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On Productivity and Value

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Photo by Isaac Smith on Unsplash

Shakespeare wrote King Lear while in quarantine. Or at least, that's what the memes on the internet will tell you. On social media, all people are baking, dieting, exercising, writing, or being otherwise super-productive. Now, I've been actually quite productive in the second half of the lockdown (so far). And I get it, truly, that we want to brag about how we're keeping calm and carrying on.

But let's pause for a minute to talk about productivity. Generally, in the online world, being productive refers to how much measurable results you have at the end of the day/week/month/year. And there's a lot of advice out there about how to maximise your productivity. Now, don't get me wrong, I think we should measure our goals and results, and it feels good to tick things off your list, it feels as if you're making progress, you're doing something with your life.

But there's a fine line between pushing yourself and believing that all you are is your bottom line. Trust me; I've been straddling this line for years. I set myself goals, and they're all measurable goals because otherwise, it's pointless. Often, when I look at the goals that I've set for myself, I tend to see myself as only success/failure on meeting those goals. And that's when I'm me. Imagine how hard it is to look at your employee, for instance, and think of them as something other than the value they produce. Imagine how hard it is to look at your child and think of them in terms of rounded people as opposed to their last exam score or how hard they've worked on their piano playing or how long they spent on the screen last week.

Western culture, especially American culture, is highly achievement-oriented. It's not a coincidence that ideas about maximising productivity typically come from the US, as is, for instance, the behavioural approach to psychology in which you think about living creatures in terms of which rewards you can give them to teach them a desired behaviour. Everything needs to be measured and have a certain value attached to it, typically a monetary value. It's subtle, but it's there. If you work more hours, you earn more money. If you are 80% more productive with your time, you can get 70% more income, whether you're an employee or a contractor.

There are a few problems with this approach, more than can fit into a blog post. The most blatant problem is that anything you do outside of your "work" is a waste of time and money. This includes taking care of other people (children, elderly parents, life partners) in all forms (spending time together, cooking for them, cleaning up after them). It also includes taking care of yourself, although some of the more "progressive" companies (e.g., high-tech startups) realise that employees are more productive if they are happier, so there are elaborate schemes of self-care that look very much like they think of their employees as people. It also includes hobbies. Hobbies are decidedly unproductive.

Because of this approach, most "life-hacks" don't work for people who must take care of other people, which is still mostly women. It also doesn't work for people who want to take care of other people. For me, for instance, if I were able to spend more time writing and reading, I would probably be more productive. But I can't because there are children in the house and they can only cook omelettes and chop veggies for a salad, and they can't even go to the store on their own, so that's not really an option. Also, I have relationships with people and relationships take time. I call my mom, I call my siblings, I call, randomly, my grandmother's cousin who lives in England. Sure, I could order takeout or spend less time talking to my family. But I don't want to.

So no. I'm not maximising my productivity. From a productivity point of view, my value is fairly low. And that's a hard thing to come to terms with, in our society.

What, you thought I'd have answers? I'd come to a conclusion and give you a neatly-wrapped 8-easy-steps of how to become happier? No, you know me better than that. I'll just ask a question. What are the things that have value for you that cannot be measured? For me, it's my family eating a healthy, home-cooked meal. It's knowing how my sister is doing in her new job or how my brother's kids are doing in school. It's knowing how my kids feel about everything, from the lockdown to the youtube video of a family's trip to Target they watched. It's colouring something no one will ever see next to my partner as he works on a puzzle which is what he does in his free time. It's writing a blog post no one will read through because it orders my thoughts about it, and because I want to.


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