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The productivity fallacy

| Monday, March 6, 2023

I have a killer headache right now. OK, maybe not right now, but I did for essentially the entirety of last week.

I’ve had coffee less than 10 times in my life, but over the last two weeks, a new tradition of mine is a 7:30 Starbucks run before my 8 a.m. Honestly, I don’t think caffeine does anything for me, but the placebo effect is at least enough to make my headache go away.

This semester, I switched my intended major and just about doubled my amount of extracurricular commitments. In December, I challenged myself to use this semester to push the upper bound of my potential. By doing more, I hoped to become more. More in shape, more accomplished and more capable. But some mornings when I wake up, I’m greeted with a pulsing headache, evidence that my mind and body are weary from the burden of excellence that I carry every day. I can 100% say that I am more productive right now than I have been at any other point in my life. I’m also less of myself.

I was supposed to call my parents on Sunday. Those calls are always an anchor for me. When my mom reminds me to stay warm and to call my siblings, I get the sense that there are more important things in life than beating the curve on my next exam or getting that offer I’ve been earnestly hoping for. When my dad tells me he’s proud of me, just for a brief moment I feel wholly content with who I am. Like I don’t need to be more. Last Sunday, though, I didn’t get to experience any of that. I was really wrapped up in my work, and by the time the tunnel vision wore off, it was about midnight. As I was winding down for the day, I felt strangely panicked. Like a ship adrift at sea. After a few minutes, I realized why. I missed my anchor. As I lay in bed trying to fall asleep that night, I thought about what else I was missing out on because of my quest to maximize my productivity. The friends I’ve failed to check in on. The dorm-wide chess tournament that I was too busy for. I was running as fast as I could, trying to pursue fulfillment and self-actualization. But even as I thought I was chasing them, they seemed to be passing me by.

I realize now that I fell into the trap of believing in something which I call the productivity fallacy, which says the more you put in, the more you get out. The tricky thing about the productivity fallacy is that it’s true. Investing more time, energy and intention into the things that you care about is a surefire way to make you more successful in them. But it’s only true up to a point. We all have different attitudes when it comes to productivity, but even the most obsessive workaholic reaches a point where doing more isn’t fulfilling. According to Aristotle, the time we spend at leisure defines us more than the time we spend working. It’s a bit counter intuitive, but maybe playing in that chess tournament was more important for developing my human potential than any project or application I was probably working on instead. I’ve been too quick to think of activities like that as just taking up time that I could be using to work, but that’s an unhealthy mentality. I thought that I was “less productive” last semester than I have been this semester. But really, I was just wise enough to build more leisure time into my schedule. More time to grab dinner with friends or play soccer out on the quad, or even just to find a quiet space and meditate. 

When it comes to how we think of productivity, many of us are living in a cognitive dissonance. We tell ourselves that we’re more than just our work, but how we spend our time tells another story. The productivity fallacy is easy to believe, especially with so many motivational speakers and self-help gurus parroting the same cliches. But leisure doesn’t mean aimlessly scrolling on Reddit. Just like we have to be intentional about the time we spend working and producing, we have to be intentional about allowing ourselves time to truly enjoy life by nurturing our souls and our relationships with other people. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t be pushing our potential, and I’m not saying that we should altogether avoid the kind of stress that comes with being productive. But sometimes, more is less. Especially if more means that you forget to call your parents.

Oluwatoni (Toni) is a freshman majoring in business analytics at the University of Notre Dame. He can be reached at [email protected].

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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