Have you noticed something odd about the way we talk about productivity, lately? Do you ever feel like you’ve got two brains inside your head — one for normal human life, and one for “maximum productivity?”
This article is partly a typical reaching out of one person to others and partly an open letter to myself. At age 24, I’m a certified member of the gig economy. Like many other creatives, I have embraced my identity as part of the “self-help generation” with at times unhinged abandon.
Consuming article after article and ebook after ebook about writing, working, making, and living at maximum productivity has had a pretty profound impact on the way I approach my life.
More importantly — and this is where you should start to pay attention, my dear readers — it’s had a powerful impact on the way I approach myself. I’m willing to bet that the same holds true for a lot of you, too.
So, when did we stop treating ourselves like beautifully fallible human beings — complete with our time-wasting, daydreaming, off-drifting imperfections — and start acting as though we’re merely organic machines made of separate parts?
Lately, I’ve been confronted by the reality of being human in ways that are both depressing and enlightening. I’ve realized something very uncomfortable, folks.
Being human doesn't come with an operating manual. There isn’t a dependable way to “upgrade your life” or “level up your game.”
Thank God for that, right?
What’s With The Productivity Craze, Anyway?
People have been trying to work faster for millennia. The Egyptians did it, the Romans did it, Benjamin Franklin did it — every culture seems to have had these productivity trends at least once a century.
The Industrial Revolution(s) really hammered it all into our collective heads, though. Everything became about massive production and increased output with less input, including human output. People got paid very little to make huge quantities of products. It made a few people very rich.
Some things never do change, do they? If you think about who’s benefitted the most from our increased productivity mindset, it’s rarely the people who are actually being productive. In a wider context, it tends to be bosses, CEOs, and other profit-makers who truly enjoy the fruits of our bounteous busyness.
As more of us become solopreneurs and work for ourselves, the productivity mindset becomes more meaningful on a personal level. The thought process usually goes something like, “each increase in productivity means an increase in pay for me.”
Fair enough, but the reality tends to be a bit more complex.
The Rigged Game And Our Mass Flight From The Playing Field.
To make a complex and longstanding economic problem simple…people don’t get paid sh** anymore. As a whole, we’re producing more than ever — according to the Economic Policy Institute, Americans are 70% more productive than we were in 1979.
Pay has not kept up. But you already knew that, right? I’d venture to guess that most working Americans are more than a little familiar with the wage problems we’re facing both here and abroad.
At the same time, there are a lot of persistent beliefs about productivity that ignore many of the major trends we’ve seen in the past few decades.
We associate productivity with a better quality of life even when the opposite is proven to be true. There’s an unconscious association with productivity as a blanket positive, whether or not more output actually benefits us on an individual level.
When it comes to the gig economy/freelancing world, these beliefs have become a disturbing trend. People are working themselves into the ground. Without an unfair CEO or manager to keep us cynical, we have no real “reason” to limit productivity in any way.
A lot of us are working ourselves into the ground. I’m going to go ahead and say it: the productivity craze has gotten out of control.
Just Because You CAN Produce More, Faster, It Doesn’t Mean You Should.
Increased productivity comes at a price. Somehow we seem to have forgotten this basic law of the universe, and we act as though we can just go, go, go and reap all the benefits therein while failing to incur any of the penalties.
But there are penalties. You are meant to stop, stop, stop from time to time, and when you don’t, you’re asking for trouble. In my last popular article, I mentioned the trend of karoshi in Japan and Korea. The translation means “overwork death” and it’s been on the rise for quite some time.
People are producing themselves into their own early graves, and it’s preposterous.
There’s a distinction between being able to do something (like maintaining enormous levels of creative output forever) on a surface level and having the ability to actually sustain the habit for long periods of time.
Expecting high-productivity “bursts” to last a lifetime is not only unrealistic but extremely damaging to our physical and mental health. When you ask your body and your brain to keep up with “top levels” of productivity day after day, it’s like asking a marathon runner to keep going from race to race with only a few hours in between each one.
Your mind only has so much energy in it each day. Your body can’t sustain optimal function 24/7. Sometimes you need to be sub-optimal for a while — most of the time we’re going to be at least slightly below our “most productive” mark.
No one can be at their best all the time. If we could, it wouldn’t be very meaningful, would it? Don’t ask the impossible of yourself, or you’re never going to be happy with what is possible.
Plus you might have a heart attack and die. There’s always that.
Why Do You Want To Be So Productive? No, Really.
If someone forced you to answer the above question, you might answer with “I want to make more money,” “I want to succeed in my career,” “I want to build a successful freelance business,” or some variation therein.
I’m calling bullsh**. Those are all empty answers masquerading as meaningful ones. You want to know why? If you dig down into them, they all quickly turn into “I want to feel happy/fulfilled/validated in life.”
That’s the real reason you keep buying those books, seminars, and productivity coaching sessions. It’s why you delve into every tip and routine like your life depends on it, and it’s why you feel so dejected when you look up and see that you’re not productive “enough” to reach whatever arbitrary goalpost you’ve set up as a measuring device.
You’re attempting to produce happiness, satisfaction, and meaning. And remember what I said about humans lacking operating manuals? There are simply some things that output values can’t solve for, and anything relating to life’s purpose and deeper meaning remains firmly in the “not a problem to solve” category.
Productivity isn’t a cure-all for your feelings of dissatisfaction, fear, anxiety, disappointment, boredom, or anything else. It just isn’t. I know — I wish it was, too. If I could live inside of the afterglow of a truly productive day, I would…but that glow is something of an illusion in the first place.
It’s not about productivity, it’s about your beliefs about productivity. The glow is transitory. More importantly, it’ll leave a big gaping hole behind if you pursue it at the cost of your health, relationships, or introspection.
You can’t produce life. You can’t produce real success. Working faster and creating more of whatever it is you make won’t add depth to the work itself. It’s quantity and quality and a whole lot more, and if it were as simple as “more equals better,” we wouldn’t be facing half the problems we are now.
You need to start asking your half-burnt-out brain the right questions — before the answers elude you for good.
When Your Productivity Mindset Becomes A Disease.
There’s a lot to be said for productivity. I’m not here to be a productivity grinch, but more a distant, vaguely ominous voice of caution.
Like any good thing, too much focus on productivity can end up backfiring in a big way. The fallout from that backfire can be truly terrible. I don’t want that for you. You don’t want that for you.
I’m not sure if there’s really a “disconnect” between our understanding of bodily/mental limits and our need to get more done faster. From what I’ve seen, it’s less about being disconnected from reality and more about willfully looking the other way when that reality begins to creep in on our lives and work.
As a creative who has been blessed with the ability to write prolifically and profitably, I have become acutely aware of this tendency within myself. I know I’m not alone. I’ve endured true burnout twice so far and each time the effects lasted for months — and they were devastating to my health and overall well-being.
I’ve come to value my creative energy as a renewable but not-infinite resource. It takes time to recharge. It takes time to live life outside of the production realm — because living is what fuels creativity, and it’s not the same thing as simply “being alive.” Living is born of intent.
So, when you’re buying your next ebook or course in order to become a “productivity machine,” please try to remember that you AREN’T a machine. You’re a person. You’re an artist. You need and deserve to rest.
Let’s start there, okay?
And as my parting insight, here’s something else I’ve learned: if you start with creative self-love, creative output follows. Put creative energy into yourself, and it’ll naturally flow outwards and become the work you share with the world.
Okay, enough with the hippie sh**. Go do a face mask and write something awesome, kid.