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Danila Petrova
Danila Petrova

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The toxic side of productivity culture

Productivity craze has taken over the internet with a new passion in the midst of everyone working from home and the restrictions that it poses. And I can see why. The idea that we can stay safe in our homes and turn the stress and anxiousness over everything that is happening into measurable value for success is tempting.

And I am no exception. I have written an article or two about how to make the most of quarantine and listed all of the habits I have been trying to cultivate. In essence, I have practiced the "Just think about everything I would be able to get done if I just pushed myself!" mentality.

I imagined myself leaving my home post-quarantine in a fit body, with straight A’s on my university projects and receiving praise for my outstanding performance at work. Glorious isn’t it?

Yet, the reality proved to be more challenging. Months in, I have found my steadily depleting motivation to be a chain that is pulling me down. Along with that, fatigue built up over my unrealistically high-performance expectations.

Unrealistic expectations

As we are all navigating uncharted territory, and we are all dealing the best we can with the level of uncertainty that we have. No one knows how long we will have to base our lives around social distancing.

Or how deeply it will affect our careers, personal lives and overall psyche. The changes are deep within our lifestyle and for now, we should think of this as the new reality for the foreseeable future.

We should adapt a marathon and not a sprint mentality

I think that now is the time to recognize setbacks as a natural part of life, that we don’t necessarily need to power through on willpower alone.

As such we will not always be able to be on our best performance. And that is ok. The truth is that we do not need to be perfect with following our routines. Sometimes we need to take a break to recharge from the accumulated fatigue. Especially when we are bombarded with negative news day in and day out that affects our overall well being.

The key is to know when to push and when to take a step back. Evaluate what is most important to you right now, and what is pulling you down too much. Then choose if you need to spend less time and energy on activities that wear you down, even if they are textbook "good for you".

Productivity is reliant on your habits

While sometimes you need to cut your losses and take a step back to take a break, you are likely still bound by deadlines and responsibilities. Especially when it comes to software development, you can't let your team down, so you should try and perform well for their sake. So you cannot afford to skimp out on getting work done. In this case, the best you can do is make the most of what you have at your disposal.

Everything you do is a habit. Whether is checking the corona statistics in your area every day or exercising the routines you have in place help drive your productivity almost subconsciously, once they have been previously established. So if you find yourself demotivated, the key is to make your work process as easy to follow as possible.

Here are a few habits that may help you:

  • Work sessions

If you have a hard time focusing, switch to 25 min work, 5 min break practice. You can use a Pomodoro timer to get going. This will help you get things done one step at a time while removing the taboo, and hence guilt of your easily distracted mind.

  • Take mandatory breaks

If you find yourself working longer and longer hours hoping to catch up, but inevitably you feel exhausted and unproductive, you should set up regimented breaks. And that means get up off your desk, ditch the work phone aside for 20 min and just look out the window, take a walk, read a personal book, check out a comedy podcast or just chat with someone. Take your mind away from the task at hand and allow yourself to rest for just a few minutes. When you get back you will be refreshed.

If I do not have breaks I would end up grinding through the entire day, getting more and more ineffective as the hours go by, until I can barely comprehend sentences. This is neither healthy nor efficient.

  • End-of-workday time

Depending on your work and the hours you tend to be the most productive you can set up a “clock-off” time. For example, as a result of adapting to my previous tech support job, I work the most efficiently in the afternoon up until the late hours of the night.

And while I do not want to work until 2 am as I used to, I will take advantage of this tendency. So I use my mornings as personal time. I take a bike ride, eat healthy breakfast and meal-prep my lunch. I get to work around 12 pm or 1 pm and I work until 9 pm latest.

  • Reward yourself

Have a snack and beverage you are excited about to cut into your workday and make you feel more comfortable and satisfied. For me, this is a chocolate protein ice latte with some cinnamon-vanilla cake that I bake myself. Having something to look forward to after you achieve something will serve as a reward system. Turn in your work on time, get a treat - as long as it is a healthy one and you maintain the work-treat relationship it will be a great help.

  • But remember!

Do not abuse this or it will lose its significance and make sure that those treats are a small portion of your overall nutrition. Getting on the sugar spike-and-crash train will do you no favours in the long run.

There are ways to make your workflow so easy to follow that you don’t have to think about it. So take the time to consider what will make it easier for you to get work done, and take the steps to make that a habit.

You can use external tools such as reminders alarms, to-do lists, or other apps to help you get in the groove initially. But eventually, you should be able to phase them out and take over yourself, if you choose to.

The bane to all habits

Inconsistency has killed many of my preferred activities. For example, I used to read a lot. I used my total of three hours commute to read for fun. Whether it was going through a fantasy series or reading a book on ancient civilizations for university, I would get a lot of reading in simply taking advantage of my time on the bus.

Take away the environment I associate with reading, and I haven’t read a single book.

The two-day rule

Habits rely on accumulation over time. You start to associate repetitive surroundings, actions and activities with their respective outcome. For example - when you grab a water bottle, change into your gym clothes and pi=ut on your workout playlist your brain expects you to switch into training mode.

If you perform the same actions on a regular basis, it will be significantly easier to maintain the activity and extract the best results from your efforts. The more you skip the weaker the habit is, and the more time it will take you to get to your goals. The key to being productive is the two-day rule.

It is the only rule you need to follow to bring strong foundational habits. The core idea of it is that if you have a scheduled or repetitive routine you cannot allow yourself to skip two times in a row. And let’s face it, things come up. Sometimes we can’t show up to maintain your habits - you may be on vacation, or an emergency situation may come up.

However, if you set out to never skip on your activities twice in a row, you will still get farther ahead than if you were to et your habits derail completely and have to keep trying to rebuild them from scratch.

Getting things done does not have to be complicated

When it comes to being productive it is so easy to get in our heads. We become obsessive with the process and planning and setting up systems in place as an attempt to micromanage our daily routines. But in all of our desire for improvement, we forget to set aside the time for ourselves.

Yes. We need to have practices and a plan to follow. But more often than not the biggest changes come with doing as much as you can consistently. And allowing yourself to have a moment of weakness, as long as you keep yourself accountable not to quit will go a long way to making any good changes stick.

Do you believe in the two-day rule? Is this something you have been doing subconsciously? How do you stay on top of your habits?

Top comments (14)

daedtech profile image
Erik Dietrich

This is a great point. I was actually listening to Clockwork, an audio book by Mike Michalowicz, recently, and he touches on this a lot. It's a book, aimed at business owners, about how not to flail around aimlessly as a business grows.

He spends a good bit of time, up front, essentially describing productivity hacks as an anti-pattern. His reasoning, more or less, is that busy people tend to enlist productivity hacks before figuring out if they're even doing the right mix of tasks, with right set of priorities. So, in a lot of cases, productivity hacks just help you do more of the wrong thing, in a more frantic way.

As a lifelong consumer of productivity hacks, these takes are interesting to me and give me cause to reflect.

danilapetrova profile image
Danila Petrova

Whoa! This audiobook sounds amazing. And I do agree, I have caught myself obsessing over every single thing I do and trying to use system upon system to get things done, where I stress out and give more time to maintaining those rules than actually working. An example is spending up to 4 hours per week on a bullet journal layout for task management that I later replaced with simple 5-minute to-do lists.

Not to mention that we go along with general "tips and tricks", where they may not even need to be in our life. Or not in this form anyway.

For example, a guy I dated had me thinking that I have to workout four times a week at the gym. So I would rearrange my schedule and align the stars so that I can keep up with this version of productivity. As a result, I was really worn out for months on end. Eventually leading to obsessive binge-eating and growing resentment for the activity.

It turns out I am much happier doing things differently. Like a quick daily stretch in the morning and riding my bike when I feel like it.

Aiming to do more and do better is great! But we should take the time to ask if this is even what we really need/want.

Thanks for engaging with the article, I think that everything you said is completely on point.

daedtech profile image
Erik Dietrich

I can totally relate to an elaborate system for something you replace with a simple todo list. In some ways, that reminds me of something I struggled with for years as a software developer, which was always being inclined to save myself 5 minutes of data entry with hours of automation :)

ben profile image
Ben Halpern

Totally agree

mrxinu profile image
Steve Klassen (They/Them)

It's funny you should mention a second day rule! I thought of something similar in 2009 and submitted it to Urban Dictionary.

andrewbaisden profile image
Andrew Baisden

This was a good read I agree with many points you mentioned.

vfulco profile image
Vincent Fulco (It / It's)

Well done!

blanchloe profile image
Seonyoung Chloe (she/they)

Thank you!

meatboy profile image
Meat Boy

Great article!

yjang profile image
Yu Jie Ang

Thank you

karthick30 profile image

not sure about other points but Take mandatory breaks this is the one I follow strictly 😂

danilapetrova profile image
Danila Petrova

I only just started to do this! It was a nightmare for me for months before I started doing this.

funkymuse profile image

Well written and couldn't have said it better myself.

danilapetrova profile image
Danila Petrova

Thank you! I am glad you like it!