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Escaping the Cult of Productivity

Many years ago, I learned that Samuel Johnson, one of the most prolific of all English writers, spent his days lamenting his own laziness. Despite writing one of the most influential dictionaries in the English language, as well as numerous biographies, essays, poems, works of criticism, and one novel, Sammy J continually beat himself up throughout his life for not getting more done.

I have to admit that my immediate reaction to this was “OMG, that’s so relatable!” Instead of thinking that the esteemed Dr. Johnson should have been a little easier on himself, I felt seen—because I too live in a constant state of worry that I’m not getting enough done.

Dr. J’s screeds against personal laziness tend to be wittier and better written than my internal monologues. (For example, my inner taskmaster never berated me with wording as eloquent as this: “It is the just doom of laziness and gluttony to be inactive without ease and drowsy without tranquility.”)

But the fact that both Samuel Johnson and I feel guilty for any moment of idleness is not some sort of weird historical coincidence. Because we are both reluctant members of the cult of productivity, where getting things done feels like the rent we must pay in order to deserve our place in the world.


Though I’ve tried before to escape this cult, it’s never quite worked. But with a uniquely stressful year of disasters, tragedies, illness, political strife, ugliness, and uncertainty, now seems like the perfect time to work on our escape routes from the productivity cult and finally put to rest the idea that our productivity determines our worth.

What is the Cult of Productivity?

Until I learned of Samuel Johnson’s anxiety about not getting enough done, I often considered the constant push to produce, produce, produce, to be a generally American impulse. (After all, something I love about America is our Can-Do! attitude, even though the ugly flip-side of Can-Do! is Why-Aren’t-You?).


But falling into the clutches of the productivity cult doesn’t require American citizenship. Instead, it only requires an allegiance to the belief that productivity is a virtue and idleness is a vice, and the sense that you may only consume once you have produced enough.


While there is a unique satisfaction to settling down on the couch with Netflix and a big bowl of Moose Tracks ice cream after a long, tiring, and productive day, the cult of productivity would have you believe that you are only allowed to consume entertainment and sugar after having “earned” it through work. Without the productivity beforehand, you don’t deserve the consumption—or so the cult would have you believe.


Questioning these beliefs can feel incredibly uncomfortable. Even asking myself if laziness is truly a bad thing has me breaking out in a cold sweat, and I personally feel like I should be qualifying what I mean by laziness in this very blog post in order to stave off judgment (both my own and yours, gentle reader).

When we swim in the water of the productivity cult and are used to attaching our self-worth to how much we have gotten done (or judging those who do less), the idea that we might be wrong about the importance of getting shit accomplished can be overwhelming. I personally have found myself thinking, “I still have value if I don’t do anything? In this economy?!! No way.”


But we all have value, simply because we exist. Pinning our value to our productivity erases the value of infants, disabled folks, those who are ill, and the deceased. Each and every one of us has value, even if we put nothing new into the world, simply because we are lucky enough to spend time on this rock hurtling through space.

The cult of productivity wants us to forget that fact…because that’s how cults work. The function of a cult is to continue to exist, so as to benefit the charismatic leader. If we realize our inherent value, we can step off the treadmill and stop working unpaid overtime to reach an arbitrary goal. And the productivity cult needs us to believe that our morality is based upon our adherence to productivity so that we can keep getting up earlier and working later and making sure our time is used efficiently.

It can’t let us remember that we could literally sit on our butts and do nothing and still be beings of infinite value.

Under Pressure

Like a more traditional cult, there are two types of pressure that keep restless members from escaping:

1. Social pressure. If everyone you know is a member, it’s much harder to leave a cult.


2. Internal pressure. If you believe that you are bad/tainted/less than/worthless if you don’t follow the precepts of the cult, you’ll stay in line even if the social pressure eases.

Each type of pressure needs to be avoided or overcome, and each one presents its own difficulties.

Dealing with Social Productivity Pressure

Social pressure may be in the form of direct pressure, as when your co-workers sarcastically ask you “Oh, so it’s a half day today?” when you take off at 4:30 pm after arriving just before 7:00 am. Or it may be in the more indirect kind of pressure, as we so often see in references to “productive members of society” and disdain for anyone requiring financial or other help.

This is a lot like the kind of peer pressure we all felt back in high school, when we wanted so desperately to fit in that we got ill-advised perms, wore stone-washed jeans, and hacked up a lung after taking a puff of something passed to us at a party rather than let anyone think we were uncool. And shrugging off the social pressure of the productivity cult has a lot in common with avoiding peer pressure.

It starts with finding your own group of like-minded friends and colleagues. A friend who can help you recognize when the productivity cult is pressuring you makes a big difference, even if society as a whole is trying to make you feel worthless for not getting your TPS reports filed before EOD.

Asking lots of questions can be a great way to push back on social pressure, in the right context. (Obviously, asking your boss lots of questions about the company’s productivity expectations might not always be the best idea, and some questions should just be asked in your own head). But when a friend says she feels lazy because she wasn’t able to concentrate all day, ask her how a lack of focus makes her lazy. If a co-worker brags about how busy he is, ask yourself if he seems happy. When someone rails about the laziness of someone receiving government benefits, ask why misfortune is so often seen as immoral.

Finally, setting and enforcing boundaries around your work will help to build a little bubble around you. When people know that you won’t get dragged into one-upmanship over who has the busiest schedule, or that you won’t handle work issues after business hours, or that you will not answer calls while on vacation, then they will stop trying to draw you in.

Setting and enforcing boundaries looks a lot like repeating yourself. It’s easy to get tired of saying “I turn off email notifications at 5 pm” over and over again. But the more you state your boundaries, the more you reinforce them for yourself, normalize them for others, and make it clear that you refuse to be defined by your productivity.

Dealing with Internal Productivity Pressure

Internalized productivity pressure can be even more damaging than the social type. That’s because the taskmaster in our heads is often much crueler than even the hardest-ass of hard-ass bosses could ever be. Not succeeding at productivity can feel like a moral failing, and every unchecked item on a to-do list can feel like a judgment.

That’s why I highly recommend asking yourself the question “So what?” when you are in the midst of an un-productivity shame spiral.

For instance, there is a part of me that knows I'd rather sit under a shady tree with a book and a tall glass of lemonade than do anything else, and I'm horrified by that part of me. But instead of continuing to be horrified, I say to myself, “Okay, I’m lazy. So what?”

Being able to proudly admit that I'm a lazy lady who would rather sit under a shady tree than do stuff helps negate that shame. It makes me realize I get one go around in this world, and if I want to spend my time snoozing on a blanket under fluffy white clouds or under a blanket while accompanied by a fluffy white-and-gray cat, that is my choice to make.


I've been working on proudly wearing my laziness on my sleeve. It's an uphill battle, but realizing that I can be who I am—even if who I am is a lazy bitch who really will do nothing today, thanks—is pretty awesome. It helps take the sting out of anyone who tries to call me lazy, even that nasty taskmaster who lives in my head. I'm lazy. So what?


Derp More (a.k.a., Embrace Unproductivity)

We affectionately describe one of my kids as a “derper.” He just kind of derps from thing to thing, without a sense of urgency for adult schedules or expectations, and it can drive us affectionately up a wall—especially if we’re trying to get out the door to something that starts at a specific time.

But even though his derping through life can be frustrating to the rest of the family, there are some important lessons that my kid’s lackadaisical attitude can teach me:

1. He still gets the things done that need to be done, just not necessarily in the manner or time frame adults expect.

2. He doesn’t feel bad about himself for derping.

3. He enjoys himself while derping.

Watching my child slowly sort through the pile of socks to find the exact ones he wants (and no, they won’t match each other) reminds me that there is so much value in not rushing from task to task. His careful consideration of the red dinosaur sock vs. the blue astronaut sock will not get us to our appointment any faster, but it offers its own satisfaction. A satisfaction we lose by focusing on productivity to the detriment of our derping.

Spending time doing things with no specific point should be normalized. Whether we spend a morning sketching or walking around the neighborhood (without a FitBit to count our steps!) or simply staring into space and thinking deep thoughts about dinosaurs, derping adds more meaning and depth to our lives that no amount of productivity can ever recreate.

Life is More Than What You Produce

So much of what we do is about making our mark on the world. For me it is spending more time than I care to admit thinking about how I want my writing to live on beyond my years.

But life has meaning in the unproductive and counterproductive moments, in the in-between moments, in the Netflix binges and the afternoons re-reading a beloved novel, and in the derpy-derping over which socks to wear when you’re already running late.

Letting the cult of productivity take those meaningful moments away from us may garner career success, as it did with Dr. Johnson, but it does not add happiness to the value of our lives.

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Milwaukee, WI

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© 2020 by Emily Guy Birken