On Productivity 

by kangcuzzi

The arrival of each summer inevitably accompanies an obsession with time. In the absence of school – and its related obligations – what do we do with the days and months that stretch ahead? If you’re like me, the question is more like this: how do I best spend this time?

Too often, the glory or downfall of a summer day is determined by a single idea: productivity. Us humans are hardwired to reap the most out of what we sow; work is often seen as a metric of our sense of purpose. I know that doesn’t sound great, but it’s true. Think about spending more than a day without mental stimulation, and that’ll be enough to drive you nuts.

So far, my summer can be characterized as an extended bout of cabin fever. With no immediate plans to travel and nothing in particular to do, I’ve been left to my own devices – literally. I’ve spent many hours toying and experimenting with all kinds of things to pass the time, from reading to writing, sketching to sleeping, web surfing to even – god forbid – doing schoolwork. Throughout it all, I’ve been plagued with an unshakeable habit that constantly badgers me to ‘be productive, be productive, be productive’.

Quantitatively speaking, I’ve accomplished quite a fair amount. But qualitatively speaking, how much is a series of identical hours worth? Could it be called productive?

What I realized earlier today is how misleading our idea of productivity can be. Sometimes the most productive moments are the ones in which we aren’t obliged to do anything. It sounds counterintuitive, but let me explain.

Maybe my previous description of a banal, Bovary-esque summer wasn’t entirely fair, seeing as I’m writing this post in the city of Guilin. I arrived here earlier today with my family, and we’re going to be visiting various sites over the next four days. Anyhow, I had my little revelation as I was disembarking the plane and walking towards baggage reclaim. My mind was wandering all over the place, thinking about various knick knacks my eyes happened to rest upon. Airport signs, people, Chinese characters, customs…

Quantitatively speaking, the traveling portion of my trip was not at all productive. My mental state upon landing is testimony to that. I spent many hours alternating between reading, sleeping, thinking about god knows what. Not exactly mastermind material. But qualitatively speaking, I hadn’t had a more productive stretch of hours throughout the entire summer. For the first time in ten days, I felt refreshingly rejuvenated and filled with a sense of purpose – isn’t that what productivity gives us? (Sure, we aren’t always productive purely for the sake of emotional fulfilment, but it’s definitely one of the larger factors I believe.)

Why was this? Well, how satisfied we are with our time-spending is heavily influenced by our surroundings. I’ve done so many things in my room, spent so many hours there, that nothing is worth a second thought. Every hour I spend at my desk is reminiscent of another hour I spent in the exact same position, even if I had been doing something entirely different. Thus, those two – or more – experiences merge together, creating a glob of a memory that misleads me into thinking I haven’t ‘accomplished much’ because I’ve always been there, in the same place, doing things that were vaguely similar to each other.

The best and most effective kind of productivity is obtaining a new cohort of experience, no matter how much each experience is worth. In a completely different city, my surroundings are different and thus, my moments are unique. Thus, they have more meaning and leave me more fulfilled.

Productivity isn’t the most beautiful of words. It sounds too cold, too calculating. But it does matter to us, so let’s talk about it. If there’s anything this post can leave you with, it’s this: productivity is only worthwhile – in its best form – when it offers you something new, in a different and stimulating environment. Keep that in mind, and this summer may be your most productive summer in the best way possible. 🙂

One of the many (random) things I thought about upon disembarking the plane. Note the phrasing!