2 months ago

Why Are We So Obsessed With Productivity?

4 MIN READ

Productivity and performance-obsessed LYNN ENRIGHT charts why and how Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) are taking over Instagram and her life

I walk the steps with my own two feet. I measure the steps with my iPhone Health app. And then I share a screenshot detailing the amount of steps with Instagram. I’m not really boasting about the steps taken – it’s not a particularly remarkable or impressive number – but, having been given the tools to easily measure the steps (via an app on my phone) and the tools to easily share that measurement (via another app on my phone), I do it, obediently, almost unthinkingly. 

It’s not just me. Each time I log on to social media, it seems someone is sharing a measurement of their leisure time; how many kilograms they lifted if they’re into fitness; how many words they’ve written if they’re an aspiring novelist; how many alcoholic drinks they haven’t drunk if they’ve recently given up. Instagram has, of course, always been about putting one’s best foot forward, but increasingly it is not just about occasional extraordinary achievement but quotidian accomplishments. So yes, you might share a picture of your wedding day or the birth of your first child; but you might also post a story about something as seemingly mundane as how many hours’ sleep you managed to get last night. 

This obsession with productivity – and the performance of that productivity – is a concept explored by the writer and artist Jenny Odell in her book How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy (Melville House Publishing). She sums up our online habits succinctly: “We submit our free time to numerical evaluation, interact with algorithmic versions of each other, and build and maintain personal brands.”

After a long day or week in the office, meeting deadlines and achieving our KPIs, we go home and fulfill another set of demands. This time, they’re not set by an employer; they’re set by us. Well, us – and the algorithms and software systems that increasingly shape our existence. 

Last year, a journalist named Edith Young published “My Little Trick For Reading More Books” on Man Repeller, Leandra Medine’s stylish website for millennials. In the feature, Young outlined how she implemented a system that would enable her to read more books. Aiming to read 26 books a year, she and a friend created a spreadsheet to measure and monitor their progress. “We then sent [the] formatted Google Sheet to a dozen close friends, inviting them to participate and track with us,” Young explained. The article was illustrated with a stylish flat-lay photograph of a scrunchie, some expensive toiletries and a copy of Otessa Moshfegh’s My Year Of Rest And Relaxation. A friend sent me a link to the piece at the time. “Why are people obsessed with measuring, tracking and comparing everything about their lives, including every aspect of their leisure time?” she asked disparagingly.

When I contact 26-year-old Young, who lives in New York, she tells me that her system was never intended to be a productivity hack or a way of signalling her impressively-utilised leisure time. And, she says, she actually hoped that it would mean she spent less time on her phone. “At first glance, this ‘system’ may seem like a competitive attempt to optimise my approach to a leisure activity,” she says, “but the goal was not to accelerate to reading 36 or 52 books in 52 weeks. I designed it to force me to overhaul my screen-heavy habits and replace them with a new one – reading for pleasure, and not as a means to an end.”

The spreadsheet “diminished my anxiety about both productivity and performance, and allowed me to relish a hobby I hadn’t enjoyed since grade school”, she says.

It’s easy to see her logic. We make ourselves accountable by measuring our output, and so we might find that we get more done. We might also find that we take more pleasure in what we get done. I recently walked a distance that I estimate to be several miles but as I had left my phone in to be repaired as I began the walk, I didn’t know how many steps I’d taken. I felt disappointment at not being able to measure my steps. Had the steps really happened if they hadn’t been counted?

Shane O’Mara, professor of experimental brain research at Trinity College Dublin and author of In Praise Of Walking (published by The Bodley Head), believes measuring our steps is a useful process. “I think you should measure your walking steps every day – the results will surprise you,” he tells me. “You will find you walk much less than you think you do and walk for shorter periods of time than you remember.”

By measuring our steps, we can ensure that we are taking a healthy amount of steps. By measuring the number of books we read, we can decide if we want to read more. By measuring the output of our leisure time, we can ensure that we are spending it wisely.

The problem occurs when the pressure to be productive in our leisure time – and to then perform that productivity by sharing it online – alongside maintaining a career and family life leads to a sense of panic, of relentlessness, of burnout. “Feeling guilty about resting, taking time out, because you should be producing something, always producing – if only a state of anxiety in yourself, because of your lack of apparent productivity – is one of the great problems of modern working life, and especially so for knowledge workers,” says O’Mara.

Young admits that she is concerned with the habit of signalling productivity on Instagram: “I think it is linked to the convergence of technology and capitalism, and then spurred on by the custom of constantly posting about accomplishments on social media – both to impress friends and court new opportunities.”

At the beginning of 2019, a BuzzFeed essay about millennial burnout by the American journalist Anne Helen Peterson went viral, its description of a state of strung-out busyness resonating with hundreds of thousands of readers. Peterson blamed the housing crisis, the student-debt problem and the always-on culture of modern workplaces for millennials’ frazzled mindsets – but she also pointed the finger at social media and our habit of creating and maintaining a personal brand. “There is no ‘off the clock’ when at all hours you could be documenting your on-brand experiences,” she wrote.

Leisure time can become something else, something more like work, when we measure it and optimise it and Instagram it. Odell writes in her book, “There is a kind of nothing that’s necessary for, at the end of the day, doing something.” 

To maintain a productive life, it is necessary to be unproductive at times. Stare out the window for an unknown amount of minutes. Take a slow, meandering stroll while your phone is switched off. Fall asleep on a plane, as the sun warms your face, just until you feel a crick in your neck. Find uncountable moments and enjoy them, alone and offline.

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