The Privilege of Productivity

Rahaf Harfoush
Jan 26 · 5 min read
What does this even mean?

Recently, I’ve seen a few examples of daily routines that focus on the notion of a “side hustle” or finding the time to work on a passion project, side business, or some other venture outside of your job.

Last year, Digg founder, Kevin Rose, posted his own advice, pointing to television, social media, video games and texting, as giant time wasters that could get in the way of writing that novel or building that app you’ve been thinking about.

Where’s the hour I spend daily suffering from existential dread because everything is meaningless?

The Internet has plenty of helpful infographics showing you how to eke out even more out of your day by identifying pockets of underutilized time, along this line of thinking:

Make time…to spell check.

We all know that pursuing a goal requires intentionally making time. And, while much of this advice is well-meaning, it overlooks some important considerations that come from blindspots rooted in privilege, or having a certain level of socio-economic security that enables you to break down your day in this manner.

The Math Doesn’t Add Up

Both of these images have the following allocations: 2 hours for working out/self-care, 7–8 hours of sleep a night, and 8–9 hours of work. This leaves between 4–5 hours a day that technically could be used to work on a side project.

You know what I don’t see here?

Getting ready for work. Commuting. Running errands. Grocery shopping. Cleaning the house. Doing laundry. Filing. Childcare. Spending time with your significant other or family. Hanging out with friends. Resting (outside of sleep). Additional family obligations (like care giving for an elderly family member). Eating. Using the washroom.

Where do all of these tasks fit into the above breakdown?

Often, the successful people we idolize have support structures like cleaners, assistants, nannies, and cooks who free up time. Maybe they have a partner who handles most of the domestic/child rearing duties.

Either way, I don’t think this reflects real life for most people.

I know I have enormous productivity privilege. I don’t have kids. I work from home. I have full control of my time. I have a husband who equally shoulders domestic chores, and we are fortunate enough to be able to afford a cleaning service. I live in an urban area where everything I might need is less than a five minutes walk away. Even with these enormous advantages, I also have a hard time pursuing a passion project.

Why?

Because time is not the right metric here.

We’re Measuring the Wrong Thing

Ok, I do agree with Kevin Rose that social media can be a huge time suck. So let’s say you could find 4–5 hours a day to work on your project. That assumes that after hitting the gym and working for 8–9 hours, your energy levels are still pretty high. If that’s the case then, that’s amazing, and I envy you.

I can only speak for myself, but after a full day of working, especially on highly cognitive tasks like writing or working with clients, I am mentally depleted.

The time might be there, but the energy is not.

I need to recharge and rest. Let’s not forget that these two suggested time allocations are advocating for pursuing a project on top of working a full day. 10–14 hours a day working will take a toll on your mental and physical health. Is this what we’re telling people to do?

Productivity was a performance metric that was designed during the industrial revolution to measure the output of standardized tasks. It assumed a consistent amount of time and energy spend for a well-defined period of time. As a measure to evaluate assembly line performance — it worked well For all of us Productive Creatives that are balancing knowledge work with unstandardized tasks, that type of system doesn’t make sense of the type of work we do.

We are not machines who can simply produce, produce, produce. Not every free minute has to be associated with “output.”

Considering that even in the industrial era, there was a push for 8 hours of recreation, I don’t think productivity was meant to be used as a means to pressure people into working non-stop.

Stop the Productivity Shame

I’m not saying we shouldn’t encourage each other to find time to pursue goals or projects that we’ve always wanted to do. I’m pointing out the unspoken assumption embodied in these types of graphics: if you’re not utilizing or “optimizing” every second, then it’s a personal failing.

And that’s just not true. More importantly, it’s not helpful, or compassionate, or kind. For me, trying to stuff every extra moment with “productive work” landed me with burn-out, complete with insomnia, hair loss, and depression.

It didn’t get me any closer to my dreams.

Instead, of human productivity, I’d like to talk about humane productivity: the pursuit of ambitious goals without sacrificing your health or your sanity.

Here are a few things that worked for me:

  • Expand your time horizons: When I wanted to write my novel, approaching it from a daily standpoint didn’t work for me, as I’d already spent the day writing for work and was exhausted. Instead, I looked at my time in terms of my month, which made it a little easier to set aside a chunk of time to work on it. A four-hour Sunday writing session every other week was way more efficient than forcing myself to do an hour of writing every day. Don’t over-stress about doing something daily if it doesn’t work for you.
  • Manage your Energy Cycle: Pay attention to the activities that replenish you. After a full day of work, reading a fun novel or watching a great TV show helps me recharge. Even Social Media, used with intention, can be a great way to connect to others. Recharging activities are just as important as doing the work itself because it will influence the quality of what you produce.
  • Every little bit helps: For my novel, when I was too tired to sit at my computer, I would just dedicate some time to think about my story and my characters and jot down any notes that came to mind. I tried to devote some of my attention to this project every day, even if it was just for a few minutes while washing the dishes or walking my dog. I discovered that doing this made my actual writing sessions more effective, and it wasn’t a huge demand on my time. Progress happens even with the tiniest of steps.

Let’s stop torturing ourselves with unrealistic productivity expectations and focus on living healthy and happy lives. Even Beyonce, the gold standard of creative productivity, suffered a bout of burnout so severe in 2011 that she had to take a year off to mentally and physically recover.

Yes, we all have 24 hours in a day, but some of us have a lot of help that enables us to do more in those hours than others.

And we should be honest about that.

Rahaf Harfoush

Written by

Digital Anthropologist. NYT Best Selling Author. Technology and Culture are my jam. Listen: The Digital Deep Podcast. #hustleandfloat

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