What is productivity porn and is it making you miserable?

·8-min read
Photo credit: FreshSplash - Getty Images
Photo credit: FreshSplash - Getty Images

In news that will surprise absolutely nobody, I tend to err on the disorganised side. A post-lockdown boom in energy saw me sign up for a new therapist and driving lessons, only to forget to actually go to them – on more than one occasion. I’ve been gymming since it reopened, but most days I hurtle back before work with barely time to shower before needing to open my laptop (and going on the days I’m in the office? Forget it). Plus, erm, WHEN does anyone find time to do housework now we can head out on the weekends? Productivity is definitely not my strong suit.

But hey, what I'm missing in efficiency, I make up for in enthusiasm. Which is why I'm ready to turn things around: to reassess my way of doing things and get *productive*. Fortunately, there’s plenty of tips and tricks out there designed to help. The shops are full of notebooks, journals and mindfulness planners tracking everything from our daily tasks and social calendars to our emotional states and even water intake. On our phones, a bunch of freemium organising apps like Evernote and Trello aim to do the same.

Social media is a goldmine for the would-be-more productive person, detailing SO many hacks to help you crush your to-do list and, by extension, your life. Have you tried following the two minute rule, asks Instagram, or the Pomodoro technique? Are you batching and doing regular brain dumps? Did you get up at 4am – and then find the time for a power nap during the day?

"Our productivity levels have become increasingly entwined with our sense of self worth and overall perception of success in life."

Likewise, on TikTok, beautiful women showcase their daily routines, often involving hitting the gym at the crack of dawn before eating a bowl of aesthetically pleasing overnight oats, arranging a vase of tulips, effortlessly bullet journaling their way throughout the day and rounding it all off with a spot of meditation. It's easy to feel as though you're lacking, if you're not making use of every waking moment - and sleeping ones, for that matter.

The strange appeal of productivity hacks

Much like organisation porn (yup, those dreamy home pantry pics on Pinterest), these productivity porn posts are oddly soothing – and inspiring. Maybe, I reasoned, if I got up earlier I’d be one of these put-together kinda gals, leisurely chopping strawberries for a post-workout breakfast illuminated by a shaft of light as the sun tried to catch up with me. I'd settle down to work with my herbal tea steaming away as I added to my bullet journal (muted tones only, please), checked my diary, and ticked off a few small things on my to-do list before my first meeting. I'd have seen that I had a driving lesson that day – and actually gone to it. I’d be a more functional person. A better person.

It seems that our productivity levels have become increasingly entwined with our sense of self worth and overall perception of success in life, and it’s clear that more productivity = better. "We live in a society where growth is the default metric, success is pushed by society, and we are expected to be able to have it all and do it all," says psychologist Lee Chambers. "Productivity porn can have the effect of making us more aware of our current productivity levels, which can induce feelings of shame and comparison which fuel us."

That’s certainly true of myself. Feeling ashamed of my recent scattiness, I decided to give some of these productivity hacks a go. I downloaded Evernote and made a very comprehensive to-do list, committed to start following the two minute rule and heading to the gym earlier. Having everything I needed to do written down in the app did, in fact, make me feel more relaxed and in control. I was ready to get stuff DONE.

"The problem with productivity porn is that it tricks you into feeling productive when you're not"

That is, until my alarm went off at 5am and the idea of working out couldn’t feel any less appealing. So I skipped it. I also found that making more lists is one thing, but actually ticking off the items on that list is another. A Sunday without plans was prime time to clear out my wardrobe, deep clean the bathroom and crack on with some freelance work – but, knackered after a long week, I really just wanted to lounge on the sofa with Netflix. And then the guilt set in.

"The problem with productivity porn is that it tricks you into feeling productive when you're not," says mindset coach Jemma Broadstock. "It’s something that makes us believe we need to look externally to "fix" things and often results in us buying and downloading all sorts of things when actually the answer, without trying to sound cheesy, is often internal."

"It’s like the fast food of the self-help world."

Lee agrees; "Looking at productivity porn online feeds our desire to become knowledgeable while at the same time leaving us hungry for more not long after," he says. "Often, this leads to a cycle of losing time consuming this type of content, leaving an element of shame as we become less productive as a result. It’s like the fast food of the self-help world."

So, how can we *actually* be more productive?

Lee says that, firstly, it’s important to be clear on why you want to be more productive in the first place. "With a concrete reason, you are less likely to chase shortcuts and more likely to commit to consistent longer-term strategies that work."

So, do you have a really important deadline coming up where you need to have something tangible finished by a specific date, or are you simply chasing a fantasy version of yourself – a 'better' version that you feel that you should be? "We should be looking to embrace mindful productivity, where we create routines that are beneficial to us as unique individuals," Lee continues. "One person’s 5am utopia is another's under-slept nightmare."

Like mine, then.

So, I decided to get clear. I realised that the end of lockdown had left me a little overwhelmed as we started making plans again, so my main goal was to actually just go to all my appointments. That means I have to diarise my driving lessons, social events, therapy sessions and meetings with my personal trainer. For that, the calendar app on my phone, complete with reminder notifications, works just fine – and it’s completely free. I also have to accept that I’m simply not a morning person; being in the gym at 7:45 is impressive enough, frankly.

Fitting in the long list of life admin – keeping a super-organised wardrobe, sparkling bathroom, regular meditation sessions and labour-intensive, Instagrammable breakfasts – might be a bit tougher to crack on the daily. But knowing that I'm doing the things that work for me, and help me look after myself; like working, chatting with my therapist, exercising, socialising and learning new skills, makes me feel much better about myself. Then I can deal with the other things as and when the inspiration strikes.

"Avoid the gurus, reflect on what has worked well in the past and why, get out there and experiment, and you will likely become more productive while boosting other areas of your life and moving towards what you truly want to achieve," says Lee. "By building awareness, so we don't procrastinate with productivity porn, or let it turn us into unhealthy perfectionists, we can find that optimal place where we know what we want and gradually make meaningful progress towards it."

Essentially, the key to living productively is not to buy yet another planner emblazoned with an inspiring slogan on the front, it’s to, uh, just to get out there and… do it while making sure that 'it' is a reasonable goal to set your sights on. Life is messy and, after the wild 18 months we’ve had, just getting out of the house at all has been pretty daunting (post-lockdown anxiety is real). So, if you’ve failed to smash through three loads of washing, go for a 10k run and do a full day’s work before 6pm drinks with the girls, it’s really not the end of the world.

"As humans we like to know our dreams and goals are possible; it gives us a feeling of security," says Jemma. "But productivity will fluctuate and sometimes giving yourself a break is the most productive thing you can do. Work on yourself and try to be the best version of you, but don't forget you're a human, not a robot."

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