The Productivity Doctrine: Here’s your permission to do nothing

By Remy Marshall

Photo by Jen P. on Unsplash 

Hustle culture and burnout have emerged over the past decade as a key part of our cultural vernacular. They are the pillars of a gruelling modern life in which we all submit to what I would like to call The Productivity Doctrine. This involves waking up earlier, going to bed later, having a side hustle alongside a full time job, writing an article for an MULSS publication (despite already being overcommitted to extracurriculars), and hoping that it will get us somewhere in life. As it turns out, the result of The Productivity Doctrine is not a better career, better body and better relationships. Instead, we are left feeling drained, anxious and guilty. In the alternative, I offer a rejection of The Productivity Doctrine in favour of a lifestyle that prioritises leisure, pleasure, and, dare I say, laziness.

Hyper-productivity is no longer contained to our work or study, it has leached into every aspect of our lives. We should monetise our hobbies. We should excel at our passions. We should document our fitness journeys. Our time for leisure and pleasure has been consumed by capitalism and it is completely unnatural. The Ju/’hoansi are one of the last hunting and gathering peoples on earth and spend less than 15 hours a week working. Due to the seasonal nature of agricultural work, peasants in medieval Europe are estimated to have had between a third to half the year off. The majority of the ancient world spent around eight hours a day working. Do not be fooled into thinking this is akin to our system; our eight hours is hardly strict. The Productivity Doctrine encourages us to work as many hours a day as possible, our eight hours of work then eats into our supposed eight hours of play and eight hours of rest. So, if this is how humanity has devoted its time for the most part of 300,000 years, we have a pretty strong case for working far less and expecting less of ourselves. With all of that spare time, humans have historically spent their days singing, dancing, creating, decorating their bodies, and telling stories.

No wonder our preoccupation with productivity takes such a toll on our mental and physical health; we are literally not meant to live like this. Let’s embrace indulgence and idleness. Let’s embrace rest and relaxation. Maybe we weren’t put on this planet to scroll endlessly and set alarms and break our day up by the pomodoro technique. Rather, maybe like the trees or the birds, we are here to simply exist. To be witness to the world around us and to enjoy our small part in it.

One of the ways in which hyper-productivity manifests is in the pervasive ideal of knowing everything about everything. On social media, every week there seems to be a new conflict or issue that does the rounds. Do not get me wrong, these are serious and worthy issues, but the echo chamber fills with the same-old remarks: why aren’t we talking about this?… educate yourself … the media is ignoring this. There is an expectation, arguably self-imposed, to have the hottest take or be the first to know about or know the most about it (whatever it is for the fleeting moment). Not only are we supposed to know about it, but we are expected to solve it. I want to point out, first, that this is an impossible expectation. Once we accept the absurdity of this expectation, we begin to relieve some of the pressure we put on ourselves to have infinite knowledge of all the inequalities and injustices that plague our planet. Second, awareness is an over-stated form of activism. Humans have never had to grapple with so many instances of pain and grief and suffering that are so far removed from us. Awareness alone does nothing more than keep our minds engaged in a cycle of fear and anguish. This depletes us of the time and energy needed to have a tangible impact upon matters closer to home. The Productivity Doctrine keeps us in a cycle of scrolling, tapping, engaging our minds and bodies, leaving us unable to look after ourselves, our communities and our planet in any meaningful way. This is not necessarily a defence of ignorance, but I accept that it is okay to not know everything about everything.

We seem to have forgotten how to rest. Sure, we can fall asleep at night and spend a whole day in bed easily enough. But I mean truly rest. Sure, we can also take a bath and light a candle and listen to lo-fi. But, again, I mean truly rest. I don’t just mean take a break. A mere pause on our hyper-productive existence is not enough. We need to lead a more restful existence. This means no more wearing “I’m too busy” as a badge of honour. A life oriented around leisure and pleasure may sound utopian, and the ability to do so comes from a place of privilege, but it is the only way forward. I echo the voices on the periphery, vibrant communities of women of colour, who have come together to live in this way. I am repeating their mission when I say that individual and collective pleasure can only be achieved if we stop doing so damn much. Small moments, local issues, genuine connection – it is doing less but in a far more meaningful way that can overhaul The Productivity Doctrine. We need to relearn the power of rest.

The Productivity Doctrine has insidiously crept into all areas of our life. From everyday tasks to social media to our ability to switch off, The Productivity Doctrine should be  held accountable for the damage it does to us on both an individual and collective scale. Spend more time doing nothing, spend more time creating, spend more time playing. Ultimately, we must learn to spend less time worrying about what we are doing with our time.

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