Skip to main content
Productivity porn is here to tell you how to fill your lonely, indoor, socially distanced hours.

I Am So Over Productivity Porn

As I write this, it’s six o’clock on a Saturday morning. I’ve been up since five. This isn’t normal for me. Normally, I sleep in till the decadent hours of seven or eight on weekends. (Ya jelly?)

Not today. Today I found my eyes springing open from dreams about wasting time and all the things I should be doing to… waking thoughts about wasting time and all the things I should be doing. So I got up. Because working on my goals is far more productive and important than sleeping, right?

Recently—actually, let’s be real—years ago I internalized the message, seared into me from intellectually stimulating op-eds, social media, self-improvement gurus, and our culture at large, that I could be “more productive.” As a result, I hate wasting time. I despise goal-lessness. Every year I brazenly make a New Year’s Resolution to better myself and the world around me and by god I get that shit done. I rarely spend a weekend sans plans and a rigid to-do list.

Dale Carnegie wishes he were me!

I’m bitch enough to admit this isn’t healthy. I can’t take a break from working without seeing the window trim I need to refinish or the herbs I need to dry or the hangboard where I should be doing pull-ups. And I can’t pursue those personal goals without thinking of the work I need to do, the money I need to make. I can’t even be lazy without being bombarded by evidence of how productive and accomplished my friends and idols are through their carefully curated social media.

I could be so much more productive! I should be so much more productive. Sleep? Relaxation? These look more and more like indulgent wastes of time.

Recently it’s only gotten worse. And I know, with damning clarity, that I am not alone.

Guys… I am so over productivity porn.

The coronavirus extra time paradox

At this point in 2020, most of us have been sheltering at home for approximately 7,000 months or more. If you can work from home, you’re working from home. If you can’t, you’re out of a job (or you’re still forced to work despite the risk because—contrary to your miserable wage—you’re an “essential worker,” baby). Concerts, sportsball games, parties—all canceled for the foreseeable future. Restaurants, bars, museums, libraries, gyms, shopping centers—closed for the duration (mostly).

Roughly three quarters of the social or leisurely things we do on a regular basis are now undoable. So what’s a girl to do, trapped at home all by herself with nothing but time on her hands?

TIME TO GET V-LINE ABS/LEARN TO BAKE SOURDOUGH BREAD/TAKE UP QUILTING/GET FLUENT IN MANDARIN/WRITE A NOVEL/INVENT A CURE FOR CANCER/SOLVE GLOBAL WARMING/TAKE UP GARDENING/CLEAN THE BASEBOARDS/RETILE THE KITCHEN/CLEAN OUT THE CLOSET/FINALLY LEARN TO PLAY THE CELLO BECAUSE THIS IS YOUR GODDAMN MOMENT.

YOU’RE NEVER GOING TO HAVE THIS MUCH FREE TIME AGAIN!

WHAT’S HOLDING YOU BACK? LITERALLY NOTHING BUT YOUR OWN LAZINESS AND INCOMPETENCE, YOU SLOTHFUL WASTE OF OXYGEN. THE ELECTRICITY CREATED BY THE SYNAPSES FIRING IN YOUR BRAIN COULD BE BETTER USED TO POWER A WATER PURIFICATION SYSTEM.

THESE CURTAINS AREN’T GOING TO HEM THEMSELVES, SO GET OFF YOUR ASS AND START BRINING THE DOUGH FOR TOMORROW’S FOCACCIA.

BE PRODUCTIVE! B-E PRODUCTIVE!

Productivity porn—those opinion pieces, self-help media, and curated content from social media influencers that gleefully remind you of all you could be using your Plague Times isolation to do—has always been ubiquitous on the internet. But now it has reached a fever pitch. And while it was especially bad earlier in the pandemic as we all searched for a distraction from our depressing situation, if anything it’s now simply become normalized.

The theory behind this glut of productivity porn in the middle of a global pandemic is sound: we’ve lost so many options for filling time in fun and social ways, so why not fill that newfound time with other, more productive things? And if you’ve lost your job, even better! Now you have time to start that business you’ve always wanted to build, or make your side hustle your main hustle, or [insert ambitious, time-consuming project here].

I’ll admit: it’s certainly more appealing than wallowing in self-pity and depression. Even though we don’t technically have more time right now. We have the same amount of time. We just can’t do all the things we used to do with it.

Don’t worry, though: productivity porn is here to tell you how to fill your lonely, indoor, socially distanced hours!

The cult of productivity

Under normal circumstances (and these are far, far from normal circumstances), the internet is littered with articles on how to increase daily productivity. You can’t kick a stroganoff recipe without unearthing Three Ways to Use a Crockpot to Make More Time In Your Day.

But because of the aforementioned global pandemic and resultant quarantine, the genre of productivity advice has swelled to epidemic proportions (pun intended, so sue me).

It functions through the age-old tactic of peer pressure. That’s really all social media influencers are, after all: people who have gotten real damn good at the gentler methods of peer pressure.

And this peer pressure is delivered in two ways:

“If I can do it, so can you!”

There are few flavors of advice and encouragement I despise more than the If I Can Do It So Can You Rhetorical Offensive. And it’s especially lousy on the ground in personal finance media.

What its practitioners intend to say is “Behold my shortcomings! Behold what I have overcome! And behold what I have managed to achieve in spite of these difficulties! Surely you, a person without my challenges, can do the same!”

What they actually seem to be saying is “I lack the imagination necessary to empathize with people whose situations are different from my own.”

Aside from the simple truth that there is always, always someone who has it more difficult in this life (or even just that there are people whose difficulties manifest in different ways), it’s a blatant self-own. It minimizes the writer’s accomplishments, reducing the hurdles they leaped to mere pebbles anyone can step over.

That’s the thing, though: accomplishing shit is hard. Overcoming shit is hard. Don’t denigrate these challenges by reducing them to merely something “I did and you can too.”

Thus, productivity advice. If it wasn’t so hard to get shit done, we wouldn’t need reams of advice on how to do it.

The porniness of it all

While increase-your-productivity articles are normally vaguely judgey and peer-pressurey, now they’re ladling out a whole ‘nother helping of guilt and shame. It almost feels like everyone—from the productivity advice-givers to those lapping up their encouragement and basking in self-flagellation—is getting off on it. Like it’s a cult. Or porn.

And like porn (and cults, come to think of it…), the cycle that begins with feeling guilty over lack of productivity and leads to the consumption of hours of productivity porn, drives a fuckton of profit. (For someone else. Not you. Just want to be clear about that.)

Self-help is a billion dollar industry. So it’s no wonder any number of self-improvement gurus, wellness experts, influencers, and advice-givers are trying to cash in on the ennui and boredom of the pandemic. And I say this as an internet advice-giver! The emperor has no clothes!

It’s hard to help those feelings of inadequacy and that anxious sense of “I should be doing something” when sitting purposelessly at home. The peddlers of productivity advice have figured out what pornographers have known all along: people gonna scratch that itch.

And like sexytimes porn, productivity porn has a big problem: it’s not realistic.

The emotional toll

“Yeah, we get it, you’re tired of being guilted into doing shit because of all the perfect ‘grams out there.” Aight, let me just belabor the point a little bit longer. It’s not just that productivity porn is annoying. It’s damaging.

The overwhelming deluge of productivity porn takes an emotional toll. Constantly comparing yourself to “more productive people” fosters feelings of inadequacy and self-loathing… which can lead into a depression spiral, lack of self-confidence, and productivity paralysis.

Emotionally speaking, not only does that make it harder to get shit done, but it’s also super unhealthy.

The assumption that we all just need to buckle down and use this limited time to up our productivity until things return to normal is dangerous. It assumes this is temporary. Yet what if it isn’t? What if this is just the new normal? And if it is, how long can we chase uber-productivity before burning out?

We’ve discussed burnout before, and the need for rest and relaxation. Simply put: you can’t fire on all cylinders forever you can’t keep firing all pistons forever you can’t keep putting 100 percent in constantly (there’s a car metaphor in here somewhere I swear to fucking god). Eventually, something’s gotta give. And that post-burnout period of recovery will no doubt be even less productive than if you’d simply set reasonable productivity expectations of yourself in the first place.

It’s ok to just be fine

If you’ve made it through my whining, let me leave you with one parting thought: It is ok to ignore the productivity porn and do fuck-all with your days.

You can watch old Vine compilations all day. You can lie on the couch binging Netflix long past the time that judgey “Are you still watching?” screen pops up for the second time. You can scroll through r/ChoosingBeggars and ignore texts from friends and family. It’s ok. You can even pull the blinds and indulge in some real porn if you want. It’ll all be fine!

If that’s what you need to survive right now, then as Dog is my witness, go back to bed and tune out for another four hours. No judgment, my dudes.

When and if all of this is over, your contribution to society will be judged on just two factors: 1) Did you avoid spreading the virus? and 2) Were you kind to others? That’s it. That’s all you need to get done. Everything else is homemade artisanal gravy.

Nobody is going to punish you for failing to start a container garden during quarantine or not training to run a marathon. I fucking promise you.

You know yourself better than anyone else does. Do what makes you feel healthy, happy, and secure. And ignore the goddamn productivity porn.

32 thoughts to “I Am So Over Productivity Porn”

  1. Piggy you’re going to make me cry ;-; I’ve been trying so hard to spend this time doing as much as I possibly can and I’m so tired and I didn’t know I needed someone to tell me it was okay to not so thank you <3

  2. Longtime reader, first-time commenter! I appreciate how you ended the post with those two questions in particular. Productivity porn doesn’t have much hold on me, first because I don’t relate to the majority of authors. (Another example of how being weird helps — props to Olga Khazan) Second, I often consider the question: who cares if I do this? Most of the time, no one cares about whether I bake my own bread or skip eating it, sew my own clothes or launch a clothes buying ban, etc. When I take myself less seriously, I’m less anxious! Some folks seem to prefer the anxiety of maintaining themselves as hero of their own story over the alternative. Thanks for your encouragement to prioritize health and kindness.

  3. After spending a holiday weekend tackling my gulag of a fixer upper house, and ending up a completely stressed out mess by Monday night, this is the message I need today. Thanks Bitches for the timely wisdom.
    Less enforced labor/productivity time. More naps. That seems to be what I need.

  4. I recently recovered from autistic burnout, which is similar to regular burnout but more pervasive: my overall ability to function was barely the bare minimum I needed to get through a day, let alone a week. The major reason I burned out was because I was doing too much; so much that I was way past my limits without realizing it. Since then, I’ve focused on being effective over productive, on quality over quantity. I focus first on doing what I need to do to feel good, then on chores and projects. I limit myself to 3 big tasks a day. Sometimes that includes showering and resting, if that’s what I need to do. This way, I get things done without overtaxing myself. However, I live at home, so there are many household tasks I don’t do, like cooking dinner, so my system has its limits. If you want more info on autistic burnout, I highly recommend the graphic made by the Autistic Women and Nonbinary Network (AWN). Thank you for writing and podcasting.

    1. Thank you for sharing this comment! ADHD makes a lot of daily tasks absolutely draining for me and I’ve been struggling with how to be a functional person and also have enough energy to works towards my personal goals. Your emphasis on being effective rather than being productive is a huge game changer! Learning that I don’t need a long list of accomplishments to prove myself to other people. I also love your method of feel good first, get things done second. Like many others, I’ve been existing in the framework of “I need to get these chores done so I can earn the reward of a nap, favorite snack, Wikipedia rabbit hole, whatever it may be.” Seems like things would actually get done faster and more pleasantly if I set my self up for success like you’ve described here.

      1. The way I look at it, is I don’t want to be a burden. When I don’t take care of myself, then someone else has to take care of me; when I do my best to take care of myself, then other people don’t have to spend so much time and energy taking care of me.

  5. To add my 2 cents: imho productivity/creativity comes from happiness.
    Because I have been renovating, starting to learn a new language, cleaned every fucking cupboard in my house and started to do DIY and art in the last six months. And I did NONE of it because of Covid but because after some difficult times I was in a good enough financial and mental space to do these things.
    Because when life is good, it’s easy to be productive, not least because, when life is good, doing anything is easy and the time you spend rewatching The Mummy or whatever Kdrama you’re into isn’t a ‘waste’ of time, it’s just you enjoying yourself and no part of you feels the need to chastise yourself for ‘doing nothing’. Shit, when life is good I can spend all day cat napping and no part of me thinks I wasted my time. As far as I am concerned, as soon as productivity porn starts to look appealing, I know I’m on a slippery slope to life being bad.

    1. I find this idea to be really interesting! Where I’m at quarantine seems to have come and gone (for the time being, knock on wood) and there were three adults sitting at home all day in my household while it was in full swing. And we vegged. And kept up on the news. And vegged. Made dinner and vegged some more. I would go for walks around the neighborhood and see stacks of stuff on the curb outside of other people’s houses and feel a little guilty?
      Now that things feel relatively normal, I’m tackling the gargantuan project of getting the house cleaned up. I’m not perfect at balancing productivity with downtime now, either, but your comment helped explain why it’s easier to get things done now, even though I have less time.

    2. This is such an important point. Productivity is easy when you feel good! And no amount of productivity porn is going to make you feel good and encourage productivity when you feel like shit.

  6. My response to the productivity porn has escalated from “shut up!” to “shut up shut up shut up!”

    I hate it and it’s exhausting to hear and it’s so damaging. And that’s aside from the fact I’m already spinning 35 plates simultaneously just to live life and that awful insidious unhealthy message still creeps on like a horrendous earworm. I have to get regular responsibilities done, that’s not optional. I also need to have enough of a me, and a soul, left at whatever the end of all this is!

  7. The biggest issue for me when it comes to productivity porn isn’t that it’s judgmental. It’s that it simply doesn’t work. Most advice on how to be “successful” or “productive” has 0 steps that one can take to actually improve. It can be summarized as “just work harder” and “if you fail, just work even harder”. And the ones that do have some actionable advice, that advice is usually either way too unrealistic/undoable for the majority of people or way too unsustainable for the majority of people.

  8. I think I might have needed to read this, as I am unintentionally leaning into productivity porn thanks to reading Grit, which is maybe the worst possible choice for what to read right now. The overarching theme seems to be that people who achieve things find a way to work harder and never quit and, yeah, maybe this is not the thing I need to focus on in 2020.

    “When and if all of this is over, your contribution to society will be judged on just two factors: 1) Did you avoid spreading the virus? and 2) Were you kind to others? That’s it.”

    Yeah, I need to focus on that, especially #2.

  9. I slept… pretty much all day. I carried a couple of stacks of books upstairs, that’s it. And watched some Sleuth of Ming Dynasty.

    This is what Pandemic Life is like, sometimes. You slip into and out of depressions because overwhelm, you find yourself feeling five years old and ninety-five simultaneously, you get out the Sad Playlist. You hardly have the energy to leave replies to awesome articles exonerating your sloth and despair.

    But for you I can muster up the energy, because you were kind in writing this. Thank you.

  10. I confess! I have succumbed to the productivity porn! So much so that it is coming from within my own mind now. I hear the words of the productivity peddlers night and day. It doesn’t help that I decided to finally start my art side business this spring. I thought it would be a great time to launch–I’d have so much more time to spend on it with everything cancelled, right? I wouldn’t need to carve out new time for it, time would just be there, right?! Unsurprisingly I feel as busy and dissatisfied as ever. Social media makes it approx. 1 bajillion times worse yet I feel the need to be on there “for my business.” The life of a wilderness hermit is more appealing every day….

  11. Recovering self-diagnosed former person with workaholic tendencies here. I thrashed myself mentally and physically for a good portion of my working career. And I was *just* starting to figure out a new rhythm to my life and feel a sense of balanced productivity after almost 3 years of early retirement and holy shit did COVID send me off the rails. The ppl bragging their 3:30 am/4 am wake up times besides being virtue signaling and guilt inducing are really fucking annoying, like it’s a fucking contest who can get up earliest. And for ppl who brag about being so healthy, it seems as if they are depriving themselves of sleep, arguably more detrimental to their health than if Dog forbid, they slept until 5:30 or 6 am! Your point is important and if it looks like someone is *trying* to make money off of productivity in some way, I think it’s smart to walk away and/or unfollow. Also, what I don’t think is talked about enough is productivity isn’t linear most of the time – consistency is important – but it doesn’t have to be super rigid to be effective. Everybody’s different but I find having loose and flexible structure to my days and weeks, shorter to do lists and less ambitious goals (gasp) makes for a happier me and leaves room for spontaneity and fun.

    1. I used to be a 4am person, and I honestly don’t know how I went through a whole school day after. I would go to sleep relatively early, but there was not enough sleep happening considering I was basically doing a mile or two in the hallways between classes — and not a flat mile, there were multiple flights of stairs involved with 20 pounds on my back. There may be a good reason I couldn’t balance my brain chemistry by junior year. (Better living through chemistry!)

  12. I had a really interesting moment talking to a friend about the mentality is being to accomplish X Things before being allowed to take a walk, down time, whatever. In the current era, not just covid, it’s a quietly radical act to prioritize your wellbeing and happiness over creating value for others. Down with the patriarchal capitalist hellscape.

  13. I’ve been trying to internalize Julie Nolke’s hilarious “Quarantine Panic Attack” video on YouTube for months now. Anytime my mother (ADHD) or I (autism) start melting down over our own perceived failures, the other says, “It’s pan’emic.” It’s become our code that basically means, “Surviving before thriving.” It’s okay to not be productive or even just doing fine right now. In fact, it’s normal to be that way. It’s a freaking pandemic out there; take care of yourself!

  14. Thanks for this, I’ve been struggling with it from a bit before the covid lockdowns (“I’m off the day job to care for sick people, but I’ll totally use my free time wisely and write another book!”).

    For the car metaphor, rather than the engine it may be the fuel tank — can’t keep squeezing out one more kilometer on fumes, at some point you have to refuel. Or back to the engine, a maintenance metaphor — at some point you have to pull off the road and change the oil and maintain the car or it’ll totally seize up on you 10 years too early. Or an electric vehicle metaphor: you can’t run your charge cycle too deep too often or you’ll kill the capacity.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *