A few years ago, my obsession with productivity got so bad that I suffered an episode of burnout that scared the hell out of me. I'm talking insomnia, weight gain, hair loss — the works. I was so overworked that my brain literally couldn't come up with another idea. That indicated to me that my identity was linked with this idea of productivity.
[The Way We Work]
Do you feel guilty if you haven't been productive enough during the day? Do you spend hours reading productivity hacks, trying new frameworks and testing new apps to get even more done? I've tried them all — task apps, calendar apps, time-management apps, things that are meant to manage your day. We've been so obsessed with doing more that we've missed the most important thing. Many of these tools aren't helping. They're making things worse.
OK, let's talk about productivity for a second. Historically, productivity as we know it today was used during the industrial revolution. It was a system that measured performance based on consistent output. You clocked into your shift and were responsible for creating X number of widgets on the assembly line. At the end of the day, it was pretty easy to see who worked hard and who hadn't. When we shifted to a knowledge economy, people suddenly had tasks that were much more abstract, things like writing, problem-solving or strategizing, tasks that weren't easy to measure. Companies struggled to figure out how to tell who was working and who wasn't, so they just adopted the old systems as best as they could, leading to things like the dreaded time sheet where everyone is under pressure to justify how they spend every second of their day.
There's just one problem. These systems don't make a lot of sense for creative work. We still think of productivity as an endurance sport. You try to churn out as many blog posts or we cram our day full of meetings. But this model of constant output isn't conducive to creative thought. Today, knowledge workers are facing a big challenge. We're expected to be constantly productive and creative in equal measure.
But it's actually almost impossible for our brains to continuously generate new ideas with no rest. In fact, downtime is a necessity for our brain to recover and to operate properly. Consider that according to a team of researchers from the University of Southern California, letting our minds wander is an essential mental state that helps us develop our identity, process social interactions, and it even influences our internal moral compass. Our need for a break flies in the face of our cultural narrative about hustling, in other words, the stories that we as a society tell each other about what success looks like and what it takes to get there. Stories like the American Dream, which is one of our most deeply rooted beliefs. This tells us that if we work hard, we'll be successful. But there's a flip side. If you aren't successful, it must mean that you're not working hard enough. And if you don't think you're doing enough, of course you're going to stay late, pull all-nighters and push yourself hard even when you know better.
Productivity has wrapped itself up in our self-worth, so that it's almost impossible for us to allow ourselves to stop working. The average US employee only takes half of their allocated paid vacation leave, further proving that even if we have the option to take a break, we don't.
To be clear, I don't think that productivity or trying to improve our performance is bad. I'm just saying that the current models we're using to measure our creative work don't make sense. We need systems that work with our creativity and not against it.
[SO HOW DO WE FIX IT?]
There is no quick fix for this problem. And I know, I know, that sucks. No one loves a good framework or a good acronym better than me. But the truth is everyone has their own narratives that they have to uncover. It wasn't until I started digging around my own beliefs around work that I began to unravel the root of my own work story, finally being able to let go of destructive behaviors and make positive, long-lasting changes.
And the only way to do that is by asking yourself some hard questions. Does being busy make you feel valuable? Who do you hold up as an example of success? Where did your ideas of work ethic come from? How much of who you are is linked to what you do?
Your creativity, it has its own rhythms. Our energy fluctuates daily, weekly, even seasonally. I know that I'm always more energetic at the beginning of the week than at the end, so I front-load my workweek to account for that fact. As a proud night owl, I free up my afternoons and evenings for creative work. And I know I'll get more writing done in the cozy winter months than during the summer.
And that's the secret. Dismantling myths, challenging your old views, identifying your narratives — this is the real work that we need to be doing. We aren't machines, and I think it's time that we stopped working like one.