Why being “productive” is a waste of time

By Caitlin Kelly

Attending the ballet and staring at the ceiling — OMG, wasting time!

If there is an obsession I really hate, it’s “being (more) productive”, i.e. making sure that every minute of our every day is spent doing something, preferably as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Do more!

No, do even more. Better!

I live near New York City, a place where if you’re not working reallyhardallthetime — gobbling lunch at your desk with no break in your day — you’re seen as some witless, gormless slacker.

It’s hardly a point of view confined to New York, but it does feel very American, with a deep-rooted and long-established cultural emphasis on making lots and lots and lots of money and never wasting time because…you could be making more money!

All of which strikes me as sad and weird.

This mania for measurement began, as some of you know, with Taylorism and Fordism, ways of manufacturing, (to profit corporate owners and their shareholders), more quickly and efficiently, named for the men who created these systems.

Here’s a great video from the website Aeon, on the topic.

Time or money? Which do you value more? Must we always choose?

As the video wisely points out, you simply can’t quantify intellectual output the way you can time with a stopwatch how long it takes to install a windshield or weld a joint.

The other essential problem with focusing all our energy on being more productive is that we are not machines. We are not industrial creatures, made of metal and oil.

We need to rest, to think, to reflect, to stare at the sky.

Constantly pumping out goods or services guarantees burnout and resentment.

It’s like dancing with fog, really, if you try to make creative work more efficient.

How long does it take to produce an idea?

A good idea?

An idea that isn’t shot down?

An idea that actually earns a profit?

And must that profit be purely monetary to have value?

What if your idea, instead, saves a life or soothes a colicky baby or gladdens your neighbor’s heart?


Here are a few things you can’t do more productively:






Be born




Create a work of art




Comfort someone


Be generous




37 thoughts on “Why being “productive” is a waste of time

  1. I can’t tell you how much this post spoke to me today. I’ve been struggling a lot lately with the idea that I’m never doing enough, I’m not accomplishing enough, I’m not succeeding enough. Enough already! I feel like I’m working all the time, with little to show for it, but the reality is that my work suffers when I don’t allow myself time to think, reflect, be lazy, dream a little. My struggle also comes from that every nagging notion that if I am not getting paid a decent amount, then I am just wasting time–but the work I do has value on many levels (beyond the monetary) and I have to remember that. Last Sunday, I spent the day in NYC and I was walking around thinking, doesn’t anyone in this city ever just stop for a little bit? For us, the day was all about stopping and enjoying life, seeing a show, taking long walks, eating food, and observing the world around us. It was a much needed break in a life that sometimes feels like I’m running on a hamster wheel.

    1. 🙂

      THanks for sharing this….It is a VERY American obsession. Truly. I never heard the hideous P-word when I lived in Canada, and worked my ass off there and left at 30. It just wasn’t a priority. Hard work? Yes. Excellence? Yes. But not this industrial mindset that our only human value is…making shit…making $$$$…making more/better/faster.

      It’s absurd but reified daily by the media (ugh, yes, and I hate them for it.)

      NYC does have people who move (more) slowly but we’re a quiet(er) minority, which I am fine with. I’ve seen the character of some of these swift-moving, fast-talking types and I disliked them intensely.

      The hamster wheel is hell. This year, 2016, I’m taking a different approach to work, and it’s a little terrifying. I’m working on trying lots of new things (some of which won’t work…OMG lost income!!!!!) and focusing my energy on longer-term projects.

      We only get one go-round. I don’t want to feel I’ve been “productive” and wasted my life in so doing.

      And welcome to NYC!!!!!

  2. All so true! I like working and feeling productive but I am also working (sic) to balance that out much more. The housework pays for this ‘buying time’ so I can go out in the shed to paint or wander the streets or get out into the countryside. Tonight I’m being productive making relish (which I haven’t done in years) to take to a ‘preserve swap’ tomorrow. If you work in a relish factory it would be the last thing you’d do on a Saturday night, but it’s therapy for me and tomorrow will be a whole new day of meeting new people and discovering more about jam I’m sure.

    1. What a fun idea! I’ve never tried making jam or relish but it looks so neat.

      There is a very very powerful book on this subject, Your Money or Your Life, written way back in 1993 and updated in 2008. It really forces us to (re) examine our deepest values. I would rather have a day spent in my husband’s company, not working, and keep driving a 15 yr old car. I can always (at some point) replace the car — but not my husband or my time with him.

      The P word for me? Priorities!

      1. Thanks Caitlin so much for the book link .- If I can pass one on too – to make the relish I had to dig out my battered old school cookbook “Cookery the Australian Way” which is an absolute must have for the nervous cook of any age. As a writer I think you would love it – it was written by two teachers in 1966 and became their life’s work. A snazzy 40th anniversary edition has been made but the original unillustrated version is an amazing treat.

  3. “What if your idea, instead, saves a life or soothes a colicky baby or gladdens your neighbor’s heart?”

    Absolutely adore that thought. These days there always has to be a material result or advantage that stems from whatever work we do or actions we take. It’s repellent and exhausting. I hate feeling like I’m SUPPOSED to be living life a certain way, and am undoubtedly not succeeding in doing so, and therefore must be some kind of failure. Just the worst.

    1. Thanks!

      No one is ever going to be eulogized for have been “productive” — the people who value us most, as human beings, value our kindness and wit and humor and patience and compassion and there is no way to measure those. That doesn’t mean they are value-less but they hold no economic value in a system that only values measurable outputs.

      Bah humbug! 🙂

  4. I actually saw a video recently that shows that taking a break or procrastinating is actually good for you and helps improve your performance. So don’t spend free time trying to be more productive. Spend free time being free! In fact, that’s what I’m doing now: I’m chilling and about to start a blog post.

  5. Thank you for the post! I struggle with feeling like a failure because I’m not “productive” enough in my own eyes…that what I do has no value…it’s nice to know that I have company, if I could only convince myself that I don’t need to feel guilty and that I’m not wasting my life, I would enjoy my life more.

    1. I find it hard to imagine that what you do “has no value.”

      To whom?

      I worked a crummy PT retail job for 2.5 years (2007 to 2009) when I was 50 — and some people thought I was wasting my life/talent. Nope. It ended up (never my intent) becoming my 2nd book, made $$$$ we needed in the depths of the recession and regained my confidence after a soul-crushing Big Fancy NYC job.

      I think feeling guilty is a huge waste of energy. Remorse? Sure. Then….make a change. If you’re really doing the best you possibly can under the circumstances, who’s to criticize you, including you?

      I hope you find some peace with this. 🙂

      1. You’ve had me sitting here…chipping away at my tunnel vision…You’re right, I need to make a change and start focusing in a different direction. Hearing about your experiences has been of great value to me and I think I’m going to adopt your words, “feeling guilty is a huge waste of energy”, as my mantra.
        Thank you.

  6. Great post. I have a quote hanging in my home office. It reads, “Genius by birth. Slacker by choice.” For all of the reasons you listed that cannot be done more productively.

  7. Wow…Thank you for this post. Felt so good after reading it.
    People often wonder when did Life became so complicated. When we stop for a moment and enjoy all those moments that you listed above, Life will be simpler again. 🙂

  8. Thank you for gormless. I looked up the origin and found the old English word “gaum”, which is loosely defined by me as a bit of knowledge or an idea.
    Away down here in North Carolina, or New Mississippi as we may soon be known, a gaum is a complete screwed up mess. This may well have been born in sarcasm during the early colonial period, or so I speculate.
    So, once again, thanks for gormless and the gaum that came with it.

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