Seven years ago, Alex Soojung-Kim Pang was a typical overworked, multitasking, slave to the hyperactive hive mind, Silicon Valley consultant. Feeling the symptoms of burnout intensify, he arranged a three-month sabbatical at Microsoft Research Cambridge. Here’s how he later described this period:
“I got an enormous amount of stuff done and did an awful lot of really serious thinking, which was a great luxury, but I also had what felt like an amazingly leisurely life. I didn’t feel the constant pressure to look busy or the stress that I had when I was consulting. And it made me think that maybe we had this idea about the relationship between working hours and productivity backward. And [we should] make more time in our lives for leisure in the classic Greek sense.”
The experience led him to ultimately publish a book titled, Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less. I remember this book because it came out the same year as Deep Work, and the two volumes were often paired as variations on a common emerging anti-busyness theme.
In the half-decade that has since transpired, an increasing number of new books have taken aim at our accelerating slide toward overload in both our work and our personal lives. Many of these new titles, somewhat in contrast to my writing, or that of Pang, have adopted a more strident and polemical tone — not only underscoring the issues, but also pointing a defiant finger at the forces which are supposedly to blame. Clearly the overwhelmed and overscheduled manner in which we currently operate isn’t working.
Which brings me to a question that more and more has been capturing my attention: What can we do about this unfortunate state of affairs?
It’s here that the insightful work that has probed this question in recent years falls somewhat short of sparking major change. The genre is currently dominated by economic materialist arguments: We work too much because of exploitive capitalist imperatives, and then overload our personal lives because we’ve internalized these narratives.
There is, of course, a subversive, trapdoor energy in this materialism that’s not entirely misguided: there are many areas in which a constant scrutiny of labor relations is warranted, and the allure of consumerist affluence is far from benign. But a pure materialist interpretation of overload culture severely limits our responses, leaving us, if you’ll excuse some mild facetiousness, with only the option to occasionally engage in non-instrumental activities as an act of resistance while waiting for others to overthrow the capitalist market economy.
I believe we can do more right now.
My thinking in this area is still half-formed, but I’ve become increasingly convinced that what this conversation needs are alternative definitions of “productivity”; definitions that believably deliver on the promises of profitable value generation in businesses and resilient satisfaction in our personal lives, while rendering the excesses of overload culture as unnecessary at best, and profoundly harmful at worse.
In my research on such matters, I’ve come to learn that a lot about how we work and live right now is more ungrounded and arbitrary than many might assume, driven more by a novel mix of autonomy and ambiguity than deterministic dynamics of exploitation. We may need a slow productivity revolution more than we need an economic revolution.
I don’t know exactly what these new definitions of productivity might look like, but we can certainly do better than our current haphazard approaches, in which work descends into performative busyness on Slack, and our personal lives are digested into air-brushed social media moments. The human attraction toward some notion of productivity isn’t the problem. The real issue is neglecting to figure out what specific notions actually make sense for our current moment.