The Tyranny of Productivity

A couple of weekends ago was the State Department’s annual book sale fundraiser where, for four bucks, I picked up The Golden Ring: Cities of Old Russia because I liked the photographs of medieval architecture and thought it might be fun to draw them.  I almost didn’t buy it, fearing I might not ever get around to drawing and that even if I did, it was a lame reason to buy a book that, if not expensive, would still take up valuable bookshelf space.  But I did buy it, and then it sat on the kitchen table for a couple of weeks.  “I should draw already,” I told myself yesterday.  “Why?” I thought.  “What’s the point?”

Does this one ever get you, this tyrannical assumption that everything we do must be productive, not in a creative sense but in a getting-things-done sense?

Yesterday in my English Conversation Class one of the students talked about time management.  Students in this class have a standing assignment to come prepared to talk about something they watched or read–TED talks are a favorite.  This student, like others before her, had chosen to watch one of the TED talks on time management, and the three women in class all shared how they don’t feel like they get anything done, how they feel like they waste their time.

One of these women has a full-time job and several other family-, house-, and school-related responsibilities.  The second is newly married to a diplomat and newly moved to the U.S., missing her job and feeling she has too much time on her hands.  The third is also new to the U.S. and has a part-time job.  Their lifestyles seem to represent the full spectrum of busyness, yet none feels good about her time, which left me feeling that we must be making some fundamental error in our approach to this topic.  Maybe we expect too much from ourselves.  Do we think we should be getting things done every moment because our technology allows it?  Or maybe we don’t stop to reflect enough.  Are we so caught up in the flow of activity and connectivity that we don’t take the time to appreciate our experiences and celebrate our achievements?  I realize these questions and ideas are hardly new, but I find myself and my students coming back to them again and again.

When I visit my family in Kyrgyzstan I always marvel at how much they (and others in their country) value down time, except they don’t call it down time.  “Down time” reflects an American sense of relaxation as a temporary respite from the inevitable march of productivity.  In Kyrgyzstan people just say  they’re relaxing, and relaxing seems more like an ideal state of being than a special allowance.  During a two-week visit, my family is happy to relax as much as possible the whole time–watching TV, doing crosswords, talking, eating, being together.  I’m usually good for about a day and a half, and then I can’t take it anymore.  I have to read, write, draw, study Russian, or even work.  I used to think that I would enjoy relaxing more if my Russian was better, but over time I’ve realized that it’s just hard for me to not be “productive.”  I like feeling productive, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that until it keeps me from enjoying family time or from writing or drawing or doing other things that seem non-essential.

I realize that wanting to be productive could just be an excuse for not writing and drawing. After all, concerns about productivity do not keep me from watching TV (although we accept “down time” as important for “recharging”).  So that leads to the question: Why do we make excuses not to draw, write, be creative?  I know this is not a new question either, but I’ve never heard a satisfying answer, perhaps because it’s such an illogical thing in the first place–to resist something that makes us happy.  And I was happy, drawing medieval Russian architecture.  Does it show?


When I see buildings like this, which took decades to build, I wonder how people in other time periods have thought about productivity and relaxation.  Did everyone talk about time management in the 1100s?

4 responses to “The Tyranny of Productivity”

  1. Time management takes on a whole new meaning as you approach retirement. It requires reinvention and a strategy on how to take advantage of precious time, how to stay intellectually curiious and how to find satisfaction in not accomplishing preivous goals. I am a work in progress!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Hi Liz. Enjoyed this. Good question about productivity. Sitting here with same thought. And mor relevant is one about resistance to creative space. I usually have to find a way in to that almost holy place…quiet contemplation.
    Deep relaxation does not come easy in our world. Seeds for larger essay. Loved your drawings! Lovely

    Liked by 1 person

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