Off the Charts

In a world increasingly obsessed with quantifying the value of things, free time becomes no more than a missed opportunity.

By Gwynn Lyons, Stanford University

Behind every glance at your inbox and every casual conversation about plans for the break, a common beast lurks—the beast of productivity.

Sometimes, it manifests benignly, as in when a student treats herself to a night off because she has spent the day “being productive.” But, more commonly, it locks its victims into Sisyphean efforts to make the most of their time, insisting unrelentingly like a nagging parent that they are not doing enough.

College students are obsessed with productivity. In theory, they want to use their work time as effectively as possible so that they can maximize their free time. However, the productivity beast has become so insidious that it now creeps into all spheres of college life, including ones that productive work was supposed to enlarge and protect. Runs are only “productive” if they make progress toward a marathon; meetings with supervisors are only “productive” if a letter of recommendation was obtained. Every interaction has to result in a product to prove that the time was well used.

Productivity: Your Secret Foe

Image via RedOrbit

This attitude is symptomatic of a larger cultural shift overtaking Silicon Valley that enshrines productivity at the expense of quality human interactions and peace of mind. This shift can be seen in the explosion of productivity apps. From Slack to Asana to Wunderlist, human activities become quantified, digitized, purged of their individual worth. To maximize productivity, some restaurants have foregone traditional waiter service and provided iPads for their customers to order on. Some workplaces like Facebook provide napping pods, gyms and restaurants on-campus so that employees never have to leave.

Though these developments seem genuinely well intentioned, they have severely disrupted—and not in the gimmicky start-up sense of the word—peoples’ modes of experiencing the world. The concept of productivity reduces all interactions to self-centered transactions from which each participant tries to derive the most value. The pursuit of “value” informs the way in which people approach interactions that they wish to conduct productively, even if this pursuit is not consciously recognized.

The most damaging effect of the obsession with productivity is the objectification of inherently subjective experiences, which flattens their depth and weight into the bloodless tyranny of digits. A riverside run spent mulling over one’s relationships is sucked into the vortex of a data point: 6 miles, 50 minutes. Goal exceeded, reached or missed. The emotional core of the moment—reflecting on high school friendships—evaporates in this framework.

The graph of peoples’ lives as formed by these individual data points homogenizes their experiences, removing the boundaries between public and private life by forcing each to submit to the same rules. It distresses me that people apply similar methods of evaluation in a performance review and on Tinder, for in this seemingly innocuous process of making romantic endeavors more productive, I see individuals’ humanity diminished and dissolved.

Even though so much emphasis is put on being productive, it is uncommon for one to hear the phrase, “I was so productive today!”; it is usually spoken of in the negative.

Productivity is an ideal that many aspire to, but few admit to having achieved.

In my experience, trying to be productive ends up producing feelings of guilt for not having been productive enough, as there is always someone who is doing more than you.

Measuring performance in terms of productivity seems like the great equalizer, because it neutralizes differences between individuals by judging them solely on what they produce. But, by providing the same scale of productivity for everyone, it assumes everyone’s potential is the same. Anyone who has their eyes open to the struggles of minorities in the U.S. knows that not everybody starts in the same place, and that it is unreasonable to maintain the same standards for all. To the extent that productivity metrics encourage comparisons between individuals who are not fit to be compared, they subvert their original goal of creating a meritocracy.

Another problem with the obsession with productivity is that it fails to recognize the importance of time off. Time off does more than separate periods of hard work; it allows the brain to function in a qualitatively different state that can result in unexpected, unique insight. It is hard to truly let go and find this state when one treats it only as an interlude between periods of productivity.

If college students’ and Silicon Valley’s obsession with productivity is unhealthy, than what should take its place? It is easy to say that people should give themselves breaks and learn to appreciate their subjective experiences over the objective metrics that describe them, but much more difficult to codify this credo. It is also challenging to let go of an idea that is so entrenched in the way people think about work that they can barely conceive of work without it.

The main hurtle to overcome, in my view, is the idea that efforts, attitudes and experiences must have something to show for themselves to be considered valuable. Throwing out this idea runs counter to the foundations of American society, where physical property equates to value. Once it is gone, one enters an uncertain, uncharted territory where even the concept of value is called into question.

Practically speaking, it is impossible to get to this place. People need a concept of value to understand their place in the world’s pecking order and to know what to hate, love and want. But I think the domains of life in which one strives for productivity can be reconsidered and circumscribed. Productivity may still reign in the workplace, but it need not be a priority for personal health or romantic relationships. At the moment we recognize productivity’s potential for evil, we have won half the battle; acknowledging the beast is the first step to taming it.

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