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live artist, poet, and general doer of things

How to be Productive

I do a lot of stuff. I organise at least an event a week, alongside keeping a regular half-week job and running a dual career in theatre and poetry. I spend a lot of time in meetings, doing online publicity, holding back the incoming tide of email, capering around event spaces, and cycling between those various things. All of this, coupled with the necessities of artistic self-promotion and the inanities of the endlessly networked, gives the (not unfounded) impression of ceaseless productive activity.

One of the effects of looking like I am always busy, always juggling projects, is that I regularly get asked “How are you so productive?” or, sometimes less kindlily, “How the hell do you do so much stuff?” So I thought I’d put all the answers in one place, and next time somebody asks I can increase my productivity by eliminating the vague hand-waving and just sending them a link.

A quick word before the unsolicited advice: The internet abounds in productivity guides, life-hacks, self-help manuals, and other capitalistic detritus. This is not one of those. Apart from offering some potentially useful advice, the main thing I want to do is to point out all the ways that productivity sucks, provides no answers to the actually meaningful problems of existence, and largely stems from anxiety, neurosis and internalised oppression.

All of this advice is entirely serious, and entirely not.

Productivity Tips

1. Develop a crippling social anxiety

If you find spending time in noisy crowds difficult, and if small quantities of alcohol and other recreational drugs make your anxieties even more severe, you will be able to justifiably avoid wasting so much time having fun. Less parties = more time to be spent productively. If meeting new people or deepening relationships with acquaintances costs you rather than gains you energy, you’re better off avoiding situations where you might have to make friends. While all your peers are wasting time enjoying themselves, you can be at home writing emails.

You can also cope with your fear of intimacy by replacing your need for deep relationships with regular, effective meetings. This will give you enough social contact that you won’t feel entirely isolated, but avoid the need to have lengthy conversations about your feelings with more than one or two highly trusted people. This is a great time-saving strategy.

For even more productivity, make sure that you have several discrete projects on the go at once, each organised through a different social network. Having three meetings with different affinity groups in one day will make you feel very connected, without you having to spend time and energy actually connecting with people. As a bonus, this will make you seem even more productive than you actually are, because you can hasten your exit from each meeting with the words “I have to get to another meeting.”

2. Play video games

There is a toxic cycle which many potentially productive people find themselves trapped in. It goes something like this:

You wake up seemingly full of energy, and knowing that you have half a dozen extremely important things to do during the day. You’re quite sure you’ll be able to do them. Better get started. You shower, breakfast, and maybe tidy your room a little. Then you feel a twinge of self-doubt: maybe you don’t have as much energy as you thought. You think, “I’ll just play half an hour of Railroad Tycoon, so that I can build up some energy to do that work.” An hour later, you’re angry with yourself for not having closed Railroad Tycoon yet, and, now that it’s 11.30am, anxious that you won’t be able to accomplish everything you wanted to do with your day. So you play a little more Railroad Tycoon, because there’s no way you can start work in that frame of mind. Now it’s 2 in the afternoon, and you realise you should probably go get some lunch. You successfully make your lunch, and think maybe you’re getting your energy back, so you reward yourself with a little more Railroad Tycoon. Rinse and repeat. By the end of the day you have accomplished nothing, and you feel absolutely terrible, and when you wake up the next morning you will have a weird sense of inevitable self-defeat and will deliberately play Railroad Tycoon as soon as the day begins so that you can prove to yourself that you’re just as much of a failure as you think you are.

The trick to avoiding this is to give up right at the beginning. Here’s how: Most of the things you need to do will have a soft deadline (when you’d like to get it done by) and a hard deadline (when it absolutely has to be done by). You can safely ignore the soft deadline, and generally miss the hard deadline by a day, without anything bad happening. After applying those rules, if you have found at least a day’s leeway, then the moment you feel that twinge of doubt, that suspicion that you might not have the energy to do everything that you need to do, at that moment, give up, and give yourself permission to play Railroad Tycoon all day. You can replace “Railroad Tycoon” with whatever other repetitive, unproductive activity you enjoy – watching HBO drama series, updating internet meme generators, following Twitter gossip. Give yourself permission to do it.

In the best case scenario, by 3pm you’ll have got bored of Railroad Tycoon and you’ll find yourself able to do maybe half an hour of emails before you feel the need to play it again – this is OK, you’ll still finish the day feeling not too shabby. A common variation is that you won’t do any work that day, but will wake up genuinely full of energy and able to get stuff done the next day. Unfortunately, it may sometimes take two or three days of playing Railroad Tycoon for this to happen. As long as you don’t go too far past a hard deadline, this is OK.

Some important notes on this strategy:

  • It only works if you honestly give yourself permission. No tricks, no double-deals, especially of the “I can play two hours of Railroad Tycoon now in return for two hours work later in the day” variety.
  • This strategy is necessary because that initial twinge is your body/mind telling you that you have over-committed (see point 5) and need to take a break.
  • As a result, this strategy means you will sometimes turn in sub-standard work, or turn in work a little late. This is OK: the important thing is to stay productive.
  • This strategy does not work when you are well past a hard deadline. No amount of Railroad Tycoon will dismiss your over-arching sense of failure in this case. For what to do when this happens, see point 5.

3. Consistently subject yourself to the judgement of others

You are far more likely to do something if somebody else expects you to do it than if you merely expect yourself to do it. To put this another way, you are more scared of other people thinking you are a failure than of thinking yourself to be a failure, because all of your work is predicated on the assumption that you are already a failure anyway (see point 4).

The friendlier title for this section is thus “do everything collaboratively”. If, in a meeting, you commit in front of other people to completing a task, you are again more likely to actually do it than if you vaguely will it so in your mind, or even than if you write it on a to do list by yourself. Moreover, you’ll find your collaborators actively suggesting more things for you to do, or you’ll find yourself coming up with more things to do to impress them, thereby increasing your productivity again. The effect may be exponential – two people do more than twice the work of one person, four people more than twice the work again, and so on – or it may be logarithmic, with great initial gains as more people are added, but with diminishing returns and eventual asymptotic impediments.

There is another productivity bonus here. If you are working with a supportive group of collaborators, you will eventually have other people to rely on. Thus, when you are exhausted, depleted, and spend whole weeks at home playing Railroad Tycoon, other people will be continuing your project. This gives everything you instigate greater longevity and resilience, allowing you to remain obliged for longer, and preventing you from giving up on your great projects. Even when you are better off giving up the ghost, you will find yourself drawing out your project’s demise in order to please all your collaborators, who are themselves wishing it could all be over, themselves unable to fail in the eyes of others, or in yours.

4. Allow your mind to be colonised by late capitalist conceptions of self-worth

Why do you want to be productive, anyway?

It is because in late capitalism your measure of worth as a human being is how much you produce. This may be income, artistic success, strategic outcomes, or something else entirely – whatever the precise measure, it is always a measure of productivity. Late capitalism requires this measure because the basic economic operation of capital is to increase the efficiency of capital’s self-reproduction – which is to say, to drive down the cost of labour and to drive up the rate of productivity. In order for your boss to make a profit, the process of production needs to get more efficient (cheaper and more productive), so that your boss can compete successfully with other bosses. (N.B. Sometimes your boss is obviously a boss, but sometimes it is your friend, and sometimes it is you.) As capitalism grew into late capitalism, the insistence on being a productive member of society became increasingly internalised, shifting from an enforced rule to a social imperative to a personal neurosis. This is because it is far more efficient to install whips in your mind than to pay somebody else to whip you.

It is because you are guilty. You are privileged. (You are reading this on the internet, and you have the time to spare to read a 3000-word essay on productivity, so I feel this generalisation is reasonable.) You feel the need to make up for your privilege – to give something back. Perhaps you feel you owe it to your parents, perhaps to society at large, perhaps to the oppressed of the world off whose backs you have profited, perhaps to the greater good, perhaps just to yourself, if you are an Objectivist. (If you are an Objectivist, please go and read some grown-up books now.) Whatever way, you are in debt, and you are working frantically to make it up. You feel that maybe if you do enough work Nobodaddy will not punish you.

It is because you are already a failure. You can never do enough work. The more work you do, the more you will perceive the abyss between your accomplishments and your potential for redemption. This is especially the case in post-Christian societies in which the myths of delayed gratification and redemption are still extant, without the theology required to resolve the personal crisis. You are a sinner without a confessional, and so you work.

If you ensure that at least one of these systems of neuroses is firmly embedded in your psyche, you will be a far more productive person.

5. Regularly over-commit, but never by more than 10-15%

There are physical limits, and temporal limits, and emotional limits. If you are anything like me, you will want to do far more work, perhaps infinitely more work, than you can actually do. This makes over-commitment – where you have promised yourself (or, if you follow my advice, others) that you will do more work than is actually possible – extremely likely.

Over-commitment is not in itself an impediment to productivity. You can’t bend time, but you can work your body and your mind harder than they can take. This is called “pushing your limits”, or, if your boss (again, sometimes your boss is you) is particularly cunning/brutal/disingenuous, “pushing your boundaries”. Your initial judgement of your limits is probably correct, and so pushing your limits will make you ill, but it will also make you more productive. If you’re smart or lucky, you can time your illness, which may manifest itself as anything from a head cold to a nervous breakdown, to coincide with your holiday; or, if you do not take holidays, then with your period of least commitment. In addition, over time you will become accustomed to these bouts of productivity-induced illness, and you will have pushed your limits back; the down-side here is that you will then need to be even more productive in order to satisfy yourself and your boss, in much the same way as regular ecstasy users have to take stronger and larger doses in order to reach the same level of euphoria, thereby always pushing up their threshold.

One trick to managing all this is not to push things too far too quickly. I find that an over-commitment level of 10-15% above capacity is enough to avoid the illness ever being a nervous breakdown, but you are likely to find your own level, partly dependent on how many other coping strategies you have.

The other trick, again, is to know when to give up. If you regularly over-commit to increase your productivity, you will occasionally totally fail, you will occasionally have to pull the plug on a project – or, at least, pull yourself out of it. This is OK. Sometimes your projects will fail: the important thing is to stay productive. Collaborators are often helpful here, in that they can keep the project going without you, but occasionally a hindrance, in that they delay the plug-pulling (see point 3). The best way to kill a project is to kill it before you make yourself ill through over-commitment. That way you can keep going on the catastrophe curve for longer. If you let yourself get ill first, especially if it’s a particularly serious illness, you’ll find yourself having to kill more projects than you would otherwise have needed to. The more regularly you over-commit, the easier it will get to see the crash coming and to throw out the ballast before it happens.

You will hurt people doing this, and you will fail them. This, of course, is the price of productivity. A final piece of advice on this subject, then: make your apology as soon as possible, and make it short and simple. The people you failed do not need a lengthy explanation, because the longer the explanation the more it seems like an excuse, and nobody wants your excuses. Just say, “I’m sorry, I can’t do this, because I over-committed”, and leave it at that. They will then forgive you quicker, which helps, because you’re probably pretty terrible at forgiving yourself (see point 4). The quicker you make your apology, and the simpler you make it, the sooner you can pick yourself up and start being productive again.

6. Get a bike

Really. It’s the quickest way to get around most towns, so that you can fit more in the day; it gives you regular exercise, which is good for consistent work-flow and supports enough emotional well-being to keep all those productivity anxieties at bay; and it will probably make you sexier.

Last Words

You may have found the self-loathing in this essay a little repellent. That’s fine: self-loathing finds itself repellent; that’s the whole deal. But here’s the thing: I know almost no-one in my society who has successfully entirely beaten off the internalised oppression that is the productivity drive. Some people get there by smoking a lot of weed, but there’s often a certain desperation and self-delusion there. Some people get there through lots of practise in meditation, which is less prone to the same self-delusion, but at the same time is often used reprehensibly as a “retreat” or a “detox” designed to increase year-round productivity rather than as a daily practise. Some people get there just by being really awesome anti-capitalists, and I love them for it, especially because anti-capitalist movements are some of the social circles most prone to burnout I’ve ever encountered – even more than poetry. But very few people get there, and you are unlikely to. This is OK.

This is OK, because in many ways the quest for self-improvement is just another thing to be productive about (fitter, happier, more productive, &c.) Anxiety reproduces itself like capital: the most pernicious anxiety is the guilt you have for feeling anxious. The last thing I want you to feel is “Oh great, now I get to feel bad for wanting to be productive, on top of feeling bad about not being productive enough”. You are what your society has made you, and you are not obliged to struggle against this any more than you can. It’s healthy to be an anti-capitalist, but it’s also tough, so you don’t need to push your struggle harder than you can take. Or, at least, not more than 10-15% harder. Besides, there’s a world that needs fixing outside yourself, and for all that I once wrote a dissertation on a Daoist theory of political practise, it’s pretty reasonable to want to work hard to fix it.

1 Comment»

  Rebecca Green wrote @

This literally made me cry. Big fat tear drops. In a really good way. I’d been wanting to cry about something for ages, and I didn’t know what it was, and because I didn’t know, somehow my mind wouldn’t let go of me – this internal ‘whipper’ you write about – wouldn’t let go of me to let me do it. Because this madness does serve one also, doesn’t it? – relieving this strange guilt etc, as you say – whilst simultaneously kicking the s**t out of you. It was like my mind needed a good enough reason to let me go. What you write is so sane and clear, it gave my mind the reason it needed. I don’t have a computer game thingy, so I did my own version – stayed in my pjamas til 4pm, had another good cry, and now I’m going for a big walk. I realised I am very tired and pretty lonely too. I cried most of the way through reading this, and the rest of the time I was inspired. I feel like myself again. So you can now add ‘knight in shining armour’ to your list. No pressure.

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