Jan 1, 2020

I’ve got a confession to make. It’s a little taboo in today’s day and age, especially in certain corners of the internet. But I’m fed up of being productive.

I miss being able to live and let live without a voice in the back of my head questioning my time-effectiveness and wondering whether I’ve achieved as much as I had this time yesterday.

I miss not looking at the clock or seeing it as the enemy.

I miss thinking about life in qualitative, not quantitative, terms.

These days, a productivity fever seems to have swept the world, and I haven’t been exempt.

I’ve got to admit that being productive feels good. I love it when I manage to wake up early, get straight out of bed and accomplish half the day’s tasks before I even have lunch.

And there’s nothing wrong with achieving productive outcomes. But there is something wrong with the mentality of aiming for productivity.

I was more productive when I didn’t try

As a child, I was home educated; I know what life looks like without external motivators and formal structures. Those who have never experienced this — or who have only experienced it for very short periods — may assume that it’s human nature to spend our days lazing around, playing videogames or surfing the web.

This assumption is wrong. And sad.

Back in my days of home education, I’m pretty sure I never procrastinated or wasted time. I remember waking up without an alarm, getting straight out of bed and spending my day doing things that I’d now consider to be ‘extremely productive’.

I’d sit at my desk and fill endless pages of my notebooks with stories.

I’d read for hours, getting through multiple books in a week

I’d spend the whole day on my ‘projects’ — like setting up a market scene for my playmobile or holding a wedding for some cuddly toys — without getting distracted.

It wasn’t because of some productivity hack. It’s because I was intrinsically motivated; I was in a state of flow. The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi defines flow as follows:

“Being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”

I’m tired of reading about how to become more productive

I googled ‘how to be more productive’ to find out what words of wisdom I could obtain from Forbes, Inc, and, WikiHow.

WikiHow kept things pretty basic: they told me to be focused, be organized, take care of myself and analyze my performance. Not particularly insightful stuff, but what can you expect from WikiHow?

Forbes and Inc were a bit more specific. They both suggested that it’s important to not multitask, take breaks, avoid mindless tasks that give you the illusion of productivity…..

Are you bored yet? Because I am.

This stuff is all over the internet — YouTube videos, articles, online courses, eBooks. And I don’t think it’s bad advice — I just think it’s missing the point a little.

This obsession with productivity seems to carry the implicit assumptions that we, as humans, are naturally lazy and unproductive. Therefore, we must remedy our intrinsic idleness by using a few neat little tricks to fool ourselves into being more productive.

That seems like a sad state of affairs.

If it takes so much discipline and strategizing to be productive at work, then maybe you need to step back and wonder what you’re really working towards.

Extreme productivity comes at the cost of a balanced life

This is coming from somebody who can — if the time calls for it — be extremely productive by sheer force of will.

When I was studying for my finals, I put my nine exams on to an Excel spreadsheet with a breakdown of the topics and sub-topics of each exam. I used the chunking method and spaced repetition to be as efficient as possible. I had a well-oiled routine for sleeping and eating.

So, every time something came up which could affect my productivity, I panicked a little. A meal out with my friends? A phone call with my mother? These were all things that I felt guilty to say yes to.

I know this sounds extreme, and I know that no productivity writer advocates this kind of mentality. But once you start viewing your life as a process of constant productivity optimization, it’s hard to not think like this.

Even hobbies have to be done productively now

A recent trend I’ve seen is ‘reading challenges’. This bothers me.

When I was a child, I read for pleasure and pleasure alone. I’d choose the books that I found the most interesting and that I expected to enjoy the most. And I read a lot.

As I got older, a funny thing happened. I started to treat reading like a chore.

I set myself targets for how many pages I wanted to read per day. I was always checking which page I was on and calculating how many pages were left until the start of the next section or chapter. I purposely chose shorter books or easy-reading books that I knew I could get through quickly.

This attitude is encouraged by the reading challenges, which demand that we read an arbitrary number of books in a year. You’ll struggle to read 50 books in a year if you’re reading tomes like ‘War and Peace’, ‘Les Miserables’ or ‘Atlas Shrugged’. You might just manage it if you’re reading 200-page novels.

What will it be next? 100-day music challenges, where you have to listen to a new album every day for 100 days, regardless of whether you feel like it?

Is no activity safe from our pursuit of productivity? Have we forgotten that sometimes we can achieve things without the help of numerical targets?

We need to focus internally

Why are we so obsessed with increasing our output per unit of input? That’s the literal definition of productivity.

But we’re not cogs in the machine. We’re humans with human motivations.

Is it possible that obsessing over an external measure of productivity is preventing us from being, well, productive? It sounds counterintuitive, but I think it could be true.

I believe that, provided you take care of yourself by implementing healthy habits, productivity is merely a byproduct created by dedicating ourselves to work and activities that take us into a state of flow.

So maybe this article is just another guide for how to improve productivity after all.