This is the fourth in a series of essays. You can access the rest here, though it’s not necessary to read them all or in order.
“These days, I just want to slow down. I want to pull the shutters closed and block out the world… The more time I have, the more I realize that all that matters is the small discoveries, the little interactions, the improvised, messy, glued-together moments that lie at the center of our happiness. Everything else is just a distraction.” –Heather Havrilesky, What if This Were Enough?
“Nothing is harder to do than nothing. In a world where our value is determined by our productivity, many of us find our every last minute captured, optimized, or appropriated as a financial resource by the technologies we use daily.” –Jenny Odell, How to do Nothing
One morning, while looking at my RSS feeds (yes, some people still use RSS readers… yes, I’m a dinosaur), I saw a blog post entitled “21 Things to Clean, Organize, and Declutter While You’re Waiting for the Microwave to Beep.” If that isn’t a symbol of peak cult of productivity, I don’t know what is. God forbid you waste those 180 seconds waiting for your food to heat up when there are so many better ways to use that time. UGH!!!
The cult of productivity is about using your time efficiently — finding the best ways to get the most done in the time you have. Sometimes you do that by using technologies, different approaches to work, mindfulness, etc., but it’s all in the service of getting more done. I used to really buy into the idea that I could be more productive, even when I was off from work. I thought about time I wasted at work where I wasn’t getting things done or getting things done efficiently. I thought about how not being super-organized made me sometimes spend time looking for something I should have been able to find quickly. I bought the David Allen book Getting Things Done and adopted many different organizational schemes, project management software options, and to-do list apps over the years. With the exception of the to-do lists (which are my off-board brain since my memory has gone to crap) I really don’t think any of the things I tried made me more efficient. And the more I really thought about the productivity movement, the more I realized how it fed into the toxic culture of overwork. Charlie Ambler agrees in this Daily Zen essay:
The belief that life is all about productivity is a misguided attempt to fuel fake progress, produce more material value, and keep people in the cycle of production and consumption. This cycle, in the modern era, is one of the best symbolic expressions of the Buddhist idea of Samsara that we have. It is a trap in which we exchange our time for goods that do not satisfy us. We cannot escape until we decide to cultivate spiritual awareness instead of constant productivity.
Productivity promotes the idea that time is wasted when we’re not working efficiently and that we are failures if we can’t find ways do more with less. But we all know that there’s value in not spending every waking second moving the needle forward on projects. The time I spend talking to a colleague may not look like work, but it’s often building capacity for collaboration, sharing knowledge, decreasing stress, and/or leading to a better work culture. It took me a long time to see chatting with colleagues as being something more than wasting time, which should tell you how strong the productivity gospel was ingrained in me.
In a capitalist society in which we are starting to measure everything, productivity becomes something measurable — a yardstick that can be used against workers. Even in libraries, it’s possible to measure some of what we do — collection development funds spent, hours on the desk, classes taught, consultations with students, etc. — without ever really understanding the value an individual library worker provides. Those numbers certainly don’t tell the whole story of our worth. I still remember when I was the Head of Instruction and my old boss had me put in my annual goals that I would get library instruction sessions up a specific percentage in the next year. And I was able to achieve it, but did it mean students were more information literate? And would I be able to get sessions up that much more in the next year? And the next? Where would it end? More doesn’t necessarily equal better. But our obsession with productivity and measurement drives us to collect more and push for more. This blog post from Dropbox describes the difficulties measuring productivity in the sort of work we do:
But the productivity calculus is much murkier when it comes to knowledge work—work that mostly involves dealing with information. Indeed, the Bureau of Labor Statistics cautions that productivity stats “for nonmanufacturing industries are often difficult to measure” and that “customers should be cautious when interpreting the data.” Do more lines of code per hour lead to better products? Would doubling the number of brainstorms per week make designers more creative? Even in the face of inconclusive data, the desire to do more with less persists—particularly among upper management.
Also, just because we have the ability to better measure and facilitate productivity, doesn’t mean we actually should. As Jenny Odell says in her fantastic book How to do Nothing, our lives are “more than an instrument and therefore something that cannot be optimized.” Tell that to the thousands of articles telling us how to hack our work lives and optimize our work performance. And, in a workplace where some people are trying to do that, many will also feel the pressure to try to be more productive or just plain do more.
We try to optimize our work selves because our culture valorizes productivity just as it valorizes busyness. If you’re very busy and doing a lot, you must be very important. In my previous job, it seemed like all of the tenure-track librarians, me included, were in a competition to be the busiest (or at least be perceived as the busiest). Because clearly, if we were busy, we were doing a great job. As Tim Kreider writes in “The Busy Trap:”
Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day
More than that, though, being busy is a status symbol in a country that has embraced achievement culture. The more you’re doing, the more important you must be. I read about interesting research that looked at attitudes towards busyness in the U.S. vs. Italy. In Italy, if you are less busy, you are actually seen as having higher status because more accomplished people have earned more leisure time. When a colleague in the U.S. takes more time for leisure they are seen as not being as committed to their work.
There are so many benefits to doing less at work, though we all know how difficult it is to do. Obsessing over making every moment productive keeps us from noticing what’s happening around us. We need time to think and be creative. Daydreaming has been shown to make us more creative and better at problem-solving. We need time to learn new things. We need time to notice and observe. When it feels like we have to always be productive and when the focus is on achieving results, things like attending faculty book groups, meeting with faculty without a specific goal, and spending time observing students on campus just doesn’t feel like time well spent. Yet those are often things that form the cornerstones of our work — the foundations from which we build initiatives that help students. A recent New York Times article by Bonnie Tsui argued that “fallow time” should be a regular part of the “work cycle” where you’re absorbing new ideas, keenly observing what’s around you, and replenishing yourself. If only.
When I talked to my boss last year about how I struggle to find time to prioritize professional reading and learning she told me that she spends the first 30 minutes of each work day reading. I’m not the sort of person who can learn and think in tiny bursts of time (I’m a slow and reflective thinker), so I’m still struggling with how to carve out time in my work day to accommodate this. I used to simply use my time outside of work to grow professionally and I’m just not willing to give away my free time to my job anymore. In what reality is my work ever more important than spending time with my son? Yet I’ve often let my work bleed into my time with him. No more.
There are a lot of things that seem to have been designed to improve work-life balance that are also traps for overwork and increased productivity. The idea of the results-oriented workplace removes the idea that you have to live a 9 to 5 life. As long as you’re getting your work done, you can come and go as you please. But what if you can’t get your work done in that 9 to 5 time period? Then you’re taking from your personal time to get things done. Being able to flex your work time to make time for family and other commitments also sounds like a very family-friendly policy and often is (I’m super glad I could go to my son’s school play during my work day and work a longer day later that week). But it can also make people feel more obligated to work overtime, especially women with children, as found in the article “Living in a Culture of Overwork: An Ethnographic Study of Flexibility:”
We believe, however, that flexibility is unlikely to fulfill its promise as a solution to work-life balance. We argue that flexibility falls short as a strategy to balance because it assumes work and other aspects of life are equally valued in our culture… We found that they use affective and value rationalities as justifications for working again in the evening or continuing to work on the weekend. We developed the concept of “working lightly” as the mental strategy the participants use to rationalize working during off-time. Occasionally, they invoke traditional rationalities by melding habits associated with relaxation with specific work tasks.
For anyone who has responded to work emails or worked on a project while in front of the TV or while hanging out with friends or family, “working lightly” will be a familiar concept. The Internet has made it easier for us to work from anywhere, which can sometimes be a blessing. But it has also blurred the boundaries between work and free-time, making workers more vulnerable as this article suggests:
Even for those who are not constantly bombarded with work demands outside the office, the ubiquity of information processing presents a temptation to be on call at all times. Our world has become an ambient factory from which there is no visible exit and there exists an industry of self-help technologies devoted to teaching us how to be happy workers.
As I mentioned in my first post in this series, “working lightly” almost wrecked my marriage. Being in the same room does not necessarily equal quality time. We need to look at any flexible models of working with similar skepticism. Flexibility can be a great and humane thing, but it can easily become a trap that encourages overwork.
For me, I think having chronic pain also plays a role here. I spent so many years just trying to muscle through the pain. I’ve taught classes with migraines, spoken at conferences with migraines, participated in meetings with migraines, staffed the reference desk with a migraine, and continued to work at my desk with a migraine. And it’s been fucking miserable. But when I spend a whole day in bed because of a migraine, I feel so guilty, like I’ve wasted all that time. I don’t want to do that anymore. I need to recognize that when I have a migraine, my body is telling me to rest. To go someplace dark and quiet and shut off my brain. I have to stop pretending my body is this external thing I can conquer or ignore. It’s me. Doing nothing in this context especially is not admitting defeat; it’s the ultimate expression of care. It’s what I need.
It’s telling that there isn’t a word or phrase in the English language that gets at doing nothing or striving for nothing that isn’t pejorative. Idleness maybe comes closest, but it’s synonymous with laziness and sloth. It’s as if our culture could not conceive of the idea that doing nothing could actually be a good thing. In reality, we’re never really doing nothing, but when I write about doing nothing, I mean doing things that don’t have an explicit greater purpose or that aren’t goal-oriented — like sitting in nature or daydreaming. As I mentioned in my last post, there is a lot to be gained from fallow time that contributes to our work in the long-run, but our go go go culture makes people feel guilty for not productively using every minute they have. Our minds need rest.
My husband and I started taking a meditation class at a local Buddhist center this past Spring. I’ve really enjoyed the opportunity to both focus my mind and give my mind a rest, though I’m still far from being a good meditator (and I’m 100% ok with that). In my reading, I recently came across the term mushotoku, which refers to a Buddhist state of not-wanting, of having no goals, of doing without trying to get something out of it. While I feel like striving towards mushotoku kind of defeats the whole purpose (striving to not strive?), it is a space I want to be in; not just in my meditation practice, but throughout my life.
The Italians have a saying called dolce far niente, which literally translated means sweet doing nothing, but refers to the sweetness of idle time. In the Netherlands, they have Niksen, which is about ignoring the to-do list and consciously choosing to do unproductive things like daydreaming or observing nature. In this New York Times article, the author argues that taking time like that can actually make you more productive in the long run, but I rather like the idea of being unproductive as resistance against our culture of productivity rather than as a tool to help me with it.
Doing nothing is also resistance against the attention economy that wants us to constantly be consuming information, wanting, competing, and doing, doing, doing. So much of the attention economy these days is about making you feel isolated and not enough. When I take time to walk around the outdoor track at work or hike along the nature paths on the periphery of our campus, I feel expansive, connected to things bigger than myself and my work. I can hear my own thoughts better. Heather Havrilesky writes about how unusual moments like that are these days in What if This Were Enough:
It all sounds downright exotic to me now, the thought of going on long walks and paying enough attention that you might notice a bit of interesting bark or a slim reed or a curled vine. Imagine that kind of slow focus, combing the woods or the beach for something to work with. When I go on walks these days, I listen to podcasts and answer texts and make phone calls… It’s hard to live in the moment, to exist locally and think locally and emote locally. Something in my pocket is always buzzing. People far away expect quick answers to every passing question. Why do we live this way?
These days, I just want to slow down. I want to pull the shutters closed and block out the world… The more time I have, the more I realize that all that matters is the small discoveries, the little interactions, the improvised, messy, glued-together moments that lie at the center of our happiness. Everything else is just a distraction.
Like Havrilesky, I want to slow down. I want to do less and see more. I want to want less and be more.
Social media could easily be seen as a time-suck that keeps us from being productive, but I think it is both much more useful and much more toxic than that. I have learned a lot from colleagues (and people in other fields) on social media — both from their own observations and the resources they’ve shared. I’ve had illuminating conversations on social media. I’ve made and kept in touch with friends. But I’ve also spent a lot of time mindlessly and numbly scrolling through social media in ways that have left me feeling hollow. I’ve joined Twitter pile-on’s. I’ve been a snarky jerk.
I’ve been listening to a newish podcast called Your Undivided Attention (created by the Center for Humane Technology and hosted by the guy who invented infinite scrolling — something he seems to feel pretty badly about now) that is exploring how social media sites are designed to be addictive. Their first two episodes are an interview with Natasha Dow Schüll, an anthropologist who studies the addictive design of slot machines and sees parallels in the way social media is designed to create a ludic loop (basically a harmful flow state that immerses you the way a flow state does, but with no end product, and leaves you feeling worse at the end). Who among us can say that we’ve never mindlessly browsed social media and then, at some point, realized we’d been doing it for a really long time, achieved absolutely nothing, and felt pretty crappy? Or posted something to social media and then checked compulsively to see who has retweeted, liked, or responded to our tweet/post? Who hasn’t compulsively checked their phone/email/twitter/facebook for new messages like a Pavlovian dog? That’s addictive design at play.
I have no problem with wasting time, but I’m really struggling with the idea of using something that is purpose-built to addict me in the same way slot machines do. The idea of feeding the attention economy feels gross, even if my not doing so barely makes a ripple. I’ve also grown really weary of the snark and negativity on Twitter. The new algorithm seems more purpose-built than ever to show me the negative, pushing my friend’s pointless angry responses to right-wing provocateurs (shouts into the void) at the top of my feed. I also don’t want to feel like I’m competing for people’s attention on social media. I don’t want to have to think about being pithy and clever. I’m over it.
Artist Jenny Odell, in her book How to do Nothing, sees the impact of the attention economy as something much more insidious and harmful to our overall well-being and sense of self:
We experience the externalities of the attention economy in little drips, so we tend to describe them with words of mild bemusement like “annoying” or “distracting.” But this is a grave misreading of their nature. In the short term, distractions can keep us from doing the things we want to do. In the longer term, however, they can accumulate and keep us from living the lives we want to live, or, even worse, undermine our capacities for reflection and self-regulation, making it harder, in the words of Harry Frankfurt, to “want what we want to want.” Thus there are deep ethical implications lurking here for freedom, wellbeing, and even the integrity of the self.
When there is research suggesting that heavy social media users make impaired decisions similar to people with substance addictions, it’s clear Odell is on to something. I honestly can’t recommend her book highly enough (and if you don’t have time for the book, her EYEO Conference presentation on how to do nothing will give you a good sense of her thesis). It gave me a lot of powerful food for thought about the attention economy and its connections to colonialism, neoliberalism, the cult of productivity, the quantified self, selfishness, loneliness, and environmental degradation. Interestingly, Odell doesn’t argue for people to give up using social media, but for them to find ways to reclaim their attention within our own context. I’m still puzzling over what that might look like for me. I know there are good uses of Twitter and I’ve experienced many of the benefits from it. But I don’t know how to use it (and Facebook, Instagram, etc.) in ways that maximize benefits and minimize the costs to my attention, sense of self, and well-being. As I’ve written before, I miss the world of blogging which brought us together, but which we owned and controlled.
How to do Nothing is a terrific field guide to doing nothing as resistance and as an effort to focus on the local, on community, and on truly meaningful interaction. Odell’s doing nothing involves connecting with nature and learning about and observing the birds around her in her everyday world, but she recognizes that “doing nothing” is going to look different to each person. For me, it’s reading books, listening to podcasts, taking long walks and really noticing what I see around me, sitting and being reflective, having real conversations with people in our field, and spending time with my family doing things that do not contribute to a bottom line. While I’ve been dabbling in meditation, I haven’t built what I’d call a “practice,” because that feels so effortful, and I’m trying not to make meditation another one of those things I try to get an A+ in (though I’m also not sure how to build a practice without being effortful and systematic about it). For me, it’s also about being ok with that contradiction and existing in that liminal space where I’m doing it but not really striving. That would have driven me absolutely bonkers in the past — geez Meredith, either put 100% of yourself into it or don’t do it at all! I rather like the idea of trying to be the slacker I would have hated.
How do you resist the cult of productivity? What do you do to fill yourself up when you’re feeling depleted by all of it? What strategies do you have for getting more from social media than it is taking from you?
Up next – “Where to From Here?”