Productivity Won’t Save You
So there I was, on vacation stressing out that I wasn’t making the most of it, when I tuned into “Productivity Won’t Save You,” an episode of This is Uncomfortable, a fantastic NPR-produced podcast about the impact of finances on our lives. I used to write about money – specifically, the lack of it – largely because I believe not talking about money perpetuates income inequity, so of course I’m a big fan of the show. This episode delves into the cultural obsession with productivity and quest to completely optimize all aspects of our lives, and starts with host Reema Khrais describing her “future self”:
“She’s more organized, in better shape. She wakes up early, she’s a great friend and she has really nice hair. I think I’m scared that if I don’t get to everything on all my to-do lists, I might never get to be her. Instead I’ll feel like I’ve wasted my time.”
I literally have an app called “Productive” that I use to track all the habits I’m supposed to be instilling and a journal titled “Future Jen” that is supposed to be my pathway to, if not perfection, the ultimate manifestation of my best self. Like me and many others, Reema spends a lot of time searching for the perfect routine, the one that will finally stick.
Guest Sahar Yousef, a neuroscientist and productivity expert, pushes back against productivity culture (spoiler, sorry!) while also offering ideas on how to reduce the anxiety associated with it. One of those is disabling notifications on our devices. Not just the usual email, etc., but all notifications, even the ones reminding us to meditate or exercise – they still distract, still yank our attention away from what we meant to be doing. In a blink, they take control of our day, telling us what to think about, what to do.
So true, I thought, as I opened my phone’s settings. Shut up, you apps. I’ll decide when I’m doing what.
The myth of the perfect schedule
Of course, the whole reason I have all these apps is because my attempts to be the best, most productive person I could possibly be haven’t manifested into the perfectly optimized self that I’ve envisioned waiting for me all these years. This, despite constantly refining my schedule into something that works perfectly on paper – turns out day-to-day life rarely matches up, a fact I don’t need apps to tell me.
Thinking about all this reminded me of an essay I’d read long ago about writing. You either will or you won’t, the author shrugged. If you want to write badly enough, you will. If you answer the question, “Do you want to write?” with “Yes, but,” then you’re taking two words to say “No.” (I’ve searched for the link to no avail, sadly.)
Which made me think of the friend who’d sent it to me long ago. “This works for everything in life,” he’d said. I texted him. “Hey,” I said, “you’re a super productive guy! You excel at your job and spend plenty of time with your family and on house projects and also make time for creative work and exercise every day! What gives? What apps do you use? How do you calendar your time?”
He texted back right away. “Um… I just do the things that need to be done and that I like to do?” Right, I continued, but how did he schedule them? “I don’t,” he responded.
My mind blown, I pressed on. “What do you mean? Like, you just know what your priorities are and that’s naturally where you put your energy and time?”
“Yeah, I guess so.”
I could feel the epiphany unfold across my brain. All these years – decades! – I’ve tried to figure out the perfect routine/schedule that I will finally stick to and therefore accomplish all the things and that is not working and will never work. Because I’m not a robot. My days do not arrive in copycat form nor does how I greet them. Some days I roll out of bed ready to tackle whatever. Some days I want to weep into my coffee mug at the thought of what lies ahead, what lies behind. Yet, in either case, I have a long history of getting what needs to be done, done.
Why we do things
Turns out what motivates me, as it does most humans, is a combination of avoiding pain and receiving pleasure. I do not want to get scolded by my boss or say goodbye to California’s beaches, so I do my job. I want to surf well and for my knee to be less janky, so I do yoga. I like the freedom money provides and want more of it, so I spend time every week making sure I’m financially on track. I’m prone to worry till I’m crippled by it, so I seek ways to manage what I can neither fix nor let go of – hello, meditation and books and friendships. Being outside keeps me sane, so sooner or later I leave the house and wander through the forest or down the beach. Being a mom is woven through my being. I don’t need apps or a perfect schedule for any of this.
And so I let myself off the hook.
I still have bad habits I’d do well to give the boot. I know cultivating a more consistent morning and evening routine would likely serve me well. But life has rarely offered me consistency and, pandemic monotony aside, I doubt my days will ever become perfectly round cookies weighted with the exact same number of chocolate chips. So instead of bending myself to fit into what does not suit me, instead of spending hours each week setting up and responding to apps, I’m approaching the days aware of obligations and trusting I’ll make time for the rest, will say “Yes” to what matters most.
Full disclosure: I still have several lifestyle apps on my phone. I like Headspace for the meditation and Calm for the bedtime stories, Strava for the pleasure in knowing I did something, which is better than nothing, Clue for tracking my period and Happy Scale for tracking my weight. (Note: I know the dangers of investing in one’s weight as an indicator, but I’m long past believing the number reflects my value as a person – for me, the scale reflects the cumulative answer to the question of “Am I taking care of myself?” But it’s not for everyone, especially those who’ve struggled with eating disorders and issues in the past.)
What these apps have in common is, instead of distracting me or reminding me how I’m not living up to the goals they’ve set for me, they’re all ones that serve me at my convenience and work within my reality – and that is a hell of a lot more inspiring.