The Productivity Paradox



I’ve been thinking lately about how my writing career, such as it is, came into being. I’m pretty satisfied with the state of my writing life at the moment: with one essay due to come out soon, another in submissions, and a third in progress, plus an ongoing novel, I’m about as productive as I’ve ever been.

I pay a lot of attention to what other writers are doing as well. One of the nicest thing that’s happened to me in the last twelve months is that I’ve joined an email group comprised mostly of women who write for new media. A side effect of this is that I read a metric fuck-ton of essays and articles every week.

One particular theme comes up in those essays a lot—a theme that intrigues me, because I personally can’t relate to at all. People call it different things. Esmé Wang, a writer and entrepreneur whose work I admire a lot, calls it “hustle”, in this fantastic essay for Elle about the effect of chronic illness on productivity. I tend to think of it as the productivity paradox.

The productivity paradox seems to be rooted in the sense that whatever you do, it’s never quite enough: you have to write more, publish more, do and be more, and there’s never a point where you’ve done enough. In extreme cases, you have to get external validation that you’ve been sufficiently productive before you can take a break, because the moment you give yourself permission to call it quits, you’re haunted by the sensation that you’ve let yourself off too easy.

The feeling that you’ve never done enough isn’t unique to writers at all—it’s probably a familiar meme in every field. But writers are more vocal about its effect on their lives because, well, they write about it. Also, writers tend to be freelancers, making them the managers of their own productivity. When you’re a freelancer, there’s no one to say, go home, you’ve billed enough hours, clocked enough lab time, get some rest. Plus, the writers whose opinions I care most about are all women, and I’m pretty sure that’s a contributing factor. Women are more likely than men to fall prey to imposter syndrome, not to mention all the self-doubt that accrues from working twice as hard for half the recognition.

When I say that I can’t relate to this—that I do not, in general, suffer from the productivity paradox—it’s not a humblebrag, I promise. If I’d been in charge of my own genetic engineering, I would have picked the hustling gene for myself, no question.

But I didn’t get that gene. My mother has it, as does my grandmother. From them, I got my intellect and my creativity, but in essence, I’m more like my father, who comes from a long line of patient, sensitive, mild-mannered, indolent people. I’m not competitive. I’m easily satisfied in practically every area of my life apart from my writing. My father’s the same way.

Both of us, my father and I, drive my mother crazy.


I was in high school when I sussed out that hustling wasn’t in my nature. What’s more, I deliberately chose not to attempt cultivating habits that would make me more productive, more driven. Partly, this was a reaction to my circumstances. Hiding from the world, usually in a book, was my comfort zone from the time I was very small. But for the most part, I just couldn’t see the point.

On my first day of high school, I was already behind. Eight years of Christian school taught me to memorize a ton of Bible verses, but I’d never learned how to use a microscope or write a five-paragraph essay. I knew I was in over my head, but I couldn’t stay after school for extra help, and my parents weren’t equipped to help me at home. It was all up to me, and I didn’t know how to catch up. After I failed geometry the second time, I didn’t see the point of trying. By that point, I’d started writing a novel, which felt like a much better use of my time than taking notes or doing homework.

I was also influenced by having a lot of really high-achieving friends—smart, serious people who worked very, very hard, and considered a B+ a seriously disappointing grade. They seemed miserable when they talked about homework and tests—wound-up, tense, anxious, and fearful—and even after they took the tests, and got the A’s, there was always another test, then the SATs, then college applications. What was the point, I wondered, of working that hard, being that miserable, unless there was a finish line in sight?

My friends’ exhaustion reminded me painfully of my parents, who had both spent decades working physically debilitating, demeaning full-time jobs so they could make house payments and pay my Christian school tuition. They were miserable too—and they took their misery out on me. Needless to say, that wasn’t who I wanted to be when I was 45.

My parents and my friends shared a work ethic that I admired, but it also frightened me. If I pushed myself to do that, to be that, what would happen to the worlds inside my head, the dream life I nurtured with so much energy and attention? What about my writing? I wasn’t afraid of working hard, if it was the right kind of work—after all, I was writing thousands of words a fiction a week—but no one could explain to me why bringing my grade point average up from a C qualified as important.

The best and most obnoxious thing about me at sixteen, my teachers seemed to agree, was that I knew exactly what I wanted to do with my life, and I was already doing it. All the other stuff that people worked towards—the grades, the college admissions, the honor societies—was great and impressive. It just wasn’t for me. I already had a purpose, a goal. And I really believed, at that age, that being talented and intelligent, and yes, in my own way, driven, would be enough to achieve it.

People tried explaining to me the necessity of participating in the system. If I kept on the way I was, I wouldn’t get into college, or at least not a good one. I wouldn’t get a good job; I’d never own a home; I wouldn’t be able to put my kids through college; I’d never be able to retire. Is that what you want? various adults would ask.

The lesson I received from these lectures wasn’t that I should do what was necessary to obtain these goals. The lesson I learned was that I should want different things.

From Esmé Wang’s essay, I gained another perspective on why I developed this laconic attitude as a teenager. I was good at regulating anxiety and protecting myself from the hostile forces around me at that age—better than I am now, honestly. Trying to sustain a career-oriented, upwardly mobile approach to high school academics would have destroyed me. I had enough on my plate living with dangerous, unpredictable people. Just as no one would have expected me to write publishable essays when I was homeless, no one ought to have expected me to supply the deficiencies in my early education while also expecting me to deal with my home life.

During high school, and for a long time afterwards, survival was my primary concern. And self-care—in the form of writing, and in the form of excusing myself from the rat-race of productivity and achievement—was necessary to my survival.


I suspect that to most high-achieving people, I’m an excellent case study in the dangers of not pushing yourself hard enough. After all, the predictions people made for me in high school have mostly come true. At 34, I live in a shared house, I’ve never been less than 200% below the poverty line, and there was that time I had to live in my car because I got sick and had no savings to fall back on. Of course, trauma and illness played a large part in that, but I’m sure my parents would say that’s why you work your fingers to the bone at jobs you hate—so you can have a safety net. The problem is that most of the worst things that ever happened to me happened before I even got to high school. I was never sufficiently afraid of hitting rock bottom, because I’d already been there.

The only thing I have to show for my laconic approach to life—apart from the fact that I’ve written lots and lots of things that I’m very proud of—is the fact that I’ve never felt like a failure. At least, not in the way that some of my highly driven, massively productive, frequently published friends do. Not on a daily basis.

Last year, when I was seeing a therapist, she suggested that I do small, nice things to reward myself for achieving my goals during the day. One of the suggestions she came up with was letting myself spend an extra five minutes in the shower. I understood what she was getting at, but I had to cut her off.

“I have never, at any point in my life, felt pressured to end a shower earlier than I wanted to,” I said. “That’s just not how I live.”

By the widening of her eyes, I could tell that I’d just given her a glimpse into a deeply alien way of life. That’s how I feel when I hear people say that they feel guilty about eating carbs. A lot of people I love, people I deeply respect and admire, seem to live their lives according to rules that make literally no sense to me.

I honestly don’t mean that in a judgmental way! The anxiety, the tension, the sleeplessness that driven people experience is, I guess, a small price to pay for having dozens of published essays and books, for having a well-padded savings account. But honestly, now that my mental health is under better management, I think I can get those things too—and get them in my own way.

Recently, I watched an amazing, tear-jerking documentary about the construction of the Large Hadron Collider. One of the physicists was talking about the Higg’s boson, and how the discoveries made by the LHC could potentially dismantle the entire theoretical model he’d worked on throughout his 40 year career. (It might actually have been Peter Higgs, now that I think of it.) He said something that hit me really hard, so I wrote it on a sticky note and stuck it to the wall over my desk: “Jumping from failure to failure with undiminished enthusiasm is the secret of success.”

I like that turn of phrase a lot—“undiminished enthusiasm”. When one of my beta readers comes back from reading a chapter of my novel going “this doesn’t really work for me”, I feel a flare of something that motivates and energizes me—a feeling of just give me a second chance, I can do it right, you’ll see. I guess you could call that enthusiasm?

At this point in my life, my bar for success is fairly low, and my criteria for what constitutes a failure is pretty high. As long as I’m writing, and putting my writing out there, I feel like I’m on track. And if I need to take a day to draw pictures of my cat and listen to podcasts, I don’t feel guilty about that. What with all the practice I’ve had, I am really good at failing at things. I am vulnerable in a host of other ways, but failures, at least, don’t wreck me. I’m pretty proud of that.

One thought on “The Productivity Paradox

  1. Brittany, you’ve raised all kinds of lovely, thought-provoking ideas about success and failure. I recently dropped one of the four classes I planned to teach in the fall. Doing so allowed me to keep attending a free yoga class I would have had to give up. I’d rather be poor and happy!


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