Sunday, April 7, 2019

Is Productivity Culture the New Prosperity Gospel?

Most people are familiar, in some way, with the notion of Prosperity Gospel:  Success is a marker of personal worthiness, and people of good character experience good fortune.  If you're poor, it must mean you're a bad person.  It's surfaced in various incarnations throughout Western Civilization, from the divine right of kings all the way down to the televangelist in his private jet preaching that the unfortunate need only find the way to faith and all else will fall into place.

In the last ten years, I've seen a demonstrated pushback against this idea, mostly from people who found themselves in poverty or misfortune through the immorality or unethical behaviour of others, not their own.  The idea that success comes to those who deserve it is incompatible with a belief in institutionalized oppression, because if it turns out that the system is unfair, then those who profit by it can't be assured of their own superiority.

So, it's all good now that we're rejecting it, right?  Not quite.

I came of age in the dotcom years, watching friends sacrifice sleep and food and private lives to chase the dream.  I remember the days of "I sleep at the office, and I haven't had a day off in ten weeks," watching brilliant young people grind themselves to pieces in pursuit of that moment when the work would become the 'win' of a massive IPO or the sale of an original idea brought to fruition.  For too many of my generation, even when that success came, the emptiness left when the work was gone meant just diving into another massive project, another opportunity to prove that we could work harder and longer than anyone else.  Not for us our parents' 30 years of marking middle management time to a gold watch; we were building new industries and new worlds.  I knew over a dozen denizens of the C-suite by the time I was 25.

Then the crashes.  Cascading through multiple industries, taking our jobs and our homes and our futures and everything we'd burned our hearts to prove we deserved.  Gen X left rudderless as the first decade of a century came to an end, faith lost in a future where we could work hard enough to someday not work.  Friends said, "I gave ten full years to this, I was Employee #5 of hundreds, and now I'm redundant and released in the merger I never even heard was coming.  I've been a barista for 18 months and glad to have it."

At the same time, Millennials were coming into the workforce, with even less faith in stability because no one had ever even pretended they could earn it.  They graduated to "We hire through a contract agency; work hard enough for the next eight months and we offer the top 3 contractors full time and benefits," and "we're offering an internship, we can't afford to pay you but we provide free food and laundry and showers."

And here, at the close of the second decade of the new millennium, we find ourselves in the age of the Grind and the Side Hustle.  How many jobs do you have?  Barely half of my friends have only one job.  They deliver things, they make things and sell them, they drive rideshares, they take on writing or editing or drawing freelance projects.  The parents have another full time job, of course: raising the next generation for jobs we don't even have names for yet, and most of that is still being done by women.

What's arisen in this landscape is the idea that time that produces nothing is anathema.  Audiobooks are a great example of this;  when 'no one has time to read', the ability to combine a book with another activity means that no time is wasted on either pursuit.  Cleaning your house is also reading a book, driving to work is reading a book, you can even read a book while you knit scarves for everyone you know for holiday gifts, saving money by handmaking AND saving time by multitasking AND saving time and money for Future You who will not have to shop for gifts.  Every second spent, at least doubled in value!

If you can layer your activities effectively enough, we tell one another, you're just adding SO MANY hours to your day.  I'm as guilty as anyone, scrolling through my phone while I watch a movie or television show at home, catching up on my social connections or my plans while entertaining my mind with a thing that apparently doesn't deserve my total focus any more than my social connections or plans do.

Where did this idea come from, that we owe it to...someone to engineer our hours to be more productive but never deserve the leisure generated by the efficiency?  Who does this profit, this belief of ours that time spent in repose is wasted, that every minute spent should be evaluated in the context of value added, that even a day of rest must be reframed as a self-care day that helps us maintain our productivity in order to be justified?

Not us.

So what to do?  How, like Maxine Waters, do we reclaim our time?  I had an interesting idea put into my head by an 'Extreme Productivity' (yeah, I know) videocast a couple of weeks ago, that you could look at 'productivity' as putting more hours in your day to accomplish the maximum number of things, or you could look at it as accomplishing the necessary tasks more quickly to create more time for your own interests or relaxation.  That if you looked at what you were *choosing to accomplish* and prioritised it accurately, the goal was to find ways to complete those things more quickly and efficiently, instead of just continuing to add tasks to the day.  That once you finished the to-do list, the thing to do was not pull out a larger, more comprehensive to-do list of things you do when you have 'spare time'.  The thing to do was ask yourself, "What would I like to do now?" to celebrate your accomplishment.

On reflection, I begin to understand that I've been on this course for several years now, since I wrote this piece about unscheduling and the glorification of busy, this idea that perhaps what I needed to do was figure out how to live my life in such a way that I didn't have to constantly battle the Google Calendar for control.  This whole reframing of productivity not as 'accomplishing more by focusing less' but as 'understanding what I need to do and setting boundaries about how I spend my time'.

As ever, when I talk about how I manage my time and my productivity, there's an element of privilege in it, that I don't HAVE to work three or four jobs to keep body and soul together.  I know that.  But I also know that if you're in that position, as I have been, and you're not thinking about how you're going to get out of it, that's not helpful either.  Everything that takes my time right now, I have a long-term plan for giving less time to, so I can have more time for me.  That feels glorious, and it's the very best self-care.

In the meantime, I'm looking at how I balance my focus and my time to actually BE productive and efficient.  For starters, while writing this, I did nothing else.  Not a single thing.  Didn't look at my phone, didn't talk to anyone, didn't watch an episode of TV. was hard.  The desire to add an activity is strong.  But I feel like I'm better for it, for starting and finishing a thing without leaving six browser tabs open in its wake.

I'm continuing to ask myself:  What is getting my focus, and who is that productivity benefiting?

And now I'm asking you, Dear Reader:  What is getting your focus, and who is your productivity benefiting?

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