Reconstructing Our Conception of Success: Why Productivity May Not Be The Key

Varvara Vassilieva 29 October 2019
Image Credit: Picpedia

During Lent term, in a state of utter panic over my lack of experience in the professional world that could consequently result in my deportation to Australia, I applied to just about every summer internship or vacation scheme my googling skills could find. Out of the dozens of positions to which I applied, I was fortunate enough to land one.

Having come to the workplace straight out of the intensely pressurised Easter term, I assumed that all places of work would mirror this ethos and that all employees would behave as utility-maximising units.

“But my expectations were not met. In this workplace, obsessive hyper-productivity was simply not in vogue…”

How were they able to get things done, and to a very high standard, in the absence of flawless and systematic productivity? How could they not be overcome by a tsunami of guilt every time they chatted on topics unrelated to work during office hours?

Perhaps they were all innately smarter than me and possessed superior mental processing skills, which meant that they could afford to relax AND still get things done properly. Yet another round of imposter syndrome was approaching.

Or perhaps I was totally wrong. After a few weeks, I decided to intentionally silence the call for perpetual productivity that had possessed me during the academic year.

I came to realise that being occasionally and intentionally unproductive did not stop me from completing my work and most certainly did not deem me a moral and academic failure. If anything, it resulted in better work (as per the maxim ‘work smart, not hard’) and was indicative of markedly better mental health. I laughed at my fresher self who idolised hyper-productivity as key to any form of success. But how had I come to such a conviction in the first place?

The obvious culprit is the degree itself. You simply cannot write twelve 2000-word essays in eight weeks without being productive. My degree had essentially become a full-time job. Mind you, this was a full-time job without free evenings, without proper weekends and without the true possibility of being sick without facing repercussions. To simply get by, we need to be very productive. What’s more, it seems that the more you work, the higher chance you have of doing well in exams.

The demands of a Cambridge degree intertwine with the nature of living in college, which seems to actively promote and sustain this hyper-productivity.

We all know that colleges intentionally introduce measures to assist us in maximising our productivity (keeping libraries open 24/7, enforcing Quiet Period, etc.). Indeed I find that the ‘panopticon effect’ of living in college truly overwhelming. Even at the most awkward hours of the morning, you can find someone who is working harder than you. The all-too-familiar question of ‘Shouldn’t I be working too?’ looms large.

They say that comparison kills and in the context of Cambridge, this couldn’t be more accurate. What’s more, we often find ourselves signing up to many co-curricular activities, be it out of genuine interest or wanting to increase our employability. The end result is that even in our ‘time off’ from study, we are still ‘doing something’. When you mix these factors together, the end result is becoming addicted to hyper-productivity and trying to sustain it at all costs. It becomes not only abnormal but guilt-inducing to do nothing.

Is it really that bad to be occasionally unproductive?

Maybe Cambridge has distorted our perception of whether ‘doing nothing’ is right or wrong.  This does not mean that we should adopt a lazy lifestyle, for this would be simply incompatible with a degree. But while being generally productive may be absolutely necessary in our university, it is not necessary to become both obsessed and dependent upon ‘doing something’ at all times.

After all, we are not machines, we are not superhuman, and we are simply not made to be perpetually productive. It is time to embrace the beauty of occasional procrastination. Only then can we even hope of having a truly accepting, harmonious and loving relationship with ourselves.

What do you think? Let us know at with the subject line ‘Letter to the Editor’!