The Dark Side Of Productivity
Let’s face it, there just isn’t enough time in the day.
We have 8 hours for sleeping, 8 hours for working and 8 hours left for everything else.
We are continually striving to maximise our time and results at work and at home. It’s a philosophy that permeates our lives, “how can I do more in less time?”
In fact, I’d even go as far as to say that productivity is a new religion.
And boy oh boy, am I a preacher.
After some soul searching in Amsterdam (interpret that however, you will, but just know it is probably legal there) I came to the realisation that I had been making a lot of decisions on the basis of one core belief. That is, that time is precious and I better make the most out of it. My desire to aim for maximum productivity however, was actually harming me and potentially hurting other people.
I’m not “reformed” now by any means, and I still have moments where I fall back to my habits. Sometimes those habits serve me and sometimes they don’t. But at least I am becoming aware of how my choices might have unintended consequences and I can make informed decisions.
Right now I am taking it one day at a time, or as a highly productive person would say, one minute at a time.
Here is why I value my time and three lessons that I’ve learnt about the dark side of productivity.
Why Aim For Productivity?
According to self-determination theory, every human being has three core desires inside of them; the desire to be loved, to be competent and to be autonomous. As you might guess, the desire that propels me the most is the desire to be autonomous, to be free and to choose to spend my life however I want.
I believe that life is a gift given to us and that it can be taken away at any time without any notice. Whilst I am alive, the only thing I can lay claim to is my time. People, objects and situations all come and go, but until I’m dead, I still have my 24 hours in my day to spend. And I don’t know if I’ll get another 24 hours tomorrow, so actually, these 24 hours right now are pretty damn precious.
Lesson 1 — If You Value Your Time, You Won’t Do Certain Things
Clearly, it is not sustainable to live every day as if it were your last. I am able to somewhat balance my desire to achieve long terms goals and experience short-term gratification. However, I constantly ask myself the question, “what is the least time-intensive thing I could do in order to get the results I want?” Because of this question, I don’t do certain things and either I miss out or cause suffering to others:
Marathons — why spend hours running? If your goal is to maintain a healthy body, then you can do shorter workouts and still get fitter.
Do I know people who are training for marathons and would it be a good opportunity to socialise with them? Yes. Would training for a marathon be a fantastic way to develop grit and push myself beyond all known limits? Yes. Is this enough to make me want to train? No.
Ironing — why spend hours getting wrinkles out of clothes? If you judge people for having wrinkly clothes, or if you care about being judged for having wrinkly clothes, then you live a very sheltered life. There are plenty of other things you could be worried about, like child poverty, or Brexit.
Does it drive my mum mad? Yes. Do I sometimes feel like a teenage slob who can’t get their shit together because society tells me that I should be perfectly put together and pristine? Yes. Do I pick up the iron? No.
Mowing the lawn every week in summer — Why spend hours on lawn care when it just grows back instantly? I cut my lawn when the grass has grown seeds, then it needs to be cut, and in intervals no less than that. I saw one of my neighbours literally cutting the edge of her grass by hand with scissors the other day. And I wanted to tap her on the shoulder and say “hey lady, life is too short, tall grass has never hurt anyone!”
Do my neighbours dislike my gardening approach? Yes. Have I taken the easy way out of building my discipline muscle by doing things that have to be done even though I don’t want to do them? Yes. Do I get the lawnmower out of the shed frequently? No.
Completing boxsets — why spend hours being entertained just to tick the box that you have watched every episode? My stamina lasts up until about 10 episodes and then I get impatient and it becomes less about enjoying the story and more of a race to get to the finale. Maybe I can push through onto season 2 or 3 but, dirty little secret here, I never saw the end of Dexter, I never saw the end of Breaking Bad, I never saw the end of The Walking Dead, I never saw the end of Bojack Horseman, I never saw the end of Game of Thrones and I never saw the end of 24.
Have I missed out on some of the most emotional and jaw-dropping season ends? Yes. Do I choose to not get started on super long boxsets? Yes. Is missing out on huge chunks of pop culture enough of a reason to get me to change my Netflix habits? No.
Question to ask yourself — If you are a highly productive person, what experiences are you missing out on and who could it be harming?
Lesson 2 — If You Value Your Time, You Might Be Self-Interested
Self-interested is like the less extreme version of selfish. It’s where you are motivated by your own interests above other people’s interests, but you’re not necessarily a dick about it.
Everyone needs to be self-interested to some degree in order to get anywhere in life because the world does not always have your back. But giving your time generously and altruistically does not always sit comfortably with the highly productive person.
I always thought I was a kind person would do (almost) anything for anyone. But then I took a cold, hard look at my actions and realised there was a caveat to that sentence. I would do (almost) anything for anyone… if it also benefited me and the attainment of my goals in some way.
Ouch, the truth hurts.
Here are some of the decisions that I made, and at the time I thought I was being helpful, but looking back on them now with my new lens of awareness, I realised that I actually chose the self-interested option.
Taking a friend to the airport — Because the train times are curiously bizarre on evenings and weekends, it is pretty difficult to get to the airport from where we live if you don’t have a car and have an early or late flight. My partner offered to give a friend of ours a lift to the airport so that they would get to their flight on time. I did not want to go to the airport because that would be two and a half hours out of my precious evening. So I said, “You don’t need me to come as well! Plus I have been in the car all day at work, I’ll take the dog for a walk instead”.
I could have been selfless and shared the driving with my partner, which he would have really appreciated. But I chose the option that seemed helpful, (the dog did need a walk which someone had to do), but really the beneficiary was me. I didn’t have to go on a long car journey and a walked dog is a happy dog and a dog that will let me do my work.
Spare 15 minutes in the morning — I don’t often have spare time in the morning as I am running around and dealing with the consequences of waking up early but lying in bed and fannying around on my phone. On those days where I have stellar self-control and have some minutes to spare, I spend that time tidying the house rather than making breakfast for my partner, which I know he would have really appreciated.
I could have been selfless and made him his favourite breakfast which only he would have enjoyed. Instead, I chose the option that seemed helpful (the house needed a tidy which someone had to do) but really the beneficiary was me, I like a tidy house too.
Present buying — I am not very good at buying presents. In fact, I get so stressed and anxious thinking about the perfect gift to buy, that sometimes the outcome is no gift at all, just hours and hours spent trawling through websites. Christmas of 2016 was one such year I was staring at the rolls of gift wrap, with nothing to wrap, and suddenly thought, ooh my partner likes coffee. I’ll buy him a Nespresso machine.
I could have been selfless and bought him something that only he would have used and enjoyed, or I could have said that the Nespresso was for his office. But I chose the option that seemed thoughtful but really the beneficiary was me. I can also use the machine to make my coffee, and better still, when my partner asks me to make him a coffee, I now don’t have to wait for five minutes for the kettle to boil and coffee to brew.
Question to ask yourself — if you are a highly productive person, how do you help other people, does it come from a place of selflessness or self-interested-ness? You don’t have to help everyone at your own expense all the time, but try to do more things that only other people will benefit from.
Lesson 3 — If You Value Your Time, Your Creativity Suffers
The opposite of productivity is creativity. Productivity is about goal-directed activity. Your priority is to obtain a predefined outcome as efficiently as possible. Creativity is about generating new ideas or making a physical manifestation of your ideas. For me, true creativity is where there is no predefined outcome, just play.
That’s not to say you cannot engage in creative work in the pursuit of productivity, indeed, what do you think this blog is?! But, before I started writing it, I set out with the goal of creating a blog on productivity. And I set this goal because I thought it would help me achieve a wider goal which is to inform my readers and be more valued in my field.
I’m still creating, but my creativity occurs in very narrow parameters.
In fact, I would argue that the highly productive person unintentionally minimises opportunities to be creative. Because they are so goal-focused, any time spent not working will be filled up with thinking about and researching how to be better at their work!
If you take a look at my YouTube history, my podcast subscriptions, my Kindle reading list you will see a common theme… self-improvement, health and wellbeing, behaviour change and business skills. And guess what, all of these topics are in line with my goals.
I don’t really explore other areas of interest, and more importantly not of interest. I have niched so successfully that I don’t know what I’m missing out on, what fantastic ideas from art, culture, technology or history might stimulate and inspire me. I also spend very little time in true free play. I can count on one hand the number of times in the last year that I remember just allowing myself to make stuff in a way that did not help me to achieve my goals.*
You might be thinking, “well this is all mildly interesting, but why pursue creativity in and of itself?”
Obviously, creativity may help you to create something truly remarkable (remember that is not necessarily the goal), also some studies show that creativity is correlated with living longer, it may have protective effects on the ageing brain and might help with managing stress. But more than anything, it just feels a bit sad that to restrict yourself in this amazing, full and rich world when creative play without boundaries can be so much fun. Unwittingly the highly productive person can easily become a goal robot enslaved by their vision, plans and schedules sacrificing too much of the precious now for a future that may never come.
Question to ask yourself — What do you read/watch/listen to? If you can you spot a common theme then try mixing up your learning/entertainment with something you would never normally choose. And for bonus points, try doing something creative with someone else to make a change from just watching TV or going for a drink to catch up. **
* If you are interested, one instance was a book I bought about creativity which had silly writing prompts to get you thinking. Another time was helping my partner come up with a birthday rap for his friend, and the third was trying out a paint app on a new iPad.
**Check out items 69–107 on this list as a starter for 10http://9creativelives.com/2012/12/150-activitieshobbies-to-start-or-revist-when-youre-bored/
Please share your experiences in the comments below, have you experienced any unintended consequences from being productive?