Productivity is a Trap

A little over a year ago, I found Oliver Burkeman’s Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals to be one of the most excerpt-able books I’d read in a while.

In it, Burkeman describes cosmic insignificance theory, the perhaps counterintuitive argument that I would summarize as, “You really don’t matter very much in the grand scheme of things, so stop getting so worked up.”

You could consider the aspirational approach to be a form of happy nihilism. 

Here are some of my favorite passages:

The world is bursting with wonder, and yet it’s the rare productivity guru who seems to have considered the possibility that the ultimate point of all our frenetic doing might be to experience more of that wonder.

Except the people who want to amass experiences like a collector hoarding trinkets.

I also always love references to Keynes and his prediction for the 15-hour workweek:

None of this is how the future was supposed to feel. In 1930, in a speech titled “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren,” the economist John Maynard Keynes made a famous prediction: Within a century, thanks to the growth of wealth and the advance of technology, no one would have to work more than about fifteen hours a week. The challenge would be how to fill all our newfound leisure time without going crazy. “For the first time since his creation,” Keynes told his audience, “man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem—how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares.”

But Keynes was wrong. It turns out that when people make enough money to meet their needs, they just find new things to need and new lifestyles to aspire to; they never quite manage to keep up with the Joneses, because whenever they’re in danger of getting close, they nominate new and better Joneses with whom to try to keep up. As a result, they work harder and harder, and soon busyness becomes an emblem of prestige. Which is clearly completely absurd: for almost the whole of history, the entire point of being rich was not having to work so much. Moreover, the busyness of the better-off is contagious, because one extremely effective way to make more money, for those at the top of the tree, is to cut costs and make efficiency improvements in their companies and industries. That means greater insecurity for those lower down, who are then obliged to work harder just to get by.

That summarizes a lot of depressing things about the modern human condition.

Not to mention the downsides of being effective. In many industries, that means the more you are able to do, the more you get to do.

Productivity is a trap. Becoming more efficient just makes you more rushed, and trying to clear the decks simply makes them fill up again faster. Nobody in the history of humanity has ever achieved “work-life balance,” whatever that might be, and you certainly won’t get there by copying the “six things successful people do before 7:00 a.m.”

Heh. No matter how much you do, you can’t do it all–so stop being so dramatic.

The day will never arrive when you finally have everything under control—when the flood of emails has been contained; when your to-do lists have stopped getting longer; when you’re meeting all your obligations at work and in your home life; when nobody’s angry with you for missing a deadline or dropping the ball; and when the fully optimized person you’ve become can turn, at long last, to the things life is really supposed to be about. Let’s start by admitting defeat: none of this is ever going to happen.

The lists don’t magically become empty unless you don’t mind them being empty.

The fundamental problem is that this attitude toward time sets up a rigged game in which it’s impossible ever to feel as though you’re doing well enough. Instead of simply living our lives as they unfold in time—instead of just being time, you might say—it becomes difficult not to value each moment primarily according to its usefulness for some future goal, or for some future oasis of relaxation you hope to reach once your tasks are finally “out of the way.”

On the opposite side of binging content in its many forms is the feeling that activities need to be “worth it” by some metric, that you are accountable for your time to any judge but yourself. (Also, I’m a hypocrite.)

I was a “productivity geek.” You know how some people are passionate about bodybuilding, or fashion, or rock climbing, or poetry? Productivity geeks are passionate about crossing items off their to-do lists. So it’s sort of the same, except infinitely sadder.

That’s a good line.

I tried to align my daily actions with my goals, and my goals with my core values. Using these techniques often made me feel as if I were on the verge of ushering in a golden era of calm, undistracted productivity and meaningful activity. But it never arrived. Instead, I just got more stressed and unhappy.

I would never succeed in marshaling enough efficiency, self-discipline, and effort to force my way through to the feeling that I was on top of everything, that I was fulfilling all my obligations and had no need to worry about the future. Ironically, the realization that this had been a useless strategy for attaining peace of mind brought me some immediate peace of mind. (After all, once you become convinced that something you’ve been attempting is impossible, it’s a lot harder to keep on berating yourself for failing.) What I had yet to understand, at that point, was why all these methods were doomed to fail, which was that I was using them to try to obtain a feeling of control over my life that would always remain out of reach.

Inevitably, to Nietzsche:

We labour at our daily work more ardently and thoughtlessly than is necessary to sustain our life,” wrote Nietzsche, “because to us it is even more necessary not to have leisure to stop and think. Haste is universal because everyone is in flight from himself.”

…which is a lot like the classic quote by Pascal: “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”

In practical terms, a limit-embracing attitude to time means organizing your days with the understanding that you definitely won’t have time for everything you want to do, or that other people want you to do—and so, at the very least, you can stop beating yourself up for failing.

…which then reminds me of the Covid-era essay by happiness professor/guru Arthur C. Brooks: How to Want Less.

Even embracing limitations, it’s easy to want to turn finitude into some sort of productivity paradox like the one thing: the best way to get things done is to do fewer things.

What Burkeman suggests is instead: just be okay with doing fewer things.



Ket 02.12.24 Reply

Finally, someone besides me has said that there IS no work-life balance. I was recently looking for another Family Medicine position. As soon as the recruiter or job description says excellent work-life balance in this position, with a low patient load of 20-24 patients a day! I just laugh. In family medicine, that is 24 patients a day, a few will be simple and fast, and 16 of them will have 16 major problems each – all of them new to a new doctor. Can we get the MA’s to input the problem list, history, and med lists into AI and have it just tell us what to do? Maybe I will ask AI if that is feasible.

Mel Goldin, MD 02.12.24 Reply

Remembering my undergraduate days in psychology classes, I remember the rats who thought they’d get somewhere on the treadmill,

Eric Lohse 02.12.24 Reply

I’m afraid you’ll never be OK with sitting alone in a room without distraction and thinking about the deep things of life, and the future, unless you’re in touch with your creator. Meeting Jesus at age 35 changed everything for me, from frenzy to peace. Check Him out if you haven’t.

Adam 02.12.24 Reply

Got it….speak with Jesus…on my list.

michael baria 02.12.24 Reply

I was just thinking the book of Ecclesiastes, Psalm 127, and Matthew chapter 6 address this very topic. Ancient wisdom from the heart of the Father.

Gary Coomber, MD 02.12.24 Reply

When I was in Junior High School in the 1970s, our teachers told us we were so lucky because by the second decade of the 21st century, our work week would be 24 hours. It sort of came true for me. I see patients three days a week. I write great progress notes and I’m generally very thorough and the in-box is always brimming, so the work takes far more than 24 hours to complete. But hey, the only one who got all his work done by Friday was Robinson Crusoe.

Moira Ariano 02.13.24 Reply

If you like what you do, it is work/life balance

John P. Shields D.O. M.S.W. 02.14.24 Reply

I find it very liberating to realize that the vast majority of life does not require 100% of our effort. In fact, it is very likely our 75% effort is far better than the vast majority of others 100%.

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