The Cult of Productivity & “Do Nothing” Guilt

As awful as the pandemic has been, a lot of people have used the time to do stuff they’d never previously done. The running joke is that we’re all now banana bread master chefs and massively overweight from all the cakes and biscuits we’ve made and eaten.

It’s great some have taken the time to slow down, but it seems to have made a pre-pandemic problem far worse.

Do you feel guilty when you have a day where you do very little? Have you noticed the cult of productivity, not just since the pandemic but way before it but where COVID-19 has made you more aware of it? Do you push yourself to achieve something today? Do you often find you don’t have the energy for these self-imposed goals?

You’re not alone.

I don’t think the pandemic has created this issue. I’d go far as to say the cult of productivity is rooted in neo-liberal capitalism. It treats people as disposable commodities, as resources for plunder, to wring every last drop and cast aside. And so we feel guilty when we’re not achieving something every minute of every day.

The thing is, we can’t do everything our employers expect us to do without eventually burning out and being under constant stress.

We Are Not Machines

The human body is not designed to be this productive all the time with a feeling we’re constantly trying to run through a tornado. We need relaxation time; we need to waste time on doing not much at all. We need tasks that bring us pleasure. It’s how we recharge along with food and sleep – and to be honest, most of us don’t do those two things properly either.

It’s important to note that burnout is not purely about the amount of work we have – it’s also about the mental and emotional energy for a task. Causes can include a lack of enjoyment of a task, discomfort because it clashes with personal values, and feeling you have too many things that you don’t find fulfilling.

My Recent Experiences with Burnout

As noted above, burnout is not purely the result of trying to achieve too much, but it is the most common. It’s certainly my most common cause. It’s a mindset I have found equally hard as an employee and while self-employed.

On Friday I proofread two documents for a client. The standard of English is high and so these 1,500 words took me just over an hour to edit. I felt exhausted afterwards as though I’d proofread 15,000 words and not 1,500.

Anxiety and worry has taken its toll and that is the reason (this time) I have come so close so often even though my workload has been light. I’ve had days where I’ve struggled to get out of bed and struggled to get to sleep in a time I’m feeling less anxious and less worried.

This is not burnout, but it is a warning that I am getting close.

Do Nothing Guilt

I was going to have a productive weekend. On Saturday I wanted to start do some work on the Udemy courses I’ve bought in the last year while on Sunday, the plan was a few hours at the allotment and to come home and write another Spooky Salmonweird short story. What actually happened?

  • Saturday: I ended up playing Fallout 4 most of the day and wrote about 300 words of a short story before fatigue overtook me
  • Sunday: Two hours at the allotment gave me a second wind and I was able to write about 500 words of Vulcan City

I probably haven’t had a day where I’ve done nothing except the bare minimum since Christmas.

As you can see, I can’t *do nothing* until I have no other option. That’s mostly because of guilt and the feeling that I must be constantly doing something or be labelled “lazy.” I think this is endemic to working class men – there is always the fear of missing out on a hustle, especially in these trying times, where the risk of your parents’ or grandparents’ poverty is ringing in your ears.

I feel incredibly guilty when I have a work day where I do nothing. Even if I have no work to do, I’m looking for stuff to keep me busy. I’m even stuck in a work mindset when I’m out taking photos around the local area.

Productivity has become an addiction for so many of us. Because it’s an addiction, it’s a constant battle to slow down, to disconnect, and to do nothing.

I won’t lecture you about what you should do – I’m sure you already know. So I will just say go easy on yourself and try to give yourself a break. These trying times are an opportunity to re-evaluate your relationship with work. Yes, focus on those projects you’ve been putting off, but it’s also vital to look after yourself more now than you ever have.

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2 responses to “The Cult of Productivity & “Do Nothing” Guilt”

  1. Couldn’t agree with you more Matt! And by the way, I am also now an expert banana maker!

    1. I’ve tried a few new things in the last year too, including brownies. First attempt came out well!

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