I work both as a faculty person at a university and a clinical family nurse practitioner. This means some days, I have a butt-in-seat job where my presence is required in a certain place— to give healthcare or facilitate a class— and sometimes, my work is self-directed and self-paced. It’s relatively easy to balance the expectations for the in-seat stuff– show up, do the work, go home. For the self-directed part, though, it’s harder. How much work is enough work? What timeline is needed for completing a project? When is it reasonable to stop? Is this work the most important thing I need to do now? What am I giving up to do this work? Who is this work for? And what do I need to be my best at it?
This is always a tension around these demands, but in this work-from-home era, it’s even harder to find the boundaries. The normal structures of a day seem to fall away. Sure, I could answer emails now, or look for new grants to apply for, or do some focused work on a long-term project I’m part of. But is that what I would best spend my time on now? Maybe I’d rather do a yoga practice, go for a run, read, or walk the dog with my partner. Maybe it’s actually time to make dinner. Hell, maybe I want a nap! These aren’t “productive”— I’m not creating an output that has tangible value– but it is important to my happiness and my overall ability to function well. It’s hard to see sometimes, but “productive” isn’t the only thing that matters.
There’s so much pressure around productivity, but this reflects a certain set of values, and that set of values is grounded in capitalism, not in human connection, community, love, pleasure, or justice. We constantly get the message that productivity should be maxed out— the more the better. Make visible progress on specific things with specific value. We’re trained to put an employer’s needs and demands first, but they often don’t return the favor. This can be subtle— we’ll hear talk about balance and breaks, but we don’t really get to enact this without consequences. Productivity still rules, and it’s so culturally entrenched that we just see it as normal.
My annual evaluation at work is called a “faculty productivity report”. There are endless posts and stories touting “productivity hacks”. Sure, some metrics and habits can be useful in helping us to achieve things that are meaningful. But they can also trick us into spending time and energy on things that don’t really matter. The key question is: What’s important for me, given my values and my needs, including but not limited to my job? Is the thing I’m feeling productivity pressure for important according to me? Or is it to serve someone else— or a corporation or organization I don’t feel aligned with? Am I sacrificing something I value when I don’t need to?
Ultimately, it’s up to us to align our actions with our values. If we let someone else (or, especially dangerously, a profit-driven corporation) pressure us, our actions will reflect their priorities, not ours. The hardest part of this is identifying and elevating our own values. This isn’t easy, since there are so many voices talking at us with capitalist, sexist, racist, oppressive agendas. But we should try!