Productivity podcasts, apps, blogs and tools sell us the dream of becoming more efficient, more productive and more capable: the optimised version 2.0 of ourselves.
Given we live in a time mind-blowingly different from the one our grandparents knew (and, in another couple of decades, it will become unrecognisable to us too) it is no wonder people feel overwhelmed and want to reclaim some control. The "success industry" with its productivity hacks appeals to this.
Productivity hacks are no silver bullet for our woes.Credit:Getty
But, of course, the promise of productivity hacks can put pressure on us, making us feel inadequate and, ironically, driving us to distraction. As a result, there’s a rather tantalising counter-culture emerging, calling the pursuit of "productivity" out for the trap that it is and celebrating the virtues of a little chaos.
“There is a life hack for pretty much everything these days, we seem to be evolving to do everything better and more efficiently. This is wonderful when it works well, and you are feeling better as a result – after all, isn’t that why we want to life hack?” asks psychologist Marny Lishman. “But is that what is really happening?”
In a TED talk about the “cult” of extreme productivity head of innovation at Vice Media Mark Adams speaks about the “chronic anxiety” he felt as a result of the expectation that we’re never quite productive or successful enough; there are always more hacks, more we could be squeezing into our lives.
“It’s time to take a breath and accept that it is another trap,” Adams says. “This whole billion-dollar success industry … it doesn’t work. I was reading everything there was to read … my procrastination was through the roof … I knew what I had to do and instead of doing it, I’d read more.”
As Adams discovered, productivity hacks can be a distraction from the hard work that is required to get life done and no number of fancy tips is going to change this.
“Productivity is overrated,” Georgetown University professor and author of Digital Minimalism, Cal Newport has said. “Some of the most accomplished people I know are incredibly disorganised. They work at the last minute. They stay up all night. They constantly scramble to find what they’re looking for. But they still get it done. Other accomplished people are incredibly organised.”
Rather than attempting to keep up with the pace of the machine and cram more into our days, there’s something to be said for embracing the quality of our work and lives over the efficiency of them.
Author Taffy Brodesser-Akner describes the push for the streamlined life which provides “maximal predictability with minimal stress” as a push for a new breed of person: in her case, the Highly Regimented Woman.
“I know some Highly Regimented Women. They are killing it out there. They are happy and focused and getting it done. I imagine being one of them sometimes,” she wrote last year.
But they also filled her with dread, because when the regimented life went mainstream, “it somehow became insurrectionist to have a mind like mine: one that’s always running, one that doesn’t relent, one that races and commands my hands to do a million things at once”.
Yet, it is in this chaos, in the fertile wild of a free mind – a mind that can be distracted without somehow being delinquent – that creativity can be cultivated.
When we give ourselves the freedom to be human, instead of attempting to run with the relentless efficiency of a machine, we have space to think, ponder and just be.
In the course of writing this article, I’ve paused and allowed myself to be distracted – by the news, by email, by social media, by making a cup of tea – more times than I’d like to admit, but it has relieved some of the pressure to write this article and created the space for thoughts to form. The distraction and productivity work messily together.
“The wellness industry has a lot to answer for – it’s pushing us to be busier, better and constantly dangling the pressure to reach our potential in front of us – when often the answer to wellness resides right inside of us in the enjoyment of the moment,” Lishman says. “Where are we experiencing moments and the feelings associated with each moment, that are important in guiding us on our next step on our life pathway: That’s what personal growth is.
“A little chaos, a little adversity, mistakes and failures – all of these help guide us throughout life. We are missing out on these if we are life hacking everything.”
Certainly, there are habits in our lives that can help us feel more in control and less overwhelmed by its pace. Certainly, some people benefit from structure more than others. But, the productivity industry promises more than it can ever deliver: that we can ever be fully in control or do it all.
There can be relief in relinquishing this pressure and acknowledging, if we do our best, some balls may still drop. We can be extremely productive and somewhat chaotic at once.
There is nothing wrong with productivity hacks per se or those who like to follow them, but there is also nothing wrong with not being perfectly streamlined or productive; with not being a machine.
Body Language is our wellbeing column, examining trending issues in diet, health and fitness.
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