So… What About Productivity?

In the midst of ‘See you tomorrows’ to colleagues, the setting of the sun and the sound of fingers tapping keys, I glance at the time. Another work day is done.

Some days, time has sped up and I don’t know where its gone. Those fingers push buttons. The mind is clear. Things are in sync. Writing leads to editing and to proofreading and to publishing. Copy. Paste. Insert. Repeat.

Other times, it slows down against the mind’s expectations around productivity and efficiency. In frustration, my mind walks away, jumps in the sea, hears yelling from the waterfront and does what any rebellious child does — ignores the call to come back.

The busy-ness of my day will dictate what happens next. Ideally, I’ll scan the diary, write a to-do list and check it twice. The mental calendar locks in time for life administration. The run home. The load of washing. Cooking dinner. The washing of dishes. The ironing of shirts. The baking for work. The response to emails.

My response to the ensuing list is a continuum — on the one side, ‘Opportunity’ and ‘Excited’. On the other is ‘Burdensome’, ‘Daunting’ and ‘Anxious’. Somewhere in between is ‘Curiosity’.

When I end up at bed time, I may hit everything as a ‘perfectly productive’ day. The only downside is I’m wide awake whilst the body is weak. I can’t frigging slow down. During the unrest, I find solace through procrastinating on YouTube.

I may also hit bed time as a prisoner to my mind (and the foot on the brake pedal). Negative thoughts or previous experience strike back. Instead of the promise and expectation of running 100 kilometres per hour, its barely going 20. Not only that, the fuel tank is on E, there’s no oil in the ‘car’, and those ensuing ‘engine’ issues won’t be resolved soon. Hate ensues. Sleep becomes an illusion, anxiety becomes reality. And I then procrastinate on YouTube.

The lack of sleep means I awake from my attempted slumber, and rinse and repeat my work day, and rinse and repeat my after-work time with commitments (maybe not life admin, but something else). There is no rest.

Something isn’t right. And there’s more to it than the constant array of music videos.

We work our bodies like machines. Time has become a resource to be conquered. Every second and minute can be itemised and manipulated into a productive outcome. Production is good. Outcomes are success.

There are bylines like #YOLO, ‘Live every day like its your last’ and ‘You can sleep and rest once you’re in the grave’. Behind those bylines is a narrative where every moment can be significant, emphasising production and outcomes (at all costs). If I am not making something out of nothing with the time I have, what am I doing with my life?

It is tempting to evaluate others based on their ability to manipulate and control time to produce. When the question ‘How’s it going?’ is asked, claim those brownie points with the response ‘Busy’. We better be ready to spit out the achievements and the outcomes we’ve ‘unlocked’ during the small-talk at parties. The ensuing stress, lack of rest, and lack of balance is forgotten, because productivity can be worn like a badge of honour.

The badge is made of gold — but what kind?

I’ve become accustomed to hearing stories of individuals living the successful, busy, productive, urban life. They are succinct, and usually are commercials for products such as breakfast drinks (‘Who has time for breakfast?’), fast food (‘Who has time to make lunch, or dinner?’), or energy drinks (‘Who has time to sleep or rest? Get this caffeine fix and keep running through that brick wall?’).

Rest, sleep and relaxation are starting to become overrated. In its place are products with stimulants designed to press on with productivity, with tired eyes and stressed minds.

The internal naysayer begins to whittle this critique into submission. ‘Balance is a fallacy to success. Balance doesn’t exist in a world where we aspire to be wealthy, successful and productive. If you want balance, don’t expect to be paid what you perceive, or achieve anything you want to achieve. We are meant to be busy.’

If we emphasise the narrative of productivity in how we live, I feel the need to push its counter-narrative. The one of addiction. Its the one where we feed our thirst for productivity and efficiency by craving pleasures and making choices that are convenient (rather than beneficial). Where stress and our over-dependence on natural, body-creating stimulants (such as adrenalin) can lead to regular illness, burnout, mental roadblocks and chronic fatigue. Where friends, families and romances are put to the back burner, often at a cost. Pushing for success, wealth and achievement can hamper the livelihood we’ve strived to create.

Many of the side effects are then attacked with further effort. The prevalent psychological approach is to adopt behaviour modification strategies, altering the mind through aggression, conflict and discipline. We are inspired to deal with issues quickly so we can continue being productive and successful. The instant, the quick, the achievement are alluring aspirations.

And to those who can’t get up, they are left behind. We continue celebrating the successful and leave behind those who have lived that narrative but are no longer able to live out its expectations.

What happens to them?

I’m aware that I’ve raised these points with quite some scepticism. Being busy is important in the workplaces we live in, the families we have. Being productive and making use of our time is also important. Adrenalin is useful in small doses when necessary.

When necessary.

What I’m concerned about is the ‘when necessary’ has turned into ‘always use’. The importance of productivity needs to be held in the same breath as the importance of self-care. There has to be room to rest. To relax without stimulants. To do things I enjoy (whilst also doing some things that are beneficial yet uncomfortable, like household cleaning). There needs to be room to de-brief, take stock, consider, contemplate and look forward. It is in this place that I would argue habitual change can take place, not temporary as a goal but permanent as a value.

Because unlike technology (which in the convenient age is tossed in the rubbish the second it is ineffective), we can’t do the same to our bodies. Unfortunately, they have limitations. They aren’t as fast to pick-up the demands we live in right now. The emphasis on production tends to break the body down. And the response to that consequence is not that only the strongest survive.

We are not mechanical, emotionless robots. We are living, breathing creatures who can’t be conditioned to live as a robot would. There’s something cold about that way.

In the midst of rest and production, it is Saturday morning. I wake up, too early in my eyes after a late Friday night doing nothing. I could run. I could begin the next ‘to-do list’. The appeal to be productive is high. But there is a subtle whisper, confirming rest is of upmost importance.

The rain is falling. I listen to the raindrops. I sit there for a while. The eerie, atmospheric silence in the mind tries to tell me something I hadn’t realised.

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