Step Off The Hamster Wheel: Dealing with Productivity Anxiety

10 Aug 2020

Tick tock, tick tock, tick tock.

As I continue to stare at the clock and watch the minutes pass by whilst waiting for inspiration, I’m painfully reminded about the time lost for productivity. At the end of each day, there is an uncomfortable feeling in the pit of my stomach, asking:

“How much did you get done today? Is it enough?”

In a world obsessed with productivity and workaholism, nothing ever really feels enough. There are always more things to be checked off on a to-do list, more things to accomplish, and more things to compare ourselves to.

Taking pride in being “busy”: A Substantial Concern

***It’s as if we’re stuck in an abyss of tasks and CV-fillers that give us the transient comfort of being productive. What’s even more concerning is that we pride ourselves in being “busy”. A usual conversation between two people goes somewhat like:

“Hey, how are you?”
Busy, what about you? “Same.”

We’ve become so accustomed to filling our days with innumerable tasks that by the end of it, we feel frazzled and exhausted. However, one might say that this is a good thing because ultimately we’re being productive and keeping ourselves occupied.

Albeit a valid point, the irony of our times lies is in the fact that despite this constant state of busyness, we aren’t able to actually check off tasks on our to-do lists. Have you ever found yourself asking, “What did I really do all week?” Constantly burdening yourself with meaningless tasks does not create time for what matters, it just leaves you more frustrated. When you’re busy day after day, time just becomes a blur.

Ultimately, the faster you run on the hamster wheel, the faster it spins.

Why is life so busy?

In order to explain the causes behind this paradox, I’d like to mention two concepts that I came across in an extremely fascinating book, Make time: How to Focus on What Matters Every Day. It mentions that all our time is sucked in by two forces, namely, The Busy Bandwagon and Infinity Pools.

The busy bandwagon is our culture’s obsessive need of filling every single minute of every day with some form of busyness- overflowing emails, innumerable WhatsApp messages, and constantly nagging deadlines. According to the busy bandwagon mindset, if you want to meet the demands and expectations of modern society, you ought to be productive every single minute. After all, everyone else is busy accomplishing things and if you slow down, there’s no coming back.

You may also want to read: Productivity: A Lockdown Competition

The second force is something known as the Infinity Pool. You might have seen images of the picturesque Infinity Pool at Marina Bay Sands, Singapore. Sadly, the infinity pool I’m talking about is nowhere as pretty. In the digital age, infinity pools are apps and other incessant sources of replenishing content. If you can pull to refresh, it’s an infinity pool. This perennial source of new information is your prize for the exhaustion of relentless busyness.

How are these two forces a huge concern?

The problem lies in the fact that these two forces- Busy Bandwagon and Infinity Pools- have become our body’s programmed “defaults”. It’s as if you’re operating on auto-pilot mode and the moment you’re not catering to the busy bandwagon, you fall prey to the infinity pools.

Although there’s nothing wrong with either of the two, the fact that we’re mindlessly drawn to them only deteriorates our state of mental health. It’s no surprise that studies suggest a high correlation between anxiety and social media consumption.

Pertaining to “defaults”, an interesting field of study in Behavioural Economics discusses the power of nudges and how pre-selected options have a huge bearing on individual decisions. Most self-help gurus discuss the importance of cultivating self-discipline in achieving digital minimalism.

Unfortunately, that’s a solution that only works for a few in the long-run. Instead, behavioral science suggests that small tweaks in our everyday lives can tremendously change the course of our pre-selected decisions.

Hence, in order to break free from a busy life and to intentionally create time for what we value the most, we should change our mind’s programming of the default options.

How does one do that?

Although there are a plethora of techniques out there, what I found the most useful was:

Setting a Highlight for each day

Every day, just choose one task that you will focus on. That’s your highlight. Ideally, it should not be so huge that it seems overwhelming but not so small that it doesn’t feel like much. A time slot of 60-90 minutes to accomplish the task is recommended.

This helps you set your priority for the day and be less distracted. Of course, everyone can’t afford the luxury of just doing a single task per day. You can have numerous tasks to be done, but this highlight takes priority over the rest.

Eliminating Distractions

Albeit a commonly used phrase, truly eliminating distractions mean that you’ll go out of your way to reprogram the “defaults” in your mind. This could mean deleting Instagram from your phone, using an app like “Forest” to avoid your phone, or even switching off all your notifications. Simply keeping your phone away won’t do the trick.

Recharging your battery

No, not your phone’s. Under this strategy, you need to give time to energize yourself. After all, you can’t work properly if you’re running low on juice. This could involve taking short naps between tasks, exercising, and meditating. Studies suggest that exercising helps in boosting energy levels and alertness.

The Productivity Paradox- Does Being Productive Imply Doing the Most Important Work?

“Being productive didn’t mean I was doing the most important work; it only meant I was reacting to other people’s priorities faster.”

  • Jake Knapp, Make time: How to Focus on What Matters Every Day.

All of us have commitments and responsibilities to attend to. Let it be school, office, or home, we are required to perform some duties that are expected out of us by others. To a certain extent, that’s only fair.

However, when you find yourself spending your entire day responding to other people’s priorities, you burn out without feeling accomplished. There needs to exist a hierarchy of priorities where you put the work that matters most to YOU before other people’s demands.

Of course, that’s easy to say but difficult to implement, especially in a culture that balks at the idea of saying no to additional work. An effective strategy could be creating “batches” of responding to others. In other words, fix time slots where you’ll give your undivided attention to fulfilling other people’s demands. This has 2 benefits- one, you get the work done more efficiently and two, you don’t spend the whole day in a semi-chaotic headspace by constantly being interrupted with emails and calls. Eventually, you’ll feel calmer and in control of your day.

Round The Clock Anamoly

The year is 2017. I’m soon going to appear for my Class X board exams. (gasp) As an overambitious student who has been surrounded by the “Hustle Culture” Philosophy, I’m led to believe that to score well, I must devote every breathing moment to studying.
As a result, I spend 15 hours studying the day before a pre-board exam.

Although I finished my syllabus and I could have easily taken the night off, I decided to take the hustle quotes way too literally and pulled an all-nighter to “revise”. Now, you might think, “Wow that’s silly but good for you.

However, what really happened on the exam day? As I sat down to take the exam, my incredibly caffeinated and exhausted brain blanked out. Yes, that’s right. I couldn’t recall most of the concepts I’d spent months studying.

The portrayal and romanticization of “hustle” culture on social media has led us to believe that in order to succeed, we must work for 16+ hours a day and cut down on sleep and exercise. Not only are these strategies unfeasible but also extremely detrimental to your well being and productivity levels. Pulling that all-nighter isn’t going to help you focus more, after all.

An extremely popular misconception condones that work is a linear function. This basically means that people wrongly believe that the more hours they put in, the greater will be their productivity. So, working for 10 hours will produce 10 times the results and so on.

However, it’s not that simple. In reality, working for longer hours may actually lead to lower or even negative returns. Your brain is a muscle and it is capable of working for only so long until it tires out. If you continue to work past mental exhaustion, you’re going to put more hours and get less done. Doesn’t sound like the most pragmatic strategy.

What should we do then?

It’s simple- use laziness to your advantage. In order to work better, you need to take time off and just relax. Perhaps, step off the hamster wheel, once in a while?

Edited by Annanya Chaturvedi

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