There are many harmful productivity myths circulating. I have identified five of them below, including the reasons they are harmful, and ways in which they can be reframed or overcome.
Productivity and time-management are buzz words in the business world, and would likely be found on a corporate jargon bingo card (along with ‘collaboration’, ‘impact’ and ‘low-hanging fruit’).
The Oxford Learners Dictionaries (https://oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com) define productivity as:
“The rate at which a worker, a company or a country produces goods, and the amount produced, compared with how much time, work and money is needed to produce them”.
Whilst productivity is an important concept, there is a lot of focus in modern society on the importance of maximising productivity and efficiency. This might make sense for a machine, but in my view it doesn’t work as well when applied to the complexity of individual human beings.
So, on that note, here are the 5 rage-inducing productivity myths which need to be destroyed. Immediately.
MYTH 1: “WE ALL HAVE THE SAME 24 HOURS IN A DAY”
This phrase causes me physical pain. Of course we don’t all have the same twenty-four hours!
If you have children, if you have a day-job, if you have any disabilities or chronic illnesses, if you’re a person of colour, if you don’t have easy access to childcare, if you’re not from a wealthy background… so many factors directly affect the number of hours you have available in the day for pursuits that matter to you (rather than just the ones which are necessary for survival).
I’ve always been interested in productivity and time-management because I’m a conscientious high-achiever. I read every article I can find on the subject, and have attended a number of courses and training sessions, always searching for ‘magic’ solutions to help me achieve everything I want in as little time as possible. A few of the tips I came across genuinely changed my working life and the amount I could get done.
Then I had children.
When I became a parent I quickly realised that most productivity and time-management strategies are as much use as a chocolate stairgate in my situation. Productivity advice is designed for full-time able-bodied corporate individuals without children or other dependents, and whose free time is (mostly) their own.
Yes, I chose to have children, but many people do not choose the situations they find themselves in. And yes, I agree that some productivity advice can be modified to suit individual circumstances. However, people who write their productivity tips assuming the reader has a flexible, uncomplicated schedule, and people who spout the ‘same 24 hours’ mantra, are doing so from a position of privilege.
MYTH 2: “IT IS POSSIBLE TO DO IT ALL, AND IF YOU’RE NOT DOING IT ALL THEN YOU’RE NOT DOING IT RIGHT”
It might appear that others around us are doing and achieving everything. They have brilliant, successful full-time careers; eight perfect, well-behaved children; a large immaculate house; they volunteer in their local community; and are running their own profitable business on the side. Or at least that’s how it seems on their Instagram profile.
We are led to believe that it is possible to have it all and be it all, and if we are not managing to do this then we are failing and not 'doing productivity right'. If only you could manage your time better, if only you could be more productive, then you too would have time for idyllic family picnics and baking projects with your herd of well-groomed youngsters when you get home from your work as a CEO.
I believe this expectation is placed particularly on women. I feel like something went wrong on our journey to equality with men, and instead of having more choice and freedom we just ended up with twice as much to do.
However, I am speaking to everyone when I say this: it is not possible to do it all!
I cannot say there aren’t any unicorns out there who are exactly as described above, but I personally have never met any (and frankly I wouldn’t want to). Even if someone looks like they are living a perfect life, chances are they are not, and/or they have more practical and financial help than you realise.
On my Twitter feed I try to include both the successes and challenges of my life as a parent-entrepreneur, but there are many who curate their social media feeds to only include the ‘highlights’. You don’t get to see the weekend days when that person is too exhausted to do anything more than leave their kids in pyjamas and order them a McDonald’s while they play Xbox. I of course have never done this (cough). You don’t get to see the interior of their house, which looks like Fisher Price, Vtech and Crayola vomited in every room (me again). You don’t get to see the late nights spent trying to catch up on work (both domestic and career) after the kids refused to go to bed on time (yes, also me).
The point is, doing it all is impossible.
You need to focus instead on doing the things that are most important to you. Anything which isn’t in the ‘most important’ category should be done to the bare minimum standard (if at all).
Yes, sometimes I wish I was one of those outdoor Mums taking her kids on daily bike rides and doing craft projects. However, I learned to accept that I am not this Mum. I would rather we all be happy and relaxed than us all be in a bad mood because we haven’t done enough ‘wholesome’ activities.
I would love my house to be immaculate, but ultimately I care more about my writing than about germs. I want the eulogy at my funeral to focus on my beautiful children and my many successful books, not how clean my shower was.
So, ultimately, focus on what matters most TO YOU.
Take a moment to think about your priorities. Write them down if you wish. Then identify which are the MOST IMPORTANT TO YOU. You can pick no more than three. These are the things in your life which should come above all others, and which should be prioritised. Only tackle the others when it is absolutely unavoidable. For example, I accept that I have to clean my bathroom occasionally, but I laugh out loud at those adverts which talk about the ‘weekly clean’. I can live with stray pieces of Duplo in my hallway, as long as my boys are happy and healthy, and as long as I can work on my business and writing (and as long as I don’t step on the Duplo).
MYTH 3: “YOU MUST BE PRODUCTIVE AT ALL TIMES”
Humans (especially those of us at the bottom of the wealth pile, i.e. most of us) are viewed as wealth-generating units feeding those few individuals at the top. In other words, it is no accident we are taught to believe that if we are not spending every moment of our lives working, generating income, and improving our time-management so we can generate more income, then we are worthless failures.
I used to work in a profession with a ridiculous workload which did not respect the health or personal time of its employees. In fact the number of hours worked was almost considered a badge of honour, and it was glaringly obvious if you dared to leave the office ‘on time’. I was younger and more naïve back then, and I didn’t yet have the confidence and self-assurance to push back against this toxic work pattern.
It scrambles my brain how ‘ordinary people’ can glorify capitalism and the linked problem of obscene working hours. Unfortunately, none of us can single-handedly change the system, but by recognising and being aware of the problem we can take small steps to reduce the impact of this problem in our lives.
Not only is rest and self-care necessary, it actually increases productivity overall, and helps us stay healthy in mind and body.
As a parent, rest and self-care are even more difficult to come by. However they are still essential and should be treated as such. Society likes to trick parents (especially mothers) into thinking that food, sleep or a shower count as self-care.
Activities which are the bare minimum required for biological survival ARE NOT SELF-CARE. Please please please look after yourself and make time for yourself. You will be no good to anyone – especially yourself – if you burn out.
We all need to rest, to think, and to reflect. We all need time for activities which bring us joy. We do not have to spend every waking moment working our arses off and wrecking our physical and mental health so the fat cats at the top can make a few more quid. If you are working your arse off, at least make sure you’re doing it for you – for something you enjoy and are passionate about.
MYTH 4: “IF SOMETHING DERAILS YOUR DAY THEN YOU’RE A FAILURE”
I need to get better at dealing with this myself!
For example, as a parent:
· The hours are brutal (i.e. 24/7).
· You don’t get paid.
· There are no holidays.
· There are no sick days.
· The bosses are cute but they’re demanding and temperamental. They expect to be fed, cleaned and entertained at all times. But don’t let them get tired. Or over-excited. Or (more frequently) both.
· And don’t forget the constant interruptions, demands for snacks, and Minecraft monologues.
There’s the sleep deprivation. There’s the time deprivation. There’s the energy deprivation. All the deprivations.
Your small amount of free time is swallowed by basic survival activities (eating, sleeping, showering etc) and life admin (cleaning, running a household etc).
Having germ-riddled, accident-prone, unpredictable children in your life means there are so many opportunities for something to T-bone your day. If your kid sleeps badly then so will you, and there’s nothing you can do about it (other than pour yourself a gin and swear continuously under your breath). If your kid is ill (which, let’s face it, is every week) then forget getting anything done! Even if you send a healthy child to school or childcare there’s a reasonable chance you will get the dreaded phonecall about a head injury and spend the rest of the day in Accident and Emergency. I speak from experience.
And this was before the COVID-19 pandemic!
When you add the last two years to the mix, which (for many reasons) has been one of the hardest, most exhausting times of my life, I’m amazed I’m still (somewhat) functional.
So many of us waste our time and energy worrying about things that are mostly or entirely outside our control. My advice? Accept that, even with the best intentions and the best productivity strategies in place, sometimes turd-storms happen (whether figurative or literal) and there’s nothing you can do about it. Accept the chaos and do the best you can, adjust your goals if you need to, and be kind to yourself if everything goes belly-up.
MYTH 5: “CHILDCARE IS NOT PRODUCTIVE”
This one is specific to parents and care-givers.
Of course, because childcare is traditionally viewed as ‘women’s work’, it is systematically devalued in society. In the UK there is no financial incentive to stay at home and raise your children (unless you count avoiding the ridiculous cost of formal childcare, which often negates one parent’s salary anyway). People are only perceived to be ‘contributing’ to society if they are ‘working’, even though being a stay-at-home parent is one of the most difficult (and under-appreciated) roles in the world! I have done days of non-stop work and days of non-stop childcare, and I know which type leaves me more shattered and drained than the other.
No matter what your gender identity is, looking after your children and being present and engaged in your family life is not ‘being unproductive’. You are raising the next generation of humans, humans who will hopefully be kind, happy, well-adjusted individuals because of the love, care and attention you gave them throughout their lives.
Whether you work full-time, part-time, or are a stay-at-home parent, you are contributing to your family’s happiness and wellbeing, and the time you spend with your family is precious (not ‘unproductive’!)
This myth also applies if you are looking after older relatives, which again often falls on the shoulders of women, and again is not properly rewarded or appreciated.
BEFORE YOU GO…
Are there any other productivity myths which should be obliterated right away? Please join in the discussion (contact details below).
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