Discover more from What Works
The Eggbeater Effect: How Time-Saving Technology Just Makes For More Work
Before there were egg beaters, there were women with whisks and spoons beating eggs.
As a woman who bakes and also owns a KitchenAid Pro stand mixer, the thought of doing everything my mixer does with my own two hands is a bit horrifying. I can combine my flour, milk, yeast, butter, and eggs, turn on my mixer, and walk away as it kneads my brioche for me.
Instead of spending ten minutes bent over a floured slab of granite, kneading the dough by hand, I can use that time to sweep up or empty the dishwasher. I can be more productive! Not only can I be more productive, but I expect to be more productive. Why just bake some bread when I can also fold laundry? Write a few more paragraphs? Brine the chicken for dinner?
Sarah Marshall coins "the eggbeater effect" in a You're Wrong About episode. She describes how the invention of labor-saving devices often raises our expectations of how we're using our time. It's not enough to make faster omelets with an egg beater; you've got to crank out Italian meringue and soufflés. It may or may not be a coincidence that the soufflé in its modern form didn't come into being until the 1850s, the same time that inventors began filing patents for eggbeaters. Regardless of whether these developments were connected at the time, they're certainly connected now. After all, most home cooks would think twice about planning their desserts if it required time spent whipping egg whites (or cream, or butter) by hand.
"Women have been told over and over again that technology will free them. Technology will save you time. ...women aren't being freed by technology. Women are a technology. Like, the housewife is the best technology."
Sarah Marshall, You're Wrong About: The Stepford Wives
Marshall references a book called More Work For Mother, in which historian Ruth Schwartz Cowan really fleshes out this idea. She points to how the 19th-century was a revolutionary time in terms of inventing labor-saving devices for the home. Yes, eggbeaters and washing machines, apple parers, better stoves, and store-bought flour. But she writes:
"...when discussed by the people who actually did housework, or by the people who watched the people who were actually doing it, it seems not to have become one whit more convenient-or less tiring-during the whole of the century. What a strange paradox that in the face of so many labor-saving devices, little labor appears to have been saved!"
Ruth Schwartz Cowan, More Work For Mother
Labor-saving devices don't tend to save us labor or time.
They change our expectations of work and the ways we use our time. The gas-powered lawnmower, the dishwasher, the power drill, the food processor… these tools have dramatically shifted what's considered "easy" to achieve. Would I think about the property around my house in the same way if it wasn't "easy" to maintain a moderately manicured lawn? This isn't necessarily bad, of course. I'm glad to have my stand mixer and food processor. I'm super grateful to have the software I use to edit podcast episodes—Descript—which has allowed us to get way more creative with how we produce podcast episodes.
But at the same time, I also know the extent Descript has changed my expectations for what constitutes a well-produced episode. Whereas I used to just record an intro and outro after an interview and leave the rest to our primary podcast editor, I now spend hours crafting what is hopefully a more engaging listening experience. I am constantly trying to remind myself that I don't have to always do it this way if I don't want to or don't have time to. But once that expectation shifts, it's hard to shift it back.
The psychologist Barry Schwartz asserts that lowering our expectations can make us happier. We're more likely to be satisfied when we opt for "good enough" instead of "the best" choice. This makes me think of Abby Covert's philosophy of information architecture—and how one of the most critical tasks is to first establish what constitutes "good." For instance, I hear from business owners all the time who want to know what is the best social media platform to be on, the best place to build a website, or the best way to produce a podcast. But best doesn't tell me... anything really. I need to know what you're trying to achieve, your preferences, how you want to spend your time, etc... I need to see how you're defining a good result. Once I know what your good result is, I can help you narrow down the options—and from there, you can choose how you want to go forward.
Good enough really is good enough when you're clear on what constitutes "good."
I've been thinking about the eggbeater effect ever since I heard the idea. I look at the tools—technology of a kind—that I take for granted and consider how they've changed my behavior, my personal expectations, the societal expectations I am met with, and my sense of what's expected or preferred. I think, too, of how they've even shifted my sense of morality. And, of course, it's impossible to think of labor-saving devices without thinking about the internet today. As a creative professional, the internet might be the one labor-saving device I use most frequently. The internet makes it possible for me to quickly research any subject, connect with colleagues, and produce the product of my labor—whether that be an essay published on a website, a podcast episode, or a coaching call.
I've been online since it started to become a presence in middle-class homes—if not ubiquitous yet, at least not wholly unexpected. I am in awe of how my expectations for what I can accomplish by way of the internet have shifted. What I expect from a website today is dramatically different because of what I can create with WordPress. What I expect from the aesthetic of a piece of content is wildly different because of what I can make with Canva. Who I expect to connect with is vastly different because of platforms like Twitter and Instagram.
I don't call out these changes because I think the new expectations are bad or good. On their face, they're pretty neutral.
But how I relate to new expectations can quickly become toxic.
For instance, once I know it's possible to create a fabulous website with WordPress, I might come to believe that nothing but a website with all the bells and whistles is acceptable. Or, once I know that I can whip out a gorgeous set of graphics for Instagram, I might come to believe that a simple snapshot just isn't going to cut it.
What's more, these shifts in expectation aren't limited to my individual experience. We start to see new standards set across groups and cultures. Consider beauty trends. The advent of the modern cosmetics industry and its mass marketing shifted the beauty expectations for women. But today, one person's individual choices or "hacks" (that's a labor-saving technology) can influence the masses quickly. When Kim Kardashian shared how contouring, a technique she appropriated from drag beauty, allowed her to achieve a particular look, it quickly became a new standard for many women. Again, it's not that contouring as a trend or even as an expectation is necessarily wrong—it's that our relationship to it as a trend or expectation can quickly become toxic.
There comes the point in time when choosing to make a soufflé, contour your face, or maintain your manicured lawn is no longer a fun, creative choice. It's a compulsion. It's a burden that can't be lifted until it's done.
Why and how do evolving expectations become non-negotiable burdens?
The key is the moral dimension of clock time. When Benjamin Franklin declared that "time is money," he was making plain an ethic that had been bubbling up since the beginning of Calvinism. The way we "manage" our time today, especially in the United States, is based on the ascetic Protestant ethic that eschewed leisure and lionized work. And while capitalism was in its most nascent stages during Calvin's time, it didn't take long to connect work—and with it, a calling—to wealth or even middle-class status as a sign of God's favor.
In other words, if time is money and possessing money is a sign of God's favor, then the way we spend our time is a moral issue. Whether or not you believe in a God, this logic is baked into our capitalist culture. You can see its evidence in news broadcasts, quotegrams, and books about productivity. The narrative hides in the most unexpected places and forms the basis for many of our life decisions, whether we're conscious of it or not.
Therefore, labor-saving devices aren't really about saving time but creating the capacity for more work. And if we have the capacity for more work, the story tells us to work more so we can earn more. That's our moral duty. And today, as cryptopioneers find ways to commodify—literally—every aspect of our lives, our moral obligation to work and earn money extends to every minute of every day, waking or not.
So let's unpack how some small business egg beaters have changed our expectations—for better or worse. I'm going to take a closer look at project management apps, social platforms, and virtual assistants.
Let's start with project management apps.
Our podcast production agency runs on Clickup. Clickup has been running ads that advertise that you can save a whole day every week using their product. Our team will attest to a good deal of truth in that claim! But here's the thing, how would you spend an extra day per week? Very few people would make the choice that Sean regularly makes: increasing the number of naps he takes per week. Most people think about adding another client, building a new product, or tackling that project that they just haven't been able to get to.
I am in no way against project management apps. But I think we have to be critical about how they shift our expectations. When we come to an app like ClickUp or Asana, most of us bring a more-is-more approach to productivity. And so, for every hour saved, we add something into the mix to fill it. At first, we might tell ourselves that it's "extra." That we're just gonna get ahead, and then we'll take advantage of a more relaxed schedule. But our baseline has changed. Maybe we've even taken on more work to increase revenue and grow the business in the process. Suddenly, we can't just do the same amount of work as before in less time, or we risk feeling lazy or wasteful.
This reminds me of economist John Maynard Keynes's prediction that by the year 2000, we wouldn't have to work more than 15 hours per week. His 1930 essay, Economic Possibilities For My Grandchildren, is delightful. It's full of hope and optimism—as well as the insistence on rethinking how we spend our time and how and why we earn money. Keynes rightly predicted that if technological innovation continued apace, our society would pick up incredible efficiency over the next one hundred years. He believed that most people would use that efficiency to pursue what he called "the art of life itself" instead of selling themselves for the means of life. Keynes also gave a warning that resonates in our 21st-century economy, saying that some might dread this future, "For we have been trained too long to strive and not to enjoy."
If you're curious about this, I do really recommend this short essay. It's surprisingly accessible, and there are more joyous exclamation marks in it than I've ever seen in a work of economics. That said, while I found myself really enjoying the piece, here in the year 2022–nearly 100 years of Keynes wrote the essay—it seems naive. Part of Keynes's prediction was that most people would be okay with having enough for a comfortable life. Given a choice between material excess and excess time, we'd choose time. But that's the piece he got wrong. That's the part that hasn't come to fruition. Early on in the article, Keynes talks about how technological innovation in the industrial revolution outpaced economic innovation—and points to that as a cause of the depression and other economic unrest. Today, it seems that marketing, financial, and labor innovation have outpaced our economic innovation yet again.
We're caught just trying to keep up—being "satisfied" wasn't ever an obvious choice for most people.
And so, when I think about productivity tools, I have to wonder if we're falling into the same trap. Has our ability to manage our time and squeeze in more work outpaced our ability to recognize what getting enough work done looks like? Have our expectations shifted so far that we can't even appreciate the time we're quote-unquote saving anymore? I don't see any way to answer those questions other than yes. Absolutely.
Now, let's take a look at social platforms—and specifically, our expectations for the number of people our communications reach.
Before the advent of social media, we predominantly communicated one-on-one. Via phone calls, letters, and lunch dates, we spoke to an audience of one and listened to their response. If we were in a position of more power, say a teacher, executive, or journalist, we might become accustomed to talking to a group of people all at once. But when broadcast email, blogs, and social media came on the scene, we could potentially communicate with an audience of strangers from all over the world. Of course, it didn't start out that way. In the beginning, we were still connecting with friends and family. But little by little, the expectation changed for many people. We learned how to share messages that spread and introduced us to hundreds or thousands of strangers—even if that was never their intended purpose.
Social platforms promise to connect us with our friends and family—maybe introduce us to new people who share our interests, geographic location, or career. But, as Gina Bianchini and I discussed on What Works, we've discovered that we can use these platforms to talk to massive numbers of people we don't know all at once. We've learned that these platforms have the power to broadcast our messages far and wide. It's tempting to see this as an innovation that benefits us as small business owners, freelancers, or marketers. But just like women were transformed into housewives, entrepreneurs and creative people were transformed into creators. This creator-as-technology exists to benefit platforms—not individuals. We create to save platforms from the burden (and expense) of creating their own content, as news sites or magazines do. Let that sink in for a bit.
In the past, if we wanted to reach people we don't know, we would have attended networking events, done some cold calling, placed an ad, or asked for an introduction—and indeed, those things all still happen to an extent. It was a slower process and required more skin in the game. You needed to think of who was on the receiving end of your call, handshake, or introduction so that you had the best chance of making an effective connection. The way we've used social platforms has changed our expectations, though. Today, we often think about how many people we're reaching with a particular post or over a month. How many people liked this or shared that? How many people commented? Our expectation has become that a good post reaches hundreds or thousands of people because that's what social platforms made possible.
Yet, reach is rarely a quality metric to measure. It says nothing about how someone was impacted by your content or message. It says nothing about whether what you posted will lead to actual business results. Likes and shares? They don't say much, either.
Further, our expectation that we can reach thousands of people has prevented us from asking whether we should be reaching thousands of people. Is that going to help us reach our goals? Is it going to close deals? Is it going to build a brand in a meaningful way? Is it even generating any revenue?
Many of us spend so much time thinking about reaching more people—that we never consider whether the better way forward might be phone calls, handshakes, and introductions. Look, I'm not nostalgic for good old-fashioned networking. But I can tell you that the way people with big businesses—and even big audiences—create the majority of their results look a whole lot more like handshakes than it does scheduled posts.
Years ago, I hosted writer Alexandra Franzen for a workshop at the coworking space I started on the Oregon coast. She talked to the group assembled about how to think about their audiences. She said that she knew how easy it is to disregard the power of a quote-unquote small audience. But she invited attendees to think about the physical space their audiences would inhabit. A conference room? A passenger jet? A small theater? A banquet hall? An outdoor stadium? I often reference Alexandra's prompt when I talk to podcasters who fret about their download numbers. Some shows have fifty listeners, others a few hundred—but when you think about what fifty or a few hundred bodies look like, you start to get a sense of the power of your communication.
Since the expectation is that if you're "doing it right," you're going to amass an audience of many thousands, many of us forget about the people they're already reaching and focus on the people they're not yet reaching. Once you know you can reach 10 people, you figure you should be reaching 100. Once you know you can reach 100 people, you figure you should be reaching 1000. Once you know you can reach 1000 people, you figure you should be reaching 10,000. And on and on. Why are we compelled to reach more people rather than reach those already paying attention more effectively? Has the technological innovation for broadcasting outpaced our capacity for social innovation? And have we built businesses based on the large audience we might reach instead of the reality of who is listening?
Finally, I want to take a closer look at virtual assistants.
In Episode 364, Janice Plado Dalager and I talked about the often unspoken, unrecognized value of virtual assistants, online business managers, and other support professionals who help us build our businesses. We talked about the emotional labor of assisting and the exploitation that many support pros face.
That is an essential conversation—and if the topic piques your interest, I highly recommend listening to the episode.
But today, I want to talk about something a little different regarding the way business owners use virtual assistants and support professionals—and the eggbeater effect that hiring a VA can create. Again, just like how women have been transformed into the technology of housewives, people who do support work are often seen as technology, even as interchangeable parts. It's objectifying—and harmful for everyone involved. I digress.
Often, I hear something like this from business owners: "I can just never get around to posting to social media… or sending emails… or pitching myself to podcasts… or [insert other tasks here], so I'm going to hire a VA to do it." Fair enough. But that thinking presupposes that doing that thing (or, likely, many things) is vital to your business and, by not doing it, you're missing out on substantial results.
But is that true? Do you know that a non-existent approach to social media, not pitching yourself to podcasts, or not sending emails harms your business?
Just because you can hire a virtual assistant or support pro to do a task doesn't mean that the task should be done. It doesn't mean it's essential to how your business runs. There's an excellent chance that you'll spend money, time, and brainpower on helping your VA execute the task without seeing any results on the backend. It's that same old issue: just because you can whip your egg whites up into stiff peaks doesn't mean you should make a soufflé. If you love to make soufflé, by all means, go for it! But don't add work to your plate that doesn't provide meaningful results.
That allows me to swing back to my conversation with Janice. When we're spending time and money on getting work done that doesn't need to get done and isn't providing meaningful results, there's an excellent chance that's going to impact our relationship with the person doing that work. And not in a good way. Has our labor innovation outpaced our strategic analysis or self-awareness?
So those are just 3 ways I see the egg beater effect play out in small businesses today.
We spend money and mental bandwidth on labor-saving devices only to increase the labor we do. Our expectations go up, and so do the number of items on our to-do lists.
Are there other things you spend money on that impact how you spend time? And are those expenses enhancing your life or work? Or are they just convincing you to do more?
Remember, I love my stand mixer—and I love a labor-saving device. But I also love to know what's actually necessary, enjoyable, or result-producing, so I don't fill my time with stuff that's just extra.
This article is also available as Episode 373 of What Works.
Click here to find it on your favorite podcast player.