OK, I Admit It: Productivity Is Overrated

Full vitae scholarly productivity

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This year I turned 47, but instead of the traditional midlife crisis — wherein I rethink my partnership or my career, have an affair, or purchase something flashy I can’t afford — I’ve opted to rethink my entire approach to writing.

I conservatively estimate I’ve spent about 30 years feeling guilty, in one form or another, for not being "more productive."

That isn’t entirely my fault. Work culture in the United States has made constant "busyness" the marker of social and professional success. But the rules of the productivity game are ever shifting. A faculty workload that was deemed productive 10 or 15 years ago now almost seems downright sluggish.

Case in point: Many CVs for candidates seeking their first tenure-track job now list a published book as well as several articles. In other words, what used to grant a scholar tenure is now the norm for most entry-level positions.

I’ve written columns about how to power through and get writing done. I’ve also written about academic envy and the second-book slump. Now I’m an NEH Public Scholar working on a nonfiction book proposal (A Cultural History of Allergies) with fancy literary agents. I’m an "accomplished" person by any standard of measurement.

And yet, after all these years of doling out writing advice, I have never felt productive enough. Lately, I’ve started to feel guilty about telling other writers to just "get on with it," to write every day, to always be writing. Increasingly, I feel like a complete hypocrite.

Here’s why: I have always been a "lazy" writer. By which I mean: Before I write something, I like a lot of downtime in order to read thoroughly and widely, look around, talk to people, ponder. My writing process is the antithesis of the "hot take." Despite that, and because I’m blessed with the ability to write quickly and well, I’ve managed to finish a couple of books, a smattering of academic articles, and many columns — but not without a lot of mental anguish, anxiety, and constant feelings of delinquency. My mantra throughout the years has been: "I’m just not doing enough."

Last year, browsing through the book stands at the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association, I picked up a title that looked almost heretical for our harried day and age. Reading it earlier this summer caused me to have the biggest writing-related epiphany I’ve ever had.

The book is Melissa Gregg’s Counterproductive: Time Management in the Knowledge Economy. Its basic premise is that the trope of productivity is a scam. It’s the way we protect ourselves from precarity in the modern work world. Gregg argues that, around the turn of the last century, riding the waves of Taylorism and its focus on efficiency in factories and business, the concept of productivity replaced religion as the secular route to a meaningful existence. I work, therefore I am.

Toiling away in 21st-century academe, with its publish-or-perish work ethic, my own internal nagging always went something like this: I must always be writing or working on something or I’ll never get tenure or be a successful person and no one will ever take me seriously and, oh God, I really have nothing worthwhile to say right now but I’ll try to write something anyway, therefore I am.

Those of us who compete in academe’s "I’m so busy" Olympics know how we are supposed to reply when someone asks about our work. Our instinct is to go on at length about how busy we are. It would almost be unthinkable to respond to a colleague’s laundry list of activities with, "Oh, I’m not too busy myself. I’ve been enjoying my summer and reading a lot of fantasy novels." Can you even imagine the look on that busy worker-bee’s face?

I can, because lately I’ve been telling more people the truth: I’m not that busy right now, and I’m happier that way. (Incidentally, I’m not the only person making this argument lately. You can find a more, er, pointed version here.)

Gregg is a social scientist at Intel, and, as she relates in her book, she’s been obsessed with business self-help books for years. One of their basic tenets is always about "working smarter" or "saving more time" or "delegating smaller tasks" so that you can free yourself up for the bigger tasks. The basic zeitgeist, as Gregg sums up, is "the perception that there is something more that one is capable of, a level of self-competence that is not yet achieved and liberated, a degree of excess capacity or potential that can be tapped with the right level of focus."

Up to now, I’ve certainly felt as though I haven’t been living up to some invisible "potential." After all, wasn’t I some kind of slacker for not churning out two or three academic articles a year? And if I was going to write five or six more books, then I had better get on top of it and stop lollygagging around.

I never stopped to ask myself why I was doing so much writing because I already knew the answer: tenure. It’s the carrot and the measuring stick that looms over those on the tenure track and those who hope to be. Even faculty members lucky enough to attain tenure still feel caught in its grasp to some degree. I have a good friend whose first book won awards, has a slew of articles, holds tenure at a good university, and yet he is constantly fretting about not doing enough.

The cost of our hyper-focus on productivity, Gregg argues, is too much stress, too little downtime, and too much asociality. Withdrawal from social interactions is seen as virtuous when it is done to increase individual productivity. Denial of social pleasures is seen as a mark of superiority, because productivity is a marker of success.

So you skip out on happy hour with colleagues to finish that book review for that top journal. Or you spend half of your family vacation with your laptop open, editing that manuscript that you hope to send off by next month. You don’t notice how much your drive for increased productivity is leading to more and more work — until you’re burned out.

"Paradoxically," Gregg writes, "the capabilities of productivity software create expectations of always more activity." And she should know. She’s surrounded by engineers and software developers trying to maximize their time. As Gregg is quick to point out, however, all of the time saved from efficiency and productivity apps only increases the amount of free time that one is then expected to funnel back into — you guessed it — more work.

This year, I’m the same age as my father was when he died suddenly. And I’ve been spending a lot more time thinking about how I spend my time. Especially now that it seems clearer to me than ever that we all have a limited supply. I’m starting to work on a new book, and I’m trying to balance the time I do research and write with time that I’m completely "off the clock."

I’m constantly reminding myself, and my friends, that ultimately, Melissa Gregg is right when she suggests that, in the end, "How long we work is not a measurement of heroism or commitment." We can still be good scholars and dedicated writers without working eight days a week. It’s OK to be lazy sometimes. In fact, I’ve found that laziness helps the quality of my writing.

So what am I going to tell new writers who ask me advice from now on?

I’m going to tell them to experiment with different techniques and writing schedules. One size does not fit all. Work it out for yourself and get the writing done — but don’t rack yourself with guilt for not meeting some arbitrary quota. Don’t even try to write 1,000 words a day if that’s not your natural pace. Let yourself be lazy sometimes, too. The writing will still be there when you get back from your laptop-free vacation.

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