productivity & capitalism (& art)

When I look up the word Productivity on the google machine I get this: the state or quality of producing something, especially crops.

Crops? Crops are plants and i love plants so this should make me happy, but honestly I was momentarily surprised that this word’s primary definition still has connections to agriculture. Agriculture… industry… producing things to make money… capitalism. The dictionary definition has so little to do with art making that it is almost comical, and yet, the concept of productivity is so twisted and muddled up in what it means to be an artist that I honestly expected the definition to be much more related to that, and thus, to my personal struggles with the concept. Tony Robbins defines productivity as “getting the results you want with less time and effort… a way to achieve your goals while having time to spend on what really matters.” When I go back to google and look at the other results for the single word, productivity, I find list after list of “15 Habits that will Totally Transform Your Productivity”, “How to Improve Your Productivity at Work”, “The Productivity Guide”, etc, etc, etc. We are obviously a society obsessed with productivity. It pervades everything we do, and I feel like we (I think I am defining we as our western capitalist white supremacist cis het patriarchal society) are simultaneously combating a million “distractions”, ie, things perpetuated by said society, while trying to be productive. I struggle with so much of this. 

First of all, to go back to Robbins definition, I struggle with the fact that there is a distinction between “your goals” and “the things that really matter”. As though your goals fall on the career, business (capitalist make lots a money) side of things, and “the things that really matter” are something separate. Productivity in this society is about getting through all the things that need to be done, as though they are a nuisance, but also some sign of our worth. What happens when you are an artist? When “your goals” are also “the things that really matter”? When the stuff you struggle to get done, to work through, to “be productive” with, is the stuff that you love deeply - your art? Now, I think Robbins and all of these other people who claim to be masters of productivity in one way or another probably have good intentions. Robbins is trying to help people live their best lives. There is something to be said for getting things done, for not procrastinating, for having time to enjoy the beauty of the world (what’s left of it) and the company of your loved ones. For being efficient with your time so that you can meet those goals and set new ones. But in the last couple of years I have been really grappling with the idea that productivity is just a tool of capitalism. It is a way that we measure our worth, but is fundamentally flawed and fucked up because it is determining our worth based on our output. Not only is this problematic for obvious ways, like, what happens if you are elderly and unable to do that much anymore? Do you no longer have any worth? In America it would appear so, based on how we treat the elderly. What happens if you are not able bodied, or if you have invisible illnesses, like chronic pain or fatigue or depression? Things that literally make it impossible to get certain stuff done? Do you have less worth? Again, in American society, you are treated like you do. 

Ok cool. So I reject the idea that productivity determines my worth in the same way that I reject the notion that Capitalism is a good system to live under. I am not alone in this rejection, there are probably hundreds of medium articles and thought catalog pieces with varying titles of “your work is not your worth”. In some ways, the very act of becoming an artist is a rejection of both of these notions. I am most likely never going to make a lot of money as an artist. I will put out a ton of emotional, physical, energetic and time consuming labor that does not have a financial reward. And, like I mentioned above, there is little separation between my goals, many of the things I need to get done, and the things that really matter. Of course I still have to pay bills and eat food and pay an absurd amount for rent and a low quality of living in my Brooklyn apartment and tick off a million little life things from the always growing never shrinking to do list and otherwise function in a Capitalist society, but even if I get all that done quickly and efficiently, and am left with the time for “the things that really matter”, that’s when I struggle with productivity. That’s when I struggle to create art and put things out into the world. And if I am rejecting the idea of productivity as a tool of capitalism that forces me to determine my worth based on what I put out there, then how do I reconcile that with the need to generate work as an artist and the constant battle with myself to do so, while also trying NOT to determine my worth based on what I do!?!

It’s an internal struggle that often leaves me feeling like i am teetering on a thin edge of something… how do I demand excellence from myself without being too hard on myself? How do I cut myself a break without letting myself off the hook? How do I reject a system that rewards a go-go-go attitude of life and punishes us for resting and taking care of ourselves, without just doing nothing and giving in to the inertia that keeps me on my metaphorical couch, not creating? And how do I distinguish if I am doing one or the other?

It is easy for me to beat myself up for being lazy, for not sitting down at my computer and writing every day, or diving into the research material I’ve slowly gathered for an intimidating project that I actually want to make. But when I find myself in a negative self-talk spiral I try to step back and remind myself that productivity is not my worth, that capitalism is telling me I have to have something to show for my efforts all of the time. But THEN I’m like, no! I’m not talking about working for the man, I am talking about making art! I SHOULD be writing every day, I SHOULD be creating constantly because this is what I love and art challenges and pushes back against all the fucked up systems that got us here in the first place! Okay. But then what happens when I’m not productive? When I procrastinate or struggle to get going? Am I worth less somehow? Because I am already not working a 9-5 job or functioning within a classic work/play mode of living. So if I’ve rejected that path, do I still get an occasional pass when I am not being productive? I don’t know. These are the things that keep me up at night. Rejecting systems and functioning within them. Ironically I have been thinking about these concepts for at least a year and finally got around to writing about it. I feel a sense of accomplishment for putting this down on ‘paper’. I feel better about myself. My self worth probably just went up. Because I produced something. So am I really even rejecting anything at all?