The Appeal of Productivity

You don’t need to hustle through your twenties

Photo by Fab Lentz on Unsplash

If you’ve spent any time browsing articles on Medium, you know that productivity is popular. We all want to know how to make more money, develop a side hustle, get more gigs, read more, write more, and do more tasks in less time. As someone who fits the audience of most of these articles, it’s easy to get swept up in them, and I’ve even written some. Why is this so appealing? Is this discourse beneficial?

I recently completed grad school and so I am the perfect target for these “progress” tips, tricks, and lifestyle changes. I have student loans to pay off so I want to make more money. It’s difficult to find a job right now, especially in the field that I’ve worked hard to get into, so I would love to quit my day job and make a living working for myself. Yes, I want to do more tasks in less time, I want to read more, and I want my life to be the most productive it can be. If you are in your twenties, chances are you feel the same. Articles that promise to push your life forward are enticing, but why?

The quarter-life crisis and the need for direction

The focus on infinite progress and bettering your life in your twenties preys upon the insecurities of recent graduates and “new” adults. There is a promise of “real life” after university and the hope that everything will fall into place; when this doesn’t happen and expectations conflict, it can result in the “emotional crisis” commonly known as the quarter-life crisis. Atwood and Scholtz define this as “the sense of desolation, isolation, inadequacy, and self-doubt, coupled with a fear of failure”. It is no wonder that we seek productivity tips based on the results they promise. By increasing your productivity, by reading more, by making more money, these articles promise to cure these insecurities.

Being in our twenties presents us with a specific set of circumstances that perfectly places us to seek these articles. We have student debt, job and housing insecurities, loss of identity as a student, expectations from parents, friends, social media, and ourselves about how our lives should look. Add a global pandemic and it creates the perfect storm for wanting to improve our lives through any means we stumble upon.

So what? Productivity articles are appealing; they promise to provide direction for achieving the life we thought we would have amidst the confusion of navigating this new set of life circumstances.

Seeking self-fulfillment

This period of quarter-life-crisis is characterized by “[s]hort attention spans, poor focus, and an emphasis upon self-help and a search for self-fulfillment,” according to Atwood and Scholtz. That’s it. That’s what we want, and headlines promising that we will make more money if we change our morning routine or format our writing in a certain way are alluring. If reading fifty or eighty books each year made someone else happy, why couldn’t it work for me?

Productivity or progress-based articles meet this need for direction, security, and improvement that we seek. Considering the short attention spans and poor focus typical of this period of life, it is not surprising that tips for getting more done in less time or how to have shorter workweeks are appealing.

So what? I am in no way suggesting that productivity articles are inherently bad or should be avoided; I am suggesting that these types of articles are appealing to a certain need or insecurity. I’m learning to be aware of this when browsing articles and pay attention to how you feel before, during, and after reading them. Are these tips helpful? Is it motivating to see others succeeding in these areas, or does it increase self-doubt?

Productivity post-graduation

For individuals who attended post-secondary education, this new push to be productive comes after years of increased stress and pressure to achieve — it isn’t such a “new” pressure at all. According to a 2016 study, 60.6% of post-secondary students felt above-average to tremendous stress in the past 12 months (and this was before a global pandemic). Putting pressure on yourself to add a side hustle, or incorporate an intense workout or writing routines into your life after completing an already intense four (plus) years is asking a lot of yourself.

So what? I recognize that it’s important to make money to pay off those loans and to, you know, survive, but it is okay if it’s not above and beyond what you need to do at the moment. Taking time to just do what you need to survive is also okay. Enjoy slowing down a bit after you graduate, and only pursue those productive practices if it’s what you want and is good for you and your mental and physical health.

Setting up to fail

When all we see are promises of success, it makes mistakes or slow periods feel like failures. Think back to Atwood and Scholtz’s statement about self-doubt and fear of failure characterizing this period of life. Reading about the success of others can be extremely motivating and inspiring, and that can be helpful when trying to achieve goals or develop a specific lifestyle; however, combining fear of failure with nothing but success stories only serves to amplify mistakes when we make them.

So what? progress isn’t infinite. Failure is part of life. As the Ecclesiastical poet wrote, “to everything there is a season.” Embrace your season of productivity, and celebrate that season in others, but recognize that seasons change and productivity ebbs and flows.

To conclude

We are in a position to find productivity-based content to be appealing. We want what these articles promise because of our own insecurities, be they imposed by ourselves or by society. We seek a sense of fulfillment, but also have a fear of failure.

As you consume productivity content, contribute your own advice, and share your self-improvement successes, keep these things in mind:

  • Recognize that this article was likely written for someone like you in mind, with your sense of inadequacy and self-doubt.
  • Be aware of how you’re feeling before, during, and after consuming this content. Is it motivating you, or reminding you of insecurities? Balance the self-improvement success stories with those reminding you of the value of other things.
  • Remember that you don’t need to hustle through your twenties. You’ve already accomplished things you can be proud of; it’s okay to do just what you need to for now.

Appreciate the season you’re in, whether it’s marked by productivity or times of rest, or an artful balance of the two.

English Major and Library School grad. I’m interested in books, research, and being a better human.

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