Is our strive to be productive messing with our emotional and mental well-being?

Sara | AbstractedCollective
9 min readDec 8, 2018


Photo by Aarón Blanco Tejedor on Unsplash

“How to be more productive: 10 tips”

“22 ways you can be more productive at work”

“16 top tips for a super productive weekend”

Sound familiar? Everywhere we look, there are articles, blogs, podcasts telling us how to be more productive.

Productive, more productive and even more productive. There seems to be this drive to be even more productive than we currently are.

And there-in lies the problem.

  • This implication, that the way we are running our lives, we aren’t being productive enough.
  • That we have more to give, but we aren’t hitting our maximum each day.
  • There there is a huge problem with the way we are living out our day to day.

But is that true though? Is there something inherently wrong with the way we plan our lives?

Or could it be that we’ve got the definition of productive wrong all these while?

What is productivity? What does it mean to be productive?

How would you describe a productive day for you?

Number of tasks ticked off? Amount of money you earn in x amount of time? So if I ticked off 10 things on my list each day and you always tick off 5, does that make you less productive than me?

I recently read a post linked on Pinterest. In the article, the author talked about how she was a “Type A” personality and planned her entire day from the moment she cracked open an eyelid to the time her head hit the pillow.

And she managed to finish every single thing on her to-do list each day. I was nodding along with admiration, until I read some of her replies to posters who were working mums/dads or balancing work/family and other obligations in some way.

They found it difficult to do so. And the author was like, nonsense! Even with kids, you can still finish everything on your to-do list.

Really, now? We will come back to this later.

Photo by Andreas Klassen on Unsplash

The emphasis on quantity over quality

It seems that “being productive” these days is all about how many things you’ve ticked off your lists, and how many tasks you will do this weekend, how much time you will spend on your assignments this morning.

How many, how much time — all measures of quantity.

But are we doing this at the expense of quality?

I think we are. We seed to be more concerned about how efficiently we can run through our tasks. The more efficient we are, the greater the number we can accomplish.

Cause, hey, if I can write 10 articles today, that makes me look so much more productive than if I had written 5! Never mind if those 10 are utter crap. 10 >>>>>>> 5!

And guess what other problem this leads to?

Some tasks just don’t lend itself to being easily ticked off a list

Creative tasks, thinking tasks all take ages to complete and don’t lend themselves to being easily ticked off a list, as it were. Some tasks just don’t lend itself to being easily measured.

Many of you here are writers yourself, and you can appreciate how long it can take to get an article up. Simply because the time taken for each stage — the research, writing, editing, proofing etc can all vary, depending on many factors.

How do you measure tasks like that then?

Ok, so let’s assume you’ve consistently written 10 high-quality articles a week, and I can only write 5 high-quality articles.

Does that make me less productive? Not necessarily so. There’s another important factor to consider.

Productivity tips neglect the fact that all of us have different bandwidths. And that all of us are different.

Thinking back to the lady whose article I read. She makes an assumption that anyone easily makes: that we all live our lives the same way and we all have the same bandwidth.

That couldn’t be further from the truth.

We all differ. Some of us can take on 10 projects in a day, some of us only 1. In a previous post, I talked about how we all have different energy levels.

If my energy levels allow me to do a task, and I’ve done just that 1 today, then I am productive. If yours allows you 10 tasks, but you’ve done only 2, then you aren’t being as productive as you should be.

See the difference?

To add to this, some of us are ‘Type As’. They are always on the ball, very structured, disciplined and get everything done. They probably have a lot of energy as well.

But, not all of us are Type A. And not all of us are meant to be or should strive to be.

I’ll be the first to say that planning my day from top to bottom doesn’t appeal to me at all. It doesn’t allow for flexibility and spontaneity which my days are full of. I dislike the rigidity of the whole thing.

You might be just like me. And that’s completely OK.

But we are constantly told that we should do more, that we’ve got all these people people around us accomplishing so much more than us, so we need to buck up.

This leads to the next problem.

People feel ashamed or guilty that they can’t hit this magical standard of productivity

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I can’t count the number of times I’ve given myself grief after seeing all these super-disciplined people talk about how many things they’ve accomplished, whilst I’m nowhere near completion for a piece of writing I’m working on.

This invisible standard of productivity — cause, really, who are we really measuring ourselves against? — is it making us live up to impossible standards? Is it making you compare yourself to others and then beat up on yourself? Have you been telling yourself “I should have did this today”, “if only I didn’t touch that I’d have more time to do this”.

Are those messages accompanied with feelings of guilt and shame?

That you could have given a 100% more but you didn’t, so you are now feeling guilty for spending 5 minutes longer than you should have chatting to a co-worker.

You feel ashamed that once again, you didn’t finish whatever you set out to. You feel you’ve under-achieved.

Shoulds, coulds, if onlys. Pay attention to the language you use when you speak to yourself in these circumstances.

And this links to the idea of perfection.

That perfectionist streak

“Being productive”/”striving to be productive” is another way in which some of us strive to live up to this idea of “perfection”.

We’ve got a “perfect life” or a “perfect day” if everything is done the way we envisioned, everything ticked off our lists, no mistakes or interruptions.

When something happens, we feel as if our schedules were “ruined”, we now have to do all these things at a later date.

When we don’t finish something within the allotted time — darn! How could I be so slow? If I typed at a speed of 1000 words per minute, I would have finished it!

Whatever we do, it is never enough. Never 100% perfect. There’s always space for more, more and even more.

It is an additional layer of stress you really don’t need. And what’s worse — you aren’t letting life happen.

Are we not making room for life, for spontaneity?

Photo by Scott Webb on Unsplash

As you know, life has its ways of making things happen. Things can change at an instant and put a damper on plans. You’ve got this lovely day planned out, then something happens at home or additional things land on your work plate.

You fall ill, your dog has a broken leg, a client moves a deadline forward.

In scenarios which aren’t quite so life-and-death, perhaps a friend asks you out for dinner, your partner surprises you with tickets to a play, there’s a one-night-only free salsa class in your area.

When you plan things down to the last minute, and are so focused on accomplishing your goals and being productive, are you allowing life to happen?

Are you allowing breathing room for spontaneity to burst into your life?

Will you constantly turn down invites, and find people to be a general nuisance just cause you need to go home and load the dishwasher/feed the cat/meditate at 10pm sharp?

Are we being busy just because?

Our culture is very much a “yang energy”, action-oriented culture. We always feel this need to be doing, hustling (hate that word by the way), feeling busy.

How many of you answer “How have you been?” questions by mentioning how busy you are? We all wear that “sleep late, hustle hard, do lots of things” badges of honour. And we wear them with pride.

Are our egos up to something again, here?

Hey I’m so busy running around doing this, and that and so much more. Though I don’t remember what I did or if those things were of any importance, that didn’t matter! I was doing something all day!

And sometimes, it all turns into a competition.

I’m busier than you because I have 6 things more on my to-do list! I sleep at 2am everyday!

One thing to ask ourselves: are we making good use of our time or are we simply just doing things so that we can justify to ourselves (and to others) that we are oh-so-busy.

Why do we do that?

Instead, let’s examine the value and purpose of doing something

Photo by Val Vesa on Unsplash

So what really is being productive vs unproductive?

Well, I think the difference lies in the value and purpose of the things that we do.

What is downright unproductive crap? Wasting time mindlessly surfing social media for one, mindlessly watching Netflix is another.

Done once in awhile for a break is nice, but when you are doing it often enough that you are denying yourself time and opportunity to work on value and purpose-driven activities, that’s being unproductive.

So what activities are value and purpose driven?

They really could be anything as long as you see a long-term purpose and its underlying value means something to you. Not everything has to be task driven.

Activities like attending a dance class (social, health, fun), meditating (self-care), taking language classes (learning, social) also hold great value and purpose.

Some of us make the mistake of thinking “softer” activities like these which don’t contribute to our career or make us any money etc don’t hold value — and end up neglecting them. But again, it’s the value and purpose of the activity which makes doing it productive.

What can we do then?

  1. Re-examine the way you look at productivity. Does quantity always matter? What about quality?
  2. Take note of your energy levels. Are you putting way too much on your plate?
  3. Are you living life in such a rigid manner that you aren’t allowing for things to happen?
  4. Explore your self-talk and inner thoughts when you don’t accomplish things you thought you should have. Are you creating too many rules/limitations for yourself? (should, if only, could have are hints) Are you shaming/guilt-ing yourself and striving to be too perfect?
  5. Are you doing things just to feel busy?
  6. What activities hold meaning and purpose for you? Are you spending sufficient time on them? How can you incorporate them in such a way that you still stay within your energy levels? (see point 2)

We all need a perspective shift on productivity. If not for anything but for the sake of our mental health at least.

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Originally published at on December 8, 2018.



Sara | AbstractedCollective

I write about relationships, personal growth and mental health. Dreamer. Tea addict. Researcher.