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The tantalizing promise of productivity: the illusion of control
Productivity tips have been a mainstay of the internet since the early days. I was a regular reader of Lifehacker back when Gina Trapani was the editor, and productivity blogs continue to be incredibly popular. The Harvard Business Review has a whole section devoted to personal productivity. Best selling books about productivity, like Getting Things Done, Atomic Notes, and The Habit Cycle continue to dominate best-seller lists.
It seems like everyone is always on the lookout for the next hack. The next way to up-level. The next way to get more done in less time, with less stress. This is the unspoken promise made as we pick up a productivity book, or browse a productivity blog, or subscribe to yet another newsletter promising productivity tips: that this will finally unlock the secret we’re missing. That if only we knew this one trick, everything would finally fall into place.
It’s easy to believe that if only we could organize our task list in just the right way… or find the perfect calendar app… or organize our email folders and precisely the right order, that would be the magic ticket. We would finally feel in control. We would finally feel on top of things. Our stress levels would go down. We’d be happier in our day to day life. Finally, we’d find contentment. Underneath all the hacks and tech tips, that’s the true, incredibly alluring and tantalizing promise of productivity.
The loudest voices in the room: how toxic productivity culture happens
The loudest voices in the productivity space are— often— people who have the luxury of time, space, and a “room of one’s own” to gather their thoughts, then harness the power of the internet marketing machine to get their ideas out into the world.
People who see rampant growth on Twitter, or YouTube, or Medium, or anywhere online, have the luxury of investing time (and often money) in getting their message heard. They focus on their “grind” and “hustle” and “grit” and “unbelievable consistency” and “insane commitment” — and conveniently overlook their advantages, like having immense amounts of control and autonomy over their time and attention.
Much of the productivity advice in broad circulation focuses on imposing artificial constraints. Things like:
And there is nothing inherently wrong with any of the above techniques. I’ve used them at times to good effect myself. The problem is that they’re tools, not solutions. And productivity advice that focuses primarily on rigorous application of specific tools and techniques misses the larger picture.
What about those of us who are already working with plenty of constraints?
The above tools and techniques help by adding artificial constraints– which can be helpful, depending on one’s season of life. But what about those of us who aren’t looking, aghast, at an empty, blank calendar, then feeling grateful for the structure that time blocking imposes. Instead, we’re looking at the single, solitary Saturday afternoon we were able to set aside in the entire month to work on our project. And looking at our task list for this project that seems to grow exponentially every day.
And then when that fateful blessed Saturday afternoon comes, it turns out our kid is sick, our partner is sick, we’re sick, and we all end up collapsing in a heap on the living room floor watching Disney Plus. Which is what needed to happen. But that doesn’t move the needle on that project task list, either. Time blocking isn’t our issue. Constraints are the rule, not the exception, in our lives.
The disconnect between toxic productivity culture and getting things done in real life
Much of the hustle culture and toxic productivity advice circulating has a huge disconnect. The people writing the most popular advice are writing from a lofty, disconnected perch— not getting their hands dirty with the reality of life many (I daresay, most) people experience.
As Karla Starr so beautifully puts it:
“Paragon of productivity they may be, isn’t it easy to get things done when you don’t have kids, a day job, and can outsource everything except editing your manuscript on how to be productive? These days assume no commute, no traffic, no cooking, and no chores/errands/household tasks. No sudden phone calls from loved ones, no lost items or technical issues, no surprises. Nothing demanding any of your time or energy outside of your preordained, self-appointed tasks. Food magically appears at the appropriate time. It assumes, in short, that the world will bend to your will.”
[from Productivity Gurus are the Instagram Influencers of Capitalism, my emphasis added]
Acknowledging our different seasons and different struggles
In reality, we all have different duties and responsibilities that differ from our colleagues, or friends, or neighbours. You may be caring for young children. You may be caring for an aging relative. You may be working multiple jobs to cover the cost of food and rent. You may be recovering from an acute infection or injury. You may be battling the waxing and waning trajectory of a chronic illness.
All of these different challenges that arise at different seasons of life mean that our capacity for productivity does not remain stable over the course of our lives— and yet most productivity advice has a relentless, one-size-fits all approach, exhorting us that if only we ruthlessly institute certain specific habits can we be “successful” and “effortlessly productive.” I think that we need to change the conversation. I believe that we need to adopt a kinder, more self compassionate approach to productivity.
The frustration of getting productivity advice from those with the luxury of space and time
It’s okay to feel envious of the unencumbered. To resent those without kids, or aging parents, or highly inflexible day jobs, or health issues, or other responsibilities, for preaching at us from their privileged perch, seemingly unaware of the privileges they have baked into their daily existence. To feel frustrated by their apparent blissful unawareness of their advantages and autonomy.
(And we also never know what silent, invisible barriers these apparently autonomous people may be facing themselves. I always want to bear that in mind, and make sure that I’m not making too many assumptions about the privileges of others.)
But the reality is that much of their advice isn’t going to be terribly applicable to you if you’re in a different season of life. Yet much of the advice we’re getting on productivity these days comes from people with a great deal of autonomy and control over their schedules.
But this doesn’t mean we want to wish away these responsibilities either. I want to spend time with my child and spouse. I want to be involved with my family and friends. I want to do good work at my job. I want to be a supportive mentor. These are all good things. It’s just that they necessarily also take up time and energy. I don’t want to remove them. I just want an approach to productivity that actually takes these very real constraints into account instead of pretending those limitations simply don’t exist.
Quiet productivity: an existential, intentional, mindful approach to productivity
There’s a new-ish trend in productivity literature that’s starting to develop, towards a different, more mindful, more intentional, less frantic approach to productivity. I’ve seen different terms used for this approach: some writers call it mindful productivity, or intentional productivity, or essential productivity, or philosophical productivity, or real life productivity, or existential productivity.
Changing the narrative in the productivity space
I’m so excited about the emergence of this new direction in productivity culture, and I want to be a part of it. I want to change the conversation about productivity. I want to see new, gentler, kinder advice and insights about productivity being the norm. Ideas like:
- It’s normal and entirely appropriate to have fallow periods— and those might go on for years, not a day or two.
- Our capacity is going to be entirely different depending on our season of life— regardless of how beautifully we organize the tags on our to do list or colour code our Google calendars.
- We can still contribute and produce during challenging seasons of live, but our output will, quite necessarily, be less prolific or at least most irregular than if we were in a season of life that let us devote unfettered time and energy to those projects.
- We should stop measuring our self-worth by our productivity.
- In busy seasons of life, we need to triage the must-do from the nice-to-do, and accept that we’re never going to feel on top of everything.
- Working at 100% capacity needs to be done only for brief sprints, not as our normal work pace. We need margin.
I’m calling my own contribution to this newly-developing field Quiet Productivity. Being Quietly Productive means working calmly, quietly, serenely, from a place of peaceful confidence. This approach to productivity isn’t showy, isn’t loud, isn’t boastful, doesn’t draw attention to itself.
Quiet Productivity is focused on getting the right things done, instead of work that feels urgent but doesn’t actually move you any closer to your goals. When you work from a place of Quiet Productivity, you’re not tempted to post screenshots of colour-coded task lists on Instagram— instead, you’re keeping your head down, getting into the zone, getting the essentials done then closing your laptop and heading off to sit in the backyard with your kids without feeling like your mind is back in your inbox. Quiet Productivity means accepting that your task list will never be done— and there’s no magic system you can implement to change that. Quiet Productivity means holding your tasks and projects lightly, accepting an 80% solution instead of running yourself ragged chasing the diminishing returns of running after 100%.
To put it another way, Quiet Productivity means taking an approach to productivity that recognizes our inherent limitations. Our capacity for achievement is not endless—despite what some productivity gurus may promise. Our time is not limitless. Our energy is not limitless.
I’m going to keep exploring the concept of Quiet Productivity (and related topics, like mindful productivity and existential productivity) in future blog posts, including books related to Quiet Productivity, curated roundups of podcast episodes to inspire you, and thinkers and writers to follow if you’re interested in Quiet Productivity. If you’d like to join me, you can subscribe to my blog RSS feed at https://elizabethbutlermd.com/blog/feed.