Life & Work Skills

How to Avoid the Productivity Trap


We live in a time when productivity is fetishized. Work culture tells us that we should be slogging away at our desks for hours and then firing up our laptops the minute that we arrive home to work on our side-hustle. We should be hitting the gym, making a #foodgoals pre-prepped post-exercise snack, and raking in the likes on our latest perfectly filtered Instagram snap.  In reality, I find that once I’ve worked a full day, I’m lucky if I manage to stir some pesto into my pasta before I collapse on the sofa to binge on reality television. I may have a to-do list the length of my arm, but I’ll regularly manage to go a week without so much as putting a load of washing on — and I feel endlessly guilty about it. Although I’m lucky enough to live a pretty well-rounded life with plenty of friends, a great relationship, both a full-time job and side-hustle I’m passionate about, and incredible opportunities to travel, I perpetually feel a nagging worry that seems prevalent amongst millennials: I could be doing more. We seem to live in a perfect storm of productivity pressures. Just under half of young people feel anxious about their future when they compare themselves to others on social media, with 57 percent suggesting that Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram create an “overwhelming pressure” to succeed. In addition, the cost of living is now so high that many are forced to take on a second job, with over a third saying that they need to do so in order to survive. With these social and financial worries playing on millennials’ minds, it’s hardly surprising that I, and many others like me, find it hard to relax. If you’re feeling the strain to be constantly switched-on, try these measures to take the pressure off:  

Rediscover a Hobby

In an age when every minute of our time can be monetized, indulging in a hobby without tangible pay-offs can feel like a guilty pleasure. I am personally guilty of justifying how I spend every second. Going to the gym benefits my mental and physical health, my writing side-hustle has monetary pay-offs — even reading a magazine could be research for an article.  It seems that we have forgotten what the purpose of hobbies really is: to indulge in something that we enjoy simply because we have the luxury to be able to do so. A good way to reconnect with the things that bring you joy is to cast your mind back to activities that you enjoyed before the urge to be productive set in. Did you used to be an enthusiastic netball player? An amateur poet? A theater kid? Rediscovering previous passions is a great way to escape a mindset of monetizing or benefitting from every moment of your day, and simply doing something because you can.  

Switch Off

Our digital devices are perhaps one of the biggest productivity traps of a modern age. It can be difficult to relax when your phone is constantly lighting up with emails and notifications, and as a freelancer, I frequently find myself itching to respond to work messages, even in my supposed downtime. And it’s hardly surprising — the perpetual-scroll feed and “like” functions of social media platforms are designed to deliver an addictive dopamine hit that keeps us glued to our devices. In fact, the average user interacts with their phone a phenomenal 2,617 times each day. If you’ve ever found yourself itching to play with your device when you have nothing to do, you’ll know how this hyper-exposure to technology can leave us feeling compelled to be doing something, even if we’re not sure quite what.  Since evidence suggests that excessive smartphone use can lead to stress, sleep disturbances, and depression, taking some time away from your device might help you to feel less pressure to be productive. After all, you can’t be responding to work emails at 10pm if you don’t have access to the Internet. Although you probably don’t need to revert back to a Nokia 3310, consider charging your phone in another room to avoid late-night scrolling, or enact a regular hour-long phone free household rule — perhaps at a time when you can connect with others, such as during dinner.   

Schedule in Some Self-Care

The United States is the world’s most overworked developed nation — almost 40 percent of workers report struggling to balance their work and personal life, and 60 percent of adults say that their job is a source of stress. With burnout endemic amongst young people, it can be difficult to prioritize your mental and physical health, and self-care can easily fall to the bottom of your priorities. Combat this by scheduling in some dedicated time to focus on yourself. Self-care can mean different things to everyone, so whether you’re sweating through your favorite workout class, having a night in with Netflix, or catching up with friends, make a date with yourself and stick to it without stressing about what else you could be doing with your time.  

Read a Book for Fun

Although for many of us reading is an enjoyable pastime, it can be easy to turn this into another box-ticking exercise. With reams of recommendations, self-improvement books, and must-read lists, many of us end up slogging through the latest bestseller because we feel that we should, forgetting that reading can be a relaxing and invigorating way to spend a few spare hours. Forget about your Goodreads account and pick up a book because you want to read it, not because you feel like you should. If the thought of plowing through an enormous classic or the latest prize-winner feels like more of a chore than a leisure activity then stop. Instead, pick up something that reignites your love of reading, whether that’s a breezy beach read, an autobiography of your favorite celeb, or a fact-filled book that sparks your interest.  You can also apply this to other areas of your life, be it which television series to start or which events to attend or sit out. Reconnecting with the things that you honestly enjoy, rather than the things that you feel obliged to do, is a perfect way to configure your priorities away from productivity, and towards the things that make you happy.   

Go for a Walk

If the pressure to be productive is leaving you stressed, there are plenty of ways to combat this. Walking is proven to release stress and improve concentration, as HuffPost noted, meaning that by taking a stroll instead of pounding through spreadsheets over your lunch break may actually give you an unexpected boost. It also gives you a chance to be present and away from the distractions of your desk — research even shows that walking in green spaces can put your brain in a meditative state, so head to your local park for some serious reflection and relaxation.