Productivity – A Modern Social Narrative

What is productivity?

First, ask yourself this question. What comes to your mind?  Are you picturing titles such as “Best productivity apps of 2020”, “10 tips to achieve more in your life”, “How to bring about your ideas in 5 easy steps”? I believe you can keep on enriching this list. 

Then, try and look up “productivity” on google images. To make things easier, I have provided a screenshot of what I got. Out of the 57 pictures that immediately pop up, you can quickly notice that most of them, 34 if we want to be precise, contain a human figure.  

Looking at this image, we may conclude that the concept of productivity is something related to us, students and workers, and how we manage our time to be, quite intuitively, more productive…

But what is it, really? 

But is it really the case? Well, Wikipedia may disagree. In fact, the entry “productivity” leads to a disambiguation page, which provides, first thing first, the following definition:

“Productivity, in economics, is the amount of output produced per unit input used.” (Notice how only one out of the previous 57 pictures corresponds to the definition above). 

So, we now have an answer to the question we began with. However, how does this definition fit with those tips and hacks to get more done we immediately thought of when hearing the word “productivity”? 

Here, Wikipedia provides an even more intriguing result. What our common sense defines as productivity is shown under a subordinate entry, labelled “Time management”. It is defined as “the process of [..] exercising conscious control over the amount of time spent on specific activities, especially to increase effectiveness, efficiency or productivity”. Isn’t it odd, though, that each of all the last three terms usually refers to machines? 

Putting the two definitions together, what shall we conclude? Maybe that, although the term “productivity” originally describes a measure of the efficiency of production, economic production, we now tend to adopt it when referring to the management of our daily tasks and long-term objectives. Is that all? 

Yes, but no. 

That definition is again insufficient, and we can all agree on that. Otherwise, how would you describe that sense of guilt we all get when waking up at 11 am? Elon has probably already taken advantage of 4 additional hours during which you achieved absolutely nothing. How would you describe the pressure you feel  when you learn that a friend of yours has just earned their second Master’s, has passed their HSK-3, has founded a volunteering association and is going to the gym 4 days a week? 

On the other hand, how could we neglect the sense of satisfaction we get from checking the last box on our daily to-do list? Or pulling an all-nighter just to get that project done? That sense of “I got it all together”. 

Productivity cannot simply consist of an analogy between how machines work and how we do. There must be more to it. Productivity has established itself rather as a social narrative, nurturing our individual aspirations: we should be productive, we should get things done, quickly and efficiently. Once you “achieve” that aspirational level, you’ve made it. Again, you “got it all together”, you’ve become “unmessable with“. You are now able to “stand in the face of any circumstance and not be thrown off course” as the Urban Dictionary suggests. So there is both a collective and an individual aspect to it. Collective, as the source of this standard of productivity is external to each one of us, in some way prescribed by the community; individual, as we may sometimes purposefully and at the same time unintentionally want to adopt this model. 

What are the symbols of this social narrative?

To call productivity a social narrative, we should first be able to identify some of its manifestations in our contemporary culture. In that regard, while I consider it quite useless to mention to the countless productivity apps we are all well accustomed to, we may refer to some web personalities, whose popularity rose as some sort of “productivity gurus”. David Allen, Ryder Carroll, Tim Ferris may fall into this category. This list as well goes on and on. And curiously enough, each one of them seems to provide you with the absolute best method to get straight As, work out, maintain a healthy diet, and realize your true purpose on this planet. 

As for that, it is apparent that there is nothing wrong with what these people or apps are offering. To be honest, I would feel quite lost without my Bullet Journal. However, there is a risk implied by the consumption of all of this material. 

“Treating productivity like an exciting hobby, rather than a pragmatic approach to getting meaningful work done […].”

“Flip[ping] and flop[ping] between approaches before a method could ever realize any benefits.”

Being “in a constant state of starting out”. 

This is how R.MacKinnon perfectly encapsulates this risk. And he gives it a term that couldn’t be more appropriate: an addiction to productivity porn. He highlights how we are likely to end up consuming material that is supposed to make us more productive, which instead prevents us from actually getting things done. 

This is how sometimes we may end up dealing with our push towards efficiency and constant achievement: tricking ourselves into thinking that we are achieving, accomplishing, carrying out, without actually completing any task. 

This indicates how contradictory our relationship with productivity may be. 

A common response to the pandemic. 

If you are still not convinced of how deeply this productivity myth permeates society, think for a minute of how you reacted to the lockdown during the first breakout of the Covid-19. If “maintaining schedules”, “filling up free time with mindless busywork”, “getting every possible Coursera certificate you can”, “subscribing to 373627 fitness apps” rings a bell, well, you are not alone. 

This is just another manifestation of what we were talking about before: we strive for normalcy – very much needed at the moment – by giving ourselves tasks and filling up our to-do lists. 

The hustle culture: just “follow the grind”. 

In no way, do I want to suggest that these are all negative and reprehensible attitudes. They are in fact very common, and understandable. Also, ambition, hard work, sacrifice is what drives humanity forward and what could allow us to overcome challenges such that posed by Covid-19. It is the dedication of healthcare workers, public servants, teachers, and generally of any citizen that will turn the current situation into a bitter memory. What I do believe should be alarming is the lack of lucidity that may sometimes accompany part of these productivity-driven behaviors, continuously aiming at achieving more and more, unthinkingly. In what terms? 

Let’s start with the following definition by M.Jalbert

Hustle culture is the societal standard that you can only succeed by exerting yourself at max capacity professionally. Everyday.”

And most of the times, the justification of this hustle culture stems from the fact that everyone is already living up to it.

How are we supposed to find genuine satisfaction in our lives by mindlessly following the grind? Still, that’s what we may tend to do. This is what we tell ourselves we should do: “just follow the grind”. We have established this “do-more” paradigm as a societal standard. How? Through all those apps, gurus and methods we just mentioned. Through “productivity porn” and even our inner voices. In this way, the collective and individual elements we talked about come together to make productivity a social narrative that we, both at the individual and societal level, like to tell ourselves. We may be delusional enough to think that this “getting things done” should provide us with authentic fulfillment and gratification. Sometimes, this is nothing more than a coping mechanism, which may be justifiable during a pandemic due to accumulated stress, but shouldn’t be in normal times. It is sometimes too comfortable to cut out the noise by reducing our day to a to-do list. This way, all doubts about our life choices and relationships, as well as our deepest uncertainties and perplexities are simply cut out of the frame. Often, there’s no room for them in our bullet points. It is highly debatable whether this is a positive attitude. Still, we should be consoled by the fact that it is a common issue. 

“It’s increasingly obvious to some of us that we have made questionable life choices”. This is what a trainee solicitor had to say in this article by the Financial Times, which addresses the mental health problems experienced by junior staff in professional services due to the pandemic and the practice of WFH. 

Goal #393740857: check. 

What’s the conclusion for each one of us, then? Successful or not, it doesn’t really matter. In fact, even if you “got it all together”, or become “unmessable with”, in other words even if you perfectly adhere to this productivity standard, everything loses its meaning if you misalign your life away from  your authentic goals and desires. The only thing you may achieve is self-estrangement from your own life. You may end up not distinguishing your true self if you get lost in the process. As you learn to find a balance, much needed in our lives, which forces you to find meaning in this impersonal, detached, standardized path already known and crossed by others, which we can call  the “getting-things-done” life. The French have an interesting expression: “la vie métro, boulot, dodo”, which we may translate as the “rat race”.

On top of that, as harsh as it may sound, there may not even be such a thing as “unmessable with”. If there is something, among others, that this pandemic should remind us is the following: if something as infinitesimal as 120 nanometers can stop the entire world, well, being “thrown off course” is something we should become more accustomed to. And that is why this productivity ideal and everything related to it should be considered as nothing more than it is: a mere narrative, a story, and a purely aspirational one. 

So well, you may want to add up that note to your to-do list, I’ll do the same. 

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