Accepting “Productivity” is a Lie

“I’m aware of no other time management technique that’s half as effective as just facing the way things truly are.”

Accepting “Productivity” is a Lie
Photo by Johnson Wang / Unsplash

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Hello! I’m back from some traveling and resetting. Welcome new readers from Evil Witches!!

When several Double Shifters directly recommend an article, book or podcast to me it’s usually for good reason. Thanks to several of you, I recently picked up Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals. Written by a former productivity columnist, Oliver Burkeman, he refutes a lot of the premise of the life-hack industrial complex to remind us of some simple truths.

  1. If we live to be 80, we will live approximately 4000 weeks, which feels alarmingly short when put into that calculation.
  2. Much of our more modern obsessions with bucket lists, FOMO, and making the most of every moment comes from the collective existential unmooring of a less religious society that does not believe strongly in the afterlife.
  3. In limitless capitalism, it does not matter how “productive” we are, because the faster we get at accomplishing things, the more we will find to do.

Nothing drives this third point home more than the incorrect prediction of economist John Maynard Keyes. He gave a famous speech in 1930 where he predicted that within a hundred years, wealth generation and technology advances would mean that no one would have to work more than 15 hours a week to have all of their needs met, and the real crisis would be how people would spend all of their abundant leisure time. Keyes had obviously never met his neighbors, The Joneses, who helped constantly push the bar higher for what kind of wealth and standard of living Americans aspire to, nor did he anticipate the extreme wealth inequality free market capitalism would generate.

In the working world, assembly line efficiencies didn’t result in workers getting a shorter day with the same pay; it only increased expectations of how much they could produce in a day. Since email has vastly sped up professional correspondence, we now just expect responses sooner and results faster. And if you need evidence that personal productivity merely causes us to add more work on ourselves, look no further than the invention of washing machines, dishwashers, vacuums and microwaves. All of these household appliances save untold amounts of time and energy over their manual counterparts, and yet now we have even more clothes to wash (thank you fast fashion), and the social expectation is now that more or less everything will be washed after one wear. Since 1975, the average new house size in America has nearly doubled, from 1660 square feet to over 2500, despite the fact that nuclear families have gotten smaller and fewer people are living in these larger homes. Bigger houses often mean it costs more to pay for them, maintain them and fill them with stuff, and definitely more time to clean them. All of this may mean more hours the adults of the household need to spend in the paid labor force and on unpaid household tasks, negating time savings of that revolutionary vacuum and dishwasher. And if you know you can heat up a microwave dinner in 3 minutes rather than spend two hours cooking and an hour cleaning up, that means you can commit to driving your kids to extracurricular activities for three hours every evening (which costs a pretty penny to enroll them in!) Under the social expectations of capitalism, leisure time has to be fiercely defended with a deadly weapon or it will be sucked up into new productivity expectations.

Four Thousand Weeks contains many gems of wisdom, but one that has really stuck with me is:

“I’m aware of no other time management technique that’s half as effective as just facing the way things truly are.”

I don’t think this means being passive and unquestioning. I think it means looking for loopholes and life hacks to circumvent the realities of unrealistic expectations will never pan out in the long term if  you think you are always just a few moves away from out maneuvering capitalism. And the quest to always squeeze a few more drops of productivity out of everything deprives us of being in the moment, which is how we access our full humanity. Answering work emails while on an evening out with your partner or trying to shop online while watching your kids at the playground isn’t how we want to remember our lives when we’re 80. Just like modern motherhood, when you realize the game is rigged and there is no way to “have it all,” it can start to free you of social expectations. And on the productivity front, once you embrace that you’ll never clear your to-do list or make your life efficient enough, it’s way easier to give up and just have fun.

For this week’s members-only thread, I want to know: how do you defend your leisure time? Check your inboxes tomorrow, members!

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Call Out: Are you a K-12 teacher/staff/admin? I'd love to talk to you about coming to an August back-to-school hangout. Email me!

Another angle on the camp crisis: Devoted readers of this newsletter know that the cluster that is summer care for children is favorite topic of mine, like “What The Summer Camp Frenzy Costs Us,” and “The Little-Known History of Your Desperate Summer Camp Struggle.” My Colleague at Better Life Lab, Rebecca Gale recently published another important contribution to this cannon, “Childcare for Kids with ‘Invisible Disorders’ Can Be Impossible to Find.

North Carolina’s Maternal Mortality Crisis: My friend Tyler Dukes has done some great work on compiling and shining light the stories and statistics of North Carolina’s above average death rate for pregnant and postpartum people, which disproportionately impacts black mothers. The state is also YEARS behind in investigating these deaths. We must do better.

New Book Alert!!! My friend and neighbor Victoria Facelli, IBCLC, has her first book out this week, Feed The Baby: an Inclusive Guide to Nursing, Bottle Feeding and Everything In Between. For a topic area that is full of strong opinions and dogma, Feed the Baby is a refreshingly inclusive, non-judgmental companion. Definitely buy this one for a baby shower gift or the new mom in your life!


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