Productive, Destructive

When did I start to care about being “productive”? At what age did that concern begin to dominate my thoughts? When did it infiltrate my sense of self-worth?

As I discuss in an earlier post, I’ve been increasingly frustrated about not having enough time (I've also battled with discerning if that is reality or just my perception). I don’t feel like I’m experiencing my life, much less really enjoying it. I’m still fairly young, but I have this sinking feeling that my life is zooming past me. Before I know it, I fear, I’ll find myself fifty years old and (still) unfulfilled, constantly distracted by garbage/work I don’t care about, perpetually overwhlemed by the trivia of daily life. 

I’m far from alone such worrying and I recognize that’s it's symptomatic of our modern way of life. Work, these days, never really ends. This fact has been discussed by many others, ad nauseam, and is generally accepted as a problem -- although no employer I've encountered seems eager to fix it. For myself, I've created boundaries to prevent overwork and I’ve developed a few rogue strategies to take back some of my time. I also practice mindfulness and meditation to help cultivate a sense of abundance. I try to remind myself that efficiency and productivity shouldn’t be the main objectives of increasing my free time. But do I mean it?

In fact, why do I want more free time? What will I do with it? If it’s not “productively” spent, will I just feel like shit again for wasting my precious spare hours?

And, I actually have more free time now than ever before as an adult! College, and then graduate school, was a whirlwind of several part time jobs paired with heavy course loads. Now, I only have full-time employment to contend with, and few external obligations.

And I still feel the pinch.

This made me curious.

Personality or the Man

Some of my restlessness and desire to make best (read: productive) use of my time might be exacerbated by my INFJ personality type. We INFJs have a deep need for meaning, independence, and creativity. While introverts, we are among the most social and intuitive and crave profound connections and a real sense of community. We are, perhaps annoyingly, idealistic and have super complicated and hard-to-meet work needs. We also tend towards perfectionism. Our habit of over-thinking and daydreaming often makes "being present" a real challenge. Because of these traits we are also easily wooed by personal productivity schemes. The Productivity Equals Worth worldview, which dominates American culture, definitely took firm hold of me, to my memory, around 2009. 

That my obsession with personal productivity, efficiency, and time management (which are really just versions of one another) correlated with the Great Recession is perhaps no coincidence. As Oliver Burkeman highlights in his fantastic essay on the subject, the concept of personal productivity was in fact born of capitalism, and it functions by filling up our time with unnecessary work. It’s not an entirely new phenomenon; but as he notes, it is “a dominant motif of our age,” particularly in the personal development field.  In an interview with Burkeman, Historian Melissa Gregg notes that the popularity of personal productivity and time management, which promise us greater control over our lives, “comes back and back, in force, whenever there is an economic downturn.” Graduating in the midst of this economic crisis, it is no wonder why I fell for this promise.  

The article illustrates how early twentieth century industrialists and later mid-century marketing executives invented some of the same personal productivity strategies we use today, both at work and at home. Burkeman points out:

“[...]Efficiency had been primarily a way to persuade (or bully) other people to do more work in the same amount of time; now it is a regimen we impose on ourselves.”

That is actually fucking terrifying.

And this affects women in especially awful ways.  For example, in the wake of WW2, products were invented to allegedly relieve the work of the housewife and give her more free time, but they ended up elevating standards for home-making, burdening women even further. This modern pressure on women continues, echoed in debates over whether women can “really have it all” (meaning participation in the workforce and a family/home life) and if we should be "leaning in." 

I know I can barely fit a 40 hr job, enough home-cooked meals, exercise, and social time into one week. I have to forcibly carve out time for creativity--and such forcing can even make me resent my personal projects. My leisure time, which barely existed during my young adult years, has all but vanished. Until very recently, I felt guilty indulging in play for the sake of it. I actually eschewed my favorite game since forever, The Sims, because I viewed it at a poor use of my time. This is tragic because The Sims is The Best.  

Personally, I'm in favor of leaning the fuck out.  But social expectations are incredibly resilient. 

definitely The Man

In demonstrating how modern personal productivity trends can also be linked to Silicon Valley tech folks, who seem to always be creating solutions for problems that don't really exist, Burkeman summarizes:

“The truth is that more often than not, techniques designed to enhance one’s personal productivity seem to exacerbate the very anxieties they were meant to allay.”  

In other words,  making more efficient use of our time, especially in pursuit of greater productivity, is actually eating up our free time. It literally generates extra work! Work that my hyper-vigilant brain/personality, enculturated to this ideology, is only eager to perform. I need to end this cycle and answer some hard questions about my life. We all probably do. 

So, how do we confront this? How can we break these patterns? 

Burkeman has a few recommendations and I’m going to mash them together with some of my own:

  1. Confront your fear of death and realize, no, you can’t do all the things. Although this sounds melodramatic, Burkeman is right to point out that personal productivity “functions as a form of psychological avoidance.” Reduce your obligations/commitments because. It. Doesn’t. All. Fit.
    Efficient time management and strict application of personal productivity strategies will not create enough of the free time you need to enjoy your life. Capitalism wants you to believe that it will, but it just won’t.

  2. Work less. Although I disagree with this article’s premise that the benefits to business should be (at all) a priority, the author Leigh Stringer makes some great points about why one should consider reducing one’s hours to part time if it’s financially feasible. 

  3. Play more. Really. Play games, do puzzles, color, draw, crochet, enjoy movies, goof off, relax. Make the time for this. Schedule it, if you must. Make it deliciously unproductive. You need this more than you know.

  4. Reorient your values to focus on human connection, your health, and things that fill you up, regardless of their monetary value. Don’t equate your identity with your paid work or with your #goals. If you’re one of the lucky ones who has a very fulfilling job that aligns with your personal identity, you could actually be even more in danger of it encroaching on the rest of your life. Resist the takeover! 

  5. Be realistically ambitious. For example, I grew up very poor and after 7 years of struggling through higher education, and even with a heaping of good luck and some privilege, I still find myself firmly in the “low income”category for my metro area. I 100% bought into the now-widely-recognized-as-dead American Dream. And that’s okay--except for the years of misery and low self-esteem it caused. I occasionally still find myself being classist against myself and I too often compare myself to my seemingly better-off peers. I live paycheck to paycheck and while I certainly aim for a more comfortable life, I’m done killing myself trying to get there. And striving CAN kill you. Especially if you’re marginalized. I’m not encouraging cynicism, nor do I think you should temper your dreams, but don't let the disappointment of not reaching a certain goal or vision engulf you and alter your sense of self worth. Pressuring yourself to reach society’s definition of success, trying to be constantly productive, is a recipe for missing out on life.  There are endless creative ways you can lead a happy, healthy, financially secure-enough life. Define what that looks like for you and establish sensible metrics to keep yourself on track. 

Subversive Salmon, by N Marie (the author) 

Working to reject the prioritization of personal productivity and it’s allies "time management" and "efficiency" will be difficult, but is ultimately key to enjoying your life. This rejection is an act of resistance. You will be swimming upstream in this effort, at least for a while, but it’s completely worth it. And know that you’re not alone. I'm salmoning right there with you. 



As always, please share your thoughts below, in the comments. 



Other resources:

A productivity parable: The Fisherman and The Businessman

As referenced in the Burkeman article: Time Matters Conference