When Productivity Tips are Bullshit

The famous Cal Newport was interviewed for this great productivity article that made my facebook rounds:
“How to be the most productive person in your office – and still get home by 5:30 pm.”

His tips are familiar to anyone who has been reading up on productivity or self improvement or time management, or any of those related fields. In short, he advises

1. Schedule a time in your calendar for all to-do tasks.
Meaning, don’t just make a To-Do list without any realistic sense of how long each task will take.
2. Plan your day backwards, starting from your “End” time.
3. Make the plan for the week, not just the day.
4. Excel at a few things. Don’t try to do too much.
5. Prioritize deep, heavy work. Cut out light, busy work.

It is hard to ignore these great tips, especially when we read about Cal Newport’s incredible success as a scholar.  But it doesn’t quite work for me. I’ve been trying to articulate why and try to tweak his suggestions for my own life…but I just keep feeling angrier and angrier.

Right now, the only reliable time chunk I have for myself is between 7:30 pm-9:30 pm. Why? Because this is after my 8 month old child goes to bed and before I collapse in a drooling heap for about 3 hours (because baby wakes up around midnight crying…then he might wake up 2-3 more times before we start the day at 6am). Those 2 hours a day come when I am almost already spent, utterly exhausted, so they are not productive whatsoever. I have been living like this for close to 9 months now. It is unimaginable. Reading about how tough the first year of a baby’s life is just does not compare to experiencing it, day to day, with no break ever.

But exhaustion isn’t why I haven’t blogged in months. When reading tips from the usual crowd of “gurus,” nothing applies anymore. They are great tips, sure. But, they are written for a certain imagined worker, maybe who has a white collar office job in a private office and only his own unfolding to be concerned about. Or someone with a stay at home spouse /nanny/daycare/etc to raise whatever children he has perhaps. And this makes sense because our society similarly lauds those who work hard with no other “distraction” to interfere. Why else do all the major Silicon Valley companies invest in massive life-managed parks for their employees to work at? Why else are women still at a disadvantage in almost all competitive professional circles? Why else does the image of “Mother” feel so pejorative, nonintellectual, and pettily unambitious — as in “Soccer Mom,” “Mommy blogger,” etc?

My new life is so much harder, so much fuller, so much more variable, and so much more uncertain than anyone could have predicted. But I’ve still tossed my hat into the ring and am fighting for a career, for peace of mind, for an enriched and fulfilling life.

I am angry because all of this just sounds like “excuses” for those who just cannot relate. My advisors, who are childless like the vast majority of academics? My peers, aping their superiors, viscerally recoil from the very heteronormative notion of children? A peer honestly asked me why I couldn’t just lock my baby in a soundproof room for a few hours so I could work on my dissertation. Yet outside of academia, it is as though people expected me to focus entirely on a very limited image of motherhood where life goals and “enrichment” boiled down to “Getting my pre-baby body back.” Parenting magazines with their cheery time-saving tips mostly act as though your primary objective for the day is making dinner, cleaning the house, and driving children to music lessons.

I am angry because I suddenly found myself right smack dab in that cheesy, over-wrought debate over women who “want it all” and realizing how insulting, limited, and unhelpful the discourse is.

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