Productivity Is a Cult
If you clicked on this article, then I bet you are a lot like me (and thousands of other readers): We’re eager to use our time wisely, manage our attention, and reach the nirvana of ultimate productivity. We’re productivity nerds, and we’ve got a solution for every time or energy management problem you can throw at us. We don’t always practice what we preach, but we definitely know what everyone should do to maximize our professional and personal lives.
But for many of us, I think it’s fair to say we’ve crossed the valley of self-help and arrived on the doorstep of a doomsday cult. We’ve turned studying productivity hacks into a kind of reverent practice. That practice almost inevitably leads to serving the needs of an endless production of labor, whether it’s valuable or not.
When your productivity practice becomes the goal — and you are no longer thinking about what you produce, how you produce it, and whether or not you should produce anything at all — you might have become a productivity cult member.
Three Signs You Are in the Productivity Cult
It’s always hard to see when you’ve gone from productivity enthusiast to productivity cult member. You’re a bit like the apocryphal frog in a pot of room-temperature water that’s slowly reaching a boil. You don’t always know that you’ve gone too far until you’re there.
Here are three signs to help you decide if you’ve taken your productivity practice too far and joined the cult.
1. Does your productivity require blind allegiance?
Cults don’t allow you to question the group or the leader. In the case of the productivity cult, if you feel guilty or uncomfortable about criticizing or questioning work as an unassailable good, you’re likely in the cult.
For instance, I chatted with a relative recently who told me that sleeping more than five or six hours a night maximum is a sure sign that someone is lazy and not dedicated to their career. I’ve had friends who have casually (and with false modesty) said things like, “I guess I’m someone who just needs to be busy all the time.” However well-intentioned such a statement is, it conveys the message that being constantly engaged is an inarguable virtue. In either case, the speakers are assuming that doing something is necessarily better than not. That’s productivity allegiance.
2. Does your productivity require devotional language?
Cults create a false sense of community in part by developing and sustaining a common language. Likewise, the cult of productivity produces language that we parrot back to ourselves and each other. By using that language, we re-inscribe our commitment to the mission. We also create strong feeling of an in-group, and we can easily identify those who are not among our ranks.
Productivity language isn’t wrong or bad; it’s only problematic when we recite it without careful analysis. For example, productivity itself suggests something positive. If I tell my boss I’m striving to be more productive, she’s likely to praise me without asking additional questions. In practice, I may be becoming more productive by pushing off my work to others. Or maybe I’m lowering my standards and doing everything faster. Neither scenario seems particularly positive, but productivity is a devotional term, one that we’ve learned to chant and accept as sacred.
Other devotional words include work, busy, efficient, quantitative, professional, and useful, among others. In isolation, none of these words is bad. They only become problematic when used to reinforce the cult of productivity. If you use these terms and believe that they necessarily suggest unquestionable value, then you’re reading from the sacred text of a cult.
3. Does your productivity require giving everything you have?
Who gains the most from a cult? The charismatic leader. That’s always the case. Even if members get something in return (say, love or acceptance), the function of a cult is to keep it in existence. It’s the leadership that benefits the most from cult followers.
Productivity becomes cult-like when we (as members) are asked to nourish leaders, organizations, and systems at the expense of our own needs.
Organizations will often exploit productivity cult members by asking us to give our personal time and energy without compensation. If you think that you owe it to the company — or whatever it represents — to give more than you receive, you’re in the cult. If you read that last sentence and criticized it for being too mercenary because you think that donating your time to your work couldn’t possibly be a bad thing, then you’re definitely in the cult.
Three Ways to Leave the Cult
Some cults will make it nearly impossible to leave. Fortunately, you can leave the productivity cult. Bear in mind that you may confuse or even offend your friends and colleagues. They may say you don’t care enough or that you’ve lost your edge. Just know that leaving the cult comes with its own benefits — namely, that you can reclaim your time and energy.
You don’t have to quit your job. You just have to resist productivity as orthodoxy. That is, you can still be productive. You just won’t pursue it with your former cult-like commitment. You’ll think about what you are doing. You’ll be the agent in control.
Here are three ways to take back your life from the cult of productivity:
1. Admit you are a cult member
Once you admit you joined the cult, it’s far easier to get out. Quit immediately.
Bear in mind, you can keep reading about productivity. You can implement as many productivity hacks as you like. But use your knowledge and your strategies for more questioning. Questioning is the bane of cults. As soon as you start questioning, you’re already out the door.
You can even start your questioning small. Next time a co-worker tells you that they are trying to be more productive, ask yourself to refrain from assuming that’s a positive thing. When someone extols busy-ness as a virtue, ask why they think that. Even these small questions can help challenge the ubiquity of the cult.
2. Encourage others to re-think what productivity means
If you are in a position of leadership or management, set an example. Stop using productivity terms without interrogating what they mean. Ask questions when productivity terms or strategies are invoked. Create opportunities for people to engage in creative, thoughtful, and collaborative conversations that may not yield a tangible end product.
If you aren’t in a higher-level position, help your colleagues question the cult of productivity by refusing to play useless games of one-upsmanship. If your colleague regularly brags about working long hours, either ignore them or reroute the conversation to one about the problems of productivity. If you feel comfortable, you might say, “I’m concerned that some of us feel expected to put in these kinds of hours. Let’s take this to the rest of the team and open up a conversation about what’s realistic for all of us.”
3. Practice un-productivity more
Productivity culture gets a lot of airtime because we sometimes forget that we have other options. At work or at home, challenge yourself to spend more time being un-productive. Un-productivity could be as simple as deciding to spend a Saturday morning drawing, hiking, reading the paper, or just siting in a chair rather than cleaning the house, catching up on email, or grocery shopping.
Thinking in terms of un-productivity, even for small things, can help us remember to bring that questioning mindset to our larger tasks at work.
Once at work, you might practice un-productivity by questioning the need for certain meetings, refusing to send or read emails during non-work hours, and/or rethinking your professional goals in terms other than production.
I understand that the cult metaphor is a strong image. I’m not attempting to undermine the very real and devastating effects that a “real” cult presents.
Instead, I’m asking all of us to consider the long-term problems that exclusively thinking in terms of productivity causes. We work in a culture that we’ve helped create. Let’s start questioning it now.
Work doesn’t have to be a cult.