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The Frustration with Productivity Culture

Why we’re so tired of optimizing our work lives, and what we should do about it

Source | | Cal Newport

Early in the pandemic, I received an e-mail from a reader who embraced my writing about the importance of deep work and the need to minimize distractions, but was thrown by my use of the term “productivity” to describe these efforts: “The productivity language is an impediment for me.” Intrigued, I posted a short essay on my Web site that reacted to her message, proposing that the term “productive” could be salvaged if we define it more carefully. There were, I wrote, positive aspects to the idea of productivity. For example, by better organizing administrative tasks that cannot be ignored—paying taxes, filing forms—you can reduce how much time you spend on such drudgery. On a larger scale, the structured “productive” pursuit of important projects, far from being soulless, can be an important source of meaning.

My readers didn’t buy my defense. The comments were filled with a growing distaste for the many implications and exhortations that had become associated with productivity culture. “The productivity terminology encodes not only getting things done, but doing them at all costs,” one reader wrote. Another commenter pushed back against the proliferation of early-pandemic business articles that encouraged workers to stay “productive” even as they were thrown unexpectedly into remote environments: “The true message behind these posts is clear: ignore your growing sense of existential dread, ignore your children, and produce value for our shareholders—or else!” Others advocated for alternative terms, such as “alive time,” or “productive creativity”—anything to cleave the relationship between “productivity” the signifier and all that it had come to signify.

Some of these reactions were amplified because of the unique stresses of the early pandemic, but that alone cannot explain their stridency. A growing portion of my audience was clearly fed up with “productivity,” and they are not alone. The past few years have seen many popular books that elaborate this same point. In 2019, the artist and writer Jenny Odell helped start this trend when she published “How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy,” which became a Times best-seller and was selected by Barack Obama as one his favorite books of 2019. This was followed, the next spring, by Celeste Headlee’s “Do Nothing: How to Break Away from Overworking, Overdoing, and Underliving,” then Anne Helen Petersen’s “Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation,” and, earlier this year, Devon Price’s “Laziness Does Not Exist.” Though these books ultimately present a diverse collection of arguments, they are unified by a defiant rebuke of productivity culture.

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