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Rethinking Productivity When Normal Life Screeches to a Halt

Right now, many of us find it difficult to maintain our pre-pandemic productivity levels. While some may see it as a problem, perhaps it’s the perfect time to reconsider what productivity really means to us.
by Joshua H. Phelps | May 15 2020

It can feel like our normal daily lives run like machinery, with our habits forming the gears that push us along from rising to falling asleep. Coronavirus, however, has thrown a wrench in the works.

Like many machines, too, we measured our lives by a variety of metrics with apps and gizmos helping us gather that data. How many steps did we take? How many hours did we work? How many calories did we ingest and burn? This cultural emphasis on productivity has been reflected in economic data, but what does it mean in the new context we are currently living in?

We may call many of the hours we spend at home these days unproductive, but what do we really mean by productivity? The books in the Blinkist library contain many different ways of thinking about productivity and can also provide some guidance on how to consider it going forward.

What’s Your Hurry?

For one thing, people are driving a lot faster these days. Some areas have seen the number of speeding tickets nearly double compared to the same time last year. And these drivers have been clocked going up to 150 miles per hour! One driver told the officer who pulled him over he was trying to outrun the virus.

Perhaps these high speeds are an outlet for the nervous energy we normally devoted to our daily lives. If that is the case, then perhaps this is a moment to step back and ask why we were so full of this type of energy to begin with. And where was it going?

There’s the old saying from the service industry, “Time to lean, time to clean.” And, in general, this mentality has pervaded much of our lives. Any time not spent working on something is considered wasted or indulgent. When confronted with a problem, so the story goes, best practice is to hammer away at it with unwavering focus until it’s solved.

However, it is often when we pause that we arrive at an innovative solution to our problem. If we’re too set on arriving at a goal in a particular way, we lose sight of other routes to that end. And those routes may turn out to be better.

In his book, Do Pause, Robert Poynton points out how it is when we give ourselves moments to breathe, to not think about anything in particular, that a breakthrough can occur. Granted, it might be related to an idea you’ve kept on the back burner for a while, but it is still a breakthrough nonetheless.

Don’t Kick Yourself

Taking a pause sounds very fine and dandy indeed, but afterwards it can be easy to fall back into that “time to lean, time to clean” mentality. Alongside it, too, there is the likelihood you might kick yourself for being lazy or listing off what you ought to have been doing instead. You start nipping at your heels, thinking it might help somehow. Self-critical thoughts chase after self-pity like a dog does a squirrel. At the end of that chase, you’re likely to end up exhausted and miserable and beating yourself up some more for letting it come to that.

And it’s easy to fall into that mental trap. In an age where internet platforms have shown us picture-perfect versions of idealized lifestyles, we’ve raised our expectations so high that to be ourselves, with all the ambiguity and uncertainty that entails, feels like flailing while everyone else around you has everything figured out. Especially if you’ve found yourself out of work right now, it’s likely entered your mind that you’ve done something wrong to deserve it.

If you’d just been more productive…

Unfortunately, it is difficult to break from these thought patterns. They have rooted themselves in our cultural environment and spread to numerous facets of our lives. Glossy, sunny images and sentiments fill social media feeds. However, there is a way to reclaim yourself from this encroaching mental menace. And Kristin Neff explores it in her book, Self-Compassion.

Neff brings attention to the fact that we often show more empathy and compassion towards others’ mistakes and situations than our own. Spending our whole lives in our own heads, it can be difficult to place where we are in a broader context.

By seeking out different perspectives, we can better understand our own situation. What we consider mountains in one moment become molehills the next, or vice-versa.

Expectation vs. Reality

We might see our decreased productivity, sleepless nights, and quicker irritabilities as failures of character. As our worldview has become increasingly individualistic, it has become more common to attribute successes and failures to a person’s own aptitudes or shortcomings. We strive for perfection because any deviation from it is seen as lessening our immediate or potential value and these thoughts can easily kickstart a downward spiral of thinking.

Swiss-British philosopher, Alain de Botton, explores these issues as well in his book Status Anxiety. de Botton, like Neff, underlines the cultural foundations of our relationship to productivity. He points out that equating wealth to human value is a relatively new feature of human thinking. Prior to that, de Botton argues, the prominence of Jesus in society reminded people that the most valuable individual in the world lived in meager circumstances. We see this nowadays, too, in the roles we consider essential.

And, Christ’s message of empathy and compassion has a place in a new view of productivity as well.

Self-compassion helps us to regard our stress, worries, and fears as reactions to the trying circumstances which we are all experiencing. Neff reminds us, though, not to use self-compassion as an excuse for complacency or offloading our responsibilities. Just as other people have a role to play in our own productivity, we have a role to play in theirs. This interconnectedness has been one of the lessons we can take away from this pandemic.

Periods of high productivity can be the result of many factors as well, including our teammates, other supportive figures around us, where we happen to be in our lives at a given point, the projects we’re working on, and a host of other inspirations. So it is a challenge to maintain that level when suddenly things have changed so drastically.

However, the wrenches we find in the cogs of our productivity can also be put to use building a new conception of productivity that speaks to our humanity and our compassion rather than just our bank accounts.

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