Promoting a healthy relationship with productivity


We’re always being told we should be more productive. However I believe that this focus is misplaced, and often detrimental. The desire to be more productive can easily develop into an unhealthy practice. This is a trap I have fallen into myself, and one I would like to help you circumvent.

In this article, I will guide you through two common manifestations of this unhealthy relationship — how we can identify and deal with them, and how we can practice meaningful work — avoiding our obsession with productivity that actually makes us less productive.

Toxic productivity

What is it?

Toxicus productivius. Cause: an overwhelming desire to be productive. Symptoms: unhappiness, dissatisfaction, stress. Origin: unknown.

I define toxic productivity as consistently depriving yourself of happiness, for the sake of being more productive. We focus more on productivity than the actual things that matter, our goals, forgetting the intended purpose of this productivity — to make us happier in the long term. Now some might call this “prudence” or “paying it forward”, and I have no qualm with that. It is when it happens consistently that we develop a problem.

How to fix it?

Realize that for ‘self-improvement gurus’ this is an end — they are setting unrealistic expectations for us mere mortals.

Practicing meaningful work. Productivity is not just efficient activity, but actually doing what progresses your goals. It is better to do a bit of meaningful work than hoards of low-value activity.

Setting better goals. They should be internal, not outcome dependent, which we cannot control. This helps us feel more satisfied with what we have done, as internal goals are more achievable — we eliminate this incessant need to be more productive to achieve our goals.

Not over-scheduling. Because of the planning fallacy, we underestimate the time taken for a task. This leads to us setting unreasonable standards. Start planning better (see the fudge ratio), and avoid placing unreasonable productivity goals on yourself.

Choose to be satisfied with your work, even if you weren’t as productive as you hoped. See things in terms of what you have, not what you don’t.

See this video for a valuable discussion on the topic.

Productivity porn

What is this?

This is a condition where a person is constantly tinkering and experimenting with new systems that promise to change their lives, in hope of finding ‘the one’. It quickly deteriorates to the point where you enjoy working on your system more than you do doing your work (I have been guilty of this in the past). Productivity becomes an end, rather than a means.

What can I do?

To re-establish a healthy equilibrium we must first recognize the fact that, yes, it is okay to work on your system. You need to be adapting and improving. However your actual work takes precedence, always. I manage this by having a set time each week where I allow myself to experiment and tinker.

Acknowledge that ‘the one’ does not exist — productivity isn’t really about the system. It helps, but you have to do most of the legwork yourself.

We can accept that being unproductive is not the worst thing. You should first seek to be happy and do work that is meaningful. Productivity progresses over time, happiness does not.

Productivity doesn’t really matter

In the end both of these problems develop from seeing productivity as a goal, not a means, but an end itself. This focus results in lower work quality, leads to burnout, and lowers happiness — paradoxically we become less productive. We should rather turn our attention to prioritization and the big questions. Why am I doing this? Is this really important? What am I doing here? Finding focus and direction is more important than aimless productivity.

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