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Remember, You Really Don’t Have to Do It All (Even if You Feel Like You Do)

Digital anthropologist and best-selling author Rahaf Harfoush explores our complicated ties with endless productivity, and what we can do about it.

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Bake sourdough bread, then banana bread. Do the push-up challenge. Start gardening or podcasting. Learn a new language. All while doing your job (or looking for a job), raising your children, and staying (virtually) in touch over endless Zoom calls. When the pandemic hit, it seemed the productivity message got louder: Do more.

For years, I’ve been using my cellphone as an alarm clock. As my sleepy eyes sharpen into focus, I compulsively check the activity that has piled up throughout the night. Scanning, browsing, and clicking, I complete a morning triage of all the emails I can safely delete before my feet have even touched the ground.

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The implication is that as long as we’re reachable, we can be working—and since the smartphone tipping point of 2007, we’re always reachable and never quite unplugged. But the thing is, burnout caused by connective technology isn’t just related to work. In an article for Atlantic, game developer and philosopher Ian Bogost reframed many of our social media activities as a new type of hyper-employment. He writes about the feeling of overwhelm many of us experience in the face of never-ending notifications, emails, DMs, statuses, and updates.

“Often, we cast these new obligations either as compulsions (the addictive, possibly dangerous draw of online life) or as necessities (the importance of digital contact and an online brand in the information economy),” Bogost writes. “But what if we’re mistaken, and both tendencies are really just symptoms of hyper-employment?”

Our activities on these platforms—managing the flood of information, contributing value as users, creating new content—are all small bits of work we do. “Today, everyone’s a hustler,” Bogost continues. “But now we’re not just hustling for ourselves or our bosses, but for so many other unseen bosses.” The burden of supporting, reacting, creating, has become in itself a new type of labor in the digital age. Even leisure activities have started to resemble work; this is uncompensated work that goes well beyond simply being the “eyeballs” of traditional media, and we do it for “fun.”

Work used to be about survival; it was what you had to do to make enough money to eat and put a roof over your head. As knowledge industries evolved and grew, buoyed by scalable technologies and new business models, we looked to work for things that are more nuanced but just as important to us as food and shelter: our identities, our values, our very worth. Work has morphed into a search for self-actualization.

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What’s more, the obsession with measuring productivity has created a powerful intrinsic motivator that makes us feel guilty when we’re not working. The push for continuous output goes against everything we now know about what our brains need to thrive.

Our achievements are not accomplished despite our breaks but because of them. Without taking the necessary time to rest and recharge, our productivity suffers, along with our ability to remember, to learn, and to evolve. In a world where information is a constant stream of interruptions, the person who rests and recharges will triumph over those who think the path to success can be attained through sheer force of will.

Motivations around “hustling” aren’t completely misguided, however. Our bodies are wired in a way that pairs stress and efficiency—as the former rises, so does the latter. Unfortunately, there is a catch: Our efficiency only increases up to a certain point. After that, stress causes our performance to decline dramatically.

It’s OK to want recognition, validation, and financial prosperity. We are the product of our history and environment, so it’s natural for our desires, ambitions, and dreams to reflect this. The trick is realizing that we have the option to choose something else—that we can challenge ourselves to examine our professional objectives and figure out if we are pursuing them because we actually want them or only because we think we do.

Chaos Bar Chart Made of Paper Rolls on Solid Beige Background.
Photo: Getty Images

That gap between what we want and our beliefs about what we should want is why programs that focus solely on behavioral modifications so often fail. It’s not about having enough inner strength to meditate every day, write regular morning pages, or the willpower to disconnect from social media on the weekends; it’s about examining the core beliefs we have about ourselves in relation to these tasks.

In short, your core beliefs will dictate your long-term actions. You might be able to force yourself through sheer willpower to make some short-term changes, but in the end, without an underlying shift in core identity, you’ll revert back.

Identifying core beliefs is an exercise in listening to the voice inside your head that chatters in the background as you go about your day. Here are some examples of self-limiting beliefs collected from my family, friends, and clients: If I rest, I’ll fall behind at work; success is for people who never stop hustling; I’m too old to change careers; I’d never be able to make enough money doing what I love; only morning people get things done.

Unraveling these beliefs takes time and effort. Once you’ve identified your core beliefs, you can start changing them by creating an alternative belief and supporting it with small actions. I believe rest is an essential part of improving my performance. Saying that, coupled with deliberate actions like turning off your phone over the weekend, will eventually create a new belief system that will lead to deeper and longer-lasting changes in your life.

It finally became clear to me that my strong work ethic had betrayed me; that my unending pursuit of higher output and all of the metrics of outward success that go along with it were inflicting more harm on me than good. The more I chased after productivity, the further I fell behind. I was making myself sick, and because I didn’t heed my body’s warnings, I landed in a mess of my own making. I had tolerated the fatigue and insomnia. I even learned to deal with the hair loss. The one thing I couldn’t cope with was my inability to write. At my lowest point, a simple sentence was beyond my capabilities. Worse yet, that engine inside my head, the one that was always buzzing with a million ideas, went completely silent. Losing that part of myself was a devastating blow.

Breaking free of a continuous output model is the most significant and healthy change I’ve made in my life so far. We are not machines that can produce the same thing in the same way every single day. If you find yourself feeling similarly, here are a few things that I did that you might find helpful.

Structure your day around what works for you.

Early risers may crow about how productive they are, but there have been just as many geniuses that were night owls. I dug into the research and discovered that there is no one better way. Everyone is wired with specific preferences, so if you’re not a morning person, don’t let anyone tell you that it will hurt your productivity.

Purge your social media feeds of unnecessarily hyper-motivating quotes.

“Nobody cares. Work Harder”—unsubscribe. “Hard work. Hustle. Grind.” Nope. I blocked people who made me feel like I wasn’t doing enough. I stopped reading articles that showed people getting up at ungodly hours to squeeze in more work.

Pay attention to how you introduce yourself to people.

What words do you use? How do you describe your work? Are there other things you can say that would express a different part of yourself? We must remember that while our job is a part of us, it is not the only part. In our success and performance-driven culture, where ambition and consumption reign supreme, it can be very counterintuitive to stop, to stand against the constant pressure of momentum, to be more and do more, and say, I am enough.

Be kinder to yourself.

(And more realistic about what you can reasonably accomplish in a day.) Breaking free of work and productivity dogma means you’ll be able to reinvest that time in other places, like spending quality time with family and friends, picking up a new hobby, or doing some volunteer work—without added stress. Remember, the future doesn’t happen in a flash—it is gradually shaped by every decision we make in the here and now. Our current crisis of work is also, in a sense, a crisis of imagination. It’s up to us to do what we do best: Dream up a better future. Now, before it’s too late.

This has been adapted from Hustle & Float: Reclaim Your Creativity and Thrive in a World Obsessed with Work by Rahaf Harfoush.