The 9 Dark Sides to Productivity

Before You Jump Into Productivity, Check Your Motivation First

I hear you, folks.

I like being productive, too, but productivity in and of itself is not generically good. In fact, productivity has no intrinsic moral value — it is simply a neutral descriptor for how you use your time.

Productivity is neither good nor bad.
Rather, how you are productive will either produce a good or bad effect.
Productivity isn’t something that should be lauded as positive nor should it be condemned as negative.
Rather, it is a medium with the potential to carry out positive or negative effects.

Just like fire, bacteria, or the plethora of illustrations of how a particular component of our lives can be used beneficially or destructively, productivity functions in a similar scope.

However, I’ve noticed that our society doesn’t always recognize the potential downside to productivity and that we only seem to discuss this description of our work ethic in one way — I think “crushing it” is what the cool kids are saying these days.

Being productive has become a marker for someone who is a hard worker on their way to success and the word has become synonymous with someone who does good work.

But maybe, just maybe, we have idolized productivity.

And when something becomes innately placed on a pedestal, when something is given significance as the reason good things happen (such as reaching goals or obtaining success), or when something becomes mandated as the only means to said success — then we veil the neutrality of productivity and elevate it as only a positive and necessary thing.

Productivity, as seems to be the case in our culture, is only seen one way:

Good, necessary, and reserved for those of us who desire to be noble beings who crush it.

In turn, we end up with a constant flood of the “7 Ways to Be Productive” or “How to Do This Productive Thing to Get What You Want” or a list of the things you need to do every day to be your best and how, if you would just wake up super early and do lots of stuff throughout the day then you will get the fame, success, or good feeling you were hoping for.

There is a reason Medium has a reputation for being a bunch of self-help, how to, listicle psychobabble articles offering shots of inspiration, hacks, and cheat codes to success — because success is the goal and productivity is the only route to get there.

But it may be that we are not thinking properly about who we are in relation to our productivity.

We jump straight to the discussion of how to do it without first taking the step of analyzing what might be beneath the surface and whether or not that might be positive or negative. We assume productivity is always good and always healthy.

So I’m here to say (mostly to myself) that, sometimes, a real possibility in our lifestyle arsenal ought to be,

“Don’t be productive.”

Mostly, though, I simply hope that our culture, especially our work-related cultural leaders can begin embedding more awareness to the multi-faceted nature of productivity. Let’s take productivity off of its idol-like pedestal and understand the “why” behind our potential productivity before we dive into “how” to be productive.

As opposed to only discussing productivity as if it is the savior of the entrepreneurial, relational, or self-help world, I hope we can begin to name what differentiates positive and helpful productivity from the negative effects that might seep into our pursuit of productivity.

If the end result is productivity, then the means of the journey towards your productivity will shape the positive or negative version that surfaces as a result. What is most important, then, is knowing why you are pursuing the productive act — we need to be aware of what the motivation is behind our productivity to then know its resulting effect.

I urge you to still learn how to be productive and achieve more, but first be aware of why you are pursing that route in the first place and what motivation is underlying your pursuit.

Before you learn how to be productive you need to start with an awareness of the motivation behind our productivity — and not be afraid of not being productive if it means staying true to a healthy motivation.

We will cover a healthy motivation later, but first, to get this discussion started, here are 9 of the motivations that have been exposed in my life as the dark side of productivity.

While not a definitive guide, this is what I have noticed the most:

1 — Control

For those of you who want to be perfect, productivity is your best asset — you use it to pursue the ideal. Your idealism, though, can lead to a highly critical voice of others. The problem becomes when you know how others ought to be and you are convinced that your idealism means that you are responsible for fixing them.

Is your pursuit of productivity a means of controlling others or controlling outcomes to fit your ideal?

The thought line for control is,
“If I just work this much harder and achieve more, I will be able to set up the world my way (whether relationally or organizationally).”

Productivity is incredibly important to this perspective, but only because of the potential power that will result.

If you are pushing yourself because of an intent to force the world into your control, you will still be successful, but at the expense of healthy, mutual relationships.


2 — Obedience

If you have ever sought validation for your worth by sacrificing yourself in obedience to someone or something else, then your motivation for productivity might not be rooted in a healthy posture. Productivity becomes the way in which we put someone else above ourselves in order to gain their love.

This motivation usually doesn’t care all that much about productivity, but only the potential relational approval that comes from serving someone else’s needs, wants, or desires.

The thought line for obedience is,
“If I work hard to accomplish these things for this person by sacrificing myself, my obedience will lead to acceptance.”

If you put others first in order to be loved, your productivity becomes a means of relational equity — which will fail in actually bringing that relational equity. Productivity can’t be a guise for gaining love or fulfilling a relational agenda.


3 — Worth

Possibly the most prevalent motivation among ambitious work-a-holics, this perspective assumes that productivity will lead to achievement or success which will, in turn, lead to approval by the world. It assumes your worth is only reflected by what you achieve.

If you work hard, then you will be valuable.

If you make it to the top, then you will have worth.

This motivation views productivity as a means for being approved by the world — that you aren’t good enough until you have proven your worth through what you’ve accomplished. The fear of failure is more indicative for their hard work than what their hard work might produce in the world.

The thought line for worth is,
“If I am productive, I will be seen as valuable.”

This group might be the most productive bunch in the world, but it also might be the most disingenuous. Beware that your pursuit of productivity is not a disguise for earning your worth from the world.


4 — Self-Image

If you are productive because there is something wrong with you and you need to prove your yourself to yourself, then your pursuit is motivated by your self-image.

The thought line for self-image is,
“If I do this, then I will feel validated.”

This isn’t about gaining approval from the world, it is about gaining approval for yourself.

There is usually an assumption with this perspective that you are different and unique and that you therefore have to showcase your individuality.

For this group, pursuing productivity is a means to acquire a notion of your individual self-image. This motivation might be the least dark as this can be noble when it is healthy, but it also has the propensity to result from delusional self-contempt where achievement is solely sought to feel better about yourself.


5 — Neglect

Similar to self-image, some folks use productivity to compensate for an underlying issue that they are avoiding.

The thought line is,
“If I just do more then I won’t have anxiety over my other problems.”

Essentially, productivity becomes the means and, therefore, the excuse, to neglect our junk.

While this perspective is typically the most innovative because of the passion that gets poured into anything that doesn’t make you confront your own issues, it can be the most internally destructive.


6 — Worry

If you ever feel out of control, your response might be to act; in other words, to be productive as a means to exert control over the forces surrounding your life. Your productivity is an attempt to construct social security in an unpredictable and unstable world.

The thought line for worry is,
“If I can be productive, then I will be in control and my problems will go away.”

Typically, this perspective is not interested in productivity and its resulting achievement, but sees productivity as a means to harness a sense of safety and peace in an uncertain world. To this motivation, a self-help listicle ensuring that following these practices guarantees a productive success is very enticing. Anything that provides a controlled environment and secure foundation is pursued over the unpredictable world.


7 — Fear of Missing Out

This is for those of you who yearn for the fun, spontaneous, and optimistic experience of life. As a result, there is always a new and exciting adventure in the next moment — which can be powerfully positive, but can also create anxiety.

If someone has discovered an experience that garners the attention of a person with this perspective, then it will be worth pursuing by that person. This perspective, like the worrier, is not very interested in productivity for its own sake, but for the experience it could potentially offer. Trying a new technique, seeing a new component of the world, and achieving something that appears valuable are worth the work, then.

The thought line for this perspective is,
“If I go through this process of productivity, it will give me something new. If I don’t, I will miss out.”

This fear, then, is the motivation for being productive and, the more popular, cool, or exciting the experience seems, the harder they will strive to attain it.


8 — Domination

Where a worry-type wants to control their environment, a dominator wants to control other people. How does this translate to potentially unhealthy productivity? If you use a productive pursuit of achievement to intimidate, threaten, or challenge others to put them in their place, it might not be very helpful.

The thought line for domination is,
“If I am productive, I will have more power and control to get what I want.”

The motivation is similar to the “rugged individual” and functions out of a fear of losing power or control. Again, this group will be naturally inclined to be as productive as possible, but the motivation can be destructive. While this passion can be incredibly constructive, resorting to dominance through productivity will lead to an achievement at the expense of relationships, emotional integrity, and health.


9 — People Pleasing

One component of this posture is complacency — you are likely to not do something if it means keeping things peaceful and calm with your surrounding environment. People pleasers usually don’t pursue productivity.

However, there is another component of minimizing problems and potential conflict meaning that this perspective has a tendency to be productive if it makes people happy. It is a subordinate productivity, usually against their own desire, but if it means avoiding disturbance, then it is worth it.

The motivation for productivity is usually an attempt to give a pleasant or peaceful solution to problems that will appease others.

The thought line for people pleasing is,
“If I produce this, others will be happy and life will stay calm.”

Those are some of the dark sides and I would encourage all of us to let productivity go if it is brought forth by these motivations. However, as I said, productivity has no moral value and can be bad, but it also means it can lead to good.

So if these are motivations we shouldn’t have, what is a proper motivation for productivity?

It will start with this question:

“If the only result of my productivity is that this thing happened, would I still do it?”

If there was no success, fame, financial gain, or external reward, would you still go about the productive process? If it wouldn’t make the world how you want it, gain love, validate your worth, showcase your individuality, avoid your junk, control your environment, avoid missing out, dominate the world around you, or appease other people, would you still do it?

Which sounds lazy — not emphasizing your focus to produce and “become your best,” as they say, goes against our modern, enlightened progress that our culture has worked so hard to create. But remember, this perspective to be as productive, efficient, and successful as possible has not been inherent to the human condition throughout history.

Jeremy Rifkin points out in his book, “Entropy” how the post-classical and pre-modern peasant had more vacation time and free time than the modern 40 hour a week (or 4 Hour Week, if you will) worker. Work was to survive, not validate your existence.

I understand that culture has changed, but our endless pursuit of progress might not be as essential as we assume. I hope you still pursue success, accomplishment, and progress, but to do so isn’t the human goal of existence, it is just one option you might choose.

Progress isn’t always progress and, sometimes, we might just need to hear,
“Hey! Don’t be productive. It won’t save you.”

Rather, my hope is that we might place productivity in its proper place — as a means to an end rather than the end itself. Instead, we need to have an endgame that transcends success, accomplishment, and the achievement that gleams so brightly in post-industrial society. Productivity itself will not help you become your best and truly succeed — only a properly placed productivity will provide the meaningful result we truly need.

The motivation for your productivity, then, will be what dictates this goal and emerges its usefulness, effectiveness, and health or it will emerge its dark side.

So let’s start checking our motivation before we jump into pursuing the seven habits, eight things to do, and nine ways to get what we want. Because if your ‘self’ isn’t right when you jump in, the result will reveal itself even in a great finished product. Therefore, if any of these 9 dark sides are present, if any of these are determined to be your motivation or agenda, then go ahead and skip the productivity. Don’t be afraid not to be productive if the result might actually hinder the world.


And now for an example of a proper motivation:

Only utilize the tool of productivity when this is the goal:

Will this add value to the ongoing life of my place and the global journey?

If productivity is the means to the end of a better world resulting from your work then, by all means, be productive. If it involves you transcending yourself for the good of the whole, then work your ass off and crush it.

But still be aware of the dark sides.

I’m working on discovering how to “Become More Human”

If you’re interested, I’d be happy to share what I’m finding to help craft how you live, too. You can find more here:

Contact me here or use Twitter | Facebook.

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