Productivity is the quality of effectively bringing about something. Whether your version is checking off all of your tasks for the day, or feeling dread because you think you’re not doing enough, productivity plays a huge role in your life.
As students at a rigorous university with a competitive culture, many of my peers and I have had toxic relationships with the concept of productivity. I’m not talking about imposter syndrome—that's a separate conversation. This problem is a culture where you're expected to work yourself to the bone and neglect basic self–care. However, the past year of social isolation, virtual learning, and possibly too much time to think has allowed my relationship with the concept of productivity to evolve.
At Penn, it’s really easy for your perception of productivity to be skewed. I found this out early in my first year. Coming from a tiny high school in rural Pennsylvania, where it was fairly easy to make myself stand out, I felt secure in my productivity. I did well in my classes, set ambitious goals, and took care of myself most of the time. I felt confident that I could keep up with my responsibilities.
That totally changed once I arrived at Penn. I found myself struggling to complete tasks throughout the day. When homework piled on, I experienced mental collapse. It seemed like I was never on top of things; I was just always trying to catch up. My mind was in a hundred places at once—unfocused and unhinged. There was always a pressure to produce some quantifiable output.
We place so much emphasis on productivity that it feels like we're all competing to be more productive. It's the end point of American productivity culture. As Nick Martin of the New Republic writes, it seems like "every nanosecond of our lives must be commodified and pointed toward profit and self–improvement." The productivity that is preached to us hinges on how many quantifiable things we accomplish in a day, which completely disregards that we are all living humans before we are anything else. We can't ignore our basic well being and expect to still function.
Unfortunately, a lot of people have experienced this stress—feelings of burnout reportedly grew 33% in 2020. Burnout can come in many forms, including mind–wandering, irritability, cynicism, poor sleep, depression, exhaustion, and feelings of uselessness. Yet being perfectly 'productive' is still an unachievable goal we're all supposed to meet.
A year later, people are still trying to figure out how to deal with this identity crisis, but they often leave their attitudes toward productivity out of the conversation. How can you feel confident in your ability to be successful if you don’t think about your relationship with the things you do on a daily basis?
Being productive is so much more than getting as much homework done in a day as possible. It's more than keeping your video on for an entire Zoom class session. It's more than spending any free time trying to master a new skill. Rather, it’s a personal relationship that hinges on your mental energy.
My productivity evolution started when I felt mentally empty and exhausted during the first lockdown last spring. The state of the world aside, I felt horrible about myself. I was waking up every morning and doing as much work for school as I could bring myself to do, pushing aside any glimmer of happiness. I wasn’t taking care of myself—I was doing whatever I could to feel secure about being what other people would think of as productive. I realized then that being productive for the sake of being productive is actually really unproductive. Why can't productivity be fulfilling?
I started exploring my relationship with productivity and asking myself a lot of questions. What makes me feel productive but also happy? What makes me feel productive but quite unhappy? Ultimately, I realized that productivity encapsulates the simplest of responsibilities—spending time with those who make you laugh, being hygienic, eating healthy meals, taking medicines and vitamins, and going outside to get some sun. Yes, I still have to do my homework, but I shouldn’t be substituting work for health and the most basic pillars of fulfillment.
I also started exploring hobbies that made me feel good about myself. If productivity is the quality of effectively bringing about something, and you aren’t doing anything that makes you feel content, then the whole system collapses. For me, playing piano more frequently and expanding my plant collection were what made life more enjoyable. I went to bed at night knowing that we’re in a pandemic and online learning sucks, but I also felt good knowing that I did something I really enjoyed.
Eventually, this became a habit. I locked in a pretty cliché morning routine: I would wake up, make my bed, take my meds, clean myself up, and enjoy a really great latte (or three). After a day that started with that routine, I could go to sleep at night feeling like I really lived my morning in the most effective way possible.
The purpose of this narrative isn’t to make you feel bad if you aren’t doing the things I’m talking about. I also don't want to point fingers and tell you how to find your own personal fulfillment in productivity. But if you’re already feeling like you struggle to keep up with your work, breaking productivity down into different steps can prevent your perception of it from only encapsulating the things you get graded on.
You can also start thinking about productivity in a positive light. Burying yourself in mindless work to distract from feelings of anxiety is not a solution. If you do things each day that make you feel prepared to take on the rest of your life, then those not–so–fun tasks will be more achievable. I know that if I’m going to go to Zoom class all day and finish a problem set that night, I better have at least three chai lattes and a walk around campus while listening to evermore by Taylor Swift on repeat.
So when you hear a friend worrying about not being productive today, remind them that falling a little behind on homework doesn’t mean that they should feel dreadful about their productivity. We shouldn't be holding ourselves to lofty expectations that equate productivity to school and work—it’s unhealthy, unrealistic, and unnecessary. Instead, let’s focus on the little things that make us capable of tackling those tasks.