The False Promises Of Being More Productive

I spent the daytime during the summer of 2009 at an unpaid internship at a literary magazine, and I spent the nighttime, paid, behind the counter of the gelato stand at the Times Square location of Madame Tussauds wax museum. I was happy to have this job. The Great Recession gripped New York so tightly that all talk of “selling out” had been put on indefinite hold. There was no longer any shame in applying to work at McDonald’s or McKinsey among my friends who had, as recently as the previous summer, disavowed anything that didn’t come with an intellectual or moral gold star. Whatever you could get was fine. What I could get was the wax museum.

The job was easy, if physically exhausting. I wore an all-black outfit and scooped gelato for tourists who seemed to come exclusively from Indonesia or New Jersey. Snickers Bar was the most popular flavor. Everyone who worked there was striving to do something else—usually acting. I was the only one who wanted to be an editor, which set me apart from my coworkers mainly for my comparative lack of charisma. They wore newsboy caps and always seemed to be inviting each other to see LCD Soundsystem for free in Central Park.

Management kept the lobby pretty sparse as far as the actual product went. Michael Jackson died that summer, so they moved his wax figure to the hero spot outside the gelato stand, and the Incredible Hulk loomed over the lobby, but other than that, you had to pay to play. The museum’s curators cultivated a sense of scarcity that was in keeping with how it felt to be a twenty-one-year-old working person at the time. The economy had contracted, and with it, the budget to hire anyone my age. Everyone in my life had an internship that was off the books. We did countless hours in unpaid “trial shifts” for restaurants that never called us back. The subway was full of ads for off-brand-seeming medical schools in the Caribbean and fortune tellers. Everything available seemed like a compromise.

I understood, theoretically, that the world was contracting and that it was imperative to do more with less. To make myself indispensable. But in my actual life, no one was asking me to be more productive. No one was really asking me to do anything. Sure, I was working fifteen hours a day, but I felt underemployed.

At my internship, doing any work felt like an occasion. One night my soft-spoken boss, who once confessed that her tooth had a hole in it from neglect, sent me home with a manuscript. It was a delight to sit at the kitchen table in my sublet with a glass of red wine, pretending to be an editor. I wished to do it forever. I couldn’t understand people who complained about being overworked, who took Adderall they didn’t need and always seemed to be vibrating. How could they have so much to do? I could only dream of a life in which I had too much work and not enough time to do it. That would be a sure signal I was believed in, trusted, and even loved.

This way of thinking is now unrecognizable to me.

The transformation was gradual. I crawled my way out of tenuous employment when I got a paid job as an assistant at a fancy magazine. The markers of legitimacy were everywhere there: an ID card with my face on it, emails about KPIs. My colleagues drank ice water in enormous quantities and everyone had phone voice. The artlessness of my job didn’t matter to me because it was so obviously a real job.

It would be years before I started producing anything. For an embarrassingly long time, my work was work about work: emails about emails, plans about plans. My emails took on a cheerful tone of admonishment that my coworkers must have hated. I always seemed to be “just checking in” about when a very difficult-to-complete project (to which I was contributing absolutely nothing) would be ready. My own productivity was not something I worried about ever.

Around this time an efficiency manual called The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9–5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich was all the rage. The magazine was profiling Tim Ferriss, its author, and although the profile was arch and as skeptical as a profile of a productivity guru could possibly be, that the story had been assigned at all confounded me. Still romanced by the legitimacy of having a 9-to-5, and largely unbothered by the difficulty of my job, I couldn’t imagine wanting to escape it. Not that joining the new rich didn’t sound appealing, but four hours wasn’t nearly enough hours to prove I mattered. If anything, I wanted more work. I was sure that this was a book for the desperate.

Over the decade that followed, I joined the desperate. How’d that happen? I’ll make it quick: I made a wish on a monkey’s paw for more and better work and some capitalist fairy godmother granted it to me. With it came a new problem: Showing up wouldn’t cut it anymore. I would have to be productive.

Folk wisdom in a place I’ve come to think of as Productivity World holds that Benjamin Franklin was a big user of to-do lists. (Of course he was. Can you think of anything more Benjamin Franklin-y than a to-do list?) The Atlantic’s Amanda Mull recommended this same “productivity hack” in 2023. Tim Ferriss’s four-hour workweek is only an eleven-hour improvement over John Maynard Keynes’s fifteen-hour one. In other words, productivity is a long-standing obsession.

The industrial revolution changed the way workers’ lives were organized from the farm to the factory. Clocks began to matter. Hours began to matter. The question of productivity changed from something workers could answer with the incontestable feelings in their bodies—Am I producing enough food on this farm to fill my stomach?—to something that someone else had to answer for them. Suddenly, there was no way to know if you were good enough without the boss telling you so. Karl Marx noticed that this made workers feel estranged from their labor, which was a big enough problem that it turned a third of the globe into communists.

a turtle with a sword on top of it

Jamie Chung

This side of the Atlantic had a different takeaway. We loved it. Henry Ford invented the conveyor-belt assembly line. The consulting firm McKinsey invented itself, then helped introduce the barcode to label all those products we were suddenly pumping out. Jack Welch popularized mass layoffs. Then McKinsey and its fellow management consulting firms helped lots of other companies embrace layoffs. In the eighties, actual productivity took a back seat to sending faxes and yelling on landlines, but by 2001 the Toyota Way had swept the globe.

More recently, Silicon Valley has made a near religion of separating the act of working from the product by proclaiming from every mountaintop that it doesn’t matter where or how you work, so long as you get it done. If you can’t hack it, there’s one to blame but yourself. Thus the recent gusher of books with prescriptions for maximizing our own mojo. But the quants were worried. Productivity had been flat for a decade. Perhaps we’d done it: We’d produced all we could. Had we lost the ability to wring any more efficiency out of ourselves? Would it take an act of God to make us make more stuff? In March of 2020, we got one.

In the pre-vaccine days, when many companies sent their knowledge workers, including me, home from the office indefinitely, the act of working took on a significance it hadn’t had in years. The first days and weeks were a performance the same way an entry-level job is. Here is my desk where I will type. This is how I will dress. This is my lunch on a plate. To have these things nailed down was, at first, enough. The main project was staying alive, and if your boss didn’t get that, he was a monster. But soon enough, the only thing that mattered was what you produced. Without meetings to masquerade as work, knowledge workers were just left with the work. How much of it you turned in was not a casual thing. It was the only proof you were employed. On many days, it was the only proof you were even alive.

During this time, the writer Jenny Odell went to work on her excellent book Saving Time: Discovering a Life Beyond the Clock. In it she briefly recalls a controversy that bedeviled the Italian physics community in 1998. The scientists’ employers required that they clock in and clock out of work, which they found insulting. The aim of the policy was to increase productivity, but there was more to it than that: Fans of the policy, in Odell’s view, possessed an unspoken belief that working is “a package deal including not only work but also life minutes, bodily presence, and humiliation.”

By the summer of 2020, at the very least those last two were no longer a part of working life for a bunch of people. Economists thrilled to discover that this worked wonders. We were lucky to be staying home and working from there, and a lot of people loved it. I loved not getting Covid, but I didn’t like being at home all the time. Without getting points for bodily presence, all that was left were widgets to be produced. Life was completely textureless. I moved my desk so it faced a window. I watched my neighbor walk her dog Javier while she smoked and talked to her mom on the phone. “Javie,” she’d say with exasperation between puffs, “don’t sniff that.” I craned my neck over the sill to see what Javie was sniffing.

At the end of each day there was nothing but the widget count to tell me if I mattered. In my silent apartment, a sense that I wasn’t producing enough began to wrap itself around me like a python. I wasn’t the only one. The Internet had plenty of ideas. Articles with titles like “15 Effective Strategies for Increasing Productivity Without Adding Stress,” “What Super Productive People Do Differently,” and “Covid-19 Got You and Your Productivity Down?” were no help. The group chats were full of questions. We all seemed to need both reassurance and tough love:

“Anyone else being so unproductive today?”

“I’m not ignoring you, I just have to finish this project or I will die.”

“I have done literally nothing, kill me.”

“Today was such a waste of time lmao.”

I didn’t realize that the python hadn’t even begun to squeeze. Time was the problem, I assumed: There was enough of it; I just wasn’t using it right. Or maybe the problem was my attention span. I couldn’t focus. Luckily, there were products for this. First, I tried blue-light-filtering glasses. Then I bought a kitchen timer shaped like a tomato and became devoted to the Pomodoro technique, an Italian idea wherein you spend twenty-five minutes working, then five minutes taking a break; repeat until the day is over. (Italians: very worried about productivity.) I made lists, I took long walks, I meditated, I locked my phone in Tupperware with a clock that counted down until it would be free. It did not escape me how similar this gadget was to a time bomb.

I had no idea what it even meant to produce enough work. Exactly how much was enough? In pursuit of answers, I polled friends: How many hours do you spend per day working? Fruitless. (“A million.” “Ugh, like zero.”) I started reading a column in New York mag’s The Cut called “How I Get It Done.” Everyone interviewed seemed to know exactly how much “enough” was, and none struggled to achieve it. I’d been mesmerized by the column ever since a CEO told the column’s writer: “I don’t take breaks.” This same person claimed to have sixty categories for emails and a color-coded system for arranging them. She was so productive, though I had no idea what she was producing.

Books have solved many previous problems for me, so I thought I’d give that a try. There were so many options, all with similar-sounding titles. There were the pithy philosophies, of course: Hyperfocus; Deep Work; Work Less, Do More; Extreme Productivity; Slow Productivity; Productivity Ninja.

If I was more of a numbers person, that was available, too, with: The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People; The Twelve Monotasks; The 4 Disciplines of Execution; Four Thousand Weeks.


Or if I was more of a tough-love type, there was the declarative: Think Faster, Talk Smarter; Smarter Faster Better; Do Hard Things; Win the Day; Eat That Frog!; Don’t Waste Your Life.

I picked Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals because just looking at all these titles made me feel like a mortal. The book, by Oliver Burkeman, starts with the conceit that “assuming you live to be eighty, you’ll have had about four thousand weeks” on planet earth. A breath later, Burkeman points out that 310,000 weeks is “the approximate duration of all human civilization since the ancient Sumerians of Mesopotamia.”

You’re supposed to read this and recognize how limited that duration is and feel moved to pursue time management with the verve of a zealot. It had its intended effect on me. “The world is bursting with wonder,” he writes, and we’re all missing it because we’re listening to productivity gurus like him, living “mentally in the future, waiting for when we’ll finally get around to what really matters.”

Seen from this angle, no wonder productivity had become something to worship and to fear on the magnitude of a god. Its successful practice was no less grand than the meaning of life itself.

Then we went back to the office. Some people were angry about this change. The main defense of ongoing work from home went something like this: I’m more productive there. Showing up to an office was deemed bullshit that only middle managers enjoyed. That only those who didn’t produce anything real wanted. Debate over the value of showing up to work in the bodily sense was kosher and even the sign of someone who cared truly about the mission—but any debate over the value of work itself was absolutely not. The one thing both management and labor could agree on was that productivity was an unalloyed, even moral good.

There were dissenters. Some pursued quiet quitting, in which, as a TikToker who made the term famous put it, “You’re quitting the idea of going above and beyond.” People named Gabe rented vans and moved to Moab on a permanent basis. Others retired early to live among chickens. There was talk of the virtue of punching in and punching out, with an emphasis on the latter. But to me, people who were doing the bare minimum seemed no different from those doing the maximum in that both of them were apparently able to answer that which I could not: How much are you supposed to produce in order to become worthy?

And worthy of what exactly? Holding down a job is the easy answer. That’s where the productivity anxiety comes from at its base level. A writer I like tweeted something that amounted to “If I hear another member of the ‘creative class’ bitch about their work-related anxiety, I’m gonna lose it! Get a real problem!” But this was a real problem: Don’t assemble enough and you’re booted from the assembly line. Get booted from the assembly line and get booted from your health insurance. So much for the health you guarded so carefully from your desk, producing furiously as you sheltered in place, pausing only to watch Javier take his anxious little poops. So much for your life.

I wrote on a Post-it note: Everyone is worried about losing our jobs. Everyone is worried that without them we will die. On a somatic level, many, many people experience this as a matter of life and death.“Many people” was me. I lost the Post-it note. I felt a muscular, rushing fear every time I sat down to work that when I stood back up again, I would have produced too little.

“In ‘Rumpelstiltskin,’ if the poor miller’s daughter spins larger and larger rooms full of straw into gold she will become queen. If not, she will die,” wrote Sabrina Orah Mark in The Paris Review during the early pandemic. It had been a decade since that night in my kitchen when I luxuriated in the first sips of what I’d come to know as knowledge work. Back then I was certain I could spin the manuscript into gold if given the chance. I don’t know if it occurred to me that I might one day be queen, but I certainly never imagined that spinning too slowly could kill me.

I had anticipated that when my coworkers and I gathered again, we would return to the feeling that gathering was work. But in the time since we’d last seen each other, showing up had not just lost its value as work but had become passé, even politically incorrect. We’re more productive at home than at work, remember? My days ended at a different desk now, but still, the only thing that mattered was the widget count.

There was confusion. Our numbers were down. In October 2022, the economist Diego Comin told The Washington Post, “It is strange. The data is very odd these past couple of quarters in so many different ways. It’s hard to even tell a coherent story.” AI confused us further. Perhaps it could make us more productive. (That we are willing to risk existential annihilation for this objective should tell us all we need to know about how much we love productivity.) But most of us weren’t really sure how. Or was the problem a lack of passion? In The New Yorker, a coder told a little story about how productive he was while using GPT-4 to help him with a task, but he realized that the task felt empty, that, with AI’s help, “I could be infinitely productive, and all I’d have to show for it would be the products themselves.”

I asked a chatbot to do work for me, too. Can you read all the emails in my in-box and tell me which pitches I should accept? No, it couldn’t. Can you write an email to reject this pitch? Not with any heart. Can you write an email to my landlord? Yes. On social media there was a kerfuffle: Someone wanted to know why a magazine was using AI to write an article recommending the year’s best films. To me the article just sounded like the frantic yet apathetic writing of someone whose to-do list had gotten out of control. But basically, the coder was right: It was sort of joyless not to do the work, something Albert Camus could have told us eighty years before the release of GPT-4.

I began to miss the joy not of performing the work but of actually pushing the rock up the hill. What I didn’t know when I entered the world of work was that there’s a term for the thing I was enjoying. It’s called a “flow state.” It’s when you’re really cooking on something and the world outside the task at hand fades away. It’s the opposite of running on adrenaline. The feeling is weightless, the feeling is good. When you feel it, it’s almost intoxicating, but there is no hangover beyond a faraway expression that stays for a few hours after the untrammeled hours of work are over.

If I could not just produce but experience joy in the production, then that would solve every one of my problems, every one of my employer’s problems, and probably all of society’s. The pursuit of focus became my only goal. For a long time, I thought I was the only one who felt this way. (Such is the narcissism of fear, I guess.) But then I started to see not productivity but focus as the goal, and I started to see it everywhere.

Recently on his podcast, Ezra Klein interviewed a “scholar of attention” who could offer some guidance for those of us who were “tired,” “distracted,” or “burned-out.” Nothing in life could be more important than attention. It took me four commutes to get through the hour-long program, and I remained as tired, distracted, and burned-out as ever afterward. I found his guest’s suggestion (avoid your email, basically) to be impossible. In The New Yorker, productivity expert Cal Newport described the problem better than I’d yet heard it—“[employers] demand, in some ill-defined yet urgent sense, that you’re responsive and get things done”—and suggested that we all try something he calls “slow productivity.” I imagined the look on my boss’s face when I told him I would be attempting slow productivity this year and thought better of it.

I was, at least, convinced of these gurus’ goal: focus. I was not the only one. At a party, a man who was quite clearly on cocaine told my boss that he had finally figured out how to focus: Just read Johann Hari’s Stolen Focus, he implored. It would change his life; it would change everything. I did and it changed nothing. Hari’s beef was with his phone; I already hated my phone. A coworker spoke in hushed tones about nootropics. A friend offered me Adderall, promising that more people used it than I thought. Many days of the week, I pulled up a Spotify playlist full of songs called things like “Extension” and “Atmosphere.”

The main question of my day, every day, was: How can I get myself into a flow state? I would sometimes overshoot the mark and get myself flowing on flow itself, leaving not much for the actual work. On Newport’s advice in Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, I planned out every minute of my day on a sheet of graph paper, dividing the day into optimistically labeled chunks. The joy I felt when I could actually produce was overwhelming yet relaxing. I felt like a hybrid vehicle at a stop sign: silent, sustainable, efficient, morally correct. But I despaired when, instead of using the designated hours for “deep work,” I used them to look at photos of my dog on my phone from when she was a puppy or write an email about a contract. I felt like a third grader telling the teacher his favorite subject was recess when I filled in “lunch!” at 12:30.

Part of the Newport formula involves giving yourself real breaks, so I strove to do that. There’s something Catholic about the endeavor, too: You’re allowed to forgive yourself for your productivity failures. So I’d lie there in bed at 1:00 a.m., a photo of my dog in 2017 panting at me optimistically from my phone, and think to myself: It’s okay, you’re just a regular person, not a machine.

Without exactly realizing I’d done so, I’d absorbed this type of mantra from a class of books that’s either a companion or competitor—depending on how you see the world—to the kind that was absorbing me: the Stop Trying to Be Productive Because the Entire Errand Is Suspect books. They’re always telling you to meditate for the love of meditation, not so you can do more work. It’s nice. The message of these books appealed to me in how quick it was to let me off the hook. The world is an unfair place, they said, and to lie down and stop producing is a sacred act. The world must change if it demands this level of productivity. I read these books and nodded along, electric with the hum of a revolution I could participate in from bed. But then I remembered that, crushingly, the world is where I live.

Why was it that all these books and methods that were supposed to change my life hadn’t done so? The only time any self-help didn’t spirit itself away the minute I closed the book was when it had to do with, well, the spirit. How it felt to really be humming, or how it felt to flail, fail, and fear. In On Writing, Stephen King confesses the following:

In the spring and summer of 1986 I wrote The Tommyknockers, often working until midnight with my heart running at a hundred and thirty beats a minute and cotton swabs stuck up my nose to stem the coke-induced bleeding.

He means this as a cautionary tale, but it was impossible for me not to detect the euphoria folded into it. (Also, how quaint to imply that midnight is an ungodly hour!) King, at the time, was writing from a place of abject economic terror, and it struck me as equal parts optimistic and sad that he could turn to drugs to enable his productivity. On Writing is a book I’ve read a couple times, and I happened to return to it during a season of white-collar layoffs that didn’t spare Esquire. The chief content officer of Condé Nast, Anna Wintour, had reportedly broken the news of layoffs at her company with her sunglasses on. Fear was everywhere, but you couldn’t talk about it because talking about it implied you had a reason to fear: Maybe you weren’t productive enough. Maybe they were right to let you go, a phrase that promised both freedom and alienation.

People in khakis told us to make ourselves indispensable. Produce more. Produce better. I hadn’t heard that advice without irony since I worked at the wax museum. The joy I’d felt at the idea of production being its own reward suddenly felt puritanical.

This is why I liked reading about Stephen King’s coke addiction so much. At least he admitted what it took, and it wasn’t a color-coded email system. Months of plotting out my day on graph paper and locking my phone in jail every morning from 5:00 a.m. to 7:00 a.m. was sapping my will to live, and here he was telling me there wasn’t just a shortcut to that flow state I’d been chasing but a way to pump up its volume and turn down the lights. If rest was impossible (in this economy?!), hey, at least I could go to the club without leaving my desk.

This is not the part where I buy a bag of coke and write Carrie. If you haven’t finished On Writing, let me tell you: Any joy King got from the drug didn’t last, and I’m not enough of a fool to think I’d be any different. What I did instead was this: I went back to Madame Tussauds.

It briefly crossed my mind that I might need to buy a ticket in advance, but no, the day was dry and cold, a weekday in January before noon, and I seemed to be one of the only people there who wasn’t an employee. I don’t know what I expected to find there. Maybe one of my old coworkers, suspended in time behind the gelato stand. “Wow,” he’d say, “you did it! You made your dreams come true and I’m still stuck at this gelato stand!”

But the gelato stand was gone. I asked the woman who sold me the ticket when it had closed. “Oh, I don’t know,” she said. “It’s never been here as long as I’ve worked here.” How long had she worked there? “Forever,” she said. “Like, two years.” She had glittery makeup on her cheeks. To my astonishment, the whole place was as sparkly as it had been fifteen years ago.

The wax museum is as good a photonegative of the Covid work-from-home experience as you can find anywhere in that you’re allowed to get physically very close to people who look a lot like people but aren’t. Uncanny is among the first words most visitors use to describe the place. But despite being a former employee, I can tell you with no bias that the product is good. It’s in the eyes. They’re—I’m sorry to use this word—focused. It’s fleeting, it’s bloodless, it’s inhuman, but focus is what it is.

There is no strict organizational method to the exhibition. When I visited, Donald Trump stood beside the Obamas at the White House podium. Taylor Swift graduated from NYU in the lobby. My old friend Michael Jackson, evidently moved back since the summer he died, shared the stage with himself in a different costume.

The better the product, the worse the feeling it inspired in me. I stared for a long time at Maya Angelou, adrenaline rising. In a ballroom where they piped in the sound of a crowd cheering, Anna Wintour sat on the edge of a fountain, glasses still on. She was there, I was convinced, to lay me off.

I stumbled out of the darkness of the house of horrors into a hallway lit like the midway at a carnival. Behind a simulacrum of a concession stand was a human woman. She was selling wax molds of visitors’ hands. She was alone, working on a pair of wax hands in the shape of a heart. They were bright pink. I blurted out, “Do you like working here? Do you like making these things?”

“I love it,” she said. I believed her.

“How many of these do you have to make an hour?”

She said, “However many people want.”

She was so unbothered by the imprecision of that number. However many people want. I’d spent a decade wondering how many of the things I made for a living people would want, secure only in the knowledge that whatever I came up with would be inadequate. No matter how many books, articles, Tweets, and TikToks I’d gobbled up, it had apparently eluded me that no one was ever going to say I’d produced enough. However many people want would be the answer forever. How many of these things we produce is not productivity. How you spend your life is. To flow steadily from one bucket of wax to another and lose count of the wax hands was the only way to live. I stood watching her peel back the plastic that surrounded the wax. She spoke softly to herself, with great affection, either for herself or for her work, or both. I stayed as long as I could, until I had to get back to being productive.

Prop styling by Brian Byrne.

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