The only motivational meme I've ever felt compelled to share on social media is the one that isn't really a motivational meme at all. It’s the opposite. "Your worth is not measured by your productivity," reads the illustration by France Corbel, inside a knowing sketch of a coffee pot. The first time I saw it, I felt like someone had reached out of my phone and stroked my hair reassuringly. Somebody had finally said it.
I spend a lot of time beating myself up for not working hard enough. Then I feel guilty for the time I’ve wasted beating myself up when I could have been working. It often feels like a malfunction, the way I can’t seem to unlock the secret reserves of energy that allow other people to juggle multiple jobs and slot extra projects in around their nine-to-five. I worry I’m deficient when I can't find the will to stay at my laptop past 8pm, or get up at dawn to work an hour before breakfast. I’m embarrassed by the books I have not read, the films I have not seen, the 3,000 word articles I’ve had to have juiced down by Twitter because I couldn’t be arsed to keep scrolling. "I’m really very lazy," I say to people, just in case they’re already thinking it. And in the current climate it feels like this more than ever – especially at the beginning of the pandemic when talks of using all the time to write a novel or get your shit together ran wild. We're anxious and under pressure constantly – no wonder so many are burning out.
But really, I’m fine. I earn a decent living, I maintain a career. On the spectrum of human employment I’m at the seriously fortunate end, so why does my inner critic sound so much like that Manic Street Preachers song: "not enough, not enough, not enough"? If hyperproductivity is a modern cult, then I’ve been drinking the over-caffeinated Kool-Aid.
In this, the age of #MondayMotivation and working vacations, where even our side hustles are supposed to have side hustles, it’s so easy to believe that the more we do, the more we are. This is become especially true in 2020, when struggling through a pandemic has placed undue pressure on the idea of making something of all your time. Any creative outlet needs to be milked for #content and monetised for gain. "You should start an Etsy store!" we tell a friend who has knitted a single scarf. "This should be a podcast!" we convince each other drunkenly in Ubers. And on the one hand it’s brilliant, because the ease with which anyone can start a project means women and maligned communities have more ways to build a career on their own terms. But on the other hand, the pressure of keeping up all those projects can be a road that leads nowhere but burnout.
"For a long time, I felt like any time spent doing anything purely for fun was wasted time. I turned all of my hobbies (writing, music, cooking) into 'side hustles' of some sort – something I could monetise, or use in my career, or put on Instagram to 'build my brand'," says Amy Jones, 28, author of forthcoming book The To-Do List and Other Debacles, which examines how 'do everything!' culture sets us up to fail.
"It got to a point where I couldn't relax at all. I turned all my hobbies into projects, and if I wasn't working on one of them then I felt like I was wasting time."
When I ask France Corbel what inspired her coffee pot illustration, she tells me it sprung from a period of 'wasted' time too. "At first I was happy, but then I started to feel guilty whenever I did not use this time to do something that looked like work," she says. "Doing nothing made me feel invalid."
If you don’t start every message with 'Sorrysorrysorry this week has been CRAZY!' then what kind of time-rich gadabout lazybones even are you?
"Something that looked like work" is a perfect summation, isn’t it? Because productivity, like so many other aspects of modern life (eating, exercise, buying a small, perfect succulent), has become as much about outward projection as personal satisfaction. 'Performative busyness', as we’re beginning to call it. If you don’t start every message with "Sorrysorrysorry this week has been CRAZY!" then what kind of time-rich gadabout lazybones even are you?
The problem might also be that we’ve recategorised so much of our social and home lives as 'admin'. For example, my current to-do list includes sending a long Twitter DM, replying to an email from my parents and buying a rug off eBay. Whatever the cause, it seems the backlash has begun. Corbel’s illustration is spreading across the internet, and with it a raft of new articles examining our obsession with life at the grindstone. In October, Nat Eliason coined the term 'struggle porn', "a masochistic obsession with pushing yourself harder, listening to people tell you to work harder, and broadcasting how hard you’re working". Last month on Man Repeller, journalist Philip Ellis asked whether 2018’s love of hustle is paying off for anyone other than the companies we toil for. And this article in The Economist pointed to three separate studies that all suggest our productivity might actually decrease when we put more hours in.
Meanwhile in Scandinavia (you felt calmer as soon as you read that, didn’t you?), buzz around the six-hour working day has been growing, with trials generally finding that workers are happier, healthier and no less productive. UK companies such as Advice Direct Scotland and Cardiff-based IndyCube have switched to a four-day working week, while the Trades Union Congress (TUC) wants to see every business follow suit by the end of the century. We’ll be dead by then, of course. But possibly not from a stress-induced aneurysm.
Of course, none of this means that hard work is the enemy. Rather, the whole point of productivity should be finding ways to work more efficiently so we can spend less time doing it.
"We operate in a culture of constant distraction," says Dr Anna Akbari, author of Startup Your Life: Hustle and Hack Your Way To Happiness. "This makes it harder to focus and be productive, and it also creates a million tiny 'tasks' that tug at us – be it responding to someone on social media or a (likely non-urgent) phone notification begging for our attention. These distractions, on top of managing multiple gigs and income streams, can leave us feeling overextended and defeated."
It’s the difference between climbing a mountain and walking on a treadmill – we need the satisfaction of reaching a summit, not just an endless slog towards a never-nearing horizon. And sometimes, we just need to sit on a sofa and stare at a wall.
"I don't think there's anything wrong with working hard in your spare time, but now I'm giving myself permission to do things just because they're fun," says Amy, who has taken up watercolour painting for no professional purpose whatsoever. "I'd rather be happy than super productive."
I’d like to hear more stories of people who go home at 5pm to do a giant jigsaw.
In a culture where we spend so much time hyping each other up and telling ourselves we can do anything, there is perhaps no more radical message than adding: "...but you don't have to." Instead of another story about a successful person who dug deep and achieved their impossible dream, I’d like to hear more stories of people who go home at 5pm to do a giant jigsaw. Most crucially, we need those stories from women. Because when it comes to productivity, the patriarchy has us cornered. So often we feel we have to work twice as hard as men to prove ourselves worthy of success, and yet it’s also in The Man’s interest to keep us this busy.
"In a capitalist system, work is success and success leads to happiness," points out France Corbel. "But I'm not sure that seeing happiness as another goal you need to work on is very healthy. We need boredom to be creative, we need rest to be able to do what we want, we need time to take stock and evolve."
"The things that inspire us don't always yield immediate productivity – but that doesn't mean they lack value; quite the opposite. We all need to define our own metric for success," agrees Dr Akbari.
So I’m defining mine. If I work hard enough to buy myself the fancy coffee in the pot, then that’s successful. That’s enough.