Why All Productivity Articles Are Bullsh*t (And Why Your Unresolved Emotional Wounds Are To Blame For Your Poor Performance)
All productivity articles are bullsh*t.
The books too. And the videos. All of it.
Despite their near constant presence in American culture, most content related to productivity is unhelpful.
Short-term, you may implement several tips and tricks that contribute to feeling more productive, but as time passes the unfortunate reality sets in: You’re no more efficient than in the past. And if you are, was it really due to that Inc. article you read last week?
Or was it the Forbes article you read at your desk that did the trick?
What about the self-help book resting on your shelf? Was that inspirational paperweight the trick you needed to make this life-altering change?
If you’re more efficient now than in the past, chances are that your increased productivity is related to other factors, like learning and refining your routine, discovering how you work and building a workflow around your strengths, or other life choices that resulted in decreased agitation and anxiety.
And yet, millions of views, clicks, and dollars are spent on content focused on productivity.
Have you ever stopped and asked yourself, why?
America has several systemic values that contribute to the near-constant emphasis on productivity.
As a capitalist society, private enterprise values profit above all else.
As a meritocracy (often discussed in a vacuum devoid of systemic oppression), many have the illusion that individual wealth can be attained through hard work alone.
And that illusion — that anyone regardless of socioeconomic status, race, gender, and sexual identity, can achieve greatness through hard work on a level playing-field— drives the majority of the population toward one goal: Productivity.
This emphasis on productivity is amplified by consumerist advertising campaigns.
Many ads convey that materialism is the means to fulfill emotional needs, like belonging, attractiveness, and happiness. Therefore, these cultural messages convey that in order to feel happy, you must buy it. And in order to buy it, you need money. To have money, you must work and work efficiently.
These systemic factors motivate Americans to seek achievement in the form of material wealth.
But that’s just the bird’s eye view.
As a therapist and coach, I’m even more interested in the individual perspective, which leads me to two important questions:
- What motivates individuals to consume productivity content? And
- What are the unintended outcomes of this consumption?
Thankfully, the experiences of my clients answer these questions.
I recently worked with a middle-aged woman.
She entered therapy to address issues related to productivity. Or so she said in our first meeting.
In the first minute of our session, she asked me for techniques and tips that could improve her productivity at work.
She conveyed that she is not feeling as effective and efficient as in the past. That she’s struggling to concentrate, feels stressed, and has difficulty sleeping.
As a highly motivated professional, she emphasized many achievements:
- Owner and CEO of a rapidly growing startup
- President of several local boards
- Involved parent of two young children
- Loving wife to an underachieving husband
The client described conflict in her marriage that’s not being discussed and occasional feelings of sadness when she’s not working.
Most often though, she emphasized the words productivity and stress.
The interesting thing about the word stress, is that it’s not an emotion.
Stress is a blanket term for many feelings, including agitation, frustration, exhaustion, sadness, overwhelm, and more.
Saying that you are stressed externalizes the problem so that it becomes an object — something you can control — rather than an internal state to be investigated, integrated, and understood.
This emphasis on changing something external to alleviate an internal experience, I believe, is directly related to her request to become more productive.
She wanted to become more productive in her work to alleviate her feelings of distress.
And while this external focus appears innocuous on the surface, it’s actually more troubling than it appears after understanding her psychology.
This client is a perfectionist.
Her tyrannical, achievement-oriented inner critic wants her to be a never-slowing, never-pausing, never-stopping, never-sleeping machine. And it has no concept whatsoever of her limitations.
In fact, her most basic human needs are viewed as weaknesses.
Her desire for sleep, rest, and emotional release are all perceived as flaws to be terminated rather than needs to be nurtured. This creates a serious problem because her inner critic does not understand that she cannot become more productive.
Compared to the average worker, her output already ranks in an extreme upper percentile. She pushes herself to the physical, mental, and emotional limit of a highly motivated person.
This client is beyond productive — she is compensating for emotional wounds that she does not want to address.
In her present state, she is overworking as a means to avoid several issues — both present challenges with overworking and her husband, and historical, relational traumas from her childhood.
Her feelings of underlying sadness may be the tip of this emotional iceberg, and her avoidance is no longer an effective way to manage these emotions.
While she wants tips and techniques to improve her concentration, what she needs is to reconnect with her feelings.
Her pattern of avoidance and overworking is disrupting her concentration, sleep, and productivity.
And no amount of productivity techniques will improve this issue.
The only long-term fix for her challenges involves acknowledging, processing, and integrating the emotions she is avoiding.
It’s kind of like what the Titanic should have done — steer straight into the iceberg rather than turning away.
My client is not unique in these issues.
Many individuals have complex psychologies that impact their level of productivity.
While there are a variety of personality structures, many with an achievement orientation struggle with perfectionism, self-image, and critical self-dialogue.
Many of these people seek achievement to avoid addressing these deeper emotional wounds. They are more likely to read productivity articles to steer away from their deeper pain and toward a temporary boost of self-esteem.
Productivity articles, then, are often read in the context of seeking compensatory achievement by people already motivated to improve themselves.
So while there is no one reason to read a productivity article, the most obvious is to satisfy the desire to feel more productive.
But if this drive to become more productive is rooted in a mechanism of emotional avoidance or driven by a cruel inner critic disconnected from the reality that one is limited, imperfect, and non-robotic, then consuming this content may be harmful.
For these individuals, increasing productivity to reduce stress — notice the external focus — reduces ownership of the internal wounds that lead to their compensation.
It reinforces that “the problem” is external output and stress, rather than their internal emotions.
As such, reading productivity articles prolongs their road to recovery by reinforcing the false belief that achievement, regardless of personal or sociopolitical limitations, will alleviate their distress.
Productivity, in this case, masks the real pain that contributes to suffering and the endless pursuit of success.
That’s why productivity articles are bullsh*t.
At best, they are temporary ways to boost your ego into feeling more productive. They also help you feel a sense of belonging by aligning you with the materialist, consumerist, and capitalist values of the dominant culture.
But at worst, they collude with your avoidance of emotional pain, which results in prolonged suffering and keeps you trapped in a game of compensatory achievement to mask inner distress.
Most often, however, I think productivity articles are — for the reasons mentioned above — a politically correct way of talking about mental health.
Due to the stigma of mental health issues in corporate America (despite their ubiquitous presence), it is more palatable to discuss productivity than depression.
It’s easier for businesses and individuals to talk about output rather than anxiety. To discuss metrics instead of Post-Traumatic Stress.
For most people, conveying a desire to improve their productivity is the easiest way to express suffering. It is an unintentional wish to feel heard and understood, a call for help.
I hope that the ears listening to these conversations will focus on the real issue — emotional functioning — rather than recommending an unhelpful productivity article.