Breaking Free of the Cult of Productivity


CURT NICKISCH: Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast from Harvard Business Review, I’m Curt Nickisch.

On this show, we’re all about working better and smarter, whether it’s through big ideas that can give your career a quantum leap or through bundles of smaller ideas that help you work better, faster, and cheaper, practical advice to do more. But today we have a radical notion for you. Maybe it’s a good day to do nothing. Because today’s guest says that too many of us are living in hyper drive, constantly paying homage to productivity. And it’s often just too much activity, often for the wrong reasons.

She says, “We’re setting ourselves up to fail and then just feel productivity guilt when we do.” She asks, “If we aren’t benefiting from our overwork and overachieving, why do we tie our self worth to how productive we are?” Madeleine Dore is a writer and interviewer. Her new book is I Didn’t Do the Thing Today and she joins me now. Hey Madeleine.

MADELEINE DORE: Thanks for having me.

CURT NICKISCH: You take issue with this obsession with productivity. I get the sense that even the word at how we think about productivity is a fraught concept for you.

MADELEINE DORE: Yeah. I think it’s definitely the obsession that I think can have us feeling like we’re in tangles day-to-day. I think that there’s nothing wrong necessarily with being productive. I think that we need to do things as people in society, but it’s this relentless pressure that is put on us and we put on ourselves, this demand, and this endless to-do list that we berate ourselves for not getting through. And so I think it’s this equation that we’ve created with productivity being a measure of our worth.

That means that if we do that, what we do is never enough. And so we never quite reach this state of contentedness because this list continues to fill up the next day and we can end up feeling deflated and we can sort of get to the end of the day and call it a failure just because we didn’t get through everything. Even though that expectation in and of itself might be the unrealistic part of it.

CURT NICKISCH: That’s the productivity guilt that you talk about in your book. I love that concept. I’ve also heard of people talk about guilt is the gift that keeps on giving. There is that – when you do feel guilty that you haven’t done enough, it does make you do more. And so it is a tactic to get more done, maybe not everything done.

MADELEINE DORE: It can be. I think guilt can be a really helpful guide. It can alert us to what could be missing, what it is that we want to focus on, and it can be motivating. But on the flip side, like everything having a flip side, it can also be really deflating and it can also be stifling. So sometimes rather than guilt being a guide or being motivating, it can be something that pushes us into a downward spiral. And so we might feel guilty for not getting through our to-do list. And instead of shaking that off and looking into the next thing that we can do or breaking things down into doable bite size chunks, we become overwhelmed by that to-do list.

And then add a layer of guilt onto that and spiral in the guilt, which means that we don’t actually get the thing done because instead we’re just ruminating. We worry about the time we are wasting rather than looking at this new moment, this new hour, and approaching it afresh. I think one of the surest ways to squander time is to worry about wasting it. So it’s in that downward spiral how do we get out of that, because I think that can be what’s sort of most detrimental.

CURT NICKISCH: Have you been in that spiral before?

MADELEINE DORE: Very many days of not doing the thing and I’m falling into the spiral and instead of – well, being quite rigid, I would say. So there’s been a long temptation of mine to draft out my ideal routine the night before. And at 6:00 AM, the alarm will go off and I’ll meditate and I’ll do some stretches and I’ll go for a jog. And I’ll then do my morning pages and I’ll have a beautiful breakfast and I’ll be updated with the news, but I won’t doom scroll. And then I’ll enter into a perfect four hour deep work session.

But of course, when the morning comes and I press snooze on that alarm, the whole elaborate ideal routine comes toppling over. And I instead of just picking something else up and saying, “Okay, well, look, I might not have time for the jog, but I’ll resume the rest.” I scrap the whole thing and I think, “Well, wasn’t able to do that perfectly so I’ll start again tomorrow.” And the day just kind of feels sort of untethered and wobbly.

And so that’s sort of scrapping the whole day because it didn’t go exactly to plan, I think is where we might be missing opportunity to instead be flexible, be open to the moment, be able to see that there is an ebb and flow to our days and to our energy, to our attention. So much can be outside of our control that topples things over and being able to sort of go with that sometimes can be more productive than having this rigid plan and berating ourselves for not being able to stick to it perfectly.

CURT NICKISCH: There’s also this historical context that comes in with the internet and technology making us super productive, like way more productive than workers of previous generations – some jobs people don’t even have to do anymore, but instead of making it easier, it seems like there’s just more to do. Do you feel like you’ve seen it getting – that trend speeding up or slowing down at all lately?

MADELEINE DORE: Well, I can only sort of speak from a quiet observer lens rather than any sort of rigor in researching that, but I think just observationally, it’s interesting don’t you think that we’ve got all these tools to help optimize our time. We have all these technologies and machinery, and so that’s helping to sort of get things done in a more efficient way. And you’d think so that then we could have more time for the living of our lives, the connecting with each other, the sort of enriching things that we want to do, but yet we optimize our time and then we have this spare time available. And then we worry about wasting that time and that we’re not doing enough in that time that we’ve cleared through all these advances in technology and machinery and so on.

And so it’s sort of an interesting phenomenon that what are we optimizing our time for if it’s just to then fill it with more things that we don’t necessarily find fulfilling? So I think that’s where this busyness hamster wheel comes in and there’s a certain type of productivity that can seem to be quite addictive in terms of it can be enlivening to be doing a lot, but what are we doing all this doing for if we’re then say complaining about how busy we are?

I think it’s a nuanced thing because I think there’s lots of people that are busy and find a lot of meaning and constructiveness in that. But then there’s people who are busy out of circumstance and there isn’t much wiggle room to experiment necessarily. And then there’s people who are potentially busy by choice or busy by filling their lives, because it can be too daunting to have that moment of nothingness where they do need to sort of face themselves and face their life and really ask the questions of what is it that I want to do if I’m not just doing all this doing?

CURT NICKISCH: I wonder if a lot of this is just the shift to creative work or knowledge work that’s made a lot of this harder, because productivity is almost like an operational context in businesses of being able to make so many things, a manufacturing relic in some ways. You were making a certain number of things and it’s a very easy thing to measure. And with knowledge work, that’s just a very nebulous thing to try to work out. It’s not as easy to be like, “I can do this many books in the next few years.” There’s much more ebb and flow that way.

MADELEINE DORE: Yes, yes. Absolutely, Curt. I advocate for – with productivity, it’s a narrowing measure for our days. Whereas I advocate for using creativity itself as the measure of our days, because it’s expanding. As you say it acknowledges the ebb and flow. And I think that even if you’re not necessarily someone who is working in a creative profession, creativity as a human trait is what we can draw upon as knowledge workers or just as people going about their day. I think the way that we live our lives can be the work of art itself. There’s many people who have written to the stages inherent in the creative process. And I think that can be really helpful to keep top of mind. There’s a preparation stage where you do gather inspiration and information and the research is done.

And then there’s that stage of incubation where you’re really sort of thinking about it, but perhaps inactively and you’re allowing ideas to mull over in the back of your mind. And that can look like you’re doing nothing. Maybe you’re going for a walk, maybe you’re having a shower, but that is incubating. And then there’s this stage of illumination where the idea does come to you and there’s that solution to the problem, there’s that aha moment. And then there’s a verification stage that’s where you turn to the doing and the action and the productivity.

And so if you look at our work, our lives as those stages, it adds value to all of them. And so instead of just putting all of the value on the doing, there’s value in the thinking. And I think that we rush through that so much, but in many ways we lose original thought, we lose meaning when we don’t allow space for those moments that we’re judging as lazy or not doing enough, but they’re incredibly important.

CURT NICKISCH: Tell us why you think we should just not do something at times and just recognize that it’s okay not to accomplish something we thought we were trying to accomplish that day.

MADELEINE DORE: It’s okay for many reasons. It’s okay because sometimes life gets in the way. It’s okay because maybe priorities shifted and you need to turn your attention to something else. It’s okay because we don’t have to define ourselves by what we do. We can get so caught up on our ambitions, our definitions of success, our comparison to other people using busyness as a badge of honor. And all of these are ways to find self worth that is outside of us in many instances. It’s outside of us because we’re placing our self worth in what we do. We’re placing it in what other people think of us. We’re placing it in our success or how much we earn.

And in many ways it doesn’t have to live there because it’s something that we define for ourselves and will always be internal to ourselves. And so a day that you didn’t do the thing, it’s okay because days vary, we vary, but also we don’t have to define ourselves by that either.

CURT NICKISCH: And so when you have that feeling that you feel that you’re feeling lazy, what do you do about it?

MADELEINE DORE: I think that you can actually redefine laziness. I think that often what we’re labeling as laziness can actually sometimes be rest. And that has value. I think that laziness can also be thinking time. And as we just spoke about that also is incredibly valuable. I think that laziness it’s also encouraging us to slow down and perhaps that’s also what the world needs. I think we can reframe what laziness actually is and see it as an enriching experience. We wouldn’t survive if we’re constant breathing out. We need to be able to breathe in, to breathe out. So we need those moments of kind of expansion.

I speak about sort of human beings being like sponges. And so like a sponge, you need time to absorb things. You need to take in inspiration. You need to have those moments of nothingness to actually have something to take in. And then like a sponge, you can’t absorb forever otherwise that can be inertia. So you do need the squeeze. And that squeeze is the doing, but without the absorbing, there’s nothing to squeeze. And so I think if we can view ourselves as that oscillation, I think then we can take away the judgment of either side and also sort of ask ourselves, “What am I at the moment? Am I absorbing or am I squeezing?”

CURT NICKISCH: When it’s time to squeeze, when it’s time to get something done, I think that point is a place where a lot of people procrastinate, where it’s just difficult to get the momentum and to get started. To know that you have to do it, it’s hanging over you, it is important, and it may be just some of the hard work that comes with whatever your craft or task or work is. What can we understand about those moments of procrastination and how can we get past it?

MADELEINE DORE: Yes, I think it’s such a fine line, isn’t it Curt, because there’s this allowing being patient with the absorb period. So being patient with procrastination sometimes is important because sometimes you’re just not ready yet. You’re not ready to do the thing, you still have more thinking to do. And there’s that idea of pre-crastination where you rush to do the thing. And then that can lead to a lot of errors and mistakes and inefficiency that way. But then the other side is sort of absorbing too long. How do you know when actually it’s time to do the things and it’s turning into sort of complacency, but I think either side, whether it’s that you need more thinking time or whether you really are putting off a task, adding a layer of judgment or guilt to that doesn’t help either side.

So I think the first step there is to remove any productivity guilt from either end, because once you remove the productivity guilt, you have the mental space to actually think about how the best approach for doing this might be. And I think that a lot of times we set ourselves up to fail through exceedingly high expectations of perhaps the timeline that we’re going to get something done in, or to not factor in that they might need to be different buffers of thinking or getting back to other collaboration and so on.

And so it’s really about looking at how to reduce the expectations, but also the potential overwhelm of, “Oh, there’s all these things that I don’t necessarily want to do because I’m procrastinating on them, but I need to do them.” And so finding a way to actually engineer the squeeze can sometimes be breaking those tasks down into very small bite size pieces, which I think is common wisdom, but we overlook it all the time. But I speak about this idea of puddle theory, where you can have this big overwhelming task, this overwhelming tidal wave where you think, “I’m just never going to be able to get through this.”

But if you break it down into tiny little puddles where you can actually step into them and splash about, it’s a much more delightful way to approach the things that you don’t want to do, because they’re smaller, they’re playful. It doesn’t matter where you start, it’s just about starting because you can jump to the next puddle. And so what I do is take that big overwhelming tidal wave, write down the tiniest little things that I can actually do. And then just pick one to start with. It can kind of be an interesting full circle thing where it’s about finding the tools that work for you.

And so for me, the Pomodoro method is something that’s quite helpful in terms of applying this puddle theory. But again, if that’s something that you trip over, we don’t want to have these productivity hacks that then end up making us feel worse about ourselves because we’re not able to stick to them or they don’t work for us and then we think something’s wrong with us. So it’s about experimenting. Maybe that’s creating your own deadlines. Maybe that’s working with somebody else.

I think that even as you were saying, really asking, “Is this something that I really want to do?” Because I think if the want and the desire is there, that is half the task is to actually bring delight to things. I think we are always emphasizing discipline as being what we need, but maybe we actually need more delight in terms of being fascinated, interested, engaged with something.

CURT NICKISCH: I have to ask. You clearly spend a lot of time thinking about what you’re accomplishing every day and how you’re experiencing it. And productivity hacks and tricks they have their limits for you probably. But I’m just curious what yours are. What are some of your favorite ways to make sure that you can look back at the end of a week and feel like you have accomplished what you wanted to accomplish, but also didn’t feel like you have to be endlessly productive either?

MADELEINE DORE: Well, Curt, I think that I spent so long searching for the secret to productivity and experimenting with different hacks and interviewing people about what their days look like. And I thought that I could cobble together the perfect day in all these tools to help me accomplish more things. But in the end, what’s been really powerful is letting go of this idea of accomplishing things being how I define myself. And so there’s little tools that I pick up when I need them, like the puddle theory, for example. And the sponge theory helps me sort of take away judgment from those moments where I’m absorbing.

I adopted something from the artist and author Austin Kleon who I interviewed. And rather than having a rigid routine, a extended to-do list that only winds up making you feel terrible about the things you didn’t do, he has a portable routine and that consists of a checklist. And he just looked at his days and thought, “Well, what are the things that if I do on a given day help make it a good day?” And for him, it was journal, write, walk, and read. So they’re his good day things. And they don’t have to happen in a particular order. And some days they don’t all happen, but on the days that he can check off those things, it’s a good day.

And so applying those check box things I’m able to sort of across a week look at that week and think, “Have I gone for a run? Have I connected with people? Have I journaled? Have I read? Have I written an article? Have I had that thinking time?” So creating your own checkbox. And that’s a great way to sort of track are you actually making space for the things that contribute to a good day for you? I think that can be a really flexible, malleable way to kind of make sure you’re still doing the things that are important to you.

CURT NICKISCH: So what are some things that leaders and managers can do in organization to try to create a more creative environment, one where people on the team get stuff done, which is a requirement, but also have that freedom to not feel like it’s just a productivity race the whole time?

MADELEINE DORE: Yes. And I think that’s incredibly important because a lot of this busyness does trickle down from leaders and managers. And so I think it would be wonderful to see people reflect on how they might be contributing to these things for other people, how they might be contributing to the busyness hamster wheel, or contributing to expectations, or contributing to this ideal of perfection or productivity. And so as a leader really defining productivity for themselves, because it doesn’t have to be how many hours they’ve worked or how much output there is.

Productivity can be something that we expand. And if we, again, use that sort of measure of creativity and allow for that ebb and flow and return to that sort of the stages of create the creative process, allowing that to be something that’s honored in a team. So seeing that a team might not be constantly, perpetually in the doing stage, it’s like, “Well, actually now there’s an incubation stage.” And perhaps introducing planning for that and all the different stages, and planning for the thinking time so that team members and employees can also honor that stage of the process, because it’s going to be in there.

If there’s knowledge work, there’s going to be that moment of downtime, that sponge time, the absorbing, and even just offering these analogies can be a great way to allow people to sort of, ah, have a sigh of relief that it doesn’t have to be the perpetual doing. And asking, “Is it that you want a perfectly checked off to-do list or do you want to do something meaningful?”

And so you can have your team just checking off the to-do list and getting through all the things, or there can be space that’s needed to turn attention to the meaningful things. And that does require actual buffer room. It does require thinking time. It does require allowing for an ebb and flow in attention and energy and all the things that we apply to the individual can be applied to a team. And I think more importantly can be championed by leaders and managers and led by example of, “I’m having the afternoon off.” Or, “I’m absorbing this afternoon.”

And I think that could have a really big ripple effect on taking away this idea that it’s only the doing that we can measure by and taking away that guilt, because we’re actually seeing that productivity is so much more than this narrow description of it. It does encompass thinking and connecting and being creative.

CURT NICKISCH: Madeleine, thanks so much for coming on the show and giving us some pointers and also making us feel a little bit better about what we produce and accomplish day in and day out.

MADELEINE DORE: Thanks for having me, Curt. I hope that everyone finds something to be delighted by in their day.

CURT NICKISCH: That’s Madeleine Dore, a writer and interviewer. She has a podcast called Routines & Ruts, and she wrote the new book I Didn’t Do the Thing Today.

For another IdeaCast on this topic, check out the episode on Productivity Secrets of a Very Busy Man. You might glean some useful routines. That’s episode number 242.

This episode was produced by Mary Dooe. We get technical help from Rob Eckhardt. Our audio product manager is Ian Fox. Thanks for listening to the HBR IdeaCast I’m Curt Nickisch.

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