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In Defense of Nothing
How pressure to be seen as productive can cause us to fail our personal goals.
“Don't mistake activity with achievement.” ― John Wooden
Stay Grounded covers a lot of the triggers that cause people to initially take their smartphones out, mostly boredom, FOMO, or general escapism. But there’s one other trigger that —as I’ve come to control my impulses/device— I’m noticing more and more: Productivity pressure. The creeping impulse to look at your device because it feels more productive than to not.
Those Pesky Protestants
In modern America, the “Protestant work ethic” dominates. “Protestant work ethic” describes a belief that work has a moral benefit and is inherently virtuous. I won’t get into the history the Reformation or anything, but the general notion is that filling your time with work is good; and that it’ not only priests and doctors who have a moral duty to perform their work, but everyone.
Of course, if work = good, then logic suggests not work = not good. The phrase “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop” is probably coming to your mind. It’s usually attributed to the Bible, but turns out that’s an extreme stretch! I’m no theologian so I’ll let Christianity.com speak for me here:
Many believe [this adage] originates from the Bible, Proverbs 16:27 to be exact; however, the exact same word usage of this message as we know it is not found in almost any biblical translation.
Wiktionary additionally has this to say:
This proverb is thought by some to originate from the Bible (Proverbs 16:27). Yet this is probably a misreading driven by an application of Protestant theological assumptions.
Those pesky Protestants! The Pilgrims and most of the founding fathers of America were Protestant, and their ethical framework of “work holy ∴ no work unholy” is still pervasive today, which puts modern society in quite the pickle: we’ve done gone and engineered a civilization that:
Built a lot of machines engineered to reduce work.
Views reduced work, not only as unhelpful, but unethical.
What do these two conditions imply? Well for starters it means we have a lot of what the late anthropologist David Graeber refers to as “bullshit jobs” which he defined thusly:
A bullshit job is a job which is so pointless, or even pernicious, that even the person doing the job secretly believes that it shouldn’t exist.
As he describes it, a bullshit job is a sign of societal inefficiency. An example he gives is the job of placating airline passengers who’s luggage was lost, instead of just, y’know, not losing their luggage in the first place. Something the airline and passengers alike would surely both strongly prefer.
When we pull out our phones at that first guilty twinge of “not being productive”, we are assigning ourselves a bullshit job. When you do give in to this impulse, not only are you not reducing your screen time (something known to improve mental health) but you’re probably not even being productive. Remember: a lot of apps are designed to simulate a feeling of productivity to avoid users experiencing feelings of guilt for spending time scrolling.
We know “productivity” often involves staring at screens, so taking your phone out —even to just scroll nonsense— often feels easier, better than not. And as we all know- once those screens are on and pointed at your eyeballs, the addictive apps will work their sorcery and get their hooks into your brain.
“Looks like we got ourselves a reader!”
It’s not just our own internal pressure that causes us to take out phones out, there is a strong social element. Many people (consciously or not) quietly, unfairly, judge those seen not working, even when the judged person is a non-work enviornment.
For some reason eeeeveryone’s got opinions about the person sitting alone at the corner bar reading a book with their cocktail; meanwhile every other solo patron is glued to their smartphones and no one bats an eye. “Oh, I don’t want to judge them just because they’re on their phone” we think, “what if they’re working?”
I suspect that the rise of remote work has further escalated this pressure by turning everywhere into a potential workspace, and therefore somewhere where it’s easier to judge a person for “taking up space”.
There’s a classic routine by comedian Bill Hicks that comes to mind about being challenged for reading alone while at Waffle House (If you can’t watch a video right now, there’s a transcript here):
What I find interesting is that his joke —as told in 1992— frames reading in kind of an elitist way, those dumb hillbillies don’t read. Whereas I suspect that most of the social pressure not to read in public today would come from the professional class. Do not preclude the power of Protestant pressure! Even hyper-billionaire Elon Musk has been said to sleep at his factories. Think about that: the person with the most freedom in the world to do literally anything with his three score-and-ten spends every waking second working, lest he be branded unproductive.
When staring at screens in public is more socially permissible than say- reading a novel, is it any wonder people like him develop crippling Twitter addictions? I’m sure now that he owns the platform, he can Twitter away all day while quietly telling himself: “It’s ok, it’s for work.” Part of me wonders if on some level Elon recognized how his Twitter addiction was harmful, but paying $44 billion was emotionally easier than the prospect of quitting and being alone (and unproductive) with his thoughts.
Another Clip From the early 90’s:
This is a bit random but I had to include it. What optimistic foresight on the part of AT&T. How awful it must have been for those poor people who lived before the internet was ubiquitous. Imagine! Going to the beach unproductively.
THE SOLUTION TO EVERYTHING
So spoiler alert I don’t have a satisfying answer to this one. Heck- part of the reason I started this newsletter you’re reading stemmed from feelings of guilt over time wasted from years of unproductive scrolling. This is not to say that “being productive” is bad, it’s good, but our extremely narrow definition of what constitutes productive time —handed down by Those Pesky Protestants™— is becoming ever narrower in an interconnected world where everything, including passive enjoyment, is quantifiable and measured.
Like- what’s the point of taking a good photo if it’s never shared to Instagram? Sharing is good, right? Did you really just watch a whole movie and not immediately review it on Letterboxd? How selfishly indulgent! Don’t forget to be constantly adjusting and evaluating your eventual Goodreads rating for that novel, you wouldn’t want that time spent reading to be unproductive, would you?
It’s important to be vigilant and aware about what actually makes us feel rewarded and content. Work —meaningful work— adds richness to experience and is crucially how we avoid feeling like we’re “wasting” our lives. But we as a culture need to broaden our definition of what productivity is, or we risk, as Oliver Burkeman famously put it: “systematically postponing precisely the things one cares about the most.”
As any Buddhist monk can likely attest (and Elon Musk likely cannot), “sitting with your thoughts” is work. Experiencing a work of art is time productively spent. Often in this era of hyper comparison-ization we get so fixated on proving to ourselves and the world that our lives count —literally count, as in, are measurable— that we forget to live them. And that’s the least productive thing of all.
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Of course, there’s reason to believe that the whole “sleeping at factories” thing is made up in service of the mythos he cultivates. But regardless, the man obviously spends more time working and thinking about work than most rational people would choose to in his position. If you told me Elon spends the majority his time enjoying non-quantifiable activities like reading, hiking or painting I would demand proof.
Like every single journalist who won’t quit because they “need Twitter for work” but then 90% of their tweets are obviously not related to work.
Not trying to shame anyone who uses those apps or anything, just y’know, make sure it’s something you actually enjoy doing, and aren’t doing it because you feel compelled to.