Is Producitvity Important? (Take 2)

[Image description: Two people work in chairs facing away from each other. Behind them is a brick wall, symbolizing futility. Photo by on Unsplash]

It’s been about a year and a half since I wrote the post Is Productivity Important? I described the kneejerk negative reaction I felt when reading other's blog posts about how to be more productive. They made me feel guilty because I was in a relatively fallow period of my creative life, more prone to spend my evenings watching a movie with my partner than writing novels (as I had, fairly continuously, in the previous months & years). I defended myself by explaining that I am generally internally motivated to be productive about things that I like and care about, but that I had recently gone too far toward Always Working On Something and burned out. In my case, I need to learn to relax more than I need to learn to be more productive.

Despite the grandiose post title, I did not actually challenge the idea that productivity is important. If anything, I reinforced it, simply claiming that additional productivity was not important FOR ME AT THAT TIME, because I was already, if anything, inclined to be too productive!

In the intervening time, though, I’ve begun to challenge the very idea of productivity as an inherent good.

In the personal finance / early retirement / lifehack blog community, we tend to worship productivity for pretty obvious, direct, financial reasons. This is a subculture that’s all about cramming as much earning power into as short a time as possible for a later payoff. This might mean building a high-paying career, developing side hustles, practicing extreme frugality, or finding other nonconventional ways to turn time into money.

But even in the larger, mainstream American culture, I feel like productivity is worshiped unquestioningly. Think about the ways we police each other’s productivity. Unemployment is considered shameful. Anyone who doesn’t or can’t work a traditional, paid job is made to feel like a drain on society. Taking time off from work is only accepted for a few limited, short-term reasons (like being a new mother). We brag about how busy we are. We feel virtuous when we work long hours, hoard vacation days, and use our off time to work more.

Even those of us with retirement goals tend to emphasize the productive things we’ll do if and when we reach financial independence. Acceptable answers:
  • “I’ll take a risk and start my own business.”
  • “I’ll retrain for a new career.”
  • “I’ll write a novel.” (Cough. Guilty as charged.)
  • “I’ll keep working, but I’ll be happier knowing that it’s my choice.”
Is this really what we want? Or is it just habit?

What would you do if you didn’t have to work? What goals would you have set for yourself if you never had to work? Let’s get Star Trek up in here. If all the automatable work was automated, and there were literally no more jobs that someone HAD to do; if there was no such thing as money and you didn’t need to work simply to live; what would humans do with their time? What would you, personally, do?

Maybe your answer really is something that’s technically productive (I mean, I feel like I'd still write and draw), and maybe it’s not! Maybe you’d consume other people’s writing and drawing, and that’s fine, too; makers need an audience. Maybe you’d hike or surf all day. Maybe you’d get really good at Dota 2. Maybe you’d go on hundreds of dates and maintain a complex web of polyamorous relationships. Maybe you would learn everything there is to learn about the Peloponnesian War; not to publish it, or teach anybody, but just to know it.

I have trouble figuring out what I would actually do because it is such an alien world to me. Capitalism and the dogma of productivity are so in my head that it’s hard to even imagine my way out. When I was a child and I was first told that dolphins are as smart as humans, I found it hard to believe because they hadn’t built skyscrapers and invented Dolphin TV and created their own Dolphin IRS. It’s pat to say “maybe that proves they are the more intelligent ones,” but, like, maybe, right? I mean, who’s to say they aren’t happier?

I promise I am not stoned right now (although add Smoking Weed to my list of things people would do in a moneyless society). I’m proposing that we add a little more conscious thought into the ways we discuss productivity and paid work, and notice when we are adding to the onslaught of “work = good” talk in the world.

Over the next few weeks, notice when you feel pressured to defend your productivity. For example, do you feel the need to...
... humblebrag about how busy you are?
... imply that you’d do your job for free if they let you? (Or actually do work for free, in the form of an internship or unpaid overtime?)
... explain how your field of study leads to lucrative work?
... never be the first person to go home for the night?
... defend your maternity or medical leave with your timeline for returning to work and your plan for making the most of your "time off"?
... volunteer to work the holiday shift because you are single and childless and therefore have "nothing else to do"?
... immediately respond to your boss's email sent at 11:46 PM?
... justify your leisure activities (“crosswords build vocabulary”)?
... take pride in your lack of time to indulge in leisure activities?
... personally badger yourself about the above questions, even in the absence of outside pressure?

Let's all just observe those feelings. Sit with them.

I'm not saying they are wrong to have; that they're overblown; that they are incorrect in your specific case (certainly it is privileged position to have enough money not to have to maximize productivity, to have free time to guard); or that there wouldn't be genuine negative consequences to your livelihood if you pushed back against workplace norms. I'm just trying to become more aware of the ways that we all "play the game." I want to at least know when I'm playing.

How do we know when we're busy with activities that are important to us, and when we're just busy? How can we defend those who don’t, or can’t, spend their time contributing to capitalism? Those of us who are chasing FIRE have an added, personal incentive to model positive attitudes about unproductive living: someday, we hope, we’ll be the drain on society that we want to see in the world.


  1. I've been thinking about this lately because I've been feeling kind of low. Not depressed exactly, just tired all the time. And there is so much I want to do -things I enjoy, like sewing- that I'm not doing because I'm in bed. And so I asked my psychiatrist/ therapist last week if she would prescribe me modafinil, because "maybe if I can be more focused and productive at work I'll feel less blah at night and will be inspired to do the things that are rewarding, like sewing"

    But this makes me uncomfortable. How awful that being productive is necessary for my happiness. But it's how I was raised [insert Protestant work ethic joke here].

    So ultimately I think I have to acknowledge that yes, this probably isn't the best way to live life, but that this is how I am and I might as well just deal with it as best I can.

  2. Also, have you listened to the Planet Money episode on our post-work future? It's a sort of "what if they're are no jobs in the future, and we live in a truly post-scarcity world" thought experiment. It takes the form of a skit.

    They seem to think that the satisfaction that comes from making something (i.e. work) is baked in to human nature

    1. Oh my god, I just wrote a really long comment and this terrible comment system ate it. I know that has happened to you before, too. Blogger, you're the worst.

      I was just saying that that episode sounds interesting and that thought experiment is exactly what I was trying to get at. I also think that it's easy for Planet Money to say everyone would be a maker, cause they're all a bunch of makers! I feel like part of releasing ourselves from productivity-worship is acknowledging that, in a perfect world, some people *wouldn't* be makers - they'd be lie-on-the-beachers or take-care-of-my-dog-ers - and that's okay too.

      I guess all this is ultimately me trying to come to terms with the fact that I used to make a lot more stuff than I do now.

    2. I misrepresented the episode somewhat. Most people are just the way you say, but the episode is about an underground group of people who make things.

      I wish I were the kind of person who could just enjoy hanging out at the beach and stuff. I love the beach more than any place on Earth, but after a few days of it I start to crave productivity.


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