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← How burnout makes us less creative

Our obsession with productivity -- to-do lists, life hacks, morning routines -- is making us less productive, says digital anthropologist Rahaf Harfoush. She explains why we need to redesign our workday around creativity -- not just efficiency.

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Showing Revision 6 created 03/27/2020 by Erin Gregory.

  1. A few years ago, my obsession
    with productivity
  2. got so bad that I suffered
    an episode of burnout
  3. that scared the hell out of me.
  4. I'm talking insomnia,
    weight gain, hair loss -- the works.
  5. I was so overworked that my brain
  6. literally couldn't come up
    with another idea.
  7. That indicated to me that my identity
    was linked with this idea of productivity.
  8. [The Way We Work]

  9. Do you feel guilty if you haven't
    been productive enough during the day?

  10. Do you spend hours
    reading productivity hacks,
  11. trying new frameworks
    and testing new apps
  12. to get even more done?
  13. I've tried them all --
    task apps, calendar apps,
  14. time-management apps,
  15. things that are meant to manage your day.
  16. We've been so obsessed with doing more
  17. that we've missed
    the most important thing.
  18. Many of these tools aren't helping.
  19. They're making things worse.
  20. OK, let's talk about
    productivity for a second.

  21. Historically, productivity
    as we know it today
  22. was used during the industrial revolution.
  23. It was a system that measured performance
    based on consistent output.
  24. You clocked into your shift
  25. and were responsible
    for creating X number of widgets
  26. on the assembly line.
  27. At the end of the day,
    it was pretty easy to see
  28. who worked hard and who hadn't.
  29. When we shifted to a knowledge economy,
  30. people suddenly had tasks
    that were much more abstract,
  31. things like writing,
    problem-solving or strategizing,
  32. tasks that weren't easy to measure.
  33. Companies struggled to figure out
  34. how to tell who was working
    and who wasn't,
  35. so they just adopted
    the old systems as best as they could,
  36. leading to things
    like the dreaded time sheet
  37. where everyone is under pressure
  38. to justify how they spend
    every second of their day.
  39. There's just one problem.

  40. These systems don't make a lot of sense
    for creative work.
  41. We still think of productivity
    as an endurance sport.
  42. You try to churn out as many blog posts
  43. or we cram our day full of meetings.
  44. But this model of constant output
    isn't conducive to creative thought.
  45. Today, knowledge workers
    are facing a big challenge.
  46. We're expected to be constantly
    productive and creative
  47. in equal measure.
  48. But it's actually almost impossible

  49. for our brains to continuously
    generate new ideas
  50. with no rest.
  51. In fact, downtime
    is a necessity for our brain
  52. to recover and to operate properly.
  53. Consider that according
    to a team of researchers
  54. from the University
    of Southern California,
  55. letting our minds wander
    is an essential mental state
  56. that helps us develop our identity,
  57. process social interactions,
  58. and it even influences
    our internal moral compass.
  59. Our need for a break flies in the face
    of our cultural narrative about hustling,
  60. in other words, the stories
    that we as a society
  61. tell each other
    about what success looks like
  62. and what it takes to get there.
  63. Stories like the American Dream,
  64. which is one of our most
    deeply rooted beliefs.
  65. This tells us that if we work hard,
    we'll be successful.
  66. But there's a flip side.
  67. If you aren't successful,
  68. it must mean that you're not
    working hard enough.
  69. And if you don't think
    you're doing enough,
  70. of course you're going to stay
    late, pull all-nighters
  71. and push yourself hard
    even when you know better.
  72. Productivity has wrapped
    itself up in our self-worth,

  73. so that it's almost impossible
    for us to allow ourselves
  74. to stop working.
  75. The average US employee only takes half
    of their allocated paid vacation leave,
  76. further proving
    that even if we have the option
  77. to take a break, we don't.
  78. To be clear, I don't
    think that productivity

  79. or trying to improve
    our performance is bad.
  80. I'm just saying that the current models
    we're using to measure our creative work
  81. don't make sense.
  82. We need systems
    that work with our creativity
  83. and not against it.
  84. [SO HOW DO WE FIX IT?]

  85. There is no quick fix for this problem.

  86. And I know, I know, that sucks.
  87. No one loves a good framework
    or a good acronym
  88. better than me.
  89. But the truth is everyone
    has their own narratives
  90. that they have to uncover.
  91. It wasn't until I started digging
    around my own beliefs around work
  92. that I began to unravel
    the root of my own work story,
  93. finally being able to let go
    of destructive behaviors
  94. and make positive, long-lasting changes.
  95. And the only way to do that

  96. is by asking yourself some hard questions.
  97. Does being busy make you feel valuable?
  98. Who do you hold up
    as an example of success?
  99. Where did your ideas
    of work ethic come from?
  100. How much of who you are
    is linked to what you do?
  101. Your creativity, it has its own rhythms.

  102. Our energy fluctuates daily,
    weekly, even seasonally.
  103. I know that I'm always more energetic
    at the beginning of the week
  104. than at the end,
  105. so I front-load my workweek
    to account for that fact.
  106. As a proud night owl, I free up
    my afternoons and evenings
  107. for creative work.
  108. And I know I'll get more writing done
  109. in the cozy winter months
    than during the summer.
  110. And that's the secret.

  111. Dismantling myths,
    challenging your old views,
  112. identifying your narratives --
  113. this is the real work
    that we need to be doing.
  114. We aren't machines,
  115. and I think it's time
    that we stopped working like one.