The Problem with Productivity

When was the last time you did nothing?

Nothing but let the sun rays hit your face, the wind tussle your hair, the allergen pollens make your eyes watery and itchy at the same time…

It’s probably been a while, hasn’t it?

We all have a problem with productivity, where, over time, we’ve pressured ourselves to churn out more work in shorter sprints. Software development went from month or yearlong projects to two-week development sprints [1]. Instead of Annual Performance Reviews, some companies have biannual or monthly check-ins. KPIs are paramount, and are usually based on activities and successes, not thought or strategy.

Somehow, some way, our productivity levels have equated our worth. “I’m just so busy,” you humble-brag to your mom. “I just don’t know how the office would get along without me.” In making this statement, you’re giving yourself all the gold stars we craved as children: by putting self-worth in your to-do list, you make yourself feel important so you don’t have to think and create your own self-value. This gets you out of countless hours with your mom, who just wants help updating her iPhone so she can send bitmojis to her friends on Facebook. By equating our tasks with our value as human beings, we have a bloated sense of importance for the office and our work. While it’s important to note that work gives us purpose, and purpose helps keep us satisfied, what happens when we solely become what we do, not who we are?

By ignoring the hard things in life: what your self-esteem looks like, a separate identity from work, familial problems, gatherings, celebrations, or the highs and lows that come with friendships; you also ignore yourself. If we attach our identity to a singular topic or theme, what happens when it goes away? What happens to our creativity? What happens to our openness for new connections, conversations, or experiences?

The only constant in life is change, so our identities have to fluctuate with it.

How do I know all of this?

I used to be this person. (I literally gave a talk on “How to Be More Productive” once).

One of the coping mechanisms I use to control my clinical anxiety is lists. When things seem out of control or chaotic, if I make a list, I feel better; more in control. This means I have four buckets of lists, and have written hundreds of to-do lists in apps, on paper, in post-its, on a CVS receipt… you name it; I’ve done it. I’ve tried the Pomodoro technique, a timer based on “flow” work. I’ve color-coded my calendar so it looks like a Rubik’s Cube. I’ve put alarms, reminders, and events in multiple calendars at once, so my phone looks like it’s in need of an exorcism at times.

All of this… to feel valued. To feel responsible. To feel in control.

We act based on our feelings, and, at least to some extent, we feel based on our actions. The first few times I laid in front of the TV or computer for more than 2 hours? I felt disgusting, like a bloated rat just hanging out in the sewer. Even now, ages after finding out more about this phenomenon, I feel anxious if I sit for too long. I’m supposed to be DOING, because DOING makes MONEY and MONEY is … well, crap. Now I’ve fallen for the capitalism conundrum, which is where productivity first started (looking at you, Henry Ford, and your assembly lines).

By getting ourselves away from our screens, away from our to-do lists, and away from the mindset that being productive is the ONLY way to be a good person, we can start to play again. We can create again by getting our hands dirty and our minds clear.

Go outside. Feel the sun hitting your face, wind tussling your hair, allergy pollens swimming up your nose. Break away from your to-do list, so you can feel free and clear when it’s time to go back to it.

[1] *I know, I’m a CSM and should instead laud the merits of agile software development: a better product, more iterative approach, with projects that fail less and cost less money in the long run. This, however, is just an example of how our world has been truncated.


Megan Miller
Megan Miller
As one enamored with deep thinking and deep conversations, Megan Miller shares her findings and experiences as a word nerd and language lover worldwide. With more than 2 decades of Spanish under her belt, Megan has experienced firsthand the benefits of bilingualism. Megan is the founder and owner of Aprovechar Language Solutions, a translation and Spanish/English language coaching business that focuses on mindset, habit, and real-world examples to improve people’s confidence and comfortability in speaking and communicating. When she’s not coaching or translating, Megan uses her communication skills as an IT Project Manager to produce technological solutions and likes to travel and bake in her free time

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  1. “List” defined: “a number of connected items or names written or printed consecutively, typically one below the other.” “Number” is the operative word.

    I’ve narrowed my productivity posting to an “unlist” — to one item. What author Greg McKeown labels in his brilliant book, Essentialism, as W.I.N – What’s Important Now. It’s an amazing concept. It creates total focus. Don’t even think about putting another item below the first item.

    Sometimes that focus is a work item:

    • “Write blog post for most recent podcast episode.”

    And sometimes it has nothing to do with work:

    • Go make breakfast. (insert other meals as the day prescribes)

    • Go outside. (An all-time favorite, allergy pollens notwithstanding)

    Great message, Megan.