Productivity?

As the years go on, I see the false idol of long hours. Long hours, when meaningfully deployed are great, but so often quantity takes the place of quality. I worked x hours, instead of getting x done. Or in its more haunting form, I still have time and work to do today, so I can’t rest.

I think of a distinction raised in Sogyal Rinpoche’s Tibetan Book of Living and Dying between what I call lazy laziness v. busy laziness. Lazy laziness refers to what we normally consider lazy: the archetypal the couch potato, the binging of Castle reruns, the downing of Atomic-Fire-Lazer-Charged chips. Busy laziness refers to the layering on of hours that ultimately distract us from more meaningful activities, simply exhausting us until we pick back up the next day to do the same thing, ad infinitum. Though I think we rarely fall in either extreme, that spectrum has followed me through the years.

At first, I loved this sort of stuff. I would easily critique our false industry and laud alternatives, like walking slowly, meditating, or seeking minimalism. Thoreau, Buddhism, Khrishnamurti, Stoicism, Aristotle, the cult of the flâneur, and all of the take-it-slow, don’t-vex yourself personas of philosophy and literature became key influences.

But much of this was built on privilege. I could study philosophy because I didn’t have the definitive drive or need–or so I felt–to study something more “practical.” Though I did see the need to compromise by pursuing other things–like languages, communication, and technology skills–philosophy felt most important because it was the most removed from the working sphere.

Josef Pieper puts it best in his two essays, “Leisure the Basis of Culture” and “The Philosophical Act.” In both, he argues for a life beyond the “totalitarian world of work,” something that “shocks us” beyond this daily pattern of labor and exhausted recharging for more labor. As he writes, “Philosophy is ‘useless’ and unusable in matters of everyday life,” but in being useless, it “transcends the world of work.”

This is vintage Greek philosophy–particularly Plato and Aristotle. Kant has an air of it in his aesthetic theory, which Schopenhauer takes up. Nietzsche also channels this, and Hannah Arendt critiques Marx for his reduction of the human sphere into the realm of material labor. One could also turn to game studies, with its sometimes radical reversal of the work/play dichotomy, particularly in Johan Huizinga’s Homo Ludens.

I note these names and texts to show that there is a genealogy, but in my life, as is common, I largely missed the privilege that allowed this detachment. It’s the sort of privilege that leads to critiques like Phoebe Maltz Bovy’s “Bros Before Homes” against the subtle sexism of men’s use of minimalism. Such minalism often outsources duties to other people, generally women, like moms. In an particularly cutting critique, Susan Buck-Morss’ “Hegel and Haiti” argues that the presence of slavery allowed the luxury of Enlightenment thought to foster and spread by outsourcing labor to slave-driven colonies.

Faced with these sorts of critiques and an increased demand to make my own labor meaningful–essentially to industrialize (or capitalize) my knowledge production–my past adherence to “purposive purposelessness,” to use a Kant phrase, felt hollow and stupid. I didn’t have time to philosophize; I had work to do.

But in my “mature” judgement of my naive self, I maybe was a little naive, as I’ve often find such mature judgements to be. As can be expected, I went too far on the “work” or “serious” side.

The Cult of Productivity is Preventing You From Being Productive” by Jess Whittlestone hits it on the head, I think:

‘Productivity’ has become such a buzzword that it can seem like it’s the goal in itself. But productivity is useless if what you’re producing isn’t meaningful or helpful to you or others in some way. The reason we really care about productivity—or the reason we should care—is that it allows us to do the things we care about as well and effectively as possible. Productivity isn’t a goal, but rather a tool for better achieving our goals.

In my own life, I found that I was producing and getting praise for my producing, but something was missing. I was not quite doing things I cared about. I found leisure was often an escape, not a site of meaning and regeneration. I needed, or so it has seemed to me, a little bit of that “useless” work, work that allowed me to be more productive.

And that’s where I’m at. I still am thinking through all of this stuff. First, I think a certain level of privilege underscores this whole debate–this whole post–and I think the critiques leveled against that privilege should keep us mindful of its limits, of what it can or can’t say or whom its leaving out. This is something I’m still teasing through.

But I think, as Whittlestone notes, “productivity is useless if what you are producing isn’t meaningful or helpful to you or others in some way.” What has come to seem difficult about academic training and work is its detachment. This essay is messy and searching, potentially vulnerable and even careless, and it possibly contains errors of thought and representation. In short, I’d never write anything like this in a paper.

Yet somehow this writing has been more useful to me than a paper for a class buried in my hard drive as I work my way to write for a publication that (likely) only academics will read. This post has allowed me to search through some genealogies, recognize questions of privilege I still need to think through, and to share this possible feeling with others.

To me, that is “meaningful” and maybe “helpful,” even if it may not be productive for my current professional and academic goals.

Thanks for reading.

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