The Empty Promise of Productivity
“There is more to life than increasing its speed.” – Mahatma Gandhi
It’s the status symbol no one talks about, woven into our work, play, homes, and family lives. It takes up space on our calendars, to-do lists, and endless roster of appointments and meetings. It can leave us exhausted or invigorated, constantly tugging at our drive to do more, give back, and leave our mark. It can be a source of increased stress and frequent complaints one minute, and unbridled joy the next.
Busyness is the New Currency
Busyness is the new currency by which we measure our success, our fulfillment, and ultimately, the richness of our lives. “In certain cultures, spending your time relaxing, spending your time on vacations is a sign of social status,” says Neeru Paharia, Assistant Professor at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business. “But in American culture, it's actually quite different, where people somehow seem to attribute higher status, higher social standing to individuals who are always busy, always working hard, always spending many hours at work.”
Notably, when people are busy not by personal choice, but because someone else is forcing them to be, the relationship between busyness and high status weakens. “In other words,” explains NPR Social Science Correspondent Shankar Vedantam, “when you flash this particular status symbol, it's important to let people know not only that you're very busy but that you, yourself have chosen to be busy.”
During the early 20th century, when the idea of efficiency first took hold, few thought about its potential consequences, internalizing an ideal that was originally developed to improve the functioning of machines. Borrowed from the Industrial Revolution, there was great appeal in the notion of doing what you already did, only better, faster, and more cheaply.
Concepts like time management and productivity soon followed, promising a sense of control in the often unpredictable and constantly evolving world of employment. Best-sellers began capitalizing on an idea that was rapidly catching fire. Time management and setting long-term goals, after all, could not only lead to an increased sense of work-life balance, but to something even more deeply coveted: peace of mind.
Today, entire markets are devoted to time management and personal productivity, tailored to our increasingly digital era. The Apple app store alone holds thousands of apps in the “productivity” category, offering barcode scanners, task managers, habit trackers, unit converters, and more. Books and blogs abound delivering advice ranging from parenting productively to avoiding procrastination.
Yet, is it reasonable to expect that our daily tasks, long-term goals, and professional pursuits require machine-like efficiency? The downsides are many: exhaustion, unrealistic demands, even self-consciousness: the more time you spend focusing on your long-term goals, the more time you spend feeling a vague sense of hopelessness each passing day for not yet having achieved them. When you are able to cross one off, the feeling of satisfaction is often short-lived, and it’s soon time to set another.
Our Love of Speed is an Addiction
“The problem is that our love of speed, our obsession with doing more and more in less and less time, has gone too far,” author Carl Honoré writes, “it has turned into an addiction, a kind of idolatry.”
When we feel busy, even time feels different. A Dutch study found that those who rush believe time moves faster. Their response? To rush more. Many of the techniques we employ to better manage our time (making to-do lists, prioritizing tasks by order of importance, tackling harder tasks first) frequently fail to produce the results we desire. We become distracted from one task by another of equal or greater urgency, and get caught in a cycle of constant switching, exacerbated by interruptions, increased responsibility, and feeling overwhelmed. According to a University of California, Irvine study, it takes an average of 25 minutes to resume a task after being interrupted.
Furthermore, when we’re regularly bombarded by several streams of electronic information, we show poorer ability to pay attention, remember, or switch from one task to another, than those who prefer to complete one task at a time. Not surprisingly, research from the University of London shows that our IQ drops from 5 to 15 points when we try to multitask, and author David Rock describes how performance can decrease by 50% when we focus on two mental tasks simultaneously.
The Shadow of the Efficiency Mindset
One of the subtler nuances of an efficiency mindset is that we start to view our leisure time as needing to be productive, rather than simply relaxing. Suddenly, enjoying leisure for its own sake becomes inadequate, compromising its very purpose. We read not for the thrill of witnessing a narrative unfold, but to improve our credentials; we attend social events not for the pleasure of company and conversation, but to raise our social standing; we go for a run not to reward our bodies, but to measure our steps and increase our distance.
How can we allow ourselves to be more comfortable with leaving certain tasks undone, declining certain invitations, and inevitably, disappointing those we care about or to whom we’re accountable? Time management and productivity, the seeming antidotes to our busy lives, more frequently present themselves simply as another form of busyness, their undesirable implications far-reaching, and well-hidden.
When we convince ourselves that with the right tools and frame of mind, we can manage our time effectively and make room for everything that’s important, we mentally free ourselves of the burden of having to make difficult decisions: to work out, or to have coffee with a friend; to read our children a bedtime story, or to catch up on the day’s emails; to walk the dog an extra block, or to turn home.
The order and time-tables we impose upon everything from our inboxes to our leisure time disguise dilemmas of a far more pressing nature: which paths will we pursue, what relationships will we prioritize, what causes will we abandon over the course of our undeniably short lives?
Peace of Mind
Ironically, the highly sought-after peace of mind promised to us by apps and emptying our inboxes is won not by speeding up but by slowing down. “‘All the things that bind us together and make life worth living – community, family, friendship – thrive on the one thing we never have enough of: time,’” Honoré writes. It’s easy to fool ourselves into believing that in order to accomplish more, we need to move quickly through our days. But in this rush, he explains, we deprive ourselves of the opportunity to connect with new ideas and the people around us. To enjoy our limited hours, to savor each moment as it unfolds before us, slowing down is key.
When asked how they wished they spent more time during the week, an overwhelming 51.5% of adults responded taking care of myself/ doing things I enjoy. 17.2% responded with family and 15.2% with friends, while 14.1% wished they spent more time sleeping. Only 2% wished they spent more time at work. Given these results, one must wonder why so much value is placed on short-term output over long-term investment, quantity over quality, and productivity over personal well-being?
Humans are not Machines
Humans are not machines. We are not designed to do things at warp speed, to produce to the point of malfunction, or to maximize performance at the expense of satisfaction. By neglecting to invest in the time we spend taking care of ourselves and doing things we enjoy, we limit our capacity to create, discover, connect, invent, and improvise.
Taking care of ourselves has become a cultural taboo, threatening the efficiency ideals we hold so dear. According to a 2016 American Time Use survey, working men and women get an average of only 3.68 and 3.24 daily hours of leisure time, respectively (socializing and communicating, watching TV, relaxing and thinking, playing games, computer use for leisure, reading, and participating in sports, exercise, and recreation).
What if we allowed ourselves more time to do what we enjoy? What if we applied the same principles we use for mastering our workdays to become masters of self-care? We easily excuse an extra hour spent at the office, going in early or staying late, but are riddled with guilt when we linger over a second glass of wine during dinner with our spouse. We rearrange our calendar to accommodate extra meetings, but quickly give up when we can’t make it to a child’s dance recital, a cousin’s birthday, a friend’s baby shower. “I have to work” has become our default response, without giving second thought to the machines we are beginning to resemble.
Taking care of ourselves and doing things we enjoy yield returns that continually exceed their investment. Instead of feelings of guilt or doubt, our leisure time should render feelings of strength and pride, in addition to relaxation, ease, and contentment. We should seek to set an example for our children, our friends, our colleagues, not only by what we do for a living, but by how we live when we’re not constantly doing.
My own journey into self-care has been a transformative one. With a background in the helping professions, I was taught early on about the importance of connecting with what brings you joy outside of work, primarily to prevent burnout, exhaustion, and compassion fatigue. I was meant to exist in two separate realms: at work, and outside of work. One wasn’t meant to bleed into the other, but inevitably, my two worlds mixed like water taken to watercolors.
I continued to find ways to unwind outside of the office, but like many others, fell into the steady rhythm of work, sleep, and occasional play. It wasn’t until much later I realized the confines I was placing around the times and ways in which I practiced self-care, defined by the narrow scope of my two realms.
Self-care doesn’t exist in two distinct realms, nor three, nor four, nor a dozen; it blends into every crack and crevice of our days, from the moment we wake, to the moment we drift off to sleep. We’re not meant to take care of ourselves only during the brief pauses of a busy day, but to create space during our busiest moments, to offer ourselves the care and attention we need and deserve. Leisure time is not reserved for fleeting weekend hours or workday lunches, but can be extended to daily exchanges, after-school pickups, and evening routines.
Technology will continue to advance and our responsibilities continue to increase. We cannot slow down our days’ progression, but we can bring more balance to our days, and redefine what it means to be productive, to take care of ourselves, and to make room for what we most enjoy.
Need inspiration? Here are some practices to help you get started:
- Find a way to make your commute more enjoyable: offer to give a lift to a friend, listen to an audiobook, treat yourself to a morning coffee or tea, or take a scenic route.
- Pick one routine task you often rush through and go about it more slowly. What did you notice? How did it feel?
- Set an intention to create pauses during your workday. Do a breathing exercise or guided meditation, repeat a mantra, stretch your legs, or watch a short video that makes you laugh.
- Make your office space cozier: hang artwork or photos, get a plant, start an inspiration board, or add scented oil or a candle.
- At the end of the day, ask yourself what the hardest part was. Brainstorm with a friend or family member ways you can make it easier.
- Make a self-care list. Carry it with you, or keep it in a place you’ll see it each day.
- Journal about how you might be holding yourself to the standards of a machine instead of a human. What changes would you like to make?
- Identify two items from your to-do list that you can replace with activities you enjoy.