We lead lives defined by productivity and decided by priorities.
Our time-pressed, pressured-to-produce selves count down days until the weekend, the nearest holiday — looking for any and all forms of reprieve just to trap ourselves in “grass is greener on the other side” situations where restlessness strangles any relaxation free time could offer.
We find ourselves in a cycle of extremes between unhealthy procrastination and toxic workaholism, and where a break can never just feel like a break. If we hope to do better for ourselves and for our work in the long term, we have to rewire how we think about productivity.
Productivity and pandemic
In March, when stay-at-home orders ushered life to a grinding halt, the internal demand to get things done followed us as we retreated indoors.
Productivity became a crutch for all of our uncertainty and insecurity. Pandemic-sanctioned free time provided no excuse to put things off as we combatted collective nervousness with finding anything we could do to make the most of it. Maximization of time was a minimization of worry in taking advantage of this “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
To be fair, there’s nothing wrong with pursuing the sense of accomplishment that completing tasks gives us. It’s satisfying to put in the effort and get results, especially when you might need purposefulness to navigate all the free time you’re burdened or blessed with. Productivity gave us a sense of normalcy and kept life moving forward during the uncertain throes of early lockdown.
People learned new skills, readjusted life plans, talked more and measured the “success” of pandemic experiences by how much they got done.
As journalist Nick Martin points out in his piece for The New Republic, “this mindset is the natural endpoint of America’s hustle culture — the idea that every nanosecond of our lives must be commodified and pointed toward profit and self-improvement.”
Time not spent actively working toward something felt like time wasted long before the pandemic. When we feel too useless and our hands too free to be comfortable, we reattach ourselves to production and work toward the next break all over again. Our revolving doors of responsibilities, both real and perceived, became frenemies we loathe interacting with but miss in absence.
We’ve always orbited in these axial relationships with our time and what we get done, so when faced with an unexpected reality that knocked all of our best-laid plans off-kilter, we did what we knew best: work.
Americans at work
In correcting our productivity problem is to understand where the compulsion came from.
We subscribe to the do-what-you-love ethos, encouraging and assuring each new generation that life’s purpose can be found in their dream job. We idolize those who have “made it” and eat up their advice, holding up billionaires who wear the same thing every day for time and efficiency as inspirations. Influencers build social media empires off of sharing “productivity hacks” to get the most done in the least amount of time.
The “American Dream,” the fabled economic promise of our nation, is based on meritocracy, a system where ability, skill and effort can and will lead everyone to upward mobility. This idea of hard work coming out on top has entrenched itself in the American work ethic and we value it to the point of worshipping workaholism.
We expect forty-hour school or work weeks with overtime adding to that baseline regularly. A 2014 Gallup report found that the average full-time employee worked 47 hours a week. Compare this with how the European Union’s Working Time Directive cuts off the maximum at 48 hours, and with how the United States ranks seventh in the most stressed developed nations.
This overwork runs parallel to how we are more productive than ever but get paid less for our efforts. The “productivity-pay gap” has facilitated a greater need for other sources of income, whether that be having second jobs or “side hustles” where hobbies are monetized for profit.
In a culture where success is defined by the metrics of wealth and time is money, optimization of every passing hour becomes the core goal. Every break is an opportunity to fall behind and every moment is accompanied by an obligation to do something to move up in the world.
How to do nothing
Doing nothing isn’t to say that responsibilities and deadlines should fall to the wayside, but taking a pause to reflect on the issues of our work culture can allow us to refocus for a growth-centered mind.
Social media has designed an image of what we currently perceive as productive. Adhering to this stature, however, is simply a means of overachievement that reflects on the ideals of an American hustle.
If you’ve ever guilt-tripped yourself for going off-course a workout routine or deciding not to start homework early in your free time, you’re likely to have an impulse most commonly seen in millennials — the impulse to optimize every nanosecond of one’s life. It’s important to understand that the pressure we place on ourselves, in times of overindulgence, is incredibly counterproductive.
In the words of Jenny Odell, the author of “How to do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy,” we see productivity as something that only centers “on the idea of producing something new, whereas we do not tend to see maintenance and care as productive in the same way.”
Tending to the necessities of self-care and basic needs is more than enough in terms of productivity. Our minds have been influenced by the conception that distractions are a negative implication when, on the contrary, taking the time to stray away from strenuous activities is the key to putting things into perspective.
The tasks that bring us joy can, in turn, allow us to stay on track with professional obligations. Many of us tie the sense of purpose and self-worth to the number of hours we spend keeping busy, but removing negative connotations like “too much” and “too little” is the start of letting yourself enjoy the little things and refocusing your mindset on the real world.
Human beings do not exist just to work and we definitely don’t exist to function at “peak performance” at all times. Time you enjoy wasting is not time wasted.