The Guardian featured a long read on why our efforts to be productive only cause more stress and empty busyness—but it doesn’t quite go far enough.
To be a twenty-first-century Westerner is to worship at the altar of productivity. If you’re not busy, you’re not trying. Hence, the life hacking phenomenon.
Renown contemplative Eugene Peterson said, “Busyness is an illness of the spirit.”
But we don’t really believe him, do we, because just look at the way we live.
Meritocracy reigns—particularly in the United States of America. You must earn your right to rest and play. Vacation is not a given (even though it is in most developed nations around the world) because you’re only as valuable as the things you create and rate at which you produce results. Especially in American culture, productivity is the addiction of choice.
Here’s the thing: most of us—myself included—don’t actually want to be un-busy. We like the pulsing adrenaline of achievement, pumping cubic centimeters of liquid American Dream rushing through our veins. We’re addicted to our image and what we think we can accomplish. And we’ll keep chasing that feeling of accomplishment no matter what it costs, until something breaks and the system is no longer sustainable.
Social researcher Brené Brown calls it out for what it is: “We are a culture of people who’ve bought into the idea that if we stay busy enough, the truth of our lives won’t catch up with us.”
Cult of Productivity
I admit: I’ve been mesmerized by the waves of life hacking articles on Medium and business blogs, the free e-books and online courses promising I’ll get more done in less time if I only x, y, z. It’s all so shiny and upbeat and achievable, and I’m so not.
Can we also acknowledge how ridiculous it is that right under our noses, we build up our to-do list of life hack articles and webinars and promising podcasts that we think we’re learning how to be more productive, but our actual time spent working on things we love decreases with every subscribe and follow and download?
Poetic justice in full swing, your busyness invariably kills your true productivity.
Unsubscribe me, all you email marketing lists. Unfollow, you Twitter hashtagified mongrels. Your tricks may have worked for you, and for your masses of indiscriminate lemmings, but I’m out.
Mythic Work–Life Balance
If we want to be truly productive, first let us refashion it for our own purposes, injected with humility: Productivity will be a byproduct of an intentional, reasonably paced, fluidly evolving life. Yes, to be a contributing participant in modern life requires the ongoing cultivation of inspiration and learning from others.
But the whole work–life balance theory is inherently troubled, isn’t it, because what in life is ever completely stable and picture perfect? At least, let us admit it’s more realistic to search for work–life sustainability, a cycle of working, resting, playing, relating, and being that feeds itself and doesn’t grind our souls down to stumps in the dirt when we could have a vibrant, diverse, producing and beautiful garden on the whole lot.
We live in a world that values us for how fast we go, for how much we accomplish, for how much life we can pack into one day. But I’m coming to believe it’s in the in-between spaces that our lives change, and that the real beauty lies there. —Shauna Niequist
A rich crop won’t take root and grow if the soil’s constantly turned over. There is a time and place for the hustle and energy and productivity, and there is time to be still, to rest, to run around on different fields and wonder. Maybe we ought to stop acting like we exist primarily to produce.
“Human beings are not machines,” writes Abby Perry.
In a world loud and fearful, there is need for a subversive few willing to reclaim thoughtfulness and pondering, to recognize the limitations of what they can produce, and to discover creative freedom within gracious boundaries. There is a hole in our society longing to be filled with a reclaimed definition of personhood, one that prioritizes productivity but does not make it king.
Finding Your Place
Yes, time management can ruin our lives to the degree we assess its practical implications. The Guardian’s Oliver Burkeman poses necessary questions that almost get us there: “Which paths will you pursue, and which will you abandon? Which relationships will you prioritise, during your shockingly limited lifespan, and who will you resign yourself to disappointing? What matters?”
What our public discourse for or against productivity must include is the depth to which it reaches within the human spirit. Those questions scrape the surface of our interpersonal spaces and even internal emotions and search for meaning—but they’re even more than that: this is the territory of the human spirit.
Busyness is a very spiritual matter, creeping past our actions and schedules to settle into the bones of our living, resetting our nonmaterial disposition toward people and material goods that comprise our existence.
In her poem, “The Old Poets of China,” Mary Oliver humbly shares a recognition more necessary than any motivational poster image:
Wherever I am, the world comes after me.
It offers me its busyness. It does not believe
that I do not want it. Now I understand
why the old poets of China went so far and high
into the mountains, then crept into the pale mist.
Now I understand why being unavailable sometimes, even for long times, is a spiritual practice. Silence and solitude take us out of the rat race and into the presence of simple being, where we don’t have to prove our place or our abilities. But it is not for all of us to escape our cities to become permanent recluses, or to close ourselves off from people to whom we can be available, or to stop work altogether. For their benefit and ours, we must find a comprehensive, inclusive solution.
We must create and live into a new rhythm.
This is not a matter of all-or-nothing, easy solutions. It would only become another bit of life hacking advice to be paraded around the internet’s weary streets, void of the soul that real change requires. The life you’re building deserves more nuance: intense work and unfettered rest need each other. Life is not about what you produce, and it simultaneously matters significantly what you work to bring into this world—not just the image you present. Learning to dwell in the tension will be our most productive endeavor yet.
Cover image by STIL.