By Riyad A. Shahjahan
“That ever-elusive more–did you ever notice how more is unattainable moment? More is a trap!” -by Victoria Castle
We often hear the phrases: “be productive,” “a productive day,” “I need to be more productive” and/or “s/he is so productive.” The “productive” adjective becomes the single definition of our lives to the extent that a lot of negativity is associated with NOT being productive and “being lazy.” As such, being productive and slowing down might sound contradictory. I would argue that “slowing down” and “being productive” are not a simple binary. For us to answer the question, “can we be productive by slowing down?”, we need to first unpack what “being productive” means. Why? Because our worthiness and well-being are at stake.
The online dictionary defines “productive” as “resulting in or providing a large amount or supply of something; or having positive results.” What is “something” for us? What does it mean to have “positive results”? Does it refer to quality or quantity? Whose vision of “being productive” are we following?
Our definitions of “being productive” are socialized within us through our workplaces, family, or other social institutions. I am not suggesting that we ignore these societal or institutional definitions. Quite the opposite! By becoming aware of dominant notions of “productivity” and “being productive” and where they come from, we can subvert and reclaim a different definition. But, why? Because theses expectations take over who we are. There is a pitfall of following somebody else’s definition of productivity as it comes with a huge cost (both emotionally and physically). Unless we define productivity for ourselves by closely examining our core values in life, we will continue to embody an amputated body, or worst, an amputated spirit.
Most of the time, a quantity-based “productivity” colonizes the meaning of our lives. It has existential effects because the number of products or tasks that we have achieved becomes the single lens through which we define our life and self-worth. Such fragmented meaning of productivity defined by the institutions/society where we live and work can control our identity and aspiration. We have become subjects of “productivity” and “success” narratives that have been predominantly defined by dominant social institutions. A rushed feeling of time speeding by also brings a sense of productivity. But, are these feelings simply deceptions? While our mind can flea time, our bodies are tied to the present moment (Shahjahan, 2015).
So, you may wonder: can I be “productive” by slowing down? It all depends on whose and what definitions of “being productive” and “being successful” you are following.
I would recommend redefining “being productive” for yourself in your own terms. For instance, I wonder: do I want to work like hell while other parts of my life (e.g., body, family, relationships and our spirit) pay the highest price? What limiting beliefs inform my need to “be productive” all the time? Can I redefine “being productive” based on my life purposes?
As such productivity for me means different things: professionally, it means to leave a legacy for larger society with a body of literature that centers subjugated knowledges and experiences. Personally, for me “being productive” is to do things with family that embodies wholehearted living! The key here is to define productivity, not in terms of a destination (that is tied to quantity, or impact, or a state of being), but rather a direction for the journey we’re undertaking. As Jeff Goins (2015) put it “Your calling is not a destination. It is a journey that doesn’t end until you die”. The answer then is to “be productive” doing the work we are meant to do based on our core life values, while letting go of the result.
Given my definition of “being productive” is about wholehearted living–that is a journey, rather than a destination–slowing down can easily fit into this. Productivity can be about following a compass whereby we’re honouring our bodies as we move towards an unknown destination. This shift also involves trust and having faith that no matter what, the universe will take care of us!
Slowing down and being productive are very much intertwined because the journey and process are more important when I am mindful of the purpose of the things I am doing, rather than the outcomes. I have very little control over outcomes, which is deeply embedded in future-oriented thinking! In short, being productive and slowing down does not need to be a binary, but you can invite it together in your life by redefining “productivity.”
Castle, V. (2006). The trance of scarcity: Stop holding your breath and start living your life. San Francisco. Barrett-Koehler Publishers.
Goins, J. (2015). The art of work: A proven path to discovering what you were meant to do. La Mesa, CA. Nelson Books.
Shahjahan, R. (2015). Being lazy and slowing down: Toward decolonizing time, our body, and pedagogy. Educational Philosophy and Theory. 47 (5) 488-501.