✍️ Food Ink 16: The "Productivity-Industrial Complex" Hall of Mirrors

Mar 25, 2022 9:10 pm

(5 minute read)

Hello friends and farmers,

I came down with COVID this week. It's hard to describe the feeling of knowing I evaded it all this time, only to get it now, in March of 2022. I can only laugh (shoutout to my friend Alli for nailing that feeling in this standup bit).

Though my head is throbbing, I'm determined to keep this weekly commitment going! So here's an edited journal entry from last week about some recent thoughts on the intersection of productivity, procrastination, and capitalism...


🤡 Ever since reading The 4-Hour Workweek in college, I have been (perhaps unhealthily) obsessed with productivity. The idea of 10x-ing my output, to get more done in less time, so that I could travel the world, lay on the beach, or do anything I wanted while still earning in US dollars, was so alluring as someone about to graduate an undergraduate school of business. As someone who had no idea what he truly wanted out of life. As someone facing 45 years of corporate life until some glamorized sense of retirement (now largely out of reach for most Millennials).

For 10+ years now, this idea of 10x output has undergirded much of my relationship with time, and I can't even contemplate how much time and energy I've spent in pursuit of productivity. It's an embarrassingly dog-chasing-its-own-tail kind of obsession when I think about it, but one that has sprouted a massive cottage industry that I'm all too familiar with. 

Ultimately, the one real takeaway in all my productivity deep-dives and experiments, aside from a few systems that I've managed to create that do benefit me, is that once I step outside of this obsession with productivity and exponential output, I'm forced to ask the important question: What is it all for? And the more I step out from being in the weeds, the more I can ask and explore that question. And then, ironically, the less I really need all those productivity tips, life hacks, etc. Because one way to view the whole world of productivity is that it's stuck inside the paradigm where humans are just cogs in the economic machine. So now, we have this whole industry centered around the question of "How do we become better cogs in the engine of commerce?", without necessarily asking who or what we are serving in the process.

I recently signed up for a productivity course. More specifically, it was billed as an "anti-procrastination" course. It was basically a series of emails with tidbits of behavioral psychology, statistics from research around procrastination and productivity, and action items to complete, all geared towards "beating" procrastination. I got through Day 2, and I gave up.

Not because of procrastination, but because I had a realization.

The Day 2 email listed out a few statistics, like that procrastination has more than quadrupled in the last 30 years (no source) and that 40% of people have experienced financial loss due to procrastination (also no source). And it struck me. I suddenly saw that the proliferation of content, courses, physical products and digital tools geared towards productivity, self-help, and even mental health and wellness (really trending right now), collectively the "Productivity-Industrial Complex" as I'll refer to it, creates a hall of mirrors that reflects back to us the fundamental principal of exploitation-capitalism: economic output.

While there's nothing wrong with this orientation towards economic output in and of itself, the lack of self-awareness (by the whole of the capitalist ideology) and the blind acceptance of GDP as the metric we should be optimizing around, on not much more than pure faith at this point and at the expense of human health and happiness, begs to be examined.

Upon this further examination, after a decade of consuming countless articles, books, and courses on what effectively amounts to becoming a better cog in the engine of commerce, it finally became clear to me that the Productivity-Industrial Complex squeezes round human pegs into square industrial holes.

Not productive? (Read: not valued enough in the eyes of our transactional, consumption-driven economy?). Here's a list of 5 hacks to stay focused and be the most productive you've ever been.

Feeling overwhelmed? Subscribe to this mediation app or buy this wellness retreat.

Can't concentrate? Easily distracted? Well, have I got the drugs and supplements for you!

All this to turn you, a complex, layered, feeling, and sensing individual into a durable cog in the wheel of this economic engine. Farfetched? Maybe. But this view is one reason why, for the longest time, I was hesitant and wary about starting therapy. I felt like therapy would be the equivalent of being free from The Matrix and trying to make a deal with the agents to get plugged back in.

Or, if the reference to The Matrix doesn't make sense to you, here it is posed as a question (from a TikTok video, of all things, that Reesa sent me shortly after I shared this journal entry with her), from someone considered neurodivergent:

"Do you ever wonder if our neurodivergence is the appropriate biological response to the society we live in? Like this obviously isn't working and based on what we know about evolution and how biology adapts and expands to respond to the environment around it, I'm having a hard time understanding how I am not exactly what's supposed to happen."

It's out there, I know, but this line of thinking is what gave me pause about psychotherapy in the first place. It's perhaps more relevant for the field of psychiatry, where practitioners can prescribe pharmaceuticals, but this idea, if you can briefly step out of the paradigm in which we're so entrenched, isn't all that crazy. In fact, in the field of neuroscience, it is commonly understood that our fight or flight (or freeze) response is not meant to handle the sheer volume of stress-inducing perceived threats that we encounter today: pings from our phones all day, urgent email after urgent email, multiple deadlines to juggle, Slack notifications, traffic. Our nervous system does not distinguish these from the more imminent life-or-death threats we used to face, like sabertooth tigers. And we're what, medicating ourselves to better fit into this new self-inflicted environment? Instead of changing the environment?

Hence, my hesitation towards therapy. I thought it would only serve to help me better play a game that I wasn't sure I wanted to play in the first place. What if I want to play a different game? What if I want to know what other games are even out there? Could someone just as steeped in the Productivity-Industrial Complex as me, someone whose livelihood in fact depends on it, do anything other than force my human roundness into the squareness of our economy?

While there are definitely some problematic therapists out there, who unknowingly perpetuate the colonialist and individualist mindsets that necessitate therapy in the first place, I've been fortunate enough to find a therapist who really seems to understand all of my crazy thoughts, fears, and desires, and because of that, at least in part, I've been able to finally find my way out of the Productivity-Industrial Complex hall of mirrors. Or at least see the exit.

Because as I continue on this journey to more purposefully and intentionally create the life I want to live (rather than the life I'm supposed to want to live) and every aspect in it - from my default mindset and general disposition to my regular emotional state, from the things I want to create to the things I want to spend time consuming, from the big-picture vision down to the mundane activities and interactions of my day to day - I still fight the conditioned urge to peek into that hall of mirrors, tempted by the thought that I could be doing more. That I could have more, be more. Until I remember that those urges don't serve my purpose. After all, what master am I aiming to serve? Money? Or happiness? Commerce? Or community?

Just some things I've been thinking about recently, as I continue to read productivity posts and tips (surely just out of habit at this point), and may possibly write about more in the future.

😮‍💨 On a related note, procrastinating has only gotten easier these days because of all the dopamine-delivering distractions at our disposal: TikTok, Instagram, YouTube, Netflix, mobile apps and games, even checking email, which often feels productive but can very much just be another way to put off doing what's really important.

One rather useful tip I've come across to combat the doom-scrolling habit I've developed, is this counter-habit (again coming from TikTok!):

  1. Pause and put the device down/close the laptop
  2. Breathe out all your air until you feel the instinct to breathe in
  3. Take a deeper than usual breath and breathe out again until you need to breathe in
  4. Repeat until you’re ready to get to work

It's basically meditation through breathing. I'm trying to pair this with screen time limits on my phone to serve as the trigger. Because even when what you're putting off is something you enjoy, or something you actually want to be doing: "Doing stuff is hard. And entertainment isn't restful."

"Breathing for twenty minutes to put off a project is way better than scrolling for three hours."

😊 Delight No. 5: I recently watched and absolutely loved this Netflix two-part series on Hanwoo beef called Hanwoo Rhapsody. Hanwoo is a breed of cattle raised and available exclusively in South Korea. It's similar to the more widely known Japanese Wagyu in that it is graded across tightly controlled quality scores, but as of now, it is only raised in South Korea. Neither the cattle nor the beef are legally allowed to be exported, so for now, this is a delight to enjoy from afar, and through the very aesthetic cinematography of the show.



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Betting the farm,