The False Choice Of Toxic Productivity

Illustration: Aidan Wharton

This article originally appeared on Imbroglio. Imbroglio is a newsletter from The Branch about how we bring about the education revolution. Most of our posts will focus on the future of K-12 and higher education, but we’ll also cover the imbroglio itself — the politics, misdirection, the excuse-making, the mediocrity. Occasionally we’ll also meander into the general science of learning outside of the traditional education system.

On a recent episode of the Citizen Stewart Show, my friend and co-host Chris Stewart gave me a hard time because my essay outlining my dream high school called for a yearly course on what I dubbed “attention management.” He didn’t take issue with teaching kids to have a healthy relationship with technology and social media, but he did question whether an hour a day was essential and pushed against what he dubbed “toxic productivity.” 

I’d had a vague awareness of this growing trend of productivity critics but have since done a deep dive into their world. I’m astounded by how robust this movement has become. In the past few years, we’ve seen one bestselling book on the subject after another, including How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy (New York Times best-seller, 2019 favorite book of Barack Obama), Do Nothing: How to Break Away from Overworking, Overdoing, and UnderlivingCan’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation, and Laziness Does Not Exist.

To some of these productivity critics, time management gurus like Cal Newport (author of Deep Work, among other books) are pushing a vacuous, capitalistic ethos that values: 

  •     Getting things done at all costs
  •     Prioritizing work over family and friends 
  •     Filling time with tasks
  •     Staying busy for its own sake 

Newport addressed these critics in a short blog post:

 From my experience with successful young people, what you need, put simply, is a drive to keep working, with a laser-like intensity, on something even after you’ve lost immediate interest. Tenacity. A grating thirst to get it done. These are the precursors of accomplishment.

Having good productivity habits compliment this crucial skill. They take this intensity and place it in a schedule. They keep small things from crowding your mind. They eliminate the stress of what appointment you might be forgetting or what vital errand has to be done. But productivity is not a substitute for this work. Within the scope of this reality, productivity plays a crucial role. If you want to get ahead in a meaningful, low-stress, controlled manner you have to pay attention to these little habits.  

I agree with Newport that productivity is essential and misunderstood, but the word has become too loaded to be helpful. This is why the course I wish to design for a high school is called attention management (a term I didn’t invent)and not productivity. The latter is an economic term of art used to describe a company’s outputs (profits, goods) relative to its inputs (by which we often mean worker time). The term conjures up images of Amazon workers peeing themselves because they don’t want to log a bathroom break in the Orwellian tracking software. 

Attention management is different. It means mastering your time to focus on the work, passions, and people you care about the most. 

What’s a task that must be done but requires low cognitive lift? 

What work do you care most about that requires you to be at your best? 

How do you organize your day to maximize the latter while still getting the former done?

Can you sustain periods of frustration and boredom in the ways an elite athlete can endure fatigue?

The image I have in mind here is a high school student spending three hours every morning writing their first novel, in front of a canvas sketching their first masterpiece, or in the editing bay stitching together their first short film. 

Attention management is a skill that can be taught, practiced, and mastered over many years. It’s also an increasingly rare skill, which means those who attain it stand a great chance of rising above the rest. In this sense, it’s not a recipe for capitalistic exploitation; it’s an antidote to it. 

Notice that nothing about this vision is incompatible with what many productivity critics are calling for. Only the most privileged and lazy have both the desire and ability to devote themselves to a life of leisure. The rest of us must work whether we like it or not. Let’s make it as enjoyable and efficient as possible. The surest way to lose time for hobbies, family, friends, or simply doing nothing is to task switch and scroll the internet when you’re supposed to be producing professional work or mastering your craft. We must stop pitting deep work against these other meaningful aspects of life. 

It’s also worth mentioning that the skill of attention management applies equally well outside of the professional world. Talk to any parent, and they’ll tell you how hard it’s become to keep phones away from the dinner table. Ask a young woman how rare it is to go on a date with someone who can carry on a basic conversation. Or ask a football coach how the spirit of locker room camaraderie has changed in the era of social media. As adults, we are painfully aware of how hard it is to build the capacity to truly focus. Many of us had the benefit of building habits before the age of the smartphone, streaming content, or hyper-realistic video games. Think about how much more difficult this must be for our kids. Many of them simply don’t know what it’s like to focus. Our job as educators is to teach them how.