The productivity myth

Every single moment of your life needs to be spent being “productive”.

Once again, I am so grateful for twitter. Without it, the only person of a similar age I’d know who isn’t actively seeking employment would be my sister. With twitter, I am in contact with a number of people of working age who are not able to work. And that is a powerful model in a society which tells us we have to be productive. I don’t think I know anyone who hasn’t internalised this message. Which isn’t surprising given how prolific it is.

Today I’ve received an email link to top productivity hacks, a twitter link to managing your business whilst working full time and numerous Pinterest pins about getting the most out of your day. And I’ve probably missed a few hundred similar articles. And it’s not just “making the most” out of your day. There are lots of people preaching about the value of getting up fifteen minutes earlier. And we’ve all come across the idea of stopping smoking as we sleep. Even at night, we are still required to be productive. Preferably you’re also multitasking so you’re being even more productive.  And when we’re not being productive, how many of you are feeling bad because you aren’t being productive?

You’re making jewellery in your spare time for pleasure? Well make that a legitimate way to spend your time and get selling it…

And when you’ve got to the end of doing all the things productively, you’d best be planning on using that hard earned time for more productive things.

And this is one of those occasions where I am thankful to my illness. I cannot be productive all the time and it’s so nice being off the treadmill. It took a long time before I could start to let go of the guilt – “I should be doing x… I need to do y… I’m useless…” – and this is still something I struggle with. But I now plan rest into my life as if I were planning an activity. If I’m doing something Monday, I need to to make Sunday and Tuesday more restful. In my case it’s essential but I think most people would benefit from looking at the balance in their lives.

Side note: I’d like to add that I am a huge fan of efficiency. Drives me up the wall when people do things in an inefficient way but efficiency isn’t the same as being productive. You can do loads of things quickly and be efficient but if you have an hour and you’re not working, well by gosh, you aren’t being productive.

When someone asks you what you’ve done with your weekend, do you freeze and say not much because what you’ve done doesn’t feel productive? Even if you really enjoyed your Netflix and takeaway.  I know I used to.

Sister to the productivity myth is the busy is better lie.

People wear their busyness as a badge of pride. “Oh I can’t stop, I’m back to back meetings… sorry I’ve not had chance to ring you, I’ve been super busy…” Being busy has become synonymous with being important.

And yes, we might get a lot done as we push through our busy lives… But we also get exhausted and irritable and snap at our partners, children, goldfish… And I suspect being constantly busy or feeling you should be probably feeds into mental health problems.

I know people who work ridiculously long hours and consequently never really see their families. I think working long hours can make us feel indispensable and that can be a really nice feeling so we do more.  Then people expect that as a minimum so you have to do a bit more… But, and I don’t want to hurt your feelings, there are very few things in this life that can only be done by you. If you’re suddenly working 70 hours a week, chances are, your boss needs another member of staff… Someone else can do that. But it’s much harder for someone else to take your wife out for an anniversary meal or throw your friend the best birthday party or any of the things which fall by the wayside because you’re busy being busy.

This feels like an appropriate point to throw in some poetry:


What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

No time to stand beneath the boughs
And stare as long as sheep or cows.

No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.

No time to see, in broad daylight,
Streams full of stars, like skies at night.

No time to turn at Beauty’s glance,
And watch her feet, how they can dance.

No time to wait till her mouth can
Enrich that smile her eyes began.

A poor life this is if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

By William Henry Davies

I’m not denying there are situations where working three jobs and barely sleeping is the only option. That in itself is a horrific state of affairs in this age.  This post is more aimed at people who have the luxury of earning enough to cover the rent and bills and food.

Being busy isn’t in itself bad, but being busy because it boosts your self worth, makes you feel important or because you feel you have to suggests to me that you need to think about it. And not being busy busy busy will give you time to do that.

End Note: You know how people say you teach or write what it is you need to know? Well, with the help of tarot, I realised I was writing this blog post about not having to be productive all the time at the same time as getting stressed out because I currently don’t have a purpose or way of contributing to the world… Yes ill health retirement is an extreme of not being productive all the time but it’s still OK. I’ve been productive for years. I will be productive in some way in the future. It’s OK that I’m not being very productive right now.

5 thoughts on “The productivity myth”

  1. This is great Helen. You’ve really unpicked something that has bothered me for a long time too. As someone who suffers from mental ill health, there are many periods when I don’t “achieve” very much at all. At those times there are people who make me feel as though self-care and slowing down is selfish and self-indulgent. But I have learned over the years that it is more meaningful for me to do fewer activities mindfully than to try to do as many as possible badly. And I am all for a day spent in with Netflix… I am just about to do that right now!

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