There is a dark side to productivity. It originates from the assumption that time is linear, or chronological. We anchor our experience in the illusion of the present moment. With each passing moment, which we can neither grasp nor define, we perceive that we are moving forward in time. The past, we convince ourselves, is something that’s already happened and belongs to the domain of memory. And the future, that great fiction somewhere ahead of us, is where our hopes and dreams reside. The line from past through the present and into the future is typically what we think of as time.

Chronological time dominates our beliefs about time. It is, of course, useful for coordinating activities involving groups of people. Chronology can help to identify patterns and trends in the world by identifying where something started and tracking how it evolved. In school, chronological periods defined the boundaries of a history course. The presumption is that it is important to learn historical events in the order they occurred. This isn’t always the case.

The Gregorian calendar is a child of chronology. We begin each year in January and end it in December. Every time the cycle repeats, we add one to the calendar year and start over. Each month has roughly the same amount of time as the others. In one year, for the most part, there are fifty-two weeks, 365 days, 8,760 hours, 525,600 minutes, and 31,560,000 seconds. The average human life span, in developed countries, is 80-85 years. The individual life moves through a finite and uncertain amount time in a line from birth to death.

Chronological time is a convenient way to organize activities. Modern society could not function without temporal conventions that helped people to live, work, and play together. Productivity is a child of chronological-industrial thought. In terms of work, productivity means the state or quality of producing something. It is a strategy for the efficient completion of work. The vocabulary of productivity includes aims, goals, objectives, schedule, tasks, and to-dos.

Chronological time is, however, a potentially disastrous way to think about your life.

Think about the rhythm of your life for a moment. During childhood, we were free of chronological time, except for bedtime. Then you went to school, willingly or otherwise. Linear time dominates education in the form minimum attendance requirements, a start time, daily schedule, lunch hour, recess time, and dismissal. The education system assimilated you into a chronological bias under the guise of preparation for society.

There is no evidence to prove that age segregation and subject disciplines are the best way to educate people. But the convenience of mechanized approaches often dominates. Schooling is like an assembly-line. Other than bureaucratic convenience, there is no reason that geography should occur on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 10am to 11am. Benefits aside, education is a mechanized system of temporal assimilation unresponsive to the subjective experience of students.

As we near the end of our schooling, we begin to look forward to the freedom afforded by adulthood. It doesn’t take long for the disappointment to set in. When we enter adult life and the workforce, we find ourselves entangled in a web of chronological requirements driven by the tyranny of the work week. We must learn to navigate a complicated array of scheduling, tasks, and to-dos just to find our way from Monday to Friday seek relief over the weekend.

During my career, I navigated low technology to high technology work environments. I was using the Internet before most people knew it existed. I experienced numerous technological transitions during a period of rapid technological innovation in the workplace. I can say from experience that modern technologies take away at least as much as they give. They often arrive with a promise of making the workplace more efficient, less time-consuming, and easier. But this rarely happens. Now the five-day work week has morphed into work anytime-anywhere – whether you want to or not. My career started as a standard five-day work week and ended as working all the time.

The workplace has gone remote and regularly invades home life now. One of the dumbest ideas to emerge from this is the notion of work-life balance. There’s work. And there’s the rest of life. I guess.

Corporations need compliant workers to keep the profitability engines tuned up running. Material profit is the prime directive. Advertising and marketing cloak products and services no one really needs in the pleasant guise of status and promised lifestyle. Underneath it all, the wealthy strive to get wealthier. The wealth inequity pandemic has been a problem far longer than Covid-19. At the heart of this endeavor is greed.

Productivity is a social construct designed to maintain a compliant workforce. The weaponization of time is a proven strategy. A productive employee is a good employee who may earn more money than those that are less productive. But the real trick to productivity is the compression of time. Temporal enslavement occurs when people are so busy trying to move from point A to point B that they don’t have time to question what is really happening to them. The vocabulary of confinement consists of aims, goals, objectives, calendars, schedules, tasks, and to-dos.

When retirement came along, my perception of time changed. The shock of retirement isn’t only about how you’re going to fill your time now that you have it back. Another problem is how to liberate yourself from the shackles of productivity and the incessant busyness of always having to have tasks to do.

The problem with productivity is that you are the product.

Everyone is in a hurry to get from one place to another. As my career progressed, life felt increasingly compressed. Efficiency is the hallmark of productivity. And it’s not all bad. But there is a cost you pay when the increasing intensity and compression of time begins to break down your sensibilities. We can only take so much, and then we must retreat.

Many people feel tense, distressed, and anxious today. We have entered an age of hyper-productivity, and it is taking a significant toll on human wellbeing. We are so busy trying to make it through the day that we don’t have time to expose and question the underlying assumptions about how we are living. When we feel stressed, psychologists tell us to train our mind to become more resilient and then send us back into the source of the problem – the world humans have created for themselves. So, we get counselled, pull ourselves up, and head back into the same chaos.

Am I being cynical? No. I’m speaking from experience. Everything I describe above I have experienced, complete with physical and psychological challenges along the way. I’m retired now, and the tension and stress I see people enduring today seems worse than what I experienced. We can only try to go so fast before things start to break.

A deficient understanding about productivity is a primary cause of our collective stress, anxiety, and depression. And the deficiency lies in our lack of philosophical insight into the nature of time.

We often hear that time is our most precious resource. It isn’t. Your experience is your most precious resource. In a deep sense, it is the experience of being alive that matters most – not your work. In the end, your experiences in life are all you can lay claim to.

Time is something you can’t have, own, rely on, or manage. Time is a mysterious and creative force of nature that moves through you. In a physical sense, we call this aging. But time has depth. It is not conveniently linear. Time has a wild and feral nature. Liminality is an example of time thrusting you inside a crucible of uncertainty. There’s nothing linear about a dark night of the soul. The Greeks also explored Kairos, which explored ideas about deep time. And, of course, there is also the confluence of decisions and choices that coalesce into your lifetime.

Productivity needs to be more than just getting things done. There is more to life than time management. We need a version of productivity attuned to the depth dimension of life. One that grounds productivity in the cultivation of meaning, purpose, and fulfillment across the entire span of an individual life. The rest of this series will explore novel approaches to productivity.

Notes

  1. Ironically, most of the content I found about the link between productivity and depression focuses on how depression reduces productivity. Articles that focus on how productivity causes depression are harder to find. One reason might be that approaching productivity as a mental health problem is not a great consulting platform when your clients are corporations.
  2. In Toxic productivity caused my depression, the author offers this important insight: “It was only after I lost all hope and motivation in early January 2021 that I realized how inseparable our society’s notion of time and money really is. If, when we are handed a certain amount of time, we don’t find a way to earn money during it, then did we even deserve that time to begin with? This, of course, is one of the many toxic thoughts that often ran through my head as we closed off 2020 because it felt like life really had no purpose if it was just me, my thoughts, and my dwindling bank account.”
  3. In Depression Lowers Productivity, depression is positioned as a hinderance to productivity: “Depression also takes a huge toll in the workplace as well. It costs employers $44 billion a year in lost productive time, versus $13 billion lost from those without depression.”
  4. The article above appeared in Psychology Today. I did a site search for the opposite – Productivity Causes Depression– and came up empty handed. The bias is clear – and a little surprising.