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To be productive or nah? 

Thinking about what it means to be productive


Or nah? 

Wasn’t that a song with The Weekend? 

Might as well start there then. The weekend. Not the singer — that song’s a bit too sexy for my medium, but the actual thing. Remember what you did there? 

I do. Last Friday, I went with a friend to make advent wreaths. Saturday, I spent most of my time reading, drinking punch, and eating Christmas sweets. On Sunday, I went to Badminton, followed by lunch at a Chinese restaurant with a friend. 

Eventually, toward the evening, the usual Monday dread started to set in, and I realized that I hadn’t done any of the more productive things I had put on my calendar. 

You might relate. You, too, might feel a need to be productive and not waste days without doing anything to improve as a person — at least on paper.

And then, of course, there’s an entire industry around supposedly helping people to be more productive and achieve more, and everyone telling me to read Atomic Habits, yet failing me to share the habits they established afterward (I still haven’t read it yet sorry — might do, might just get the gist on Blinkist). 

Having gone down the philosophy rabbit hole and having found my productivity guru in Cal Newport, I started to reflect a little. 

Are we really bound to chase productivity gains forever? For one, maybe we should question what all the productivity is good for, and if the answer is something like growth, how can that sustainably happen on a planet with limited resources? (Donut Economics, a great book on that topic)

On the other hand, productivity is something positive. It can be deeply fulfilling and is responsible for much of our modern-day comforts, yet just like with other things, too much of it can become toxic. 

A 2022 survey by Headway found that 63% of Americans were focused on maximizing productivity, whereas earning more money and being healthy only came 2nd and 3rd place, with striving for happiness in the fourth spot.

I wonder what Maslow would say. 

But it wasn’t always like this. And while it’d be easy to blame capitalism, I think it’s a bit more nuanced. 

So how did we get here? 

Laziness has pretty much always been considered sinful. Consequently, being productive was the moral good opposite. That’s entrenched in our culture. 

In the industrial age, we saw tremendous productivity gains in manufacturing and other sectors. What’s important here, though, is that these were not down to the individual engineer. The biggest gains came from introducing, for example, line work and re-organizing factories to increase output. Henry Ford didn’t just ask every single person to make more cars faster; he improved the system. 

I believe that in jobs that involve creating real things, this probably still applies. I visited the local Volkswagen factory a while ago, and they explained how they had optimized the setup of everything up to how screws are organized to facilitate efficient assembling. The number of cars they produce per day is fixed; a single engineer speeding up won’t do anything to increase their productivity. 

Not so much in knowledge work. 

Productivity became personal

When things shifted from industrialism to knowledge work, the goods created increasingly became non-physical. Consequently, our body isn’t as much of a barrier to overcome to increase productivity. But it’s all about optimizing mental and psychic processes. Arguably, that’s still related to our body, but it’s harder to see when you’re doing too much. 

This change came along with the burden of productivity moving from the systems to the individual. 

In combination with tools that allow tracking whatever measure companies perceive as signs of productivity. 

As an aside,I am a firm believer that when a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good target. I've seen it way too many times that it’ll just lead to worse outcomes. For example, when sales calls become the prime way to measure performance, of course, people will start making a lot of calls — but not necessarily in a goal-oriented manner. Been there, done that, had a good sales pipeline mostly through emails — that’s how I fought the system. 💃

Ultimately, when productivity becomes the individual's sole responsibility, the system pits professional against personal life. 

Japan has perfected this. I met many people there who lived literally for work. Even though they aren’t necessarily all that productive (see productivity rankings), it’s more of a constant state of being mentally stuck at work. While there, it wasn’t uncommon for people to tell me they’d be working on weekends or that they had no hobbies and would just work more when bored. 

The personal life takes a backseat, while the career occupies life. As you might know, the Japanese language even has a word for death through overwork. Not one of those Japanese concepts to put on a book cover, and sell millions of copies of. 

Now that productivity has become a personal issue to be dealt with, not the system’s, it extends into our personal lives. The notion goes that we can increase output by putting in more hours and effort. 

When is it enough? 

There’s always more one can do. 

And many of us try to keep up with the constant need to optimize and remain competitive. This can get toxic quickly. It doesn’t help that we’re inundated with information on how great others are doing. 

This constant need to excel in this achievement culture has turned everyone into an entrepreneur of the self, as Byung-Chul Han writes in his book Psychopolitics. He goes even further, stating that workers have “become -self-exploiting employees of their own company.”(Psychopolitics, P.14)

As a contractor reading these things, it hits home. It’s true indeed that it’s kinda dreadful to feel like you could lose your entire livelihood the next month just because the market conditions have turned or they want to write all their blogs with AI going forward. 🤖

Going from there to trying to fit in as much work as humanly possible seems the logical next step. 

It’s not just me, either having such thoughts. Some go through with them. 

I know quite a few people who’ve experienced burnout. 

Unironically, one of Han’s books is titled Burnout Society, which discusses the rise of burnout in our society. Naturally, as a philosopher of the modern age should, he’s identifying the culprit in neoliberalism. 

One of the interesting pieces of his observation concerns not only the shift from physical to knowledge work but also the methods used to “force” people into exploration. We put that on ourselves these days; no more need for a factory line manager with a whiplash. 

The ingenuity then of the entire system consists in that we’ll blame ourselves and not the system or society when we fail. LinkedIn, the co-conspirator, will always be there to remind us of our lack of professional accomplishments or shove our supposed lack of grinding in our faces. 

Are we better off for it, though? I don’t feel so. 

Productivity YouTube

Reddit

People now go to their preferred productivity YouTubers to find out how to optimize their productivity. And a lot of what they say is really just noise or adds yet 500 more steps to your already too-long to-do list. 

Plus, they might further guilt-trip you into not doing enough because, look, here are these 50 YouTubers who clearly get so much more done than you, who can barely bring themselves to fold the laundry (me is guilty)

Anyway, if one of these people’s hacks really worked, why would anyone watch more than one of their videos? Idk. Surely, they can’t provide all the answers. 

I wouldn’t know. I watched maybe one of those gurus for 10 minutes before I gave up and just forced myself to do the laundry folding business. 

At least that felt productive. 

“You all have to increase your output so we can hit our revenue goal.”

What’s considered productive is usually very narrow and tied to economic output. Downstream effects from that are that managers will tell their subordinates to increase productivity and give them some funky KPIs and OKRs and any other three-letter acronym they can find. 

What’d be more effective, though, wouldn’t be encouraging people to spend more time on Slack or filling stuff in on Notion but to reshape the system to increase productivity. Analogous to how system-wide improvements brought about the general increase in wealth for everyone during the Industrial Age. 

Instead of telling every single person to do XYZ, leaders are better off thinking about the systems they rely on. 

One key consideration should be to avoid context switching as much as possible and have a central place with tasks and responsibilities. When it takes me 30 minutes just to scrape together the different things people have asked me for, that’s time lost, isn’t it? 

When employees feel some sort of “pressure” to be online at all times, I bet that’s not good for focus or getting sh*t done either. 

Having used Slack extensively, I feel the appeal of email to me has increased. At least, people make an effort to put all the context in those, and with some naming conventions, you could structure them in a way to stay within one topic — before deliberately switching to another. 

And then there’s the ability to have a quick call as well instead of 100+ message threads. 

Productivity as a freelancer 

As a freelancer, I’m not one to change the system of any company. However, I’ve seen some organized very well and productive and others looking at the wrong thing. 

Personally, I’ve found that having a physical weekly planner where I outline the things I really need to get done helps a lot. It also helps to add which task I’ll finish by which day. It’s very satisfying to check these things off. 

In addition, I got the momentum extension, where I keep track of the things that come up for each day. I’m not fazed, though, if there’s one item or so left at the end of the day. 

The benefit of Momentum is that it’ll also give you a nice nature pic and quote every day! 

On top of that, blocking distractions with the Cold Turkey Extension has worked wonders for my focus. I also find that when I really enjoy or get deeply engaged with a topic, I won’t even stray from it. That’s not always possible, obviously; as a pen for hire, you’ll sometimes write stuff you don’t care much for. 

For those, I give myself an incentive like, I’ll go on a nice long walk after and get one of those nice Chai Lattes from the Alnatura market. 

To end where we started 

The weekend

It’s ahead again. And to be honest, I got nothing productive in terms of economic output on my agenda. 

Does it mean that’s bad? 

Clearly not. I believe we just need a broader framing of productivity. The people who ranked it before happiness in the survey ought to re-consider their priorities in life. Doing things that contribute to being happy is quite productive if you ask me. 

And let’s not forget, it’s often when we’re doing nothing that we have the biggest ideas or finally understand that thing we’ve been pondering for ages. 

Rest is crucial for being able to produce. 

The useless tree

To highlight that sometimes it might just be a change of perspective or who you ask… I came across the fable of the useless tree in the children’s book section of the local library the other day. It’s a Chinese fable. You can watch it here, including interesting commentary. 

It is about a carpenter traveling with his apprentice. They come across a magnificent old tree that is so broad it could shelter a thousand oxen. Even though the apprentice is enthusiastic about the tree, the carpenter doesn’t give it another look, explaining that the wood is useless and that if you made a boat from it, it’d quickly sink. Had the wood been useful, it wouldn’t have survived so long.

On their return trip, the tree appeared to the carpenter in a dream. And the tree spoke to him: 

What are you comparing me with? Are you comparing me with those useful trees? The cherry apple, the pear, the orange, the citron, the rest of those fructiferous trees and shrubs — as soon as their fruit is ripe, they are torn apart and subjected to abuse. Their big limbs are broken off, their little limbs are yanked around. 

Their utility makes life miserable for them, and so they don’t get to finish out the years Heaven gave them but are cut off in mid-journey. They bring it on themselves — the pulling and tearing of the common mob. And it’s the same way with all other things.”

The tree concludes that having seen the useful trees finding their painful early end, he has been trying to be useless for all his life and finally got it, which is of great use to him. 

It highlights that sometimes, maybe just being is already enough. 

And if you ask the birds building their nest in the branches of the tree or the animals seeking cover during heavy rainfall under its leaves —  they wouldn’t deny the tree's usefulness.


If you take just one thing away, then let it be that you shouldn’t measure your self-worth by what you got done today. 

If you measure yourself that way, you’ll be forever worthless, sensing that there’s always more you could have achieved. 

Being useless is often just a question of perspective. And isn’t it the philosophers who seemingly did nothing but think all day that brought us a wealth of insight into humans? 

So there you have it. 


If, after this, you feel like reading Byung Chul Han or Cal Newport, I highly encourage you to do so. 

A great place to start getting an idea of Han is here. I seriously have lifestyle envy. Slow living. 

For Cal Newport, the weekly podcast episodes are a great start. And while he technically falls under “productivity” YouTube, you won’t find a bunch of gadgets or talk about which notion template is the best with him. It goes deeper than that. 

Enjoy!


Let me know if you, too, struggle with the (sometimes) self-imposed pressure to be productive and the real problem with presenteeism ruining productivity. 

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