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The Productivity Trap (and how to escape it!)

Always on the #grind, #stepuporstepout, #gobigorgohome, the #hustle and the #goodvibes attack us from everywhere in their aggressive rat race for our attention. We get caught up in the middle of their reckless, blind pursuit of output and success, the fulfilment of #goals and materialising #passion. Social media platforms perfect forums for encouragement and self-accountability. We live our lives there, so it is only right that all of our professional and personal goals should be broadcasted for the world to approve and applaud.

The hashtags above are just some of the symptoms of the productivity trap that seems pervasive in social media, and growingly influential in our individual lives. Platforms such as Instagram or Facebook have become viable markets for businesses and reliable sources of money. This has caused a predictable growth of the base of users participating to profit. What was not predictable? The influence that these platforms would have over us, the rest. After all, we come there to use those for social purposes rather than to be used by them. Meanwhile, instead of exploiting Instagram’s obsession with influencers and Facebook’s opportunities to network with potential clients, we fall victim to the very same phenomenon that we enabled – the culture of indulgence. 

Indulging is one of the defining, overarching trends of this decade. We indulge in social media. The way we use it allows it to indulge in our self-crafted image. We indulge in Netflix, consuming easy entertainment in binges and satisfying urges at a click on the phone (or not, thanks to the play next option. They do know us well). We indulge in junk food and drinking in weekend long benders, we indulge in disposable relationships and one-night stands, we indulge in procrastination. And yet, during the daytime, we smother ourselves with motivational quotes and unachievable, distant goals. Those flashy hashtags and colourful images of success and “the hustle” are – much like the work that we supposedly put in every day – at best a remote destination, at worst an illusion. 

Why can’t we be honest with ourselves while achieving what we set out to achieve? Well, for starters, we are trapped in a situation that we created for ourselves and then took out of our own control – the productivity trap. What can be wrong with taking pride in our achievements and work? #girlboss, right? More power to us, boss babes!

The problem is not in the work that we do. The problem is the constant scrutiny and public accountability that we subject ourselves to through broadcasting the whole journey online. We put ourselves out there, we scrutinize others and then look at ourselves through this warped, adjusted lens to discover that we are inadequate. So, we conflate our goals, polish our image of the ‘work’ that we believe we do, and project a different, more appealing picture. The goals that we adopt are overwhelming and unrealistic. Most importantly, they are not appropriate to our place in that ‘productivity path’. But the surrounding community encourages us to indulge in what we could become and could achieve, and what we should achieve.

It is easier to daydream about what could be and what might happen than to actually put concentrated effort into achieving small things that will build up. So, what would a typical person, used to unchallenging entertainment at their fingertips and relationships on demand do? Choose the way that entails tireless working towards a goal that is not, after all, as glamorous as they come, and that could take a few years to pay off? Or the instant but temporary gratification of being accepted and admired by others?

It is important to treat ourselves. However, recently it seems like you don’t really need a reason to treat yourself. Or, you treat yourself for any little thing that you’ve achieved. Getting the dishes washed? Treat yourself. Got the scattered clothes from the chair and hung them in the wardrobe? Treat yourself. Took the bin out? Treat yourself. We are able to find any reason to treat ourselves, because we believe we deserve it. We earned it. But that is a vicious cycle of circular behaviours that reinforce one another. If we reward ourselves with instantaneously gratifying things like Netflix or junk food for the most minor, shortest surge in our productivity, we expect gratification for any effort. That makes us lazy. But, more importantly, it lowers what we are capable of. If we reward ourselves for any minor task, we don’t get used to concentrated, intense efforts over a period of time. We get exhausted quickly, not prepared to deal with such strains. In short, we do not develop any discipline or resilience.

Through perpetuating unhealthy behaviours as valid rewards for low effort, we don’t give ourselves time to achieve our goals. The productivity trap lays in our need for instant gratification. Goals don’t materialize overnight, after a few hours of work, or even after a few days of focus. They need time and consistency. Our efforts need to ripen, and you can’t force it into a shorter period even with an insane intensity that would outmatch even Da Vinci. If there is a greenhouse for goals, it is solely consistency. If we reward ourselves too early for a work that is inadequate, we never arrive at a point where the greenhouse is built. We quickly get frustrated and abandon our goals, instead looking towards other fragrant pictures of what we could do and be. But our addiction to instant gratification is not a death sentence for wherever we are headed. There are ways to break from the productivity trap and achieve what we want at a pace that we are comfortable with.

The key to escaping the productivity trap is realistic goals and compartmentalization of the big picture goals. It is much more overwhelming to achieve the goal of being a millionaire than it is to come up with a 6-month business plan. Similarly, it is much more daunting to come up with a 6-month business plan than it is to figure out what your product will be. Small, achievable steps that lead to your main goal, the baby-goals, will help maintain the motivation that will take you through the stressful part and the discipline that will take you through the mundane part. Don’t get lost in pursuit of a goal that is too remote to see from the point you are standing in. That is the only way to avoid frustration and giving up. Luckily, the more remote the goal is, the less threatening it is to your baby-goals’ ability to erode your confidence. So, ride that justified high as proudly as you can!


Paulina Szulecka

Nottingham '20

3rd year law student navigating life as an immigrant, an activist, and a bit of a mess generally
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