The allure of productivity
Quiet Productivity, The illusion of control For as long as the internet has been around, productivity tips have remained a staple. I used to be a regular follower of Lifehacker during Gina Trapani’s tenure as editor, and productivity blogs remain exceedingly popular. Even the prestigious Harvard Business Review has dedicated a whole section to personal productivity. Bestselling books on productivity, such as “Getting Things Done,” “Atomic Notes,” and “The Habit Cycle,” consistently dominate bestseller lists.
It seems like everyone is perpetually in search of the next productivity hack – that elusive method to enhance their performance, to do more with less time and stress. Unbeknownst to us, each time we pick up a productivity book, peruse a productivity blog, or subscribe to yet another newsletter promising productivity tips, we implicitly believe that this discovery will unveil the secret we’ve been missing. If only we knew this one trick, we think, everything would suddenly fall into place.
It’s tempting to think that if we could just arrange our task list in the perfect order, find the ultimate calendar app, or meticulously organize our email folders, all our problems would be solved. We would regain control over our lives, get on top of everything, reduce our stress, and find daily contentment. Underneath all the productivity hacks and tech advice, that is the true, incredibly tempting and captivating promise of productivity.
The prominent voices in the room
How toxic productivity culture emerges The most vocal figures in the productivity sphere often happen to be individuals with the privilege of time, space, and an exclusive realm to gather their thoughts. They capitalize on the power of internet marketing to broadcast their ideas to the world.
Those who achieve significant growth on platforms like Twitter, YouTube, Medium, or any online space have the luxury to invest time (and often money) in making their message heard. They emphasize their relentless “grind,” “hustle,” “grit,” “remarkable consistency,” and “unwavering commitment” while conveniently overlooking the advantages they enjoy, such as immense control and autonomy over their time and focus.
A great deal of popular productivity advice centers on imposing artificial constraints. These include interim deadlines, Pomodoro cycles, time blocking, and creating a minimum viable project. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with these techniques, they should be viewed as tools rather than ultimate solutions. Productivity guidance that primarily emphasizes the strict application of specific tools and techniques tends to overlook the broader context.
What about those of us who are already grappling with numerous constraints?
The tools and techniques mentioned above can be beneficial, as they introduce artificial constraints that suit different life stages. However, not all of us are examining an empty, blank calendar with gratitude for the structure that time blocking provides. Instead, some of us are staring at that one precious Saturday afternoon we managed to carve out in a whole month to work on our project. Meanwhile, the project’s task list appears to grow exponentially every day.
And when that highly anticipated Saturday afternoon finally arrives, it turns out our child is unwell, our partner is sick, or we’re battling illness ourselves. In the end, we all find ourselves sprawled on the living room floor, watching Disney Plus – which was the necessary course of action. However, this doesn’t make a dent in that ever-expanding project task list. For many of us, the issue isn’t time blocking but rather the constant presence of constraints in our lives.
The gap between toxic productivity culture and real-world productivity
Much of the hustle culture and toxic productivity advice circulating has a significant gap. The individuals dispensing this popular advice are operating from a lofty, disconnected vantage point and aren’t directly grappling with the realities of life that many (if not most) people face.
Karla Starr eloquently encapsulates this point by saying: “While they may be paragons of productivity, it’s easy to accomplish tasks when you don’t have kids, a day job, and can outsource everything except editing your manuscript on productivity. These days assume no commute, no traffic, no cooking, and no chores/errands/household tasks. No sudden phone calls from loved ones, no misplaced items or technical issues, no surprises. There’s nothing demanding your time or energy outside of your predetermined, self-assigned tasks. Food magically appears at the right time. In essence, it assumes the world will bend to your will.”
Acknowledging our diverse life seasons and challenges
In reality, we all grapple with unique responsibilities and commitments that differ from those of our peers, friends, or neighbors. You might be caring for young children or an elderly family member, working multiple jobs to make ends meet, recovering from an illness or injury, or managing the ups and downs of a chronic health condition.
All these distinct challenges arising in various life stages imply that our capacity for productivity is not constant throughout our lives. Yet, much of the productivity advice adopts a rigid, one-size-fits-all approach, insisting that only by rigorously adhering to specific habits can we achieve “success” and “effortless productivity.” It’s time for a change in the conversation, fostering a kinder, more self-compassionate approach to productivity.
Experiencing Frustration When Receiving Productivity Advice from Those with Abundant Time and Freedom
It’s entirely natural to harbor feelings of envy toward those unburdened by responsibilities. To resent individuals who lack children, aging parents, inflexible day jobs, health issues, or other demanding obligations, as they preach from their position of privilege, seemingly oblivious to the advantages interwoven into their daily lives. It can be maddening to observe their apparent blissful ignorance of their privileges and autonomy.
(Additionally, it’s essential to remember that we can never fully comprehend the silent, invisible barriers that those who seem autonomous might be confronting themselves. It’s crucial to keep this in mind and refrain from making excessive assumptions about the privileges of others.)
However, the truth remains that much of their guidance may not be particularly relevant to individuals in different phases of life. Nevertheless, a substantial portion of the productivity advice circulating today stems from individuals who possess substantial autonomy and control over their schedules.
Yet, this doesn’t mean we wish to discard our responsibilities. We yearn to spend quality time with our children, partners, and loved ones. We aspire to excel in our professional roles and serve as supportive mentors. These are all admirable pursuits. However, they undeniably consume our time and energy. The objective is not to eliminate them but to embrace a productivity approach that genuinely recognizes and accommodates these very real constraints, rather than pretending that these limitations do not exist.
Quiet Productivity: An Existential, Deliberate, Mindful Approach to Productivity
There’s a relatively new trend emerging in the realm of productivity literature. This trend advocates for a different, more mindful, more intentional, and less frantic approach to productivity. Various terms have been coined to describe this approach: some writers refer to it as mindful productivity, intentional productivity, essential productivity, philosophical productivity, real-life productivity, or existential productivity.
Shifting the Paradigm in the Productivity Sphere
I’m tremendously enthusiastic about the emergence of this novel direction in productivity culture, and I aspire to be an integral part of it. I aim to transform the discourse surrounding productivity and advocate for new, more compassionate, and gentler guidance and insights on productivity. Ideas such as:
Embracing fallow periods as natural and entirely acceptable, which may extend for extended periods, not merely a day or two. Acknowledging that our capacity varies significantly based on our life’s season, regardless of how meticulously we organize our to-do lists or color-coordinate our Google calendars. Recognizing that we can continue to make contributions and be productive during challenging life phases, but our output will inevitably be less prolific or sporadic than in seasons with ample time and energy for projects. Abandoning the notion of measuring self-worth through productivity. In busier life phases, distinguishing between essential and non-essential tasks and acknowledging that we may never feel completely on top of everything. Adopting the practice of working at full capacity only during brief sprints, not as our standard work pace, and emphasizing the need for margin.
I’m introducing my own contribution to this burgeoning field as “Quiet Productivity.” Being Quietly Productive entails working with a sense of tranquility, serenity, and inner confidence. This approach to productivity isn’t ostentatious, noisy, or self-congratulatory—it doesn’t seek the limelight.
Quiet Productivity revolves around accomplishing the right tasks rather than being entangled in work that feels urgent but doesn’t actually advance you toward your goals. In the realm of Quiet Productivity, the temptation to showcase color-coded to-do lists on Instagram is replaced by maintaining focus, getting into the flow, accomplishing the essentials, and then disengaging from work to spend quality time in the backyard with your children, free from the encumbrances of your inbox. Quiet Productivity entails embracing the reality that your task list will never be fully completed, and no magical system can alter that. It involves a mindset that values tasks and projects with flexibility and acknowledges that an 80% solution is often sufficient, sparing you from the exhausting pursuit of the elusive 100%.
In essence, Quiet Productivity is about adopting a productivity approach that respects our inherent constraints. It recognizes that our capacity for achievement is not limitless, despite the extravagant promises of some productivity experts. Our time and energy are finite.
I will continue to delve into the concept of Quiet Productivity in upcoming blog posts, featuring related topics such as mindful productivity and existential productivity. Expect curated collections of podcast episodes and recommendations of thinkers and writers to follow if you’re interested in embracing Quiet Productivity. If you’d like to join me on this journey, feel free to subscribe.