Goodbye, productivity porn. Hello, sustainable practices

August 12, 2020

It doesn’t occur to us that there’s an efficiency to every aspect of our life, to everything we do. And not only is there an efficiency, but we have control and influence over that efficiency. It’s something we can take responsibility for and improve. – Mark Manson

At the end of each day, there’s a good chance you say something like I did not do as much as I possibly could have. You might be obsessed with optimizing your life, doing more, and getting things done, and cranking things out. You like the idea of the 80/20 rule: do more, with this one neat trick!!

There’s no shortage of productivity porn and tips about how to squeeze the absolute possible amount of value out of each day. Have you stopped to think about where this ideal comes from?

One explanation is that it’s a sign that you’ve internalized the Protestant work ethic and capitalism:  If “generations are characterized by crises,” as Harris argues, then ours is the crisis of extreme capitalism.

Consider the language we use: I wasted a day. I spent my time well. Just as corporations maximize every dollar, we’ve been trained to equate the value of our time with money, and try to squeeze out everything we can out of each minute.

Guilt is caused by the feeling of having done something wrong, what we call something that’s “incongruent with one’s identity goals to specific/controllable aspect of the self.”

Feeling guilty about your “lack” of productivity is also an indication about what kind of media you consume. We look up to the Elon Musks of the world because they invent things and lead companies—but they’re also workaholics. (Are they happy? Who knows.) We read business magazines, blogs, and self-help books written by industry leaders who claim to have cracked the code of productivity, and we’re convinced that if we could just do a little bit more everyday, we’d eventually get rich, be respected, and feel comfortable with ourselves.

Read that website, that post, that book, buy that app, try that time tracking device, make that spreadsheet, follow that system: finally feeling like you have your shit together is right around the corner. 

Maybe you’ve found something that actually makes a difference, and now you’re telling everyone. You’re on message boards, taking pity on others who aren’t using your genius devices or methods.  

Like diet gurus selling supplements, workout gadgets, and diet books, the entire industry of productivity porn exists because it feeds on insecurity. No one knows exactly what goes on in the kitchens of fitness models or the offices of tycoons; all we know is that our abs are hidden behind a layer of squishy skin, and our bank balance isn’t something we can brag about.

It’s a natural instinct to engage in the social comparison process and get a sense of where we lie in the pecking order of the group. Accurately gauging our status compared to others makes interactions smoother, and acts as a shortcut, telling us what kind of jobs and friends to look for, and what we can expect from others. We want to get as close to the VIP table as possible while avoiding rejection and humiliation, processes that would have been death sentences in earlier eras.

Comparison is the thief of joy. It doesn’t matter how your productivity stacks up to others (see: mastery vs. performance goals). And in the long run, it doesn’t matter how productive you were today.

Unless the end result of your time is something that you can point to and verify, it’s easy to feel like you didn’t add any value to your time. But the main objective of your time doesn’t have to be constantly producing. The fact that you’re alive means that you did plenty: you’ve been moving, eating, surviving. Socializing, relaxing, recharging. Cleaning, organizing, dreaming, reading. Napping, reflecting, resting. All of these so-called unproductive things add value to your life because they help you play the long game. They charge your battery. And isn’t that important to be productive? Or just survive?

I’d never thought about how much my self-esteem was tied to the idea of being an author until my book came out. The second it did, I felt good about myself. I held my head up a little higher. And here’s what happened when I was walking around the streets of NY: no one gave a shit. Nothing. Most of my daily interactions were better because I felt better, like I finally had the intellectual validation I’d been craving all along.

If you feel like you have to do something special to feel good about yourself, you have a fragile, unstable self-esteem because your self-worth depends on reaching certain goals. You don’t see everyone on earth as a flawed individual deserving of love, each with a unique set of strengths and weaknesses to bring to the table. You see life as a pecking order, a constant social struggle that increases how much stress you feel on a daily basis.

To play the long game and feel good about yourself, focus on health, financial stability, and quality relationships. Your time and energy are the only worthwhile things in the end. Taking breaks to explore and resting to keep your batteries as charged as possible are more important than cranking out another page.

Trust me: it doesn’t matter if you finally achieve your life goal if it’s the only part of your life that you’re happy with. Don’t be productive. Be a fucking functional human being.