Laurie Penny for Wired: Productivity is Not Working

Laziness is the only sin out of the seven big ones that seems to count in the moral metric of the modern economy, and what other word is there for that edge-panic impulse to simply delete your email address and spend time doing small, gentle things that make being alive hurt a little less?

“When we have no memory or little imagination of an alternative to a life centered on work,” writes theorist Kathi Weeks, “there are few incentives to re[ect on why we work as we do and what we might wish to do instead.”

I loved this piece in Wired, and it seemed pretty on-point with Focused. It is a little dramatic at times but captures the productivity paradox of the pandemic quite well—while getting at the deeper issues of the hustle trope beyond pandemic life, too.

The bit about hypervigilance also resonated with me.


I don’t think I’ve really taken a day off since March 15th.

I’ve read several articles telling me I need to do less and take care of myself.

I agree with the assessment.

But I’m not doing that.

Despite that, I still feel like I’m not doing enough, and I’m not getting all that I need to do accomplished, and I’m not doing the most important things instead of all the urgent ones.

I don’t have an uplifting way to end this post.


I feel ya. Thanks for sharing.

Laurie implies that society sees “spend[ing] time doing small, gentle things that make being alive hurt a little less” as laziness if those things aren’t creating the next great podcast or whatever. I’ve been trying to see it differently. Each day I try to fiddle a little bit, do a little bit of work, but mostly I just try to keep the place tidy and make food. (Baking is way more fun than I ever thought it would be. I can make my own bread and molasses butter? I will never be truly unhappy again.)

Of course, it seems like “real life” (as in, society-at-large) is starting to take shape again in a new normal. Deadlines loom. “Pandemic disruption, sorry” is seeming less sincere of an excuse for missed responsibilities. It’s gonna be a tough few months. I just hope we can forgive each other (and ourselves!) as we learn to accommodate a post-COVID-19 world.

There’s gotta be some new personal and social conventions that can help us navigate this. What’s the equivalent to social distancing for productivity?

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I’ve been struggling with this for years. Do more, so you can earn more, so you can have more. If you’re not putting in extra work you’re not being a team player. Maybe the next generation can figure out a way for the world to judge a person by something other than the size of their bank account. And now for many the extra work doesn’t even help the bank account all that much.

What is success?

"To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate the beauty; to find the best in others; to leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded!”

― Ralph Waldo Emerson


Mileages vary and I believe this article stems from a fundamental misunderstanding (or corporate hijack…) of what productivity was supposed to be about in the first place.

Regarding the current work conditions (not the state of the world, I am by no means comparing the world of the previous years to the current situation – just how work works for many people now, when they’re lucky enough to still have some), they have been my (writer’s) life for almost twenty years now. Scrambling to find where the money will come next. Working with the inner critic every frigging day. Being alone with myself and having to face myself everyday. Productivity has saved me by allowing me to focus my energy and work through the inner criticism to get things done at the end of the day.

It is a very weird life to be sure, unhinged, unmoored. But I would argue that many of the best outtakes of productivity are giving a structure sorely needed by many people now.

The byline of GTD is not to get more done; it’s to get things done without stress. (When you’re not stressed, you do more, but that was never the aim of GTD, as said by Allen himself repeatedly. It’s a by-product.)

It’s a writing quote but I think it’s especially relevant these days –
“Commit yourself to the process, NOT the project. Don’t be afraid to write badly, everyone does. Invest yourself in the lifestyle … NOT in the particular piece of work.” - Frank Conroy
Easier said than done, for sure, but wise words I believe. Writers just learn to show up everyday and work through the resistance they face. And that’s what productivity is about – giving you tools for your process, not focussing on universal results.

(Once again – saying that when you’re lucky enough to still have work.)


Possibly true, but it’s the common parlance of “productivity” discussions. I think her article is timely and pretty accurate.

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The fact that this is a misguided view of what productivity is does not make productivity the problem. It’s like saying hammers don’t work for you because you have been trying (or forced) to use them as screwdrivers. Yes, that is not going to work, because that’s not how it works (and granted, the corporate world has hijacked the meaning).

Productivity is a practice, a process and a path (beautiful pages on that at the end of @kourosh ‘s Creating Flow with OmniFocus).

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At the end of the day doing more of the wrong things faster will not make us any happier . I am still working, so that has not really slowed down, but I am obiviously not shopping, not socializing or otherwise zipping about in my mortal existence in a frenzy of business and it has given some space to think and maybe read less twitter, reddit, email and other mindless “infinity pools”. No matter how fast you run, how much stuff you get done, a virus can lay your world out flat.

I think being truly productive begins with asking the question of why am I doing this activity - is it to get more time with the family, financial freedom, or because it is “expected” ? With my limited time am I running on a hamster wheel , faster or truly moving where I need to be ?

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One of Laurie’s points that has made me pause for thought, though, is why we’re driven to pursue “productivity” as the path. Corporate hijacking or not, there may be some malignancy in how closely we attach ourselves to what we’re doing.

As Kristin McGee says, “we’re human beings, not human doings.” (Aside: folks have gotta try yoga via Kristin/Peloton. I’m a novice and usually hate the fluffy stuff, but she is an incredible presence.)

Or, as per Hurry Slowly, “who are you without the doing?”

These are questions that make me uncomfortable, but I think they’re important to tease out, at least a little. (I think there’re productive benefits to doing so, ironically. Jocelyn K. Glei’s broader position seems to be that if you can de-centre your outputs, and approach your work from a place where they don’t matter as much to your identity, you’ll be able to do more, more authentically and more easily.)

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These questions is at the core of many artists’ lives. Why the hell do we pursue those often painful and not really lucrative pursuits?

I believe people are as much as they do, and vice versa. Removing part of the equation negates the important human drive to create (in a very broad meaning), to achieve, to explore, to self-actualise. And, more vitally even, we evolve and we grow through confronting ourselves to the world – through doing, which informs being. Although, yes, the modern life puts too much emphasis on “doing”.

What is paramount IMO is for both to be in accordance to one another. If you are not what you do, you suffer – and yet, at the same time, identifying too closely with what you do is a sure path to discouragement and sadness (because there are always obstacles). I very much agree with Jocelyn K. Glei’s take which could relate to the oriental concept of attachment: externalising your identity and sense of worth on external things which, by definition, are transient.

I subscribe to Stephen King’s view in On Writing:

It starts with this: put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down there to write, remind yourself why it isn’t in the center of the room. Life isn’t a support system for art, it’s the other way around.

(“Writing” meaning here any kind of work, because writing and creating art is also work.)

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Is the joy in the race or is the joy in the winning?

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Ha—yes, and, is a racer all I am? Who are we racing, and to which destination?

I am being pedantic now…

I came on to post the article as I thought it nicely summed up where we are. Good article

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Focusing on the process brings calm and serenity, although I would say, let’s not frown upon winning entirely. Competition (if only against oneself) is a strong motivator and a natural urge which pushes us towards expanding our horizons and skills. It’s not inherently bad.

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