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How to Escape the Productivity Trap

There are 2 types of millennials. The ones who can sleep until noon or watch Netflix all day and feel great about it. And the ones who are workaholics or need to constantly create things in order to feel valuable. As you might guess, I fell into the second category.

Life was still good when I was going to school, but once I started university I started to feel bad when I enjoyed my Saturdays outside with friends instead of at home studying. I felt pressure to already create my first start-up, so I could become rich before graduating. I woke up at 4 am (involuntarily) thinking about my agenda for the week and all the things I'd have to take care of. I was suffering from a severe case of productivity addiction.

I felt pressure to become as successful as possible in order to 'win at adulting'. Society fed me stories about college dropouts, who built their business from their garage and became millionaires without even finishing their university degrees. Maybe that's only a symptom of studying business and economics, but I know I'm not the only one feeling the pressure to be productive.

picture of a notebook planner

"The simple act of placing a value on an hour has made us loath to waste even a minute, and the more money you have, the more expensive your time is and the more you feel you don't have enough time to spare."

- Celeste Headlee (Do Nothing)

I know the objective of productivity science is not to make you productive every single minute of the day, but to increase your output in a given timeframe so that you can allocate more time to the things you actually enjoy afterward. But it's difficult to enjoy yourself if you measure your time in money, and every minute spent not being productive comes with an opportunity cost.

The truth is...I've been struggling with this feeling for years and didn't know how to finally chill out and enjoy myself without feeling guilty about it. Because what good is productivity if you don't enjoy your life?

"We are driven, but we long ago lost sight of what we were driving toward. We judge our days based on how efficient they are, not how fulfilling." - Celeste Headlee

I believe humans are naturally looking for ways to evolve and grow, but it should not come at the expense of joy. If you can even remotely relate to me and want to find a way out of the hamster wheel, I'll share my step-by-step guide below.

How to Escape the Productivity Trap

I'm calling it a trap because it is: no matter how much time you spend being productive, you could always do more. Someone is always more successful, and there can never be enough hours in the day to produce and create. So it doesn't really matter whether you work all night, or get a good night's sleep instead - there is never a finish line, so you might as well get some rest. In fact, it's proven that we can't be productive 24 hours per day. We need breaks and recovery periods, and ironically those make us more productive in return.

Step 1: Understand where this mentality is coming from.

As you probably know, the first step towards a solution is awareness. Once you're aware of the problem, you can try to understand it, and then attempt to solve it.

Productivity culture was born a bit more than one hundred years ago, when electricity spread throughout homes and workplaces, which gave humans the possibility to work even after dark. Factories started to work in shifts so that technically, production did not need to halt. This means that theoretically, we could be productive 24/7.

Add capitalism to the mix (which tells us that happiness is found in consumption and the more money we have, the more we can consume), and you have the perfect recipe for productivity culture. If you make people want to work non-stop because they believe it's for their own benefit, you keep the economy growing - or so the idea.

This attitude has been so deeply ingrained in our culture and values that we now believe it's virtuous to work as much as possible. But we need to understand that life comes in cycles and dualities, and we cannot and should not spend 100% of our time being productive. Nature has seasons, and so should we. After a period of work, we should rest - this is how we function best and are the happiest. Most of us also wouldn't be happy relaxing ALL the time. We would get bored, we need the duality.

There is so much more background on how this societal mindset has developed, and if you

want to understand it better I highly recommend reading "Do Nothing: How to Break Away from Overworking, Overdoing and Underliving" by Celeste Headlee.

Step 2: Do nothing.

What helped me get out of the productivity trap is to initially completely shut down (like a computer that needs to be restarted). I still kept working my 9-5 job, but outside of working hours I just allowed myself to do nothing. To watch hours of Netflix and order takeout because I didn't even have the energy to cook. I realized I could not continue to live at the mercy of my to-do list because I would never feel like I can catch up, so I stopped and did the exact opposite of what I used to do. I rebelled against all the voices in my head telling me to learn another language, write another blog post, cook a healthy meal and go for a run. You could call it exposure therapy. And I realized that my life doesn't fall apart if I spend a day in bed watching Netflix. On the contrary, it actually made me feel recharged.

And for a few months, I did just that. I rested and allowed myself to be lazy (at least that's what I believed it to be - but now I know that inactivity does not equal laziness). Until I actually felt my motivation come back. Without feeling the NEED to be productive, I felt a DESIRE to be creative and produce something. I slowly allowed myself to work on projects again and produce things in my free time. But this time it didn't come from the pressure to be productive, but from an intrinsic motivation to create something.

Besides allowing myself to do nothing, I also intentionally let go of some of the habits I had developed during the pandemic or even before, which were contributing to my productivity addiction. Here are some of the things I stopped doing:

  • I stopped multitasking. You've probably heard it before, but multitasking is a myth. The brain can't actually do two things at a time - it quickly switches between the two and makes you think you are doing both, when your attention is actually split in half. What you end up with is two tasks done with half the focus, and it probably takes longer than it would have if you would have just done one after the other. But what is even more detrimental is how exhausting this constant task switching is for your brain. If you don't allow your brain to focus on one thing and constantly switch your focus, it tires your brain and leaves you feeling drained. Therefore, I suggest focusing on one thing at a time until it's done, and then moving on to the next.

  • I stopped listening to podcasts in 1.5x speed. Okay, if you've never done this you might think I'm crazy, but during the pandemic my podcast consumption expanded (since I wanted to be productive also during my walks or while cleaning my apartment), and to be able to absorb even more knowledge I would listen to them at 1.5x the speed. It's definitely doable and certainly efficient, but in the long run it contributed to a feeling of stress. For one, having to constantly listen and absorb information, and secondly asking my brain to do it at 1.5x the normal speed left me feeling under consistent pressure. Yes, you might be able to consume more content if you increase the listening speed, but it's not worth the stress! Do yourself a favor and consume content at a regular speed, mindfully.

  • I stopped doing exhausting workouts where I constantly had to push my limits. I'm a competitive person and love doing sports like Crossfit or bootcamps. I loved pushing myself and realizing I could do even more than I thought I was capable of. But when my work and life felt demanding already, having to push my body constantly as well only contributed to my exhaustion. I think there is no harm in doing a tough workout now and then, but it was time for me to slow down a bit and allow my body to move without having to go to its limits every time.

  • I stopped replying to messages right away. I used to be the person that replied to messages immediately because I also appreciate a quick response. However, when sitting in front of a laptop all day that bombards you with emails and messages, and then having to reply to personal messages after work just felt too overwhelming. I let go of the pressure to reply to everyone instantly to not disappoint people, and now sometimes put my phone on flight mode in the evening so that I don't feel pressured. Constant messages means constant interruptions and they drain you just as much as multitasking.

Step 3: Do something.

So while I stopped doing things that were making me feel stressed, I started doing things that would help me relax:

  • I started doing Yin Yoga and fell in love with it. I am literally being forced to lie on the ground for an hour and not move. How much better can it get?! Slow and gentle movement like (yin) yoga, walking, or pilates made me enjoy moving again because it is not forcing my body into discomfort. Now I only do the workouts I feel like doing. Some days it might be a HIIT workout, and some days it's yin yoga.

  • I started to radically prioritize. I try to become aware of when I feel overwhelmed, make a list of all the things I feel like I have to do, and realize that it's impossible to complete all of it. I could come up with 10 things I want to do every minute, but we only have so much time in a day. So I pick 1 or 2 things that are the most important to me and just make sure I finish those. The rest does not matter. If you start the day with your most important task in mind and manage to feel satisfied when that one is completed, you will be effective without overwhelming yourself.

  • I started doing guided relaxations, for instance with an app like Insight Timer or Calm. Listening to someone guide me through a relaxation exercise can really help my nervous system calm down. If you feel overwhelmed during the day, lie down for 10 minutes and listen to a relaxing meditation (I'm not asking you to meditate for 20 minutes and focus on your breath because that can also feel like a chore). This can give your mind and body a break and re-energize you.

  • I started doing things that don't produce any sort of outcome. In the past, I rarely watched series because I thought it would be more productive to read a book or learn a language or create something. Now I recognize the value in doing "useless" things. Doing things just for enjoyment purposes or just for the sake of it, without producing anything. It's an act of rebellion against the productivity culture and that alone makes it feel valuable to me. This could be coloring, listening to music, or watching tv shows.

  • I started blocking time for myself when I feel overwhelmed, allowing myself to cancel plans (which I hardly ever do), and prioritizing rest. It's good to let other people know that you're overwhelmed or need time to relax, so they can help you care for yourself.

All of the above has definitely helped me gain a bit of distance from productivity culture, but it still has more of a grip on me than I would like. It's a continuous journey of recognizing when and why I feel pressure and finding ways to relieve it. We'd really appreciate if you could share any other things you do to relax and escape productivity culture in the comments!



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