When we conflate productivity with worthiness, what we do is never enough. We can always do more, and there is always more to do. There's the laundry thing, the catch-up thing, the replying to a text thing, the grocery shopping thing, the cooking thing, the cleaning thing, the creative thing, the exercise thing, the work thing, the medical thing, the thing we ought to do, the thing we don't want to do, the thing we've put off despite it being the one important thing.
With this pile of undone things often comes an undercurrent of guilt, anxiety, or shame. Instead of being alive to the variances of what is done in a day—sometimes a little, sometimes a lot—we spiral in a slew of "if onlys": if only I were more productive, if only I were more efficient, if only I were better, if only I were more like that person...then I could do it right, do enough, be enough.
So much of what we are trying to achieve in our days is bound to the idea that we can optimize things to the point of perfection. Surrounded by promises that if only we adopt this life hack or follow that morning routine we will finally get it all done, we look to this new thing to remedy our days like these. There can be a juicy pleasure in trying the latest hack, with its promise of improvement. I've made a hobby of it: I've eaten the frog, put butter in my morning coffee, bought the new planner, tried the miracle morning routine, set up rewards for good habits. These popular systems can be useful, and may even change your life, but I've found they can also create another thing to stumble over in our days.
When tomorrow arrives and we find that this new thing didn't fix us or we don't perfectly adhere to the system, we're right back at the beginning of the "if only" spiral. Feeling like we're the only one who isn't getting it right, who keeps messing it up, we turn to the next thing in our hot pursuit of this better version of ourselves. We search again for a key to optimize our days and stumble again, only to be met with self-blame.
We're running just to stand still, and we're missing the point. We're doing all this work to improve ourselves, only to go on judging ourselves for being imperfect. Yet such a pursuit is a fool's errand. The English word 'perfect' comes from the Latin verb 'perficio', which means "to finish, complete, carry out, or achieve." When we pursue perfection in our days and in ourselves, we're creating an impossible standard. We've taken what's incomplete as proof there is something wrong with us, when in fact being imperfect is an inevitable part of being human. We blame ourselves for not being exactly where we think we should be. We berate ourselves for inactivity. We shrink in our self-comparison to others. We doubt our decisions. We become so stifled by the pressure of being productive that we sometimes don't do anything at all.
Rather than making us better, this "doing obsession" leaves us feeling overwhelmed, burned out, dissatisfied, inadequate, and alone. When others wear what they do as a badge of honor—talking in terms of busyness, of having a packed schedule, of accolades and accomplishments—we feel inadequate by comparison, yet under pressure to do the same. Doing, doing, doing, all just to keep up, to prove we are worthwhile—yet we never quite feel that we get there.
In the swirl of it all, it's difficult to see that we're being set up to fail. We're told to work hard in a society that undervalues our labor. We're being told to self-optimize in a culture that also tells us we'll never be enough. Instead, we need to buy, pursue, or do this thing if we're to have any hope of reaching contentment—all the while, we're chasing a shadow. If we aren't benefiting from our overwork, overdoing, overachieving, why do we insist on fastening our self-worth to how productive we are?
Perhaps we remain fixated on this optical illusion because this doing obsession can be easy to spot but difficult to resolve. In fact, it's seemingly impossible on our own to curtail productivity pressure and the subsequent anxiety, guilt, or shame we experience. Even the countercalls to take a break, reduce stress, or create self-care rituals become yet another thing to add to the to-do list.
As Cal Newport, who popularized the concept of "deep work"—meaning the ability to focus on tasks without distraction—wrote in a New Yorker essay called "The Rise and Fall of Getting Things Done," no tips, hacks, or techniques directly address the fundamental problem: the insidiously haphazard way that work unfolds at the organizational level. We must, Newport says, "acknowledge the futility of trying to tame our frenzied work lives all on our own, and instead ask, collectively, whether there's a better way to get things done."
We may recognize that the pursuit of productivity is making us miserable and yet have no idea how to fill our days instead. Even as we live through the global health, social, and climate crises of our time, many of us still feel bad for not doing enough or doing it right—and so pile another layer of guilt on ourselves.
For many of us, this has been amplified during the COVID-19 pandemic, amid the impacts and ripple effects it has had on our daily lives. For some, the change may have been minimal. For others, days have been emptied by job loss, crowded by additional pressures, or hollowed out by grief. For some, it was the first time their days became their own to construct. No fixed start or finish times, no boss or team to be accountable to in person. For many of us, without the doing, we felt adrift.