Why You Shouldn’t Maximize your Productivity

How the cheerleaders of capitalism co-opt wisdom and life’s most profound pleasures to hone you into their instrument.

“People” by Lee Ung-no

How-to articles have an inherent appeal because they promise practical value. Even more so when they are packaged in short, list-form format that get straight to the point and seem to deliver the goods without frills. There’s something to be said about such matter-of-fact instructions. After all, most popular articles on medium come bearing these qualities, garner the most claps, readers, and admirers.

Above all else, we want the most amount of good for the least amount effort. We want to consume the least amount of information but come away with having plucked all the fruits. Read a self-help article here, another one about the habits of successful people there, yet another perhaps that channels your political frustrations, and you’ve maxed your attention and the time is lost. To what?

Productivity.

You came here to be productive, one way or another, did you not?

Productivity. What a word. If you repeat it enough times, in your head or out loud, you begin to shake off its meaning. What is its meaning? It’s a glittery word, gravid with implications of dopamine shots of feel-good routinized tasks that boost self-affirmation, increase our happiness, make us more likely to be more productive (so it’s self-reinforcing), and fulfill our dreams. Productivity as the roadway to success. To the accretion of life’s goods. Toward a promise of the future.

Yet to what do we give ourselves in this thrust of productivity? Whose productivity is it? Be honest with with yourself. What exactly are the tasks? In what way are they productive?

The feel-good veneer of productivity culture, part and parcel of the bootstrapping mythos that we’re actively fed through the media sphere, but which only reinforces itself, only amasses more factors of production, enlists more free-labour, more willing participants into the business models of the major actors, never delivers its promised goods. The pill cannot work when it’s proffered by the disease.

Bootstrapping mythos: the idea that through mere will and motivation we can defy the institutional, structural, and probabilistic odds and buoy ourselves to the top, either economically or in terms of prestige. Ignoring the sheer plexus of actors and concentrated forces cannibalizing each other for every morsel of surplus. The higher up we go, the more ferocious the contest for the scraps of status, monetary compensation, and power.

What it does instead is co-opt the impulse of creativity, and the delicate process through which everyday activity regales us with an inner sense of worth and esteem, which is, fundamentally, an innate impulse toward transformation basic to our constitution, for hollow institutional tasks that become, in the fullness of time, indistinguishable from who we are.

Above all else, we want the most amount of good for the least amount effort. We want to consume the least amount of information but come away with having plucked all the fruits.

Today, these inputs have reversed. Turns out you can have factories, services and supply-chains with minimal to no workers. What you cannot yet have is goods and services that are not consumed. So instead of slavering for the wage, now we are brandished as the very shiny products themselves. Trapped in the spider’s stratagem, yet deluded into admiring its gloss.

As far as I can tell, there is only one way to inoculate oneself from the vast tapestry of both practical and ideological traps in which our cultural sphere is mired. And that is to either eschew these cultural forms of production altogether, or very selectively participate in them. The latter is indeed a tight rope. The other option, complete withdrawal, might be too austere.

Selectivity has always been a meaningful principle of honing in what’s good for us. Everything carries with it an opportunity cost. Because not everything is possible. That should go without saying. We must, therefore, tread carefully and learn to identify the bad actors, the traps that drain us of our agency and enlist our labour, while deluding us into thinking we’re the main beneficiaries.

Part of the reason people now are more likely to fall for the traps is that they are isolated from meaningful relations and community. Turning to the false promises of the ethos of productivity, isolated and rationally debilitated (evidence shows that we do best when we crowdsource our decision-making amongst close ones), appears to be the only path to salvation. Salvation, such an archaic word, yet, somehow, so apt. As someone who shed the shackles of religion as an adolescent, I can now, many years later, see the latent depth behind such notions.

Salvation: preservation or deliverance from harm, ruin, or loss. Instead of pursuing intrinsic goods, we are inculcated with an ideology that turns us into factors of production. As factors of production, we are less likely to see the forest for the trees. We cede our most cherished ideals, our inner and delicate sense of purpose, to endless periodic tasks, oftentimes beyond what can be reasonably accomplished, that bring us momentary lifts of self-esteem, yet infinitely defer its satiation. Knowing how to unleash the unbridled ego within us, so fragile, so insatiable, has been the main victory of post-industrial society.

What’s the takeaway here? Stop working, stop learning or seeking professional advancement, greater accomplishments, and dreams? Decidedly no. That’s a necessary component of what we are, which is future oriented entities always seeking self-transformation.

The takeaway is the following: be less compromising, know the landscape (it wants you as its agent), know when productivity bears fruits not for yourself but for inconspicuous agents, corporate, institutional etc, that have inseminated us with the ideology of endless work, under the mantra that all is possible.

Stop reading self-help books, they’re a waste of time. Instead, listen to yourself. Carve and nurse your own niche of activities that constitute the good. Your thriving space. Luxuriate in idle play, in leisure. From time to time eschew timed tasked. Enjoy activities that have no deadlines. Time itself acquires a different valence. We should not always forego the present for the future. It depletes the spirit. The hunter-gatherer in us demands that we sometimes raise the present to the summit of its capacity. To be present, surrounded not by people with fake smiles that want something from you, but people that want nothing and accept you as you are.

But time is ticking. It’s receding into the past with an accelerated pace, forever gone, ossified into vague memories struggling for a tomorrow that never came. Less and less time is available to accomplish more and more. It’s only that way if we hurry toward the future, as well all do. Forever missing the luxuriant world that surrounds us because we never had time for it. Attention is a scarce resource. We only have so much of it. The lives of the people around us, even the myopic minds in the workplace, always scurrying, gossiping, sabotaging one another for the promotion, have a depth we sometimes forget about.

Getting outside of ourselves here and then, nay, as often as we can, returns us a greater treasure than staying ever more focused on our small egos ever will. While the earth continues its rotations in a region of time so minuscule from a hereafter that will not contain us, that advances ever towards a cooler and more entropic universe whose bounds defy the limits of understanding, we were so busy not relishing the gift of consciousness in its short crescendo, not exulting together even when engaged in the high moments of creativity and discovery.

The gift of being is so much greater than productivity. Yet we equate our worth to it. Mistaking the contingent ethos of our time, pervaded as it has become by a cult of individuality in an environment obsessed with production, with that elusive thing that grounds us in the world, is a myth worth shattering. Help yourself see through it from time to time, because as soon as we step outside our front doors, that’s the world we encounter. And before you know it, the adventure will have inched too close to its terminus to be salvaged.

Wisdom is not in a self-help article. Because wisdom, as Aeschylus said two thousand years ago, comes to us when we least expect it, against our will.

The libation our spirits demand cannot be found in self-help books, shortcuts to achievement, endless repetitive production, but the ineffable thrust toward the unknown, confronted on our own terms, with our own vices, whittled down, through time and iteration, into an instrument of precision toward rapturous ownership of the present.

Free & Leisure, by Yue minjun

Writer, philosopher, visual artist. Passionate about philosophy, cognitive science, complex systems, physics, visual art and literature. angjelinhila.com