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.
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.
A powerful piece from the Washington Post about why being “productive” is such a punitive way to measure our human value:
I see it a lot when I interview people and talk about vacation. They talk about how they are wound up and checking emails and sitting on the beach with their laptops. And their fear is: If I really stopped and let myself relax, I would crater. Because the truth is I’m exhausted, I’m disconnected from my partner, I don’t feel super connected to my kids right now.
It’s like those moving walkways at the airport — you’ve got to really pay attention when you get off them, because it’s disorienting. And when you’re standing still, you become very acutely aware of how you feel and what’s going on in your surroundings. A lot of our lives are getting away from us while we’re on that walkway.
There are several cultural expectations in the U.S., even after living here for decades after leaving Canada, I’ll never agree with or adhere to.
One is the notion, an outgrowth of a nation with shockingly little government regulation or oversight of the workplace, no paid maternal leave, no mandated vacation days, that work is the single most important way for all of us to spend all of our time.
Every day, in every way, we are exhorted to workworkworkworkworkwork fasterfastefasterfaster and the hell with a personal life that includes family, friends, self-care, volunteer work, meditation, travel.
Why, all that time you want to spend binge-watching Netflix or patting your puppy or making pancakes with your kids? That doesn’t boost the GDP! How dare you?
Of course, a thin and fragile social safety net — hello, cause and effect! — makes working your ass off a necessity for all but the wealthy. The single largest cause of personal bankruptcy in the U.S. is medical bills; we now pay (yes, really) $1,500 a month for our health insurance, meaning we have to earn at least $18,000 after-tax dollars before any other cost.
For two full-time freelancers in a struggling industry, that’s enough to make me go back to bed.
One reason I’ve stayed freelance is the ability to control the use of my time, when and where and how often and for how long I work. I started work the other day at 8:10 a.m. (early for me) and had already written and filed a story by 10:30 a.m. I took the afternoon off to enjoy a day in Manhattan.
Some people need to work 1o or more hours a day — they have multiple children to support and/or a non-working spouse and/or earn low wages and/or live in a high-cost area. But beyond basic economic need, tethering your life to the profit-making demands of others rarely produces much joy for those of us expected to answer them.
Americans love to mock Europeans – those five weeks of vacation! That free health care! Those subsidized university educations! – as though the endless toil and debt required to earn the money to pay for all of that were somehow so much more virtuous.
When it’s really just exhausting.
Having lived in Canada, France, Mexico and England gave me a perspective many Americans lack.
Time off recharges and restores us to full mental, physical and emotional health.
You can work hard — and play hard.
It’s possible to be a deeply valuable human being without adding any economic value.
Working freelance means we’re choosing a life with less financial security but all the pressures faced while collecting a salary.
The major difference is our ability to say no.
To not leap to answer an email at 11:00 pm or 1:00 a.m. or on a Sunday morning when we’re getting ready to attend church.
Yes, it might cost us some lost income.
But it gives us a life we deeply value.
Do you feel — or succumb to — this kind of pressure to be productive?
Since my wedding in September 2011, (when we took a week off locally afterward), I haven’t taken more than four days off in a row. My last extended vacation was in May 2005, three weeks in Mexico.
I’m taking a month off, starting today — but will still blog here three times a week. I’ll also be working on a book proposal and one or two short articles, but only after the first 12 days of rest, relaxation, seeing friends and family, recharging my spent battery.
In the past 12 months, I’ve:
published my second book; done dozens of media interviews and speaking engagements to promote it; written a new afterword for the paperback, which is out July 31; hired an assistant to help me with all of this; negotiated more speaking engagements; addressed two retail conferences in Minneapolis and New Orleans; gotten married in Toronto; helped my husband deal with kidney stones; had my left hip replaced and done 3x week physical therapy for two months; served on two volunteer boards, and additionally visited Chicago and Toronto for work.
Oh, and blogging here three times a week, working with a screenwriter on the television pilot script for Malled (not picked up), and writing for a living.
Kids, I’m fried!
Time to not be productive, which leads me to this essay raises an important question, and one especially germane to any economy premised on “productivity”:
But there are sectors of the economy where chasing productivity growth doesn’t make sense at all. Certain kinds of tasks rely inherently on the allocation of people’s time and attention. The caring professions are a good example: medicine, social work, education. Expanding our economies in these directions has all sorts of advantages.
In the first place, the time spent by these professions directly improves the quality of our lives. Making them more and more efficient is not, after a certain point, actually desirable. What sense does it make to ask our teachers to teach ever bigger classes? Our doctors to treat more and more patients per hour? The Royal College of Nursing in Britain warned recently that front-line staff members in the National Health Service are now being “stretched to breaking point,” in the wake of staffing cuts, while a study earlier this year in the Journal of Professional Nursing revealed a worrying decline in empathy among student nurses coping with time targets and efficiency pressures. Instead of imposing meaningless productivity targets, we should be aiming to enhance and protect not only the value of the care but also the experience of the caregiver.
The care and concern of one human being for another is a peculiar “commodity.” It can’t be stockpiled. It becomes degraded through trade. It isn’t delivered by machines. Its quality rests entirely on the attention paid by one person to another. Even to speak of reducing the time involved is to misunderstand its value.
The only thing this industrial mindset — speed the production line! –– produces in me is frustration and annoyance.
I also attach value to the production of:
deep friendships; a happy and thriving marriage, my own physical and mental health, daily, and weekly, periods of rest and reflection.
I recently asked a friend, who out-earns me by a factor of 2.5, how she does it. The answer was to quadruple my workload, and at a speed I think probably, for me, unmanageable.
My book “Malled”, which describes my 27 months working as a part-time retail sales associate — supplemented by dozens of original interviews with others in the industry — has brought me paid invitations to address several conferences of senior retail executives. I suggest to them every time that focusing solely on UPTs (units per transaction — i.e. why they try to sell you more shit unasked for, than you want) and sales per hour is not the best or only way to go.
But numbers are safe and comforting. When corporate players hit their numbers, they keep their jobs and get their promotions/bonuses. Metrics rule.
Except when they don’t.
I once spent an hour talking to a female shopper in our store. Turns out we had a lot in common. She spent $800, which remained the single largest sale I ever had there. She also asked if I knew a good local psychotherapist. Not many people would have asked that question of a minimum-wage clothing clerk, but she’d clearly decided to trust me. I did know one and recommended him.
A year later she returned, glowing, with one of her teenage daughters, to thank me for helping her survive a very tough transition in her life.
That “transaction” is completely meaningless in any economic sense.
— it enriched the therapist, who well deserved a new client.
— it enriched my customer’s soul, which needed solace.
— it enriched her three daughters’ lives as their mother found help she needed.
— it enriched my heart to know I’d been able to make a good match and help her.
But these powerful emotional connections are routinely dismissed as valueless behavior on any corporate balance sheet — because they can’t be quantified, measured and compared to other metrics.
Which is why I have such a deeply conflicted relationship with capitalism.
How about you?
Do you think working harder and faster is our wisest or only choice?