At some point in our lives, time becomes not an abstract, intangible concept meant to describe the unstoppable trend towards entropy but a finite quantity that puts constraints on every second of our days. Time becomes a burden, a responsibility, a currency. We cling to it like helpless infants and worship it like Gollum worshiped the Ring.
Time turns into an irritable boss, whom we strive to please despite their tyrannical micromanaging. Time becomes the precious child we always need to manage, always need to maximize, and always use properly. The very construct we invented controls us. (Which seems to be a trend in the operation of the human race.)
But the problem is— we run out before our watches do.
No matter how hard we try or what we do, we will one day run out of tomorrows. We’re inconsequential blips in the radar of the cosmos, just wishing we could join the all-powerful constants of the universe.
As a result, today’s society suffers from “time poverty”. We’ve created so much technology meant to save us time, yet somehow no one has any. Apparently, industrial-revolutionizing all over the place only leads to a products-based world that subsists off the insatiability of the human species, which, in turn, provides us a cyclical incentive to increase our social and economic wealth and leaves us with a systemic lack of time to take a breath.
This is especially an issue in America, one of the most stressed and depressed countries in the world. The U.S. has all these things and money, and we brag about our GDP like it’s our quadruple-athlete firstborn son, but we’re incredibly time-poor. (Which stems from the fact that our definition of freedom revolves around money—but I’ve already written extensively about that.)
And this spurs many of us to spend our lives chasing infinity, endlessly dissatisfied. We try so hard to make the most of our limited time. The low supply means there’s a constant pressure to always be working towards something. Even if we don’t care all that much about what the “something” is. It is kind of like Matt Haig said in his book, The Humans:
“Let’s not forget The Things [Humans] Do To Make Themselves Happy That Actually Make Them Miserable. This is an infinite list. It includes – shopping, watching TV, taking a better job, getting a bigger house, writing a semi-autobiographical novel, educating their young, making their skin look mildly less old, and harboring a vague desire to believe there might be a meaning to it all.”
There always exists some improvement to our lives that we think will make us happier or bring us closer to satisfaction.
So we feel we must constantly be “productive”. Viewing time as something to expend ends up cultivating a mindset that says each second must be used constructively and that one’s worth is dependent on one’s productivity. Correspondingly, we feel guilty for taking breaks or time off. We beat ourselves up if we ever dare to spend a single unwise minute.
And this fosters a worldview that prioritizes life’s destinations over its journeys. It too greatly neglects the present moments for future gains that are supposedly worth the pain you invest with now.
I don’t want to be misconstrued here— hard work and investments for one’s future are certainly both necessary and beneficial. But like most things in life, there needs to be a balance. Your life doesn’t begin once you reach the end of the path and finally get the house, the car, the career, the whatever that you wanted. It begins when you take the first step. If we can help it, our entire lives shouldn’t be spent miserable all for a single second of happiness (though it’s important to recognize the significant social and economic obstacles to this).
What we often forget is that life is not a ticking time bomb rushing us to complete as much as possible before the buzzer goes off. Life is about the processes and the mini-journeys of everything that we do and encounter. If you’re spending every waking moment “productive,” subjecting yourself to difficult work in the endless pursuit of goals that likely won’t be worth such long-lasting pain, then you’re forgetting that life is more than just its end. Yes, our existences are temporary, but trying too hard to maximize life’s shareholder value means existence will pass us by. Our time is a river; we’ll never be able to enjoy the ride if we’re too exhausted from swimming against the current.
There will always be more to “accomplish”. But satisfaction and ambitiousness don’t have to be mutually exclusive states if we can appreciate what we do have even as we reach for ways to grow. From this lens, it’s harder for notions of productivity to strangle us and easier for us to take a breath and move with the ebb and flow of existence. We can still have lofty objectives. We can still work hard. And we can still strive to be better versions of ourselves. But a change in perspective can truly make a world of difference.
Besides, constant productivity only ends up making you more “unproductive” in the long run. Respites are important for your mind and body; we’re not machines. If all you do is work, you’ll simply burn out and lose motivation. Sometimes we need to just relax or do nothing. Sometimes doing a mindless activity that isn’t towards anything, but is purely for enjoyment or entertainment, is just the boost we need to knock out our tasks.
Taking the time to do things that allow you to enjoy your life in the midst of grueling work, even if they’re things you feel are “unproductive,” are exactly what make the work worth it in the present and are the things that recharge you with the energy to continue the work day after day. (As long as we don’t take it to the extreme, obviously.) And so it turns out that “unproductivity” can actually end up being “productive”. It’s all just a matter of balancing the scales. Aiming for an optimal distribution of work and recess makes the days lighter and the toil more bearable.
It’s far easier said than done. And as I mentioned before, there can be unavoidable socio-economic limitations to this. But even approaching the concept can help alleviate one’s mind and lessen the load. We have to take care of ourselves and our own welfare to the best of our abilities.
So anything that tells you you need to tirelessly be “productive” is a lie.
Society, in general, wants you to hate yourself and believe you’re not good enough (so it can make money off of you), and fuck that.
A good rule of thumb (I think. I’m only eighteen, what the hell do I know) is to imagine being on your deathbed. I like to consider whether the future deathbed version of myself would approve of or regret whatever it is I’m doing right now. And what I mean by “approve of” is that, in each moment, I try to ensure that I’m producing value for myself. Not necessarily for society, or for some prescribed path I should be following, or for any kind of set convention, but for my own well-being.
This production of value for one’s self varies for all individuals and can include any number of diverse things. But the point is, our world fosters a society where productivity is distorted into a cripplingly toxic leech. And it’s all a means of exploitation. For our own sakes, it’s important to pry ourselves away from that concept as much as possible.
We’ll never get to do everything we want to do in a short time. Our lives are never going to be “together.” And we’ll never, ever be “productive” enough. But that’s okay. Because the journey is far more important than the destination. And your welfare is far more important than your productivity.