A case against productivity


If you’re anything like me you probably value a lot of how your day went based on how productive you were. It’s a way of feeling worthy and determining self worth. Sometimes I wonder when we become too addicted and consumed by needing to do it all.

Thanks to social media and technology in general we’ve forgotten how to be bored. While I’m not arguing for boredom, I do think it’s interesting to look for different indicators that we’re leaving time to live life. I’d also argue it’s a more sustainable balance.

I wanted to write this post as a counter argument to most of the messaging we see pushed on us. What if instead of trying to be more productive we started to embrace our own pace and how we work best? We probably could save a lot of time and mental energy in the process.

What if instead of trying to do more we tried to bloom more?

The Struggle is Real.

My friend Rahaf Harfoush wrote a book called Hustle & Float. Based on the analogy of white water rafting, there are periods where we have to hustle (get through the rapids), and other times where we float (and coast). The problem with much of society is we completely forget the later: to float (and while I loved Rahaf's premise of her book, I do think it could have focused even more on this aspect). (Check out Rahaf’s video that was a precursor to the book.)

We get caught up in the whirlwind of work, and everything we do takes longer than we expect (yes, even with the brilliant tools of technology). We become cogs in a machine, rather than free thinking beings.

In her work as a digital anthropologist, Rahaf looks at the concepts of productivity shame, productivity porn, and work devotion. Productivity shame is when you guilt and judge yourself for not working hard enough to achieve a perceived standard of success. Productivity porn is an entire industry where hustle culture is celebrated from Youtube videos of how to do something better to motivational quotes to glorify the goal of being hyper productive as a sign for success. Work devotion is when people make statements about how hard they're working, including struggle, in order to validate themselves. Gross, no? But these are the narratives rewarded in many workplaces.

Rahaf reminds us that "you are not defined by your productive output." Perhaps we all need to put that on a sticky note next to our computer.

Measures of “success”

I see workplaces driven by metrics. While they’re essential for the bottom line of business, I also wonder if there isn’t a way to measure when we’re doing too much. I’ve come up with an unofficial list of ways I know I’m keeping myself in check and am not on the spinning wheel of productive output:

  • I have time to go to the grocery store. (Easier said than done, even as a freelancer.)

  • If I’m getting food “to go” I’ll go pick it up myself rather than ordering delivery.

  • I have time to paint my nails (and take it off when it starts to chip).

  • I don’t sit at my desk all day. Ideally I go for a walk, and/or to the gym.

  • I read from a (physical) book before bed.

There are loads of tools to make our lives easier and more convenient, but sometimes I think it’s the inconvenience of having to do something something that helps keep us grounded and in check. It insures we’re stepping out of the bubble of productivity.

In the high speed world we live in, time becomes the commodity we can’t make more of. We can spiral out of control fast trying to do everything and anything, but I fully believe it’s important to embrace the small moments and learn to look for the signs.

From the outside, in

From the outside I know it looks like I produce a lot of work. I don’t do this to prove anything or feel productive. I need to be creating regularly in order to give myself more structure to my day. When you work alone and have unpredictable clients, I’ve learned that the structure of having my own initiatives is key to creating stability and joy in my work week.

I started my newsletter as a way to stay accountable to myself, ensuring I write every week. My newsletter supports my blog posts, so it’s also incentive to myself to ideally get a post up on my biz blog and travel blog. When that doesn’t happen, it’s all about self-compassion, but I do like having a reason to continue to flex my muscles. Before I started my newsletter I’d tell myself I needed a big chunk of time to write, or I needed for inspiration to strike. Writing daily is about me creating good habits for myself.

More often than not any project I launch is not something that came out of thin air. When I launched Navigate Paris Online this past summer it seemed like it came out of nothing from the outside. From the inside, it was built on 7 years of giving tours, a several year old book proposal that never went anywhere, and combined with my honed in online teaching skills that I’d been refining for the past year and a half.

I say this to remind you that sometimes productivity is years in the making. Also, if you’re like me, sometimes you just need a deadline to get something done.

Everyone works at their own speed. Most of the time my best productivity steps from the little actions I take regularly that add up over time. Inside progress feels slow and tedious, but from the outside it often looks easy and effortless. It’s also why it’s important that we focus on doing our own thing rather than comparing ourselves to the output of others.

Where the magic happens

Finding out how you work best is one of the challenges of life. I’ve known that [full-time job] workplaces are an environment where I avoid and putz around far more than I do when I run my own business. For me I found that expectations and processes in many workplaces were not designed to make me thrive.

When I worked for architects, when I wasn’t at my desk it was seen as me not doing my job. Little did they know that my best work came from that time away from my desk. It not only led to stronger output, but getting out increased the productivity in the time I was “working” in the traditional sense.

My best work has never come from sitting at a desk all day. It comes from getting out in the world. Seeing, doing, interacting with others. I can fake some of it with the help of social media, but nothing beats the act of stepping out of the safety net of technology.

I can’t be productive if I don’t have time to “percolate” and process the ideas. Great work doesn’t happen from being busy. Yes, sometimes I thrive off being busy and the last minute nature of a deadline. That often happens because I’ve given myself permission to be unproductive.

For a long time I’d beat myself up about this, feeling guilty about not working more or being at my desk. It took time to realize that maybe the magic really does happen from stepping away from the ideals of productivity society puts on us.

At one point my lens of productivity blinded me to the fact that we need to nurture endeavors. It’s not just about creating and moving on, but building in the time, space, and energy to keep revisiting, revising, and improving. Nurturing projects is often where the biggest returns can happen, but in fast-paced society we get so eager to move on to the next thing we can be blinded by the potential of what we’ve already created. If you’re only focused on being productive you’re missing what it’s all about. We need to think about sustainability of self, and not just the environment.

I fully believe we can do better, more meaningful work when we're not burned out and trying to be productive all the time. There are ways to automate processes that can save time (that’s a whole other post). But for now I challenge you to think critically about how you’re spending your time.

What is your relationship to productivity? How do you work best? What are the signs in your life that serve as indications that you're not getting consumed in the hustle of productivity culture? (These aren’t just rhetorical questions. Share your response in the comments so we can start shifting the productivity-based values system we’re often trapped in.)

Let’s change the narrative of hustle culture and productivity. You can find more of my writing on my Biz Blog, and learn more about my coaching services here.