Estimated reading time: 14 minute(s)

Webster’s 1913 defined “productivity” as meaning “the quality or state of being productive.” To be “productive” is to possess “the quality or power of producing.” With these definitions on record, I will stake out the position that “productivity” is only particularly noteworthy when it results in actual production. The idea of being “productive” is not an end, the end is production. Yet, there exists today an entire “productivity” industry, which worships above all else tips and tricks to become “productive,” with less focus on actual “production.” I was inspired to explore this issue by a couple of incisive articles that I will turn to now. Things spiraled from there, so enjoy a long essay on thoughts and reflections about “productivity” in all its forms, including productivity in the context of leisure.

Photograph of tanners hard at work - pictured in "Manual of Shoemaking and Leather and Rubber Products" (1912)
Genuinely productive tanners – pictured in “Manual of Shoemaking and Leather and Rubber Products” (1912)

Against “Productivity Porn”

I came across an article from Ness Labs’s Anne-Laure Le Cunff provocatively titled “From productivity porn to mindful productivity.” Do we need such provocative lines to grab attention? You will certainly never find me using the phrase “reaction porn” to describe bad social media content here at The New Leaf Journal.

But I digress.

Ms. Le Cunff’s article is worth reading in its entirety, but for the purpose of the instant article, I will focus on just a couple of points.

When Productivity Becomes Procrastination

Many people who seek to learn the art of productivity are drawn to its promises because of their own struggles with procrastination. However, as Ms. Le Cunff astutely observes, pursuing the secrets of productivity can become a form of procrastination itself.

“At its core, productivity porn is a form of procrastination.” What does Ms. Le Cunff mean here? She explains: “When we don’t feel like working, planning and reading act as illusory substitutes: they give us the illusion of productivity.” For example, she suggests that someone may put off meaningful work to research productivity tricks and products, all under the pretense of doing so to become more efficient at work. A cruel irony indeed.

For those who are interested, Ms. Le Cunff discusses some psychological concepts that may be at play. I will diverge from her here, for my interests and frame of reference is a bit different – but I encourage you to read the full section in her post.

Productivity Becomes Procrastination When it Divorced From Production

I view the “productivity porn” that Ms. Le Cunff warns readers about as “productivity” divorced from actual production. People who fall victim to the productivity porn siren song aspire to achieve some abstract concept of being productive, but without actually considering what they want to produce.

For example, earlier in her essay, Ms. Le Cunff described a case of productivity porn, wherein one is advised to aspire to wake up at 5 in the morning and clear his or her inbox before 6. She cites this as an example of an “unrealistic demand,” assuming that man is machine. But I must offer an addendum to her well-reasoned concern: To what end? Assuming that this person succeeds in following this rule and, half-awake, clears his or her mailbox to zero, does this help him or her produce something of value, or is he or she doing it solely to feel productive?

“Productivity,” properly understood, must be ordered toward producing something of value. To be sure, someone who genuinely aspires to produce something of value may also be led astray by the seduction of productivity porn, engaging in performative behavior to feel productive while not actually being productive. But the most susceptible victims of the uncouth productivity dealers are those who forget that there is a reason to aspire to being more productive at all. That reason should not be “productivity” in and of itself.

Productivity as a Solution in Search of a Problem

A friend of mine brought up an interesting point after reading Ms. Le Cunff’s article. He noted that some people who fixate on “productivity” do so because they believe that if they are more productive at work, they will have time to do the things that they really want to do. This sounds different on its face than the scenario I described above wherein one worships at the altar of an abstract, disembodied deity of productivity. People who meet my friend’s description aspire to be more productive in producing a work product in order to yield the benefit of having more time to pursue other interests. Noble indeed!

But do these people always need to learn to be more productive? My friend was not sure. Perhaps opining based on real-world cases that failed to escape his vigilant notice, he suggested that he knows of examples of people who may actually be productive enough for all normal purposes at work, but who then fritter away their personal time in unproductive ways. As he put it, if you spend three hours every evening aimlessly scrolling through your Facebook newsfeed, being more productive at your day job may not yield the results that you are hoping for.

Illustration of Charlotte refusing to knit to accompany a short poem called "What Happened to Lazy Charlotte" - part of a collection of stories in "Slovenly Betsy" (1911)
Illustration for “What Happened to Lazy Charlotte” from “Slovenly Betsy” (1911)

I wholeheartedly agree. I will add that if you are going to spend three hours wasting time reading content online, let it be your well-cultivated RSS feed instead of Facebook.

But I digress.

Let us examine productivity in leisure.

Productivity and Leisure

Most people who think of “productivity” at all think of it as having to do with a job. As my friend noted, some may aspire to greater productivity and efficiency at work in order to have more time to enjoy leisure or other activities outside of work. Some may succeed in this goal. Others may be too successful, and find themselves saddled with more responsibility at work and even less free time. We will focus on the former group. I extend my sympathy to the latter. Corporate slavery sounds rough.

Leisure can be spent productively. That product can be gaining knowledge, working on a meaningful project, or relaxing and genuinely enjoying one’s free time in a meaningful way. From the above examples, we see that the “product” of leisure can be tangible or intangible.

Illustration of two boys creating a dollhouse in a workshop - clipped from "The Boy Craftsman" (1905)
Illustration of two boys in a workshop, clipped from “The Boy Craftsman” (1905)

If leisure, properly conceived, can be productive or unproductive, then it becomes clear that creating more time for leisure is not an end in and of itself. If one succeeds at work and life in such a manner as to create more time for leisure, and then spends that leisure time aimlessly scrolling through Facebook or Twitter, then what has he or she really gained, having produced nothing other than dull senses?

Let us consider another interesting article from around the web. I fear this is turning into a quasi-around the web piece.

Leisure and Distractions

The same RSS feed that gave me “productivity porn” included an interesting and indirectly related article the day before. On February 14, 2021, the same day I posted an article about an adorable squirrel kiss that you should productively read, Santeri Liukkonen posted an interesting article called “Age of Distractions” at The Lost Book of Sales.

Mr. Liukkonen’s article was prompted by a revelation he had. He begins his post by stating that he was, on one weekend day, reading an “exciting and funny” book and learning new things while reading. He was so interested in the book, he explains, that he kept “writing down my ideas and shuffling their implications.” In light of the foregoing, he was understandably confused when he realized that he had only read three pages in fifteen minutes and was already thinking about what next he had to do. Ultimately, he describes various methods that he undertook to manage the distractions in his life.

The post is well-worth reading, although I disagree with many of Mr. Liukkonen’s diagnoses and recommendations. He focuses on devising various ways to silence distracting applications on his phone and fighting a negative battle against all of the distractions in his life. “[T]ry drinking less coffee” is dark advice too – I thoroughly oppose.

Now, I preface the following advice by advising you to not take important life advice from random writers on the internet.

Spending one’s time devising innovating solutions to blocking distractions from his or her life is at least a second cousin of productivity porn.

Productive Leisure is Positive, Not Negative

A few years back, I was talking to a different friend than the one I mentioned before about spending one’s leisure time meaningfully. This friend noted that she had sometimes found herself reading about shows and movies she enjoyed on TV Tropes. She noted that the experience was not bad and that she did learn some interesting things on TV Tropes. Despite that, however, she realized that she came away from the TV Tropes binges feeling unfulfilled.

I can relate. TV Tropes is not my main cup of tea, although I will confess it has some amusing anime rundowns. But I too have spent time doing and reading things that seem fine on the surface but are ultimately unfulfilling.

What is the solution? Some content, including the one I referenced above, might suggest trying to find a way to block the temptation to venture onto TV Tropes.

Now, I again note that you should not take advice from random writers on the internet, but this random writer on the internet opines that the solution is more than forgetting to pay the phone bill or installing an app on your phone in order to prevent you from looking at other apps on your phone. The solution to avoiding distractions in leisure time is neither negative nor some sort of productivity refinement ratchet. The solution must ultimately be positive. There must be a clear good that comes from avoiding distractions and frivolity, something intrinsically valuable. That is what allows one to banish distractions and fill his or her leisure time with good things.

(Exception: Unless your problem is TikTok – you should definitely delete that before worrying about anything else, Victor.)

The Positive Path to Productive Leisure

Admitting one has a problem is the first step to confronting it, or so I hear from Alcoholics Anonymous. Applying that principle, if one recognizes that his or her leisure time is unfulfilling, he or she has already taken an important first step to rectifying the problem. Instead of punishing oneself by paying for lessons from productivity gurus or mono-focusing on blocking distractions, however, one should begin by considering oneself worthy of something better, indeed, something productive. When viewed in that light, it is only natural for a person to try to fill one’s life with good, valuable, and pleasant things, and not waste one’s time with frivolous things that leave one feeling empty or worse.

If, for example, one’s problem is a social media addiction, using some gimmick to temporarily block social media access does not mean that the ensuing time will be well-spent. That is, preventing oneself from opening Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram is not productive – it instead creates an absence, a negative state that produces nothing and yields no affirmative positive benefit. Most U.S. states would prevent “gimmicks to remove distractions” from marrying “productivity porn” due to their being too closely related.

Removing something harmful from one’s life is all well and good, but what is one to do with the time gained?

If one removes something from his or her leisure time because it is unfulfilling or outright harmful, one should also look to fill the void with something fulfilling and beneficial. This could be great or pleasant media, something instructive or educational, or something relaxing and healthy. The goal is not to punish oneself for spending time poorly, but to open the door to spending time well.

Removing something harmful from one’s life is all well and good, but what is one to do with the time gained?

Start by not taking advice from random writers on the internet.

Examples of Productive Leisure

I suppose I should illustrate some examples of trading meaningless leisure time for productive leisure.

Let us say that a person named Justina uses social media to make herself feel miserable. That is, she is obsessed with looking at people who appear to be having more fun than she has and doing or pretending to do cool things with their lives, while she broods over the fact that she is not doing such cool things.

Is the solution to confiscate Justina’s cell phone?

Yes. Her phone should be confiscated.

But there is more to it than just confiscating her cell phone.

Justina should fill the time she spent scrolling through Instagram with good and healthy activities. For example, she could take a nice walk, read a useful or pleasant book, or replace her terrible social media time with a feed reader full of interesting and meaningful content.

Or she could clean out a closet she has been putting off and feel satisfied with the activity and the result.

Walking is good, by the way. While you should not take life advice from random internet writers, you should take walks. Attend to your surroundings and, if applicable, your company. Take in the air and even take some pictures of pretty things.

An engraving for "A Walk to the Meadows," part of a poetry collection called "Sweets for Leisure Hours"
Engraving for a poem called “A Walk to the Meadows,” part of “Sweets for Leisure Hours

But what do you do while you are indoors? Consider my friend’s experience with TV Tropes binges. Perhaps, upon finding that a TV Tropes bender is not entirely fulfilling, one could trade some of that time spent reading about shows that he or she already watched for watching new shows from which he or she may gain something valuable.

The person who spends his or her time thinking about a book or video game “backlog”of some sort and devising a plan to “get through it” as if it were work should instead just pick up a book or game and get to it.

Or clean out a closet.

A Productive Intermission

If one has ideas on how to spend his or her leisure time meaningfully, he or she should get to them and reap the benefits. It is easier to attend to a wonderful book and eschew “distractions” once one actually does it instead of thinking about what to read and what to do.

Although I segued into leisure, I suppose the same principle applies to work too. If one knows what needs to be done to do a good job and to do it in a way that he or she will not spend his or her finite free time worrying about it, that time is best spent doing what needs to be done. Consider that closet.

Here is an interesting way to frame it – Why not think of yourself as worthy of spending your time in a meaningful way?

Think of yourself worthy…

Is that Epictetus’s entrance music I hear?

My word! I think it is.

Advice from Epictetus on Procrastination

In this final section, I leave our modern cases for something a bit more classical. We turn to Epictetus’s classic Enchiridion, a guidebook for the life lived well written in 135 CE. Epictetus was a leading stoic philosopher of his day, but above all, a practical philosopher. His teachings were geared to teach students how to master their ruling faculties and live well. Although much of his advice focused on things that students should refrain from, his ultimate goal was to direct them to focus their attention only on that which was important and conducive to the good life. Toward the end of his poignant guidebook, Epictetus exhorted his students to put the things they studied to practice. Below, I will discuss chapter 50 of Enchiridion, as translated by Elizabeth Carter in 1790.

Please note that this is less a scholarly analysis of Epictetus’s philosophy than extracting one point from part of one chapter of Enchiridion and applying it to the current discussion. While I will place the passage in context, it is my view that a thorough understanding of Epictetus requires a thorough understanding of the full scope of his philosophical views.

I discussed another passage of Enchiridion in a short article about walking.

You will find the text of chapter 50 courtesy of Standard Ebooks at this link. I also recommend its wonderful ebook version of Enchirdion for the entire short text.

Productive Living and Self-Valuation

Epictetus wrote Enchiridion for his pupils. Therefore, he presumed that his audience would have some level of familiarity with his work and stoic ideas.

Epictetus’s audience is not only familiar with the philosophical theorems that underpin the good life, but is also aware that they should not regard the opinions of others, notably those who may believe that the pupils are wasting their time. Yet, as Epictetus seems to believe, some readers of Enchiridion may know already how they should live, and yet live in a base manner regardless. In Epictetus’s view, knowing how to live well and yet declining to do so harms no one but the individual who knows better.

What does Epictetus have to say to the pupil who knows that he should live in accordance with reason and care for his ruling faculty, but spends his time concerning himself with unimportant things and harming his ruling faculty instead? Does Epictetus suggest various tricks and gimmicks for the pupil in order that the pupil may avoid things that distract him from living well? Not quite. Instead, Epictetus delivers a poignant challenge:

How long, then, will you put off thinking yourself worthy of the highest improvements and the distinctions of reason?

Powerful framing! In Epictetus’s view, the pupil who knows what is good for him and eschews them for things that are harmful must not value himself much. Thus, procrastination is, to Epictetus, another example of low self-valuation:

If, therefore, you will be negligent and slothful, and always add procrastination to procrastination, purpose to purpose, and fix day after day in which you will attend to yourself, you will insensibly continue without proficiency, and, living and dying, persevere in being one of the vulgar.

Consider Yourself Worthy of the Best Things

Epictetus believes that if one knows how to live well, that person should consider himself worthy of living well. When is the time to begin living well? Epictetus expressly ruled out tomorrow. Consider the following a very eloquent way of saying that “the time is now.”

This instant, then, think yourself worthy of living as a man grown up, and a proficient. Let whatever appears to be the best be to you an inviolable law.

Why should one reject procrastination and do things conducive to his or her own well-being? Because one should think of him or herself as worthy of living well. But what of the person who finds an example of someone better than he or she, and throws up his or her hands: “I cannot live as well as that person, so leave me to my frivolous things.” Epictetus would have that individual look at things in a different way:

Thus Socrates became perfect, improving himself by everything, attending to nothing but reason. And though you are not yet a Socrates, you ought, however, to live as one desirous of becoming a Socrates.

Leaving aside “Socrates” the man, a sometimes-thorny subject, Epictetus’s point here is valuable. Socrates only became “a Socrates” by attending to reason and thus to the things important to living well. We glean two points here. For one, that one may not yet be “a Socrates” is no excuse to put off following Socrates’s example. For two, being “desirous of becoming a Socrates” was not, for Epictetus, reading about Socrates and devising a ten-step “Live Like Socrates” strategy. Epictetus put the emphasis on living as one desirous of becoming a Socrates – that is, actually following Socrates’s perfect example.

Productively Coming Full Circle

The concept of “productivity” cannot rightly be divorced from actually producing something beneficial, whether material or immaterial. When considering how to become more productive, one must never lose sight of that which he or she wants to produce.

If one concludes that he or she is not spending his or her time productively, one should consider why that is. What would be the alternative? What would productive living be? Identifying a problem and eliminating it is one thing, but nature abhors a vacuum, as they say.

After identifying better, more productive ways to spend one’s time, Epictetus’s teaching becomes relevant, albeit a bit out of its particular context. Once one knows what is best for him or herself, the moment to take action is always the present. Why? One should consider him or herself worthy of good and pleasant things now, not in the future. Taking action, of course, is something that no one else can do on one’s behalf.

Or so Justin learned in that dialogue I wrote a few weeks ago.

I leave you with one last note.

You should do something more productive than look for life advice from random writers on the internet. Check your closet.

But if you were to determine that reading The New Leaf Journal is productive, I would certainly encourage you to devote hours upon hours to that important task.