Illustration via The British Library

The Mortality and Joy of Productivity

“How much time left until I’m dead?”

I try not to think about that question, but yet, it’s always there, hidden away in my mind’s attic, nestled alongside all the other intentionally suppressed memories, which, despite my best efforts to keep them stowed, tend to stubbornly reappear in my subconscious against my will.

I’d better get to work.

Work staves off my feelings of helplessness against the unstoppable march of time. I’ll get some work done and feel accomplished. I’m using my time wisely after all. Not frittering and twittering away my precious minutes.

In a modern life where stillness is rarified and busyness is glorified, the scarce moments of downtime feel like a neglectful mistake. The guilt washes over you, thinking of what you might have gotten done, what greatness you could have accomplished, instead of this vague nothingness.

And so, we all shove and squeeze more tasks into a life that can’t be filled any fuller. We deny our limitations and remain convinced of our inefficiencies.

We seek out tricks to get faster.

We hack our lives, 
and hack our bodies, 
and hack our kids, 
and hack every last second 
until we’ve hacked our brains 
into believing we accomplished something meaningful.

At some primordial level we’re all optimizing for time, running down our own clocks, whether we can bear to admit it or not. Time is all we have, and we never have enough.

So we pray at the altar of productivity, lusting for the promise of extra free time that never seems to come — which is probably for the best, since we wouldn’t know what to do with it if we had some.

I’d better get to work.

I sit down to build a software tool that helps people get their work done. I find happiness in this process, knowing that I’m using my valuable time so others can reclaim some of theirs.

Maybe I’ll save them a few minutes a day.

A few minutes they didn’t have to spend on something mundane.

A few minutes to breathe.

My work is real, but it’s also ephemeral. It exists in a transitory state until it, too, reaches its end of life: bits and bytes unceremoniously overwritten and replaced by the next new version.

Most traces of my work will not survive me. I know this because a large percentage of it is already gone, obsoleted and obliterated by time and progress.

There’s a comfort in this. Obsolescence is freedom. Freedom from past decisions, past mistakes, past victories.

My work has no past, and my work has no future.

So why am I like everyone else — obsessed with working more, working better, working faster?

I think it’s the joy of it. Feeding the unrelenting creative fire that burns fast and hot. Finding a thrill in the unknown. Taking a chance on something new. Hiding from my mortality inside a perpetual state of forward motion.

Maybe we’ve got it all wrong. Productivity in this life doesn’t have to be about optimizing time. It could be about optimizing joy. Packing the most joy into each moment.

That’s a productive pursuit.

I’d better get to work.


This post was originally published for The Human in the Machine. If you liked it, let me know below or on Twitter.