We weren’t meant to be productive all the time, so stop trying to be

If you listen to the stream of articles and podcasts telling us how to hack our day and how to become a billionaire in 10 easy steps, you might believe that squeezing ourselves dry each second of the day to become efficient will bring us happiness and success.

But the obsession with productivity is costing us. A car doesn’t stay in the same gear the whole time – and yet we try to find ways to keep ourselves operating at the highest speed regardless.

We were never meant to be productive all the time. And as the hamster wheel of life and work starts to spin faster, the time is ripe to pause and consider a different approach.

“We are not machines,” says organisational psychologist Professor Drew Dawson. “Performance declines as a function of time, of task and time of day.”

Glorifying productivity can blind us to the value of other parts of our lives, including boredom, connection, creativity and play.Credit:iStock

Instead of moments of being bored, where we might let our minds wander and come up with novel solutions to problems and novel ways of thinking, we seek constant stimulation – and have a lowered tolerance for boredom as a result.

We are also surrounded by what Dr Amantha Imber, an organisational psychologist and author of Time Wise, calls “productivity porn”.

“It does lead people to falsely assume that the world’s most successful and impactful people are literally making good use of every single minute,” Imber says. “That’s a myth. We’re not hardwired to act that way as humans, and it’s a good recipe for burnout.”

The obsession with productivity was spawned in the 14th century, Dawson says: “It goes back to the Protestant Christian traditions of ‘idle hands do the devil’s work’.”

More recently, Silicon Valley startups that brag about how long they work – in the ’80s Apple made a T-shirt with the tagline “90 Hours a Week and Loving It” – have perpetuated the myth that more equals more. Occasionally, it does, but most of the time it does not.

Recent research suggests productivity falls off a cliff after 50-55 hours of work a week. That doesn’t include the impact on physical and mental health. Even more recently, research has found that the four-day work week improves both wellbeing and productivity, while many managers believe that flexible working arrangements, which allow us to be family-centric instead of work-centric, improve productivity too. And why wouldn’t it: happier workers do better work.

COVID-19, for a variety of reasons including the human and economic costs, suddenly having more time with family and not being surrounded by what Dawson refers to as “toxic norms” of office life, has led people to question and even opt out of the incessant ladder-climbing.

“Who wants to lie on their deathbed going, ‘I wish I’d been more productive’?” Dawson asks. “Post-COVID, people are starting to say, ‘what am I losing compared to what am I gaining?’”

So, if not more productivity, what should we be aiming for?

Get your priorities straight

    Most of us want more efficiency at work to spend less time working and more time doing things and being with those we love.

    But, says Oliver Burkeman, author of Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals: “You can have efficiency in the absence of a deeper understanding of what it’s all for … A life spent chasing the mythical state of being able to do everything is less meaningful than a life of focusing on a few things that count.”

    The risk is that we can fall victim to the productivity trap, where we feel the need to be constantly busy, feel guilty if we’re not and end up being distracted or absent from the people and things we love.

    To reorient ourselves, Imber suggests reflecting on five things that really matter most to us and curating a life around those values. “Be really deliberate about reflecting on your life and your habits and asking yourself: ‘Is this leading me to have a more impactful and happier and more purposeful life? Or is it just productivity for productivity’s sake?’”

    When we are clear on what we value, we also become clear on where to direct our attention and what to say “no” to.

    Find your own rhythm

    Working from home allows us to work to our own rhythms, not be chained to a desk for appearance’s sake. And we all have different rhythms. In fact, our body clock is set up to do certain things at certain times of the day, explains Dawson, and this includes times we are more or less analytical, creative, fast and slow.

    Typically, morning people do better analytical work early in the day and creative work in the late afternoon or early evening. Night owls, on the other hand, may be better creatively in the morning and do better analytical work in the evening. By working to our rhythms, we can harness our energy at the right times and not attempt to work in one gear all day, every day.

    Enjoy downtime for its own sake

    Glorifying productivity can blind us to the value of other parts of our lives, including boredom, connection, creativity and play. “If I don’t schedule what I call banana time, my creativity and innovation goes down,” Dawson says.

    But organisational psychologist Adam Grant argues that activities in our lives don’t need to always be productive or worthwhile: “Enjoying an activity is reason enough to spend your time on it,” he writes.

    Many of the highly successful people Imber interviews for her podcast schedule in time for spontaneity and leisure. We’re never going to complete our to-do list and who has time to waste on pointless productivity, Burkeman writes: “The average human lifespan is absurdly, terrifyingly, insultingly short.”

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