The Productivity Puzzle

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21st-century culture is dominated by an incessant and near-universal desire to be ‘productive’. Optimising every precious second of our day via time-saving life hacks (turns out I’ve been wasting my time all these years by not brushing my teeth in the shower?) and working on (ideally profit-generating) ‘side hustles’ in addition to working a 9-5 day or acing a University degree are among the new requirements for a life-well-lived in 2019. Daily life must be perfectly ritualised and cultivated, always in pursuit of that elusive sense of ‘being productive’. After all, productivity = efficiency = worth, right?

As with most of our problems these days; this productivity puzzle can be traced back to the famous root of all evils; social media. However, the problem isn’t found in the perfectly-filtered snaps of your primary school acquaintance befriending a sanctuary of elephants in Asia; or your ex-best-friend downing daiquiris with her boyfriend on a beach in Spain. No, the real danger lies in the glamorization of the normal, the every-day and the mundane. 

When our favourite celebrities and influencers are adding to their Instagram stories every 3 minutes with an update on what they’ve spent the last 180 seconds doing, it is nigh-on impossible not to compare it with our daily routines. It’s this infatuation that is warping our relationship with our time. I find myself implicit in this; tending to view the planning out of my weekends or achingly-long Summer holidays as an exercise in time-filling, rather than an opportunity to actually do things that I want to do, simply because I want to do them.

What’s more, it’s also an infatuation that is hugely misplaced. Being productive and achieving career success is not a one-way ticket to happiness. In fact, it can often be a cause and a cover-up of a multitude of mental health issues; from anxiety to bipolar to burnout. Businesswomen Kate Spade and celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain both took their own lives in the same month last year despite having accomplished more in their professional lives than many people could dare to dream of. 

There is nothing wrong with being motivated, having goals and wanting to achieve things. I’m not suggesting we all drop out, lock ourselves in our rooms and watch Netflix all day in an attempt to combat the pressures modern life has impounded upon us. But it is worth remembering that the ability to live a constantly exciting, aesthetic and perfectly planned-out lifestyle comes from being in a position of privilege in one’s life and career track. That is; the privilege to have a hobby double up as an income stream, the privilege to know what it is that fulfils you and to have the money, time and emotional support to be able to carry it out. Sometimes that privilege comes from luck but, often, it also comes from having to ride out a boring, less glamorous kind of lifestyle first. The sort of stuff that doesn’t tend to be advertised and promoted all over our news feeds. 

The best part of life is living it. It’s not what we produce, how many ‘goals’ we tick off, or how quickly we do so. It’s often found in the mundane. Not someone else’s mundane and not the mundane that looks best on social media. It’s the mundane that you create and enjoy for yourself; because you want to and because your worth is defined by so much more than how many meals you’ve prepped this week, whether or not you’ve got an ad sponsor on Instagram or how much money you made last year. Being bored is a privilege unto itself and finding the beauty in it is something we could probably all afford to try a little more often.

Isabel Ralphs