Opinions, Column

The Myth of Productivity

Stop trying to be so productive. No, really. Focusing on productivity isn’t improving your life, it’s probably making it worse. Let me explain. 

Growing up, we are told by parents and teachers not to “waste time.” We’re told to stop watching TV and “do something productive,” chastised for sleeping in, and constantly reminded that there are “a million ways” we could make ourselves “useful.” We have been conditioned to believe that if we are not “doing something,” then we are wasting our lives. I disagree. Sure, a certain level of productivity is necessary for society to function, but it shouldn’t be treated as an end goal in and of itself. Why not? I’m so glad that you asked.

First, focusing on being productive can actually make you less productive. Can you recall the last time you had a big assignment to hand in or a meeting you had to prepare for? Did focusing on the gravity of the assignment or scrambling to maximize the time you had to complete it help you produce a better outcome? Or could you have achieved something of a similar, if not better, level of quality by simply working through the task without a focus on the end product? My argument here is that by focusing on producing rather than doing you actually add unnecessary pressure which can be paralyzing. When something feels like it is too big, too much or even unattainable, it also feels less worth trying to achieve. I’m not suggesting that focusing on the outcome will leave you completely paralyzed and unable to work through a project—although that does happen—but rather that putting too much pressure on yourself can actually lower your motivation and thereby prolong the entire process. For example, if I sat down to write a 20-page paper and every time that I finished a few sentences I was reminded of the fact that I’m not even close to reaching the page limit and I wasted the previous weekend being “unproductive,” I would feel less accomplished and even a little demotivated to continue writing. If instead I focused on the sentence ahead of me, I would waste less time in my head entertaining purposeless thoughts and more time simply getting the assignment done. This is definitely easier said than done and a true case of “practice what you preach,” but the logic is there.

Similarly, a focus on productivity can also lead to burnout. How many times have you found yourself happily laying in bed, scrolling through Instagram and then all of a sudden—POW! You’re hit with a huge wave of guilt and anxiety when you realize that you’re not being productive? We’ve come to see doing nothing in particular as a waste of time, always feeling like there could be better ways to spend time. Anne Peterson, author of the upcoming book Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation, explains that “we’re so used to making every moment of ours productive in some capacity … Like, I’m on a walk, I should listen to this information podcast that makes me more informed or a better person.” This is something that I think we can all relate to. The urge to produce is so much stronger than the urge to just simply do. This means that even when what we are doing is relaxing and recharging our batteries, we feel bad. 

This problem is so widespread that the counteraction to it, the “self-care” movement, has become popular. “Self-care” is the practice of acknowledging and prioritizing your mind-body needs and treating them accordingly. Feeling stressed about an upcoming assignment but don’t have the energy to work on it right now? Take a nap. Made plans with your friends to go out tonight but you’re no longer in the mood? Stay home and take a bubble bath. Have a million things to get done today but all you want to do is walk to Starbucks? Start by treating yourself to that seasonal pumpkiny-delight! I will acknowledge that there is a thin line between self-care and totally giving in to your desires, but in order to be productive it is absolutely necessary to listen to your needs. Otherwise, at some point you will experience burnout.  

Finally, the biggest issue that I have with society’s focus on productivity is that it can cause us to miss out on actually experiencing life. We are so caught up in working toward our next step in life that we fail to experience the one that we are currently in. In high school, you probably focused on studying for the SAT and working hard in class so that you could get into college. In college, you probably focused on networking with students and teachers in order to secure internships that will land you a good job after graduation, and so on and so forth. There is absolutely nothing wrong with doing any of those things. The problem comes when we adopt a certain mindset, of which we are all guilty, while doing them. To produce these outcomes is fine, but the term “productivity” implies producing for the sake of the outcome. If our mindset throughout college is that we are producing good outcomes so that we can secure our end product—a job—then haven’t we failed to actually live the experience that is college? Furthermore, if we go through life with a mindset focused on productivity and achievement, aren’t we just putting in the hours to get from point A to point B to point C, without realizing that experiencing each point is in and of itself the entire reason we worked so hard in the first place? Too many of us are simply producing as we wait for the next experience to start, all the while missing the experience we are currently in. What is the point of productivity if we can’t actively step back from it and appreciate the fruits of our labor? This conundrum reminds me of the saying that goes something like, “Happiness is not in reaching the top of the mountain but rather in the climb up there.” Every minute that we spend just simply existing, regardless of productivity, is another step up the mountain.

So, rather than focusing on being productive, or working for the sake of the outcome, focus on doing things, living experiences and taking in the whole picture. Give yourself those extra 10 minutes to lie in bed and scroll needlessly through Instagram, walk to Starbucks without a podcast on, learning absolutely nothing, sit on a bench and just watch life happen. Give yourself permission to experience rather than produce. Because, regardless of whether you’re being “productive” or not, life is happening around you. One day you will reach the top of the mountain, so why not enjoy the view on the way up?

Featured Graphic by Olivia Charbonneau/ Heights Editor

November 14, 2021

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