The Productivity Paradox

Our modern, technologically advanced society values a number of things – one of which is productivity. Have you ever contemplated what this actually means?

I’m sure you have been guilty of thinking “I should have done this” or “if only I wasn’t so lazy and bad at managing my time I could have completed XYZ”. Perhaps even “oh how I would feel better about myself if I had done these productive tasks!” I know I sure have. So, where do these self depreciating thoughts come from? It’s surely multi faceted – anxiety, our culture, evolutionary biology – these all have a say in cultivating the way we think and in-turn feel. So, let’s have a brief look at the evolutionary hypothesis.

Firstly – what is the evolutionary purpose of having these types of thoughts and feelings? Simply put, to propel you toward calorie dense food, sexual partners, and safety. Let’s elaborate somewhat on this and I’ll leave some studies relating to this topic at the end of this post.

Without getting too bogged down in the Buddhist philosophy of “no right or wrong feelings”, let’s think about our ancestors for a moment. Before humans had access to grocery stores, home delivery and fast-food restaurants, what would have happened if they sat around all day? They would have, eventually, died. Now extrapolate that across a wide range of tasks that they would have to have completed in order to survive. Dodge predators, repair dwellings for themselves and their families, hunt and forage, be social in order to function in their communities and find sexual partners. All propelled by hard-wired feelings that arise from certain thoughts.

Didn’t complete that task that was needed to keep your kids safe? The consequences could have been, and often probably were, catastrophic. Not motivated to get up and find food? Well, I guess you’ll have a six pack for awhile, till you fade away to skin and bone. How about refine your social abilities or cultivate a skill that was attractive to sexual partners? I suppose you could not do that, I’m sure your genes would prefer you did, though.

So, what does this mean regarding the negative feelings we have in response to low productivity in today’s society? Well, we are more or less the same evolutionary animals we were thousands of years ago. Meaning, we have the same biological switches and triggers, just without the consequences and often without the reward.

Most of the work we do nowadays has delayed gratification, if any visible gratification. For example, becoming rich is cool, but it takes a long time and probably isn’t as rewarding as bringing home an elk and eating it with your small community. What about having sex? The reward previously was a baby, the furthering of your genetics. What amount of sexual activity today would you guess is for the purpose of making a baby? I would speculate the percentage would be in single digits. What is my point? That the feeling to get up and go, to complete these tasks in our modern world, provides us with far less reward and a lot less gratification. Layer that with a newly found, from an evolutionary perspective, infinite amount of tasks we could complete and we are set up for failure!

A never ending amount of books to read, TV shows to watch, courses we could study, people to have sex with (due to higher population density nowadays and contraceptive access) and endless potential emails to send. How many of these tasks would be truly rewarding? I’ll let you decide.

Now, lets have a brief look at what our culture says on this topic. More is better. Do more, read more, create more, buy more, own more. If you don’t complete enough productive tasks you’re unworthy of respect and social status. I’ve been there, I’ve judged people for not doing “enough” and even worse, judged myself. What does this even mean? Enough is completely subjective. Does Elon Musk do enough? Well, he clearly doesn’t think so, as he keeps trying to do more. What about retiree’s who just want to relax and enjoy their old age? For my twenty something year old brain it doesn’t seem so, but again, compared to what? That little voice in your head that tells you you’re not good enough because you didn’t do a five mile run, finish your book, do all the house work, work a day job and cure cancer all in the one day.

The productivity hackers will preach habit-stacking. They will also preach narrowing your motivation specifically to get the most out of ourselves. That’s all fantastic and has it’s place within culture, I use some of these techniques myself. However, I would argue it should not be the end goal. Constantly chasing the carrot has clear issues when contemplating anxiety and life satisfaction. If one can never do or achieve enough, good luck being happy and content.

We should perhaps look to some ancient philosophies and learn to be okay with just being, with not needing outside validation or the want for social approval. With learning to balance our wants, needs and interests with what truly matters and is best for ourselves. This all comes from understanding and the acceptance that we have these ancient urges, feelings and emotions that arise. They are not the enemy. We are living in a world that our brain and body was not designed for, figuring out how to best harness these tools is the tricky part.

Of course, this is all easier said than done and it would be hard to function in society without some of these motivating factors. However, I for one, will continue my attempt to spend more time smelling the roses, relaxing into the moment and not being so f***ing hard on myself, regardless as to whether it is “productive”. You’ll know better than me, but maybe you should too.

As always, please like, comment and share!

Until next time ❤ M L Wood

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: