Productivity Culture vs. the Art of Nothingness

Art by Yige Xu

For the past month I have dreaded waking up. Sounds depressing, I know. It’s 11:20 am and as I lie here, listening to the nauseating hum of my whirring fan, all I can think is what next? I have absolutely nothing to do. It’s the summer break. I am unemployed and back in my small hometown and the few friends left from this place have all simultaneously caught COVID-19.

A few months ago, I was excited to be in this state of nothingness. Amidst the exam block stress, 

post-lockdown anxiety, and general life burnout, I was more than ready to come home. Counting down the days, I would daydream of lying on the beach, reading something that wasn’t a peer-reviewed article, and basking in the heat of home. I conjured up a fantasy of a relaxing summer filled with sleep and sun. But now, as I lie here with nothing to do, I realise this is hardly peaceful and I feel pathetic.

I feel as if I must achieve something every single day. For the days I don’t, I have failed. 

Irrespective that it is my break, my one fleeting period of ‘nothingness’ amongst the constant chaos of life, I still must be doing something. I cannot stop, sit, slow, rot.

But why does every single day need to be brimmed with achievements and productivity? I don’t

even mean exponentially large things either, like a summer internship, or a new side-hustle. It’s the little things, the small daily tasks. My mind has become a constant classifier labelling each activity as either productive or useless.

 

Listening to a podcast = productive. Stimulates brain activity! Learning something new.

Going for a walk up the beach = productive. Getting my steps up, improves health and mental wellbeing.

Lying on the couch watching Friends reruns = useless. What will this really achieve?

 

If I don’t do enough activities I deem “productive” during my day when I go to do my fun, 

leisurely, “useless” activities, I feel immense guilt and shame. I become stressed on days like today when I don’t know what to do.

This obsession with productivity is exhausting. Success is now so closely associated with 

busyness that there is constant pressure for our free time to be spent in productive pursuits. In turn, (real) leisure time is becoming scarce and relaxation more demonised. This culture of productivity is unhealthy and dehumanising. It robs us of pleasurable experiences, as we become so focussed on efficiency and moving on to the next task that we forget to bask in the enjoyment of the present. 

This current cultural hyper-fixation on productivity is influencing individuals like myself to 

prioritise efficiency over our own well-being. Research shows that reducing leisure can cause drastic decreases in mental health, increasing stress and depression. Leisure time should be perceived as a vital investment to our wellbeing, but instead it is seen as a ‘time waster’.

I want to prioritise the pursuit of pleasure, relaxation, fun. More importantly, I want to feel 

guilt-free whilst doing so. I want to learn how to stop, to indulge, to be still. I want to feel content that it is almost midday and I am lying in bed achieving absolutely nothing. In this current culture that idolises productivity, I want to prioritise the art of doing absolutely nothing.

So maybe I’ll continue lying here a little bit longer… What’s the rush?

 

Originally published in Woroni Vol. 72 Issue 1 ‘Evolution’