would you consider it more productive than, say, sitting in a four-hour meeting in which no progress is made and no significant decisions are reached, then spending the rest of the day answering pointless e-mails, filling out bureaucratic forms, and putting out fires ignited by managers who are busily trying to justify their jobs?

Or, for the sake of argument, let’s say I spent four hours slipping in and out of consciousness while reading manuscripts, because I was tired. Would that have been more productive than taking a half-hour nap, then reading those same manuscripts in two very alert hours?


What Would  Jesus Measure?

I think we Mormons tend to worship appearances and forget substance. If we look busy, that’s all that matters. And what we measure has a great influence on how we spend our time. In 1948, President J. Reuben Clark jotted in his office diary a concern regarding the consequences of

appraising Church activities by business asset-liability procedures. [Can spiritual development and achievement be measured statistically, or will the use of statistical measures of success and failure in Church activities actually undermine spirituality by glorifying external piety? . . . Could efficiency become the end rather than spirituality?]3

So, have we learned anything in the past sixty-five years? Or have we justified President Clark’s fear?

We might as well ask the obvious question. What would Jesus measure? Consider the story of his visit to the house of Mary and Martha.

Now it came to pass, as they went, that he entered into a certain village: and a certain woman named Martha received him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, which also sat at Jesus’ feet, and heard his word. But Martha was cumbered about much serving, and came to him, and said, Lord, dost thou not care that my sister hath left me to serve alone? bid her therefore that she help me. And Jesus answered and said unto her, Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things: But one thing is needful: and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her. (Luke 10:38–42)

This story suggests that Jesus sees productivity in exactly the opposite places where we would normally expect to find it.

In Jesus’s eyes, what then is productivity? In the Beatitudes, he talks about being poor in spirit, sorrowful, meek, hungering and thirsting for righteousness, being merciful, pure in heart, peaceful, and persecuted for righteousness’s sake (all unmeasureable). Nowhere does Jesus suggest a life crammed full of meetings, activities, programs, or a regimen of organizational demands that distract from the essence of the pure religion he preached, a religion focused on personal attributes and interpersonal relationships.

Hugh Nibley once accused Latter-day Saints of giving

young people and old awards for zeal alone, zeal without knowledge—for sitting in endless meetings, for dedicated conformity, and unlimited capacity for suffering boredom. We think it more commendable to get up at 5:00 a.m. to write a bad book than to get up at nine o’clock to write a good one—that is pure zeal that tends to breed a race of insufferable prigs and barren minds. One has only to consider the present outpouring of ‘inspirational’ books in the Church which bring little new in the way of knowledge: truisms, and platitudes, kitsch, and clichés have become our everyday diet. The Prophet [Joseph Smith] would never settle for that.4

Elder William M. Allred said of Joseph:

I was with him in the troubles at DeWitt, Adam-ondi-ahman, and in Far West. I have played ball with him many times in Nauvoo. He was preaching once, and he said it tried some of the pious folks to see him play ball with the boys. He then related a story of a certain prophet who was sitting under the shade of a tree amusing himself in some way, when a hunter came along with his bow and arrow, and reproved him. The prophet asked him if he kept his bow strung up all the time. The hunter answered that he did not. The prophet asked why, and he said it would lose its elasticity if he did. The prophet said it was just so with his mind, he did not want it strung up all the time.5

Consider what the Prophet Joseph accomplished in his very abbreviated lifetime. When I come to the end of my working years, I certainly don’t want to look back on my career and say, “All I accomplished was that I stayed busy for forty years.” I would like to think it was a productive forty years. And I certainly don’t want to look back on my life and say, “My, what a busy life I’ve had.” I would want to consider my time on earth a productive sojourn. And no mathematical fiction will make me feel better about my failure if I fall short of that goal.



1. Dieter F. Uchtdorf, “Lift Where You Stand,” Ensign, November 2008, p. 55.

2. See Edward L. Kimball, Lengthen Your Stride: The Presidency of Spencer W. Kimball (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2005), 249.

3. D. Michael Quinn, J. Reuben Clark: The Church Years (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 1983), 106, bracketed text in JRC’s diary.

4. Hugh W. Nibley, Nibley on the Timely and the Timeless (Provo, Utah: BYU Religious Studies Center, 1978), 270–71.

5. In “Recollections of the Prophet Joseph Smith,” The Juvenile Instructor 27 (1892): 471.

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