The myth of productive living
For those of us who often feel overwhelmed, stressed, anxious, or have trouble sleeping as we think through all the things that need doing, all the tasks that need our attention, and all the demands on our time and wonder how we can manage to fit it all in, it is worth asking the question, is it them or is it us?
What I mean here by ‘them’ is the outside world: work, deadlines, KPI’s, expiration schedules, output measures, how many items of clothing we have sold today, how many fines issued, how many emails sent, hours billed, clients seen, reports written, or myriad other expectations of productivity placed on us by others and by ourselves.
By ‘us’ I mean the person who wakes and sleeps in a 24-hour cycle. That is all that is available to us. And so we resort to lists, reminders, calendars, task managing apps, time managing apps, productivity managing apps – all in the vain hope that these tools will help us get on top of these demands on our time, and that we will then, finally, have some time to enjoy and dedicate to our passions, or hobbies, our family and friends, or simply to rest.
I have often posed this question – or a version of it – to clients, friends, and family. In fact, I get into trouble when I forget to ask it of myself. I rush through things, without stopping to reflect on anything I have achieved, or anything that I might actually like to do at that moment. The day is a mission of ticking off items on the list. If you have done everything you can to be and feel on top of things, yet still feel overwhelmed and anxious about the day ahead or the year ahead, think: is it you, or is it them? Is your inability to keep up an actual inability, or has the societal expectation on us well and truly run off with its unrelenting demands?
It is important to ask this question. It is important to take a moment and wonder about our actions and choices that ultimately shape what our lives are. Does the way you spend your day give you the knowledge that you are using your time on earth well, or do you feel like you’ll never get to things you enjoy because there’s so much to do?
The idea behind task- and time- managing tools is the idea of mastering ways of doing things faster, which would free us up to enjoy life. This is not a new idea. Yet, with every advancement the pressure on us and how much we produce – in any context – has increased. The myth of leisure and productivity works like this: the vacuum cleaner (a technological advancement) allows you to clean the house twice as fast, and have some free time on your hands. However, rather than using the time to rest, read, sleep, paint, walk, or think, you can now jump on the computer (another technological advancement), and do a bit of work from home. Of course, this will put you ahead for when you’re in the office. But now you’ve actually had no free time. In other words, any time freed up by the technological advancement is quickly eaten up by other tasks.
This has resulted in an existence where we often scramble from task to task, the list before us never shrinking; as soon as one obligation is met, as soon as one email is answered, as soon as one plan is accomplished, another appears. I have spoken to many clients who have struggled with depression, anxiety, and addictions, directly related to their feelings of being overwhelmed by the demands in their lives. I have felt this myself. If we, collectively, feel that our lives are a scramble to keep up, it is worthwhile asking whether this is the way we want to live, and whether this is something we want to continue to choose for ourselves.
Life is more than economic principles; it can also be art, science, philosophy, literature, horticulture, movement, and spirituality. Life in the age of productivity enhancement has been reduced to one discipline: economics. The danger of living from and within one discipline is one of an unlived life. The pursuit of other disciplines may never bring us money, status, property, or a well-furnished office – things we have long stopped questioning, taking their worth and value for granted, yet the pursuit of the same has brought us stress, anxiety, depression, and a deep challenge to our human values through all the societal inequality and human rights abuses we know about that are needed to keep this machine going.
So the next time you feel overwhelmed by tasks and can’t see a way out, ask yourself: what can you simply postpone, or not even do? What is actually risked by not finishing everything by the end of the day, or the end of the week? And perhaps most important of all: where does the idea that this is a worthwhile way to live come from?
For further reading please see:
What about me? The struggle for identity in a market based society by Paul Verhaeghe