My Productivity Confession

As I mentioned in my previous post, I am about to write a 3 part mini-series of posts on Toxic Productivity. I may not publish these weekly as I have a fair amount of reading and thinking I want to put into it. The first post on the concept and the nature of Toxic Productivity is currently being outlined.

I have put out feelers on Social Media for people to share their experiences with me to broaden my perspective.

I have my own perspective and my own experience to draw from. That is the nature of this post.

Photo by Elisa Ventur on Unsplash

My confession. The past year has been the most difficult year of my life. There is simply no other way to describe it. As I look back on the past year, I am forced to conclude that the ground work for this had been laid well before the reality became known to me. So here we go.

I’ve not been well. There are many factors which have played into this. I am only intending to talk about one of those factors here. But please note, that this is probably one of the least significant factors and is more to do with my ever bigger failed attempts to try and deal with the problem behind the scenes to prevent it from entering the public domain.

Stress. We all have it. It comes from many sources. Work, home life, financial concerns, being over extended. I’ve tried to understand what stress is and how it manifested, at least in my experience. In my experience it was the ever growing sense that my capacity had been well exceeded and that, try though I might to keep on top of everything and keep ahead of everything, I simply could not keep up with it all and it was something of a surprise each day that somehow everything hadn’t unraveled. And this is why stress affects different people in different ways. Something you do all day every day without breaking a sweat can break the person next to you. Ultimately, stress is caused by the feeling that things are out of control. Not just in the sense of, ‘well us mere mortals are never really in control are we?’. More than that. Stress comes about when our expectations for ourselves, or the expectations we feel others have of us, are beyond our capacity.

In my situation it was the sheer quantity of things, in different spheres of life that I felt responsible for. In particular, the number of things where the truth was, I was the first, last and only line of defense. And, the number of things where I placed an unrealistic, unhealthy and just plain wrong expectation on myself to be on top of things and not make any mistakes.

It was a complex recipe that I did not understand and still don’t fully.

So how do you cope with this? Well, I turned to productivity systems. Here is something I wrote down in 2020 as an aim for the system I was trying to set up:

A comprehensive system, with a long term view that effectively keeps track of everything coming up, in varying levels of detail and that enables me to clearly and accurately see what I need to do, what others need to do in a proactive way, without overwhelm, with minimal input and management and that does not rely on things being stored in my head.

In trying to set up this system — I failed. Crucially I think the reason for my failure is because I lack 3 key skills necessary to pull this off. Those being omniscience, omnipresence and omnipotence.

The key things here that I want to flag up as being fundamentally flawed are as follows:

  1. “A comprehensive system.” I was not being figurative here. My aim and expectation was that the system I developed required me to know everything and have a means of recalling it at the right time and to not miss anything. Ever. This is further expounded in the need to keep track of everything coming up, both in a broad sense, and in detail. With clarity and accuracy. The expectation here was that any given moment of time, I would have access, within a few seconds to the information needed to be able answer any question put to me, without being forewarned of the need and that this recall would be clear, concise, accurate and cover things in a broad sense, and in detail.
  2. “What others need to do”. This is key. I had taken responsibility, not only for knowing what I need to know and being clear on what I needed to do, but also what others needed to know and what others needed to do.
  3. “Without overwhelm, with minimal input and management”. Some organisations have people who’s full time job is knowing what everyone else needs to do. That is what they are employed for. My set up was required to have little need for input as managing my time and others time and knowledge management was not my full time job. I had many other roles and responsibilities so this system had to be so clever and well thought through, that little input was needed to manage everything and simple enough that it could be used without much thought.

As things got more and more difficult to track and manage, as my stress levels rose, I became convinced with a bit more thought, a few more tweaks, I could get this productivity system to meet all of my needs and expectations. I became convinced that this was possible and the reason it wasn’t working was because I wasn’t good enough to achieve it.

So I tinkered. I switched from this app to the next. Reorganised my set up, tried incorporating more and more and then less and less. I didn’t have time to do this during the day, at least not at first, so I sacrificed sleep.

So we hit the idea of toxic productivity. This is the idea that we can and should be able to achieve more and more and more. It can manifest in different ways. It can become an obsession. So in my case, I stopped taking time off, at least proper time off. As I constantly needed to tweak and tinker and work and adapt to keep on top of everything. It can manifest in an inability to ‘switch off’. Even when we are not working, our minds are consumed by work or everything that needs to be sorted. It can manifest in an always on mentality in the organisations we work for or even at home. There is always more to do so there is never an opportunity to do something in order to rest, relax and enjoy ourselves. A common theme that underpins all of this is an inability or an unwillingness to be content and satisfied in the things left undone or the things done badly.

Why is it like this? Most of would say our families or our spouses are more important. So why do we so often sacrifice our relationships with them for these things that we believe to be less important? I believe it is fear. Fear of the consequences of what will happen if we take our eye off the ball. If we don’t meet expectations, whatever they may be, whether or not they come from ourselves or from others.

So here is my confession. I’ve started a blog that deals with productivity. I’ve even gone further to call it ‘Effectiveness’. But, I am not some guru, not someone who has all the answers. I am not someone who stands before you with all the tips and tricks and answers. Far from it. I am someone who is and has been broken, at least in part, by the very things I am writing about. And I am trying to piece together a better way. And I am trying to do this without making all the same mistakes I did before. And, as a Christian, I am convinced that all of this comes from an unwillingness to accept our own mortal limitations and an inability to apply grace and humility in the sphere of our day to day grind.

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