The Cult of Productivity
Our modern culture (at least in the west, where I live and work) glorifies productivity.
Speed, efficiency, and being able to produce more – more results, more products, more ideas, more innovations, more money – in less time have become dominant values in this culture.
In other words, this is a culture driven by doing. A culture that pressures us at every turn to stay in doing mode. A culture that rewards us for producing more, doing more, getting more done faster.
The consequences of striving to do and produce more at all times can be severe. For example, you might find yourself:
- drained of energy and life force
- chronically exhausted yet wired at the same time
- experiencing physical symptoms like chronic headaches, insomnia, mysterious aches & pains, frequent colds, etc.
- anxious and depressed
- feeling like you’re on a “hamster wheel” constantly doing but not going anywhere
- feeling like a deeper purpose or meaning is missing from your life
- feeling unworthy or lazy whenever you try to rest
- deriving your sense of self-worth and value from how much you produce or “get done”
- held hostage to a never-ending list of tasks & chores
Another major consequence of being stuck in doing mode is a warped relationship to time. This can manifest as faux urgency, “hurry sickness”, and as a chronic feeling of time pressure. I’ve talked about our dysfunctional relationship to time, and how to heal that relationship, on my podcast.
How you first get indoctrinated into the cult of productivity is different based on your background and personal traits.
For me, it all started with academic achievements in middle school. I realized that I could get external validation and feel loved and admired by succeeding academically. This became a much stronger pattern over time as I moved through high school, then college (graduated with a 4.0 GPA), and then graduate school (where I got a PhD in English literature and again graduated top of my class).
There’s a key component here.
At some point in your life, you internalized the cultural message that you are what you do.
That your worth is measured by how much you can produce, how much you can do, how much you can earn. This is why we’re all conditioned to ask someone “what do you do?” when we first meet them.
Once this message is fully internalized, it becomes really hard to see and value yourself as anything other than a doer. So you make yourself “useful”. You stick religiously to a to-do list that never gets shorter. You find more and more things to do, because the more things you do, the more valuable you feel.
Part of this vicious cycle is driven by your internal chemistry, too. Each time you check a task or chore off your to-do list, you get a dopamine hit. You feel like you’re getting closer and closer to something… To success! To completion! To worthiness! To the illusory goal of completing that to-do list.
But, of course, that list can never be completed.
The Sinfulness of Rest
Another insidious cultural message, beyond you are what you do, is that rest is lazy. That you should rest only when you’re dead. That it’s selfish, wrong, or unproductive to take time off or to spend a whole hour, day, week – dare I say month – nurturing yourself.
In other words, rest is perceived as a sinful thing. A lazy thing. Something that only “old” people do (I grew up with this message and people calling me grandma because I wanted to stay home, drink a cup of tea, and go to bed at a reasonable hour instead of partying all night).
If you happen to work for yourself, as I do, this belief that rest is lazy can morph into warped ideas like:
- if I take a break (even a short one), my business will fall apart
- I must say yes to every opportunity or I will be missing out on something important (FOMO!)
- I must be actively producing at all times to make money (what a lie!)
- I must hustle at all times to make my business work
Even if you don’t work for yourself, you might find it really challenging to just sit and be. Without needing to do or produce anything.
Some important questions to consider:
- When’s the last time you took a whole hour to watch birds or sit outside or sink into a warm bath?
- When’s the last time you allowed yourself to get lost in a creative activity without censoring yourself or thinking about the “end goal”?
- When’s the last time you were able to truly rest without giving any justification or explanation… either to others or to yourself?
- When’s the last time you felt fully deserving of taking a sacred pause for yourself… for no reason?
Busy-ness as Avoidance of Feelings
What keeps you stuck in go-go-go mode, in perpetual busy-ness?
Of course, I do appreciate that you likely have a full life with scheduled commitments, work deadlines, obligations, meetings, appointments, bills to pay, things to do.
Some busy-ness is inevitable, and part of a full life.
But there’s a difference between intentional action and activity and what we might call soul-draining busy-ness.
Intentional action and activity are about consciously choosing what you do and why you do it. About checking in with the highest level aspect of yourself – your Higher Self or Soul – to make sure the actions you’re taking are aligned and meaningful. That you’re not taking actions just for the sake of doing something or feeling a false (and fleeting) sense of productivity.
Soul-draining busy-ness is just what it sounds like… an endless sequence of menial, misaligned, or ultimately meaningless tasks. We often rely on these tasks to:
- fill up the time
- feel productive
- give ourselves something (anything) to do
- avoid silence & stillness
- avoid taking risks (like the risk of doing ONLY what’s aligned with you at a soul level, which can feel scary at first)
- avoid feeling emotions like sadness, emptiness, loneliness, anger, anxiety, lack of purpose, and boredom
- a major one: to avoid feeling inadequate or unworthy
Sometimes, you’re carrying such a deep fear of being inadequate or unworthy that you busy yourself with all kinds of things that ultimately don’t matter. Maybe even things that drain your energy.
The pull to prove your worthiness through doing can be extremely strong.
This can also show up as patterns like perfectionism, triple-checking your work (unnecessarily so), over-delivering on your work, overgiving and overdoing for others.
All of it to avoid sitting in silence, with nothing to do, which can bring up those feelings of inadequacy or unworthiness to the surface. And I get it! Those feelings can be really uncomfortable.
When the Body Speaks… and You Ignore It
Being indoctrinated into the cult of productivity often requires you to abandon your body.
This abandonment can happen in a number of ways. For example, you might override your body’s signals (like hunger, thirst, or the need for rest) to keep working or complete a project.
You might abandon your body by pushing it further into dis-regulation with artificial sources of energy (like coffee, sugar, energy drinks, etc) to keep it going.
Ignoring your body’s needs and signals disconnects you from your intuition. This is because your intuition is something you experience through the body and sensory experiences – like having a strong gut feeling about something.
The cult of productivity drives you to exist in your head most of the time. To live from the neck up. To listen only to the harsh demands and expectations of the ego mind, blocking out intuitive guidance and heart wisdom.
The more you ignore your body when it tries to communicate with you, the further away you stray from your path and inner compass. This is how you lose your ability to drop down into your heart, be still, and make decisions from a heart-powered place.
Fortunately, though, that ability can always be recovered and nourished.
Leaving the Cult: You Are NOT What You Do
You can leave the cult of productivity.
This doesn’t mean that you will never be productive again, or that you commit yourself to a life of doing absolutely nothing – unless, of course, that is your soul purpose.
Leaving the cult means extricating yourself from a social system of thought and behavior that has likely caused a lot of suffering in your life. A system of thought that has kept you trapped in the hamster wheel of compulsive productivity just to prove your worth.
Leaving the cult will require both an internal shift – sometimes a radical transformation and rewiring of yourself – and an external change in your behaviors and choices to reflect that inner shift.
Let’s walk through some specific suggestions of how to release yourself from the grip of this cult.
1 HEAL YOUR RELATIONSHIP TO TIME
I already mentioned this, but it’s worth repeating: work on healing your relationship to time.
This is especially important if you often feel overburdened, overscheduled, overwhelmed, or like you’re rushing through your days. When we’re trapped in the cult of productivity, there’s a feeling of “faux urgency” as well – a feeling that we should be doing more in less time. That everything on our to-do list is an urgent task.
This is actually an illusion. There will always be more things to add to your to-do list and more time to actually do those tasks.
Resist the urge to dilute and waste your energy by jumping, mentally, into the past or the future. When you get caught up in what happened before this present moment or what might happen after it, you lose sight of where and who you are right now.
Do an experiment with me: you’re reading this article right now. This is your present moment, as you read these words. Are you already thinking about what you’re going to do next? Are you jumping mentally into a past event, what you did this morning, or what you’ve got planned for tomorrow? You’re wasting your present-moment energy by scattering it in this way. This is an invitation to notice how much you get caught up in this pattern throughout your day. Be more mindful of consciously pulling all of your energy back to yourself so you have it available to you now.
For more help with this, listen to Inner Work 099: Healing Your Relationship to Time
2 RETURN TO YOUR NATURAL RHYTHM
The cult of productivity disconnects you from your inherent, natural flow. Your natural rhythm is likely slower than the rhythm expected, set, and glorified by our speed-obsessed culture.
You might need more time than you’re giving yourself to complete a project.
You might need more time to rest.
You might need more time to spend in solitude.
You might need to move slower through your days, with less appointments and less commitments.
Experiment with different rhythms and give yourself permission to slow things down. Be aware of insidious thought patterns like, “If I slow down, everything around me will implode” or “It’s lazy to slow down” or “I just don’t have the time to slow down” (paradoxical!).
For help returning to your natural rhythm – and finding what that actually is – I highly recommend this book.
3 EMPOWER YOURSELF WITH SACRED TOOLS
An important step in freeing yourself from compulsive productivity is to stop looking for approval outside of yourself.
This also means releasing the attachment to looking for answers or a roadmap outside of yourself. No one can draw a map of your path other than you. No one can promise you “if you do all of these things and check them off a list, you will always be loved and accepted and worthy.”
You must give unconditional approval to yourself.
You must accept the truth that you have the answers within you. Then, you can equip yourself with sacred tools that can help you access those answers and figure out your own path.
For this, I recommend the Akashic Records, which can help you stop seeking for external answers and take your power back. Other sacred tools include the tarot, meditation, journaling, shamanic journeying, and any form of intuitive writing or artmaking.
4 EXAMINE + RELEASE DEEPLY HELD FEARS ABOUT BEING “UNPRODUCTIVE”
In the process of uncoupling your self-worth from your productivity – of realizing that they are not connected – you might hit up against deeply held fears and resistance. Especially if you’ve always defined yourself by being extra productive, a perfectionist, a type A overachiever, an A+ student, and so on.
Giving yourself permission to rest, to take things slower, to not be productive at all times – this might trigger the fear of losing your identity or of being seen as unworthy.
There might also be a fear of being perceived as lazy. And, of course, there might be fear of having to face the feelings you’ve been suppressing by being compulsively productive.
For this step, I recommend creating a list of mantras or centering words to go back to as often as you can. For example:
- It’s safe to be still
- It’s safe to do nothing
- Everyone benefits when I take time to rest
- I am worthy because I AM me (not because I produce or contribute)
- I release my attachment to constant productivity as a form of self-worth
- I release my need to be admired, loved, and accepted for my productivity
- I consciously heal my relationship to time
- I consciously shift my definition of “productivity” to include rest, relaxation, and downtime
- It’s safe to sit with my feelings and allow them to move through me
Freeing yourself from the cult of productivity takes some practice, conscious behavior, and making choices from a different place within yourself. But it can be done. And you can start today.
I leave you with a challenge: what can you do this week to free yourself from compulsive productivity? What can be slowed down, rescheduled, or cancelled? Which limiting thought or belief will you release?