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?
Here’s a smart story from the Washington Post about why we all really do need to take vacations:
The image that stands out most in my mind during the broadcast of the 2014 Winter Olympics? The Cadillac commercial with a boxy, middle-aged white guy in a fancy house striding purposefully from his luxurious swimming pool to his $75,000 luxury Cadillac ELR parked out front while extolling the virtues of hard work, American style.
“Why do we work so hard? For stuff?” actor Neal McDonough asks in the commercial that has been playing without cease. “Other countries work. They stroll home. They stop by a café. They take the entire month of August off. “Off,” he says again, to reinforce the point….
Americans are caught up in what economist Juliet Schor calls a vicious cycle of “work-and-spend” – caught on a time-sucking treadmill of more spending, more stuff, more debt, stagnant wages, higher costs and more work to pay for it all…
American leisure? Don’t let the averages fool you, he could say. While it looks like leisure time has gone up, time diaries show that leisure and sleep time have gone up steeply since 1985 for those with less than a high school degree. Why? They’re becoming unemployed or underemployed. And leisure and sleep time for the college educated, the ones working those crazy extreme hours, has fallen steeply.
One of the weird things about Americans is their endless obsession with being productive.
A woman I know — who at 33, has already produced three children and three books — has turned this obsession with spending every minute usefully into a thriving career, suggesting multiple ways for us to be more efficient with our time.
I get her exhortatory emails, but just reading them makes me want to take a nose-thumbing nap, or an 8-week beach vacation.
You know what they call the sort of cough that horks up a ton of phlegm?
But visible professional success is seductive — here’s White House senior advisor Valerie Jarrett:
She’s out the door at 5:15 a.m. She arrives at the White House at 5:22 a.m. and hits the gym (where she assures me she watches Morning Joe!) before meeting with the rest of the White House senior staff at 7:45 a.m. on the dot. She tries to get home before 10 p.m.
“I have to force myself to go to bed and I jump out of bed in the morning, which is a good sign, I think,” she said. “You always have to pursue a career that you care passionately about so that it will not burn you out.”
Would you be willing to work her 13-14-hour day?
I grew up in Canada, and left when I was 30. I moved to the U.S., eager to taste a new country and its culture.
The first major difference? Two weeks’ vacation a year, if you’re lucky enough to even get paid vacation.
In Canada, I felt American — too aggressive, too ambitious, too direct in my speech. But in the U.S., because I also want to take off four to six weeks’ off a year — to travel, to read, to rest, to recharge — I’m wayyyyyy too European. i.e. soft, flabby, lacking the requisite drive to get ahead, gain even more social and professional status and buy tons of more/bigger/newer stuff.
Working hard 24/7 isn’t the best way to spend my life. I’ve been working for pay since I started life-guarding part-time in high school. It’s essential to earn and save money, of course. And it’s pleasant to have enough to enjoy life beyond the basic necessities.
But after a certain point….meh.
I work my ass off when I am working. But I bring an equal hunger for leisure and downtime — like many people, I just get stupid and bitchy when I’m exhausted and haven’t had enough time for myself.
I also love to travel, whether back to familiar and well-loved places like Paris, or the many places I still haven’t seen yet, some of them a $1,000+ long-haul flight away: Bhutan, Nepal, Mongolia, Hong Kong, Argentina.
A four-day weekend — which many worn-out Americans answering emails 24/7 now consider a vacation — just isn’t enough.
Here’s my friend and colleague Minda Zetlin on 10 dangers of overwork, from Inc.:
3. You suck when it counts.
I can tell you from experience that going into a meeting tired and distracted means you will suck in that meeting. You’ll be bad at generating new ideas, finding creative solutions to problems, and worst of all you’ll suck at listening attentively to the people around you. That disrespects them and wastes their time as well as yours.
4. Your mood is a buzzkill.
The kind of irritability and impatience that goes with being overworked and behind schedule will cast a black cloud over the people around you both at work and at home. If you’re an employee, it will damage your career. If you’re a small business owner, it will harm your business.
5. Your judgment is impaired.
The research is conclusive: sleep deprivation impairs decision-making. As a leader, poor judgment is something you can’t afford. Crossing some tasks off your to-do list, handing them to someone else, or finishing some things late is well worth it if it means you bring your full concentration and intelligence to the tough decisions your job requires.
When you have downtime, how do you relax and recharge?
For the past year, I’ve put off finishing the proposal for what I hope will become my third, commercially published non-fiction book.
I had a gazillion quite legitimate reasons excuses:
— I’m getting my hip replaced (which crippled my hands?)
— I’m recovering from hip surgery (and too busy playing Ipad Scrabble)
— I have to go to physical therapy three times a week (which of course consumes 24 hours of the day)
— I need to make money first (actually true)
But the deeper, tougher, sighing truth is…
Every creative venture for which you seek external interest, validation or sales — your Etsy site, your play, your poetry, your drawings or music or pottery or stained glass — must find its audience at some point.
If you need people to pay for it, let alone pay you well and buy more and more of it, maybe to pay for your food and shelter and your kids’ new shoes, the stakes are even higher. No pressure.
Like anyone with a creative idea, I want it to find favor. I also want, and need, for my ideas to sell for some serious money, for once. To finally get the editors with very deep pockets to call me for a change.
What if it were a game-changer? (What if it’s a total failure and no one wants it?)
(Which likely explains the voyeuristic pleasure of watching all those reality TV shows where people have to be reallycreativereallyfast, like Design on A Dime or Cake Wars or my favorite [yes] Project Runway. “Make it work” is a great motto for life!)
I’m also ambivalent:
I love writing books.
I hate the endless time-suck and income-drain (paying for assistants and PR help and finding every possible way to get people to read/review/love the damn thing) that comes with its eventual publication.
I love the thrill of an agent, then an editor saying “Yes! We’re in.”
I hate the crazy-making and ever-tougher contracts they send later.
I love getting enthusiastic emails from readers.
I hate getting shredded by anonymous trolls on amazon.com.
I went away for the month of June, spending two weeks alone with no television or company to distract me, telling everyone (hah!) I’d be working on my book proposal. I took all the notes I’d made, and the latest draft and my sources…and didn’t even take them out of my suitcase.
But I started working on it in earnest last week — (which suggests the vacation had the desired effect) — and, reading through my source material, found some things I’d forgotten. I started getting excited about this again and stopped doing everything else but that. Hours flew by and I kept cranking.
Then I cold-called a source whose resume and background, (being appointed to various committees by a few Presidents), were terrifyingly august, which I began the conversation by telling him.
I know that one of the best ways to up your game, when possible, is to get some Big Names on-side, people whose opinion carries weight and whose interest in a project can help you discern what larger interest exists in your iteration. It’s also really intimidating!
(The bad news is that it makes your stomach hurt with anxiety. The good news, if you’re smart, genuine and persuasive, you’ll find a few allies. Hey, all they can do is say “No.”)
But he took my call, and immediately got the idea. He’s as passionate about the subject as I am and knows this stuff inside out. So I asked (gulp) if he’d read the proposal. And he agreed.
I asked another wise source, and she promised to read it it this weekend. While it’s scary to show an idea-in-progress to people who know about 10,000 times more about the issues than I do, I’m also really grateful for fresh eyes and smart input.
Much as I fear criticism, knowing I’m on the right track will also help me pitch it with greater passion and conviction. (I realize as I write this, that within academia, for better or worse, you have a thesis advisor; I never went beyond my B.A., so I have to scout out these mentors when and where I can find them.)
After re-working the same material for months — probably like many of you — I need fresh eyes. I lose all perspective on it.
Do you find yourself dicking around and postponing work on your creative projects?
Do you find others to help you with them?
What successfully gets you — and keeps you — moving ahead on them?
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?
We all need time to think, reflect, ponder, meander, take some detours, some of which — being immediately unproductive — lead into dead ends, some of which lead us off into totally new and hugely profitable (financially or creatively) directions.
Shutting down the production line for a while — silence! solitude! no immediate income! I’m wasting time! — can feel terrifying.
It’s absolutely necessary.
But we don’t talk about the downtime, the quiet moments of connection and insight that can, when allowed to blossom quietly unforced by another’s schedule, birth wonders.
Whenever I’ve taught or lectured on journalism, I crush a few young dreams when I make clear that traditional news journalism more resembles an industrial assembly line than an artist’s studio.
Editors aren’t terribly interested in whether you’re feeling creative — they want accurate copy/content/visuals and they want it now!
The worst of its managers rely on the crude tool of by-line counts, i.e. how many stories have made it into the paper with your name on it (your byline.) So re-writing press releases or dumping puff pieces all add up to more bylines, if total garbage. So you’re visibly and undeniably producing and are therefore (whew! job saved!) productive.
Now….how to be creative?
What does that look like to you?
It might mean inventing a recipe, choosing a new color for your living room, or starting a poem or sketching your cat or simply staring into the sky for an hour to let your weary brain lie fallow, like an overworked farmer’s field that needs time to re-generate.
I’ve been told that I’m highly creative. I paint (watercolor, gouache), draw, take photos, cook, write, make things with my hands, design rooms in my home and for others. I’m constantly working on ideas for several projects at once, some of them books, some articles, some ideas for products.
My father, who is one of the most fervently creative people I’ve ever met, works well in all sorts of media, from silver to oils to etchings. One of my favorite things growing up, and still, is a pair of black wrought iron candlesticks he made in the ’50s. Dead simple and fabulous.
But you also have to produce something; I admit it, I’m a fan of Seth Godin because he insists on shipping product, not just massaging it endlessly. (That opens up the scary bit — finding a market for your work, pricing it and explaining it.)
And I loveloveloveThe Creative Habit, a smart, inspiring and helpful book by New York based choregrapher Twyla Tharp, a ferociously driven and creative woman.
One of her tips, my favorite, is to create a cardboard box for every project you’re working on. That action concretizes your commitment to it. You can fill it with glitter or feathers or old maps or pebbles. But it ensures a physical reminder that you are working on something.
It also devotes a reserved physical space for your ideas and inspiration, not just bits of scrap paper in a drawer or pocket somewhere. By dignifying your creativity, you show it respect.
Here’s an interesting blog post from Three New Leaves, about taking, and making, downtime, without which (I think) creativity soon dies.
Are you more interested in being creative or productive?
The report is one of the first to calculate the economic toll of obesity on the individual, including both direct costs, like medical expenses, and indirect expenses, like lost wages and reduced work productivity. (The study did not account for many other personal consumer costs, like clothing, because data are not available.)
Based on a median annual wage for women of $32,450 in 2009, the report found that obese women who work full time earn $1,855 less annually than nonobese women, a 6 percent reduction. By contrast, studies have found that the wages of obese men are not significantly different from those of normal-weight men.
This doesn’t surprise me. Overweight women are often demonized as fat slobs, and have a terrible time finding clothing that is affordable, stylish and comfortable.
When I worked retail, it didn’t escape my notice that our brand had a man’s XXL — you have to be mighty fat, not simply tall, to need that much fabric — but nothing beyond an XL for women. And the XL was still mighty tight on most of the women who tried to fit into it.
Try to buy women’s clothing in a size 14 or beyond — the average American woman being a size 14 now — and is on-line or catalog sales for you, missy. No fatties allowed in the store.
A six per cent reduction in wages, especially on an income of $32, 450, is significant.
Women wanting to shed weight crave slimmer bellies and thighs — not their paychecks.