Why Do We All Feel So Guilty About Our Own Productivity?

Antithetically, this website is not the product of any sort of personal belief that my thoughts have external value. Nor do I publish my poetry or paperbacks for alien judgment. I write, primarily, because it’s cathartic. Sharing my work with others is secondary; I am much more interested in the act of creation itself than extrinsic critique and appraisal. “Better to write for yourself and have no public,” once said esteemed writer and literary critic Cyril Connolly, “Than to write for the public and have no self.”

Unfortunately, this courtesy — that is, allowance to engage in activities for purely selfish reasons — is not one I extend to many other pastimes. More often than not, I quit or cut back on those diversions that lack a final product or output. Though I thoroughly enjoy sketching pencil portraits, I seldom consciously block out time to do so. Despite a love of photography and film, I habitually content myself with showcasing my work through personal social media accounts. I even interrogated my relationship with soccer, the sport which to this day defines my life, after an ACL tear essentially ruled out a college career.

It’s natural for interests and passions to change over time, of course. Our entire lives are trial and error, subconscious social research as we suss out those activities and things that make us happy. Here, though, I face an unnatural problem: an inability to appreciate leisure activities for anything other than their quantifiable physical result.

There are layers to this behavioral complexity. The first and most obvious is psycho-emotional: engaging in purely self-rewarding activities feels fundamentally selfish. Leisure activities often lack any broad final appeal, and so it’s easy to worry that they’re inherently egotistical endeavors. Why should we, with limited time and resources, spend our energy on something that will never ultimately benefit anyone in any tangible way? How can we obsess over work that is physically meaningless?

This concern, I would argue, is inextricably wrapped up in the misconception that only that which we excel at is worth thought or time. We so often feel as though photography, or painting, or any such pastime is meaningless or useless relative to the vastly superior talents of those around us. Though we may enjoy the activity itself, if the best we can hope for is mediocrity, why bother? We are preoccupied with superlatives, and that forces us to hold in contempt those pastimes at which we are not formidable regardless of how emotionally or intellectually fulfilling they might be.

So our argument map flows something like this: we struggle to accept the natural value of leisure activities because leisure activities seem to us inherently fruitless endeavors born of pure hedonistic selfishness. Note what this means about our collective value system — that we prioritize tangible and material results over mental and emotional health. But why? Where did we learn to measure our entire lives by our practical competence at a task?

Easy. Consider our culturally constructed idea of success. We emphasize tangible and social wealth at the expense of personal creativity and flourishment. Essentially, our communal mindset tells us to depreciate those things we can’t capitalize on.

And there it is. Surprise! What you thought was an exploration of emotional wellbeing is actually a politically socialist indictment of capitalism. Decades of capitalist society have created a hegemonic culture that measures and values members by their capacity to contribute to the collective system. Though I do primarily mean this in an economic sense, this socialization unequivocally extends into the social behavioral realm as well — our obsession with excellence and consequently productivity are the observable results of years spent believing efficiency is the chief goal.

We learn from a young age that having hobbies and interests is part of the human condition. As we grow and develop, though, we learn that there’s a conditional: we are all competing at everything we do with an entire world of other people, and if you can’t keep up, you’re unsuccessful. We reinforce this message through school curriculums, universities, career planning, athletic organizations — every structural stage of life is a conduit to professional success, and nothing more. Pursuing anything you aren’t good at is deviant and extraneous, tolerated by those around you but understood to be expendable.

Of course, just recognizing the danger of fixating on productivity has no bearing on the problem itself. Emotionally retraining (deprogramming) yourself to enjoy enjoyment for no reason other than your own personal emotional satisfaction is a process, and it takes time. So start now! Consciously choose to do things because they make you happy. Start that photography blog (and follow mine @wrecklessmediasocial on Instagram). Create a whole portfolio of pencil sketches. Sculpt, birdwatch, dance, do whatever it is that delights you. And damn the consequences.

Originally published 5/23/19.

Hi! I’m Nick. I‘m interested in political rhetoric, mental health, and Manchester United — and I write sometimes. Learn more at nickshereikis.com.