In last week’s essay on slow living, I talked about breaking away from “the Cult of Productivity and Busyness.” While slow living does offer us the ability to break away, I am finding it much harder to actually break up with the productivity mindset than I had expected. My time spent mindfully enjoying my day still feels wasteful, and the work that I do get done feels like it’s not enough when my to-do list (renamed my “Menu of Options” after a helpful discussion with my ADHD therapist) still feels miles long.

It seems that I have what psychotherapist Lee McKay Doe terms “internalized capitalism.” In a post on her now-defunct Instagram account, she listed the symptoms of internalized capitalism:

  • Feeling guilty for resting.
  • Your self-worth is largely based on doing well in your career.
  • Placing productivity before health.
  • Believing that hard work = happiness.
  • Feeling lazy, even when you’re experiencing pain, trauma, or adversity.
  • Using busyness as a way to avoid your needs.

I tick every single one of those boxes. I’m guessing a lot of us do. It’s hard not to when “the quest for increased productivity — for making the best possible use of your limited time — is a dominant motif of our age,” according to Oliver Burkeman in his essay “Why time management is ruining our lives.” Capitalism places an immense burden on the worker to rise to an ever-increasing workload, and in an effort to avoid a failure state we start to micromanage our time using tools like Getting Things Done®, the Pomodoro Technique, Bullet Journaling, and to-do apps. Further, Burkeman says, we “start to feel pressured to use our leisure time ‘productively’ too — an attitude which implies that enjoying leisure for its own sake, which you might have assumed was the whole point of leisure, is somehow not quite enough.”

Burkeman’s ultimate argument is that time management becomes its own form of busyness, which keeps us from asking ourselves “potentially terrifying questions about how we are spending our days.” Alexis Hall, writing for the Los Angeles Review of Books, agrees: “Existential dread is, as a basic level, the motivation to use the [Pomodoro Technique]. In reaching for the timer… you implicitly acknowledge that the time of your life, which is finite, feels out of your control. You want that control back.”

While productivity tools offer to give you back that control, Hall says that in reality they “allow us to function in a fucked-up world. They don’t encourage us to change the world.” We are still functioning under a capitalistic system, one in which we’ve completely internalized its tenets. The result is something that Anna Codrea-Rado terms “productivity dysmorphia”: the inability to see your own professional successes. Productivity dysmorphia, Codrea-Rado writes,

is simultaneously a symptom of modern work’s afflictions but also the cause. And so fixing it is less about ridding ourselves of these feelings and more about looking into what they are telling us… We need to tackle the causes of this problem: racism, sexism, classism, and a society that frames failure to succeed at work as an individual failing, not a symptom of structural inequalities.

Now, I’m enough of a leftist to say “fuck Capitalism,” but I realize not everyone is. That said, truly ridding ourselves of the productivity mindset would require a massive realignment of our social values in order to fix the issues that create it in the first place. What is the individual to do in the meantime?

I don’t think it’s impossible to break away from the productivity mindset as an individual. Clearly, others have done so (though we may question why they chose to participate in a capitalist system by writing and selling books on the subject). Slow living gives us a framework in which to do it; it’s just much harder than I anticipated it would be. Breaking away requires us to face those “potentially terrifying” questions Burkeman brings up, to face the existential dread of an ever-decreasing number of days on this earth, and to choose living our best lives instead of hewing to the safety of busyness.

I’ll let you know how it goes.


Noise du Jour

Before Danny Elfman was known for his manic, creepy Tim Burton soundtracks, he was the frontman of the L.A.-based rock band Oingo Boingo. You may already be familiar with their hits “Dead Man’s Party” and “Weird Science,” but my favorite Boingo song comes from Elfman’s little-known solo album “So-Lo.” In reality, the album was a Boingo production made after their previous label dropped them, which is why songs like “Gratitude” are considered to be part of their catalog.

“Gratitude” marks a bit of a transition from the band’s earlier post-punk sound to a more pop-rock flavor, but that doesn’t mean it’s not one of their best. The video is also fantastic, especially for Elfman’s ability to puppet his facial features and body. I hope you enjoy it.


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