I’M BUSY: A Personal Essay on Productivity

(previously published in 2014 edition of ‘Stratus: Journal of Arts & Writing’)

“If you’re bored, I’ll give you something to do.”  My mom used to say this when I was a kid.  Her threat of chores silenced my whines of boredom and I found anything to keep myself busy.

Ah, to have the chance to be bored again; to lie in a hammock and listen to a breeze flutter through tree leaves on a warm afternoon.  Would I only twiddle my thumbs?

Maybe it’s simply normal human behavior to do.  But when did to-do lists, time management and waves of guilt for non-productivity harness so much of my attention and energy?  When I ask my friends, “How’s it going?,” common responses are “Great, I’m really busy, crazy busy; I’m stressed out, saturated; It’s too much.”  I wonder if the meaning of productivity has somehow stumbled onto a fatal racetrack, where it loops around to a dizzy velocity while reaching frantic for giant carrots and teetering toward a crash and burn.

I have an insatiable drive to be productive.  Balancing ‘busy’ with concentration and efficiency is my method and even a minimal level of output is my goal.  At the end of a day, however, if my to-dos have not diminished, I feel stressed/unaccomplished, angry/wasteful, worthless/lazy and definitely don’t want to share any of my ‘not doing’ with my busy and producing friends, peers and family.

But maybe they would understand.  Maybe we are all caught in an unfocused culture struggling toward the salvation of productivity.

Inattention is one of the primary symptoms of a chronic mental health condition that affects millions of children and adults in the United States, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).  And those diagnoses have been on the rise.  According to prescription provider, Express Scripts, studies showed a 36 percent increase between 2008 and 2012 in the number of Americans using medication to treat ADHD.  But, beyond legal prescriptions, the ‘medication’ is also widespread on college campuses and in the professional workplace.  The trafficked ADHD drugs are not a treatment for a diagnosed disorder, but a resource for enhanced performance, productivity and focus.

Maybe I just need to focus, too.

A quick search for ‘productivity’ at the digital bookstore, Amazon.com, gave me some non-medicated direction with up to 100 pages of results.  The titles from the first 10 pages were mostly ‘How To’ e-books published in 2014, all under the umbrella of productivity; how to: get more done in less time, achieve success, master time management, take action, end laziness, outperform the norm, supercharge-maximize-boost, overcome burn out and work faster.

Surfacing from the flood of sub-titles, I felt that I had a serious problem.  If I could not overcome procrastination, concentrate harder and become a ‘Productivity Ninja,’ I would never be a successful person and would simply flounder in my own wasted space.

With an e-stack of self-help books to improve productivity, an increase of diagnoses and legal medications for a disorder that includes inattentiveness, and a thriving black market for the ‘focus’ drugs to give people the concentration and performance edge at school and the workplace, I have to wonder what generates this pressure to focus in order to produce at a greater, faster speed.  Achievement, recognition, and wealth are some probable motivators.

I hope that in the U.S., it is still okay just to be human instead of ‘hyper-focused super-juiced’ human.  Is our culture perpetuating the mounting speeds, standards and expectations?

I recently worked and lived in Belgium for a few years.  In downtown Brussels, I would have to walk for 20 minutes from my office to get to a coffee shop that made steamed lattes ‘to-go’ (or ‘take-away’ if you want to be European about it).  Coffee shops were called cafes, where people would sit down and stay awhile to have their espresso or cafe au lait.  Coffee time appeared to be social time, a break from work or the day’s activities.  For me, this was culture shock.

I had arrived in Brussels from Seattle, Washington where I had lived for the morning or afternoon latte that I would order ‘to-go,’ speed walk back to my desk, chug half of the nectar, then type furiously as I rode the caffeine wave determined to finish just one more report.

Since my time in Belgium, I have made my way back to Seattle and the coffee shops on every corner. This past Friday morning, in fact, I stopped by a local coffee shop.  It buzzed with people taking cups to go and others who stayed and sat, fused to digital devices.  No illegal focus meds for sale over-the-counter here, but the standby triple shots were in high demand. Coffee caffeine, not to just wake up, but to wake up and get to doing, making the most of precious time. After the barrels of espresso and drip I washed through my system daily for too many years, I can’t drink caffeinated coffee anymore. My heart palpitates just thinking about those shots that always helped me beat deadlines and pound out page after page.  So, now I settle for a weak tea, or three.

But maybe productivity is not just about an American’s relationship with coffee and caffeine. Recently, I hopped on the morning commuter bus to downtown Seattle, every seat occupied with Androids ThinkPads tablets iPads iPhones gizmos gadgets, and earbuds; bowed heads, glazed eyes, scrolling reading playing posting, and plugged in.

Apps manage a person’s day; electronic appointment books schedule tasks to the minute; programs organize time and information; electronic cigarettes even improve the bottom line.  The continuing surge of technology cleans up the wastes of time, streamlines effort and smooths any wrinkles of inefficiency. But distraction can remain. When I lose focus of the carrot, the output line graph takes a nose dive.

So I get distracted.  Doesn’t that keep me human?

I attempt to stretch most moments, packing them in with multiple projects, to be productive, to earn money.  But to participate and keep up with the current flow of our culture, is it imperative to enhance myself with meds or extra doses of the latest natural stimulant?  From my office work experience, once elevated productivity levels (for an individual as well as a group) becomes normal, it becomes expected and the new standard.  Then, more has to be done to surpass the now ‘minimum’ standard to achieve recognition and success.

What is the culture cost of this building block approach to productivity measurement? Is it an unavoidable evolution to machine behavior, sacrificing health and human interaction to produce to the capacity of a digital chip?

Maybe we’re running out of time as a species and fear of the wasteland-apocalypse and extinction propels us to move faster and do more.  Maybe productivity is a learned behavior and a fed addiction exploited and manipulated by a profit driven system.  Maybe on some subconscious level we remember that if we are not busy, we might be bored.

On a Tuesday evening, a birthday gift card brings me to a Seattle spa that offers hour sessions in sensory deprivation tanks, otherwise known as isolation or float tanks.  Bright orange earplugs fit snug in my ears.  And I float in 10 inches of skin temperature salt water.  Sight, sound and smell have been turned off as I hover weightless and disconnected from the physical world.  But my mind continues.

One hour to float, to not do.  And I am not bored.

© M.R.Collier, A Way of Your Own, 2015

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