How our productivity obsession sets us up to fail

- February 9, 2022 10 MIN READ

In this extract from I Didn’t Do The Thing Today, Madeline Dore shares how our obsession with productivity can be our downfall.

There will be days like these. Days that aren’t our day. Days we don’t seize. Days when we wished to accomplish more. Days that blur in bitsy errands. Days that get derailed. Days when there is something we should be doing that we’re not doing. Days when we worry about all that will be stacked onto tomorrow. Days when we’re convinced everyone else is having a better day.

Such days can leave us feeling deflated.

While I don’t know the particular shape your days take, there are things we all stumble over as we try to navigate modern life. Whether you work nine-to-five in an office or you’re a freelancer, a manager or a shift worker, or you might be a stay-at-home parent or a retiree, each of us is entangled in a culture that measures our value through productivity—how much we do, how well we do it, whom we do it for. For many of us, our days have become containers for internalised capitalism, or the pervading sense that what we do is tied to our worth.

When we conflate productivity with worthiness, what we do is never enough.

We can always do more, and there is always more to do. There’s the laundry thing, the catch-up thing, the replying to a text thing, the grocery shopping thing, the cooking thing, the cleaning thing, the creative thing, the exercise thing, the work thing, the medical thing, the thing we ought to do, the thing we don’t want to do, the thing we’ve put off despite it being the one important thing.

With this pile of undone things often comes an undercurrent of guilt, anxiety or shame. Instead of being alive to the variances of what is done in a day—sometimes a little, sometimes a lot—we spiral in a slew of ‘if onlys’: if only I were more productive, if only I were more efficient, if only I were better, if only I were more like that person . . . then I could do it right, do enough, be enough.

So much of what we are trying to achieve in our days is bound to the idea that we can optimise things to the point of perfection.

Surrounded by promises that if only we adopt this life hack or follow that morning routine we will finally get it all done, we look to this new thing to remedy our days like these. There can be a juicy pleasure in trying the latest hack, with its promise of improve¬ment. I’ve made a hobby of it: I’ve eaten the frog, put butter in my morning coffee, bought the new planner, tried the miracle morning routine, set up rewards for good habits. These popular systems can be useful, and may even change your life, but I’ve found they can also create another thing to stumble over in our days.

When tomorrow arrives and we find that this new thing didn’t fix us or we don’t perfectly adhere to the system, we’re right back at the beginning of the ‘if only’ spiral. Feeling like we’re the only one who isn’t getting it right, who keeps messing it up, we turn to the next thing in our hot pursuit of this better version of ourselves. We search again for a key to optimise our days, and stumble again, only to be met with self-blame.

We’re running just to stand still, and we’re missing the point.

We’re doing all this work to improve ourselves, only to go on judging ourselves for being imperfect. Yet such a pursuit is a fool’s errand. The English word ‘perfect’ comes from the Latin verb perficere, which means ‘to finish, complete, carry out or achieve’.

When we pursue perfection in our days and in ourselves, we’re creating an impossible standard. We’ve taken what’s incomplete as proof there is something wrong with us, when in fact being imperfect is an inevitable part of being human. We blame ourselves for not being exactly where we think we should be. We berate ourselves for inactivity. We shrink in our self-comparison to others. We doubt our decisions. We become so stifled by the pressure of being productive that we sometimes don’t do anything at all.

Rather than making us better, this ‘doing obsession’ leaves us feeling overwhelmed, burned out, dissatisfied, inadequate and alone.

When others wear what they do as a badge of honour—talking in terms of busyness, of being flat out, of accolades and accomplishments—we feel inadequate by comparison, yet under pressure to do the same. Doing, doing, doing, all just to keep up, to prove we are worthwhile—yet we never quite feel that we get there.

In the swirl of it all, it’s difficult to see that we’re being set up to fail. We’re told to work hard in a society that undervalues our labour. We’re being told to self-optimise in a culture that also tells us we’ll never be enough. Instead, we need to buy, pursue or do this thing if we’re to have any hope of reaching contentment—all the while, we’re chasing a shadow. If we aren’t benefiting from our overwork, overdoing, overachieving, why do we insist on fastening our self-worth to how productive we are?

Perhaps we remain fixated on this optical illusion because this doing obsession can be easy to spot but difficult to resolve. In fact, it’s seemingly impossible on our own to curtail productivity pressure and the subsequent anxiety, guilt or shame we experience. Even the counter-calls to take a break, reduce stress or create self-care rituals become yet another thing to add to the to-do list.

As Cal Newport, who popularised the concept of ‘deep work’—meaning the ability to focus on tasks without distraction—wrote in a New Yorker essay called ‘The Rise and Fall of Getting Things Done’, no tips, hacks or techniques directly address the funda¬mental problem: the insidiously haphazard way that work unfolds at the organisational level. We must, Newport says, ‘acknowledge the futility of trying to tame our frenzied work lives all on our own, and instead ask, collectively, whether there’s a better way to get things done’.

We may recognise that the pursuit of productivity is making us miserable, and yet have no idea how to fill our days instead. Even as we live through the global health, social and climate crises of our time, many of us still feel bad for not doing enough or doing it right—and so pile another layer of guilt on ourselves.

For many of us, this has been amplified during the COVID-19 pandemic, amid the impacts and ripple effects it has had on our daily lives. For some, the change may have been minimal. For others, days have been emptied by job loss, crowded by additional pressures or hollowed out by grief. For some, it was the first time their days became their own to construct. No fixed start or finish times, no boss or team to be accountable to in person. For many of us, without the doing, we felt adrift.

The pandemic shook up our days in varying ways, but one thing it taught many of us is that we are always more adrift than we think. In our obsession with doing, we can overlook that life has a way of intervening in our plans for a productive day: distractions come to the fore, things fall through, responsibilities arise unexpectedly, and our minds and bodies don’t always cooperate with our expectations.

When we don’t meet the high standard of productivity we set for ourselves, we feel bad—overlooking the fact that the benchmark was out of reach to begin with. It’s a pity, really, to get to the end of a day and then focus only on what was left undone. There is more texture and variance to find and appreciate in any day than a checked-off to-do list can offer. There are myriad things that might have happened despite what we did or didn’t do. There is far more life and vibrancy to discover in days that ebb and flow than in streamlined, optimised days. We forget we want the symphonies produced by the orchestra, not one flat note.

Just as recognising that happiness is one of many emotional states that ebb and flow, we can recognise that our days and how productive we are within them vary. We have bursts of produc¬tivity just as we have bursts of happiness. The ideal days where everything seems to fall into place are something we fall into, just like moments of happiness.

What if, instead of trying to optimise our days to do more, we allowed the days to unfold just as they are?

We crowd our days with doing, ignoring how many extraneous components can take up the day too—going for a 30-minute run is rarely a neat 30 minutes: it can take hours by the time we finally ready ourselves to head out the door or attend to some more pressing task first, not to mention shower and get ready afterwards. Maybe the perfectly optimised among us don’t dilly-dally or become distracted, but I’m yet to encounter such a person. If I did, I suspect they’d have sufficient resources—meaning money, support or perhaps a treadmill in their at-home gym—that their errands, the dashing back and forth, and the bits and pieces added to the day don’t get in the way. But for the most part, being a fallible human means we need to recognise our own tendency to dawdle, to dash, to buffer the doing, whether out of necessity or habit—and maybe we don’t need to add a layer of guilt, anxiety or shame to that. Perhaps, instead of trying to optimise, we can learn to reroute the guilt, anxiety and shame we encounter on days like these and accept ourselves as imperfect people simply experiencing the day.

Whether it’s happiness, productivity or the ideal day, when we chase, grasp and expect, we inevitably fall short. We won’t find the thing, the hack, the productivity tip that will magically make us feel whole and complete—because becoming whole and complete is an illusion. Instead, when we create space for our own imper¬fection, for the messiness in our days, we might just get the best out of them.

There’s no doubt that on the days we do the thing, we feel good.

There’s a shimmer to those days when we’ve done something we’ve been putting off, and we wonder why we didn’t do it earlier. Committing ourselves to do the thing can be the biggest hurdle, and the smug feeling that follows making a start or sustaining our effort is well earned. Doing can imbue the day with meaning. It can provide a focus, a challenge and a reprieve. It provides a forward motion to the day, to our lives. If we don’t do anything, we don’t enact change for ourselves and the world around us. Doing is walking the talk, it is action, it is putting ourselves into the world. So we don’t want to forgo the doing, or give up the joy we feel on the days we did do the thing, but rather see that what we do in each day will look different.

We’ve mistaken doing things—being ‘productive’—as the measure of a day well spent, when really that’s just one of many by-products of living well. It’s the way we define our lives by doing that needs a reshuffle: how we use doing to determine our worth, doing as a signpost for how much we matter, doing as a substitute for character—or not-doing as a mark of shame.

Being productive is difficult to define, after all.

Is it about how long you work? Is it the quality of the work? Is it keeping busy at prescribed times? Is it efficiency? Is it significance? Is it the outcome? Is a productive day one when you hustled relentlessly, or is it one when you did something menial yet important? Productive work is not merely what makes us money, either. It also refers to the things that bring us emotional satisfaction or a sense of achieve¬ment—renovating a home, cooking for people we love, studying. Being unproductive is equally amorphous, especially as it can be the moments of idleness or rest that can yield insight, meaning and satisfaction, too.

If the root meaning of the word productivity is to ‘lead something forward’, then by this definition we are placed in a state of perpetual lurching—a checked-off to-do list that will fill up again the next day. Rather than trying to ‘catch up’ to something that is ceaselessly moving ahead of us, we must define our own version of ‘enough’. We can find ways to untether from valuing our lives by how efficient, effective or ordered they are.

Perhaps we don’t want to be more productive in our days, but more fecund—that is, more capable of producing new growth, but not always in producing mode. Seen in this light, our days are like fertile gardens: a place to plant, to sow, to weed, to prune, to pick, to compost, depending on the season. A fecund day will look different at different times: some days we did the thing, some days we didn’t. There will be some fruits ripening, but there will also be weeds—distractions, unexpected calls, delays.

To be fecund, we need to be nourished. This view shifts the emphasis away from the things we accomplish and towards the things that feed us: how well we have slept, how dedicated we are to something, how kind, how assertive, how generous, how well we treat the people we love, how much we learn, how resilient we are. We so often overlook these parts of the day, but it’s the very mulch that we need to yield growth.

Our days don’t need to be optimised, but simply occupied—that is, lived in, tended to, renewed.

The scramble of everyday life can render every discretionary hour as one to seize, but there will inevitably be moments we fail to grasp. My hunch is that we all have moments we faff and flounder—it’s just so rare for people to admit that they do too.

But even in the uneventful days, where instead of doing the thing we set out to, we pottered or tooled around, we can find something nestled in the hours that’s worthwhile. Maybe it didn’t make us money or progress our career, but it too can imbue the day with meaning—a thought, a conversation with a friend as you’re flopping on the couch, a new recipe to try, a walk outside, a smile from a stranger, taking a nap. Sometimes even a hangover can be a sign of a fun night with friends. Why can’t these small things, too, be counted among the doing in our days?

Even though individual circumstances can be different, removing the judgement when a day—or even an hour—goes off track is something we can each practise. We can try to see that so often it’s the unexpected, the unproductive, the imperfect that refreshes our days. Some days it’s the thing we didn’t think we’d have time for that turns out to be the very thing we needed. Some days might go by when we didn’t do the thing, but we did that other thing that turns out to be just as important. Some days we do things and we’re not quite sure why, only for it to all make sense at some future time.

Of course, on some days doing the thing is non-negotiable.

It feels like a struggle just to keep up—either making us feel stifled by overwhelm or on the road to burnout. But whether we resent all that we have to do or lament what we haven’t done, perhaps there’s room for each of us to reshape how we measure the day. We need to dig up the stifling standards and instead plant something that is far more fitting in a world that requires empathy, flexibility and action. We need to find small, defiant acts against the idea that productivity is the sole measure of our worth. We need to inspire a gentler, more accepting approach to the ebb and flow of our days. We need to find our own way.

This text is an extract from I Didn’t Do The Thing Today by Madeleine Dore. Murdoch Books RRP $32.99.’  You can buy Madeline’s book here.

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