Do Less: Anti-Productivity Is the New Productivity
We’re at the end of the hyper-productivity era, and it’s not a moment too soon.
I’m starting a list of things I believed in when I was a kid and now know to be utter balderdash. For instance, I once believed that adults knew what they were doing. After college, I learned we’re all just crashing around in the dark like moths searching for a light. When I was thirteen, I believed that popularity was critically important. Then I learned that popularity is as fleeting as snow in June.
But here are some beliefs that stuck with me until recently: Getting stuff done is better than not getting stuff done. Being in motion is better than being idle. Striving is better than enjoying the moment. Producing more is better than producing less.
Only recently have a realized that this kind of productivity-oriented thinking is deeply flawed — and wholly wrong. The quest for maximum productivity is a wild goose chase, and it’s time to stop. Many of us are stressed out, unwell, disengaged, and stuck in toxic environments.
Why Productivity Isn’t Always Useful
It turns out that a lot of what we talk about, think about, and practice — when it comes to productivity — is a scam. It’s a kind of brainwashing that we accepted as kids. Should we stare at an ant for fifteen minutes during math class or should we do ten more math problems? We are trained early to accept the latter option as the “correct” answer.
As a college professor, I witness students’ acceptance of productivity as gospel. They are crushed to earn a bad grade when they have worked for hours on a task because they’ve been programmed to believe that quantity of time and intensity of effort always result in higher productivity. They expect a reward for five hours of study. They believe that their classmate who stared at an ant for four hours and studied only one should not get the same reward. This is productivity thinking, and most of us are steeped in it.
For a long time, I not only accepted productivity thinking, I revered it. I studied books and articles to learn how to churn out ever more stuff. If I attended ten meetings, answered 300 emails, taught five classes, and met with fifteen students, then I was productive. How could I not be? I had the numbers to back it up, and like many people, I work in an environment that values quantitative results.
But what happens when we’re doing the wrong stuff? I’m currently on a flight. Two hours ago we left Salt Lake City, eastbound for Nashville. Now imagine if the pilot flew two hours south to Phoenix and said, “Well, folks, I tried hard to get us there. I’ve put in two solid hours of effort. Have a great day.” The airline would have a riot on their hands. What you do only has value if you produce exactly the right thing at the right time. The productivity mindset convinces us that any labor is good labor.
Another problem with a productivity mindset is that it encourages us to value ourselves and others only in terms of what we can produce. For example, productivity self-help tells me to delegate tasks that don’t bring value to me. That seems like a good idea until you realize that most of us are delegating low-value tasks to others with less power. Sure, it’s great if I don’t have to answer so many emails, but I also have to consider who will do that work for me. Research shows that so-called lower-value work often gets shifted to women (and especially women of color) who are then penalized for not producing more. (Having been in that situation many times, I can attest to how frequently low-value work lands at my desk.)
A productivity mindset is also problematic when the relentless quest for it results in burnout. Studies show that putting in too many hours is bad for our health, bad for the bottom line, and bad for workplace cultures in general.
The Challenge of Resisting Productivity Thinking
So why is it so hard to resist the productivity mindset? The obvious answer is that we know quantity of output gets rewarded. Producing more means more money, more recognition, more everything. We ignore the downsides of productivity — the depression, the anxiety, the physical toll on our bodies — because we don’t have an alternative model.
If you think I’m wrong, let’s try a little experiment right now. What is the opposite of productivity? Answer quickly.
If you are like most people, you probably answered laziness, idleness, or something else that connotes time-wasting.
When we talk about productivity, we lack the language to even interrogate the concept because we’ve built virtuousness right into the definition. We can’t examine, critique, or even question productivity without accidentally endorsing laziness, a cardinal sin in our culture.Questioning productivity is like trying to make an argument against generosity or kindness.
Most of us cling to the productivity mindset — like it’s a life raft and we’re adrift at sea — because we can’t imagine any other way of living. If we aren’t producing, and we aren’t measuring that production, then what are we doing?
The Anti-Productivity Mindset
What if we had a way to resist productivity thinking? I think we do. We just have to be willing to adopt new ways of thinking about work and production. Let’s call it the anti-productivity mindset.
An anti-productivity mindset is one that resists the idea that laziness is the opposite of productivity. Anti-productivity thinking considers that more output isn’t always better than less. To be anti-productive is to recognize the value in standing still and the value of all that can’t be easily quantified.
Anti-productivity thinking shifts the central question of our work lives. Instead of choosing between doing something useful and doing something not useful, anti-productive thinking allows us to choose to do nothing at all. Or to choose to do something that can’t be measured by the standards of productivity.
To illustrate what anti-productivity thinking looks like, consider this example: Imagine that you’ve been invited to attend a meeting that won’t yield much value. You have to decide whether or not to attend. Productivity thinking dictates that you’ll weigh that wasted hour against an hour spent reviewing a report draft, answering important emails, or doing some other task that will yield output. You’ll make your decision based on which activity yields the higher productive outcome. Most of us will pick the latter option and use that hour to blow through our to-do list.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with choosing productivity. The problem emerges when we use productivity thinking because we have no alternative calculus to use to make our decisions.
Anti-productivity thinking allows you to ask a totally different question: What if I skip the meeting and do nothing, as Jenny Odell recommends, instead? What if instead of thinking in terms of productivity-mindset outcomes, we think in alternate measurements, like happiness, relaxation, healthiness, kindness, collegiality, compassion, or depth of thought, etc.
In an anti-productivity mindset, I can choose to skip the useless meeting and instead visit with a colleague who needs a sympathetic ear. I can go for a walk and exercise my body and my brain. I can take a nap. Count ceiling tiles. Sing folk songs. Twiddle my thumbs. Doodle pictures of chickens. Whatever.
The point is I can make choices, in an anti-productivity mindset, that sustain different values than mere quantity of output. To refuse to produce, for even a minute or two, is to reclaim our bodies and minds separate from what they can accomplish or achieve.
An anti-productive mindset isn’t about refusing to produce anything ever. It’s about refiguring ourselves outside of measures that organizations can use to determine our value.
It’s up to us to decide when we need to be anti-productive, to advocate for ourselves as human beings, not as measurable machines.
How to Be Anti-Productive
Resisting productivity is easier when you have power. But regardless of how much power you have (or don’t have), you can still practice resistance, even if it’s very small
Here are three strategies for adopting an anti-productive mindset:
1. Set productivity and anti-productivity hours and keep them
We’re all paid to be productive at work, but we aren’t paid to be endlessly productive. Determine your work hours and then keep those hours. Those hours are for productivity.
Set another time for anti-productivity. In that time period, make a point to be unproductive. Do things that don’t yield measurable results or that you do merely for the sake of doing it.
Practice being mindful in that anti-productivity mindset to see what it feels like. Take note of your stress levels, happiness, and energy. What are your triggers for moving back into your productivity mindset? What happens you allow yourself to be fully anti-productive? I’ve discovered that set anti-productivity hours make me feel less guilty about engaging in activities that can’t be classified as productive but that are valuable in other ways.
Once you get used to anti-productivity thinking, extend the number of hours you can be anti-productive throughout the week. (Just be careful that your anti-productivity mindset isn’t just shifting work to someone with less power than you.)
2. Set a mandatory wait period before taking on big and small tasks
We’ve all been in meetings where someone proposes a massive overhaul of a system or process that will require many hours and lots of energy. Determine a personal wait period before you agree to any large-scale task. It might be a day or a week, but force yourself to stand still — to be anti-productive — before you begin work.
While you are standing still, use measurements beyond quantitative outputs to make your decision. For example, will this additional work significantly increase your stress and potentially damage your health? Will the new project hamper work that sustains other values that cannot be easily quantified, like harmony, creativity, or curiosity?
In the case of smaller tasks, you might set a five-minute wait period before you take action. For instance, I used to scramble to answer every email as it arrived in my inbox. I was like a yappy dog waiting for the mail carrier. But in answering every single email immediately, I was often creating more work for everyone. My quick response were not always fully researched and thought-out. And many times, the situation changed and the email would not have required an answer if I’d waited even an hour. I was driven by the need to produce something quantifiable, as if answering a million emails at record speed could be engraved on my tombstone.
The point is that you adopt a personal wait period on decisions, you will be training yourself to experience what it feels like to do nothing instead of reacting to your training that screams, “Doing something is always better!!”
3. Don’t apologize for doing less
Many of us have turned work into an exercise of surveillance (even if we know nobody is watching us). We justify to ourselves and others what we are doing, often when aren’t even required to do so. At our worst, we watch our coworkers to measure ourselves against them. Are we doing more or less? Are we better or worse?
Just recently, I caught myself sending a coworker a list of things I’d done that day to justify why I hadn’t responded to an email earlier. The truth was that he didn’t expect an email until the next day, and he didn’t need a list of my achievements. My email served to once more validate productivity as a monolithic and unquestionable value system, and I was pledging allegiance to it. I probably also reinforced to my coworker that he too is being observed.
Bottom line: You don’t need to catalog or archive your value. You definitely don’t need to apologize for disengaging from productivity. Turn an anti-productivity mindset into something that’s natural and equally valid as productivity.
When you do less, when you successfully practice an anti-productivity mindset, share what you are not doing and why with others. Be clear that anti-productivity isn’t about shirking duties or being a “bad” employee. The anti-productive mindset is about disengaging from what researcher Melissa Gregg, in Counterproductive: Time Management in the Knowledge Economy, calls “bias towards action,” an ideology that demands movement over thought.
The more we all begin to question a philosophy of work that’s unsustainable, the more we can build a new system that’s humane, more equitable, and less quantitative, the better off we can all be. Right now, we are on a collision course, as we push ourselves to produce ever more at an ever faster rate. That’s just not possible. Frankly, it’s not even desirable.
If we stop performing our productivity mindset at every turn, we may begin to set a sustainable model of work, one that allows for a range of values beyond production.
The opposite of productivity is not laziness. It’s anti-productivity, and it’s the way of the future.