The Anti-Productivity Manifesto

After a barrage of recommendations on my twitter, I finally ended up reading Oliver Burkeman’s Four Thousand Weeks. The central premise of the book is simple: everyone has got about four thousand weeks to live, and spending that limited time chasing efficiency is wrongheaded.

The message seems old. The entire self-help industry revolves around saying variations of it. Stay in the present. Enjoy the moment. Seize the day. But where the book differs from the rest is that it’s both poetic and philosophical. It’s the kind of the book that, once you finish, you end up mumbling: gosh, I should have written it.

Productivity Treadmill

Let’s say you’re very efficient at work. You like inbox zero. You don’t like any unread messages on Slack. Because you’re so efficient, you can do the same work in a few hours that others would do in a day or more. What should your days look like?

In an ideal world, such efficient folks like yourself would invest a few hours per day working hard, but then spend the rest of the day in a lazy glory. You’re efficient, so you should be tending to gardens, playing cards with friends, daydreaming, cooking new recipes, calling old friends and going for long walks in nature.

But do you?

What actually happens โ€“ you get more work. The world notices how fast you turnaround work and starts pushing more work your way. Your rapid replies on email only gets you more emails because your co-workers start expecting rapid replies for every little thing.

The key insight worth internalizing is that the amount of work offered by the world is effectively infinite.

And if the work available is infinite, this constant productivity won’t help you “finish” your work faster, as there’s no finishing in the first place. If there were, all the years of productivity and efficiency should have led you to a life full of bliss. But what you got instead is probably a burnout.

The Fisherman and The Businessman

You may have heard of this Brazilian parable before:

A businessman meets a fisherman and offers him to teach efficient methods of fishing.

The fisherman asks what would we get from more efficiency, and the businessman replies that efficiency can help him make a lot of money and be rich.

Then the fisherman asks what he would do if he had a lot of money, the businessman says he’ll have all the time in the world. He could dance with friends, host dinners and maybe catch a few fish.

The fisherman looks puzzled and asks the businessman: “Isn’t that what I’m doing now?”

The point of the parable isn’t that money is bad, or even that efficiency doesn’t have its place in the world. The lesson is that a life chasing efficiency is actually internally inconsistent. You ought to be efficient, so you can enjoy life, and the parts of life that bring us joy are often things we do for their own sake without caring about efficiency. (There’s no “efficient” way of going about long walks in nature, or sharing tiny bits of harmless gossip with close friends.)

The feeling of being left behind

All theory aside, the feeling that you’d be left behind your peers is very real. A millionaire lawyer in front of her boss still feels that she has a lot to catch up on. The ten-million dollar worth boss still feels he has a lot to prove because he yet again missed winning the award. And the award-winning lawyer feels all the pressure to keep up with all the up-and-coming lawyers vying for what is truly hers.

The fear of the irrelevancy and losing out in the race impacts universally. It does not matter whether you’re on top or in the middle, whether you have enough money to retire for the rest of your life, or whether you have won awards. The treadmill never stops.

No wonder, the second most common regret of the dying people is that they worked too hard.

This came from every male patient that I nursed. They missed their children’s youth and their partner’s companionship. Women also spoke of this regret, but as most were from an older generation, many of the female patients had not been breadwinners. All of the men I nursed deeply regretted spending so much of their lives on the treadmill of a work existence.

Antidote to productivity: choose what matters to you

The only way to escape the productivity treadmill is to actively choose what matters to you. If friendships are important to you, choose to spend an evening with friends instead of delivering that project report ahead of time. If belonging is essential to you, cultivate weekends around “pointless” hobbies. Health is significant to everyone, so take out time for meditation and going to the gym.

Most work (but not all) is a means to an end. Often we’re not addicting to a particular kind of work, but the mere behavior of working. Answering emails feels good, irrespective of what kind of emails we’re answering. Realize that this is a trap. If you must work hard and be efficient, consciously pick that work. Constantly ask yourself why are you working so hard on this damn thing. If the answer is: “so I can get ahead“, remind yourself that it’s a treadmill and you’ll always stay at the same place, no matter how fast you run.

Embracing finitude

There are infinite things to do in life. Driven by FOMO, the more things you want to cram in your finite days, the more it will feel that you’re losing out. You cannot visit all the cities in the world, so if you feel like you must travel around the world, expect disappointment.

Same with career and relationships. You cannot sample everything that the world has to offer, as the world offers effectively infinite choices. Finitude requires making peace with making few choices and living with the consequences. If you’re constantly craving more, you’d never appreciate what you already have.

Life is nothing but a set of choices. And that is what makes it beautiful.

You don’t have time, you are time

Time is a series of nows. In that sense, the future never arrives. And if the future never arrives, why live a life continuously oriented towards it? I think most of us intuitively know that the present moment is all that exists, but we remain fixated on the future because we’re often suffering in the present moment. The future gives us a false hope of moments devoid of suffering, but we don’t realize suffering is self-created. The very fact that we believe the future will be better devalues the present moment.

Perhaps this is what Buddha was hinting. The ultimate liberation from suffering โ€“ the enlightenment โ€“ happens when you’re at peace with and bask at merely existing.

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