The industry of productivity has been around since civilization began. However, most of the tactics we see in corporations and are taught to bring about the most yield for our work, were actually developed and perfected during the slave trade in 1619.
Matthew Desmond paints a picture of the cotton industry and the enslaved workers during this time in episode 2 of the New York Times 1619 podcast. The way cotton farms were run over 400 years ago was very similar to today’s corporate structures. They featured a hierarchy of “employees.” Complex data collection that tracked the cost of each bale of cotton. Supervisory tactics that were developed to keep workers on track with their quotas. And repercussions for when quotas weren’t hit (in the case of enslaved workers this included horrific beatings.) These corporate operations worked so well that by the Civil War ‘an enslaved worker picked 400% more cotton than their counterparts did 60 years before.”
When we see the roots of today’s productivity culture, it changes the way we think about “getting s**t done.” The roots of this culture were abusive, dehumanizing, and put greed above all else.
I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve embraced much of what productivity culture has to offer. I love to save time so I can make the most of my day. I’ve implemented structures around running social media and developing content, for creating art, for organizing my business in every area, I am an organization freak so productivity seemed second nature to me.
I felt the pressures of filling up the time saved with more tasks.
I started counting every second, every dollar, and got lost to the numbers
I found my self-worth bound to what I accomplished or how much I earned (i.e. success- whatever that actually means).
I succumbed to burn-out over and over again (in smaller symptoms each time, but I still find myself stuck in that cycle)
Productivity, on some level, will always have a place. It’s how we continue to grow as a society. But when we lock ourselves into having to do more, be more, have more, we only hold ourselves in captivity. And so the freedom we’re promised with productivity culture becomes the exact opposite of that. Imprisoning us to a lifestyle we never wanted.*
You are not the amount you produce.
You are a creative, inspiring, magical human and as such, you need space to rest, dream, create with abandon all without the limits of having it done by a certain time.
Daydreaming is considered a non-productive thing and yet it has led to some of the greatest inventions and creations throughout history. (Studies are actually finding the loss of daydreaming in our lives being detrimental to our health)
Rest has been considered a waste of time because we could use that time to be achieving, building, growing our personal empires. And yet, rest is a foundational need as a human. It supports our immune health, reduces anxiety, and gives us the space we need to come back to our work with a new set of eyes.
Mindful walking, meditation, daydreaming, reading a book, taking a bath, restorative yoga, playing with play dough, all of these things could be deemed as non-productive, and yet they have so much to offer you.
I encourage you to break the destructive cycle of having to be productive by choosing to do something that is a complete “waste of time,” you might be surprised by how much it actually gives back to you.
*Editor’s Note: Please note I am not comparing hustle culture to the horrific treatment of enslaved people, specifically black men and women. As a white woman, I cannot speak to experiences they and their ancestors faced during the time of the cotton trade and am aware that they were much worse than anything we’re facing with burn-out today. This history was used to reveal the truth of how our practices came to be, not as a comparison. To learn more about anti-racism work check out any of these resources.