The Productivity Trap
I’ve resisted for as long as possible, but I’m falling into that old trope of writing about writing. New York City is in lockdown, and despite the inordinate amount of time on my hands, I’ve hardly written a single thing. My mind has gone silent, and, somehow, it feels like this stasis has been a long time coming.
It hasn’t always been this way. Back in college, when I began writing in earnest, I was nothing if not prolific. It all came from a place of frustration, really—from the not-unfounded feeling that I was always within three feet of another person. It left very little space for reflection at a time when I wanted to do nothing but reflect. One night I took matters into my own hands. I was sitting in the desk space beneath my lofted bed; my roommate was sitting in her cave three feet away. I’d been reading a lot of stream-of-consciousness pieces in one of my classes, and I decided to try my hand at it. I opened a word document and typed out a full page—single spaced with no paragraph break—about how I thought I was losing my mind. My roommate thought I was working on an essay.
I had found my panacea: I could appear studious without studying, with the added benefit of space to ruminate (naturally, one of my favourite pastimes). It was a release. I kept at it, through my graduation from Michigan, through a couple of ill-fated blogs, through my master’s year in London, through my ill-fated move to San Francisco, through the first couple of years of my PhD. As the program drew to a close, I felt myself tipping slightly into this new, pervasive professionalism, where everything I wrote needed to be insightful, unique, theoretically well-founded. I hoped that this was just a side effect of the late stages of a PhD.
Post-graduation, I was unemployed in New York City for nearly eight months, and this brought a new level of pressure. Not only did I want to produce, I needed to produce, and every product had to bring me closer to making some mark on the world (or, at the very least, finding gainful employment). Writing became a weight around my neck, failing to rescue me from the quicksand of unemployment. I needed to write, and I needed to write well. New York was telling me to produce, produce, produce! And I was trying and trying and trying, and very little came out.
I did eventually find a job, and I thought that the removal of impending financial doom would allow me to write again. It didn’t, but at least I could shift the blame for my lack of creative productivity to my long commute.
Then came the quarantine, and with no commute and no immediate financial hardship, things started to come into focus. First I saw my social media timelines fill up with people lamenting their lack of productivity during this time of isolation, or critiquing the culture of toxic workaholism that makes us feel that we need to be productive at all times. I started thinking about all of my stalled writing projects, all the stillborn ideas that I’d hoped to revive during the lockdown. Five weeks of self-isolation passed, and I squeezed out hardly one word. Writing had fully made the transition from a response to frustration to my primary source of frustration. Could this be an effect of toxic workaholism?
For years now, the line has been blurring between things I write for myself and things I write for my own professional advancement. When I came to New York, this seemed like more and more of a necessity, as I joined the crop of newcomers, each of us entrenched in a mad grab for a limited pool of resources. In a scarcity mindset, every action must be in pursuit of a target, and I took stability and security and validation from others as mine. I developed a self-loathing perfectionism and flirted with burnout. Yet the careerist impulse held fast.
Even as I write this, I’m fighting the urge to conclude with some theoretical musing on the connection between scarcity and hyperproductivity, or suggesting some public policy measure that could eliminate the issue of scarcity for the wider society. Yet neither of those points is resonating with me. All I can say is that, as more and more people fall into a scarcity mindset—and in turn monetise and professionalise their creative hobbies—we’ve all got a lot to lose.
I’m striving for intellectualism, but I’d rather finish this off with a memory: it was the summer of 2010, and I spent an afternoon walking to the river and back. I stopped on the way home to sit on a bench outside of a school and filled the last page of a small blue notebook. I wrote about a memory of skipping stones earlier that summer with a guy I’d really liked. I felt calm, happy. I don’t know if the writing was any good.
What matters is that it didn’t matter.