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How to be productively unproductive

October 23, 2021

It’s 8pm and I’m finally heading back to my dorm, exhausted and spent. My full day of classes ended a long time ago, but one obligation lead to another. An obligation to feed myself, a self-imposed obligation to network and meet new people, the works. I’m strolling to the opposite end of campus, debating how the next two short hours of my life are going to be spent before passing out. I’m ready to do anything other than work, but the more I thought about it, the more appealing a headstart on tomorrow seemed. Just one more assignment I tell myself.

I may have fought the battles of today, but there’s plenty of more fires to be put out for tomorrow. Should I get a head start? I asked myself again, in a tone that was more trying to convince myself than to ask myself. In an ideal world I would knock out another lengthy assignment before bed, but my will is weak.

Okay, so I’m not going to be doing homework. Am I going to watch YouTube or do something I’ve been meaning to get to? I haven’t practiced my instrument at all since last week, neither coded anything beyond what I was assigned for homework. What’s the best use of my time? There’s so much to do and not enough time!

Even during what should be my free time I’m trying to evaluate how productive I am. Time is a precious commodity and one you can’t get back. How do you squeeze the most out of a single day? That is the elusive question that every high-powered executive would give their right arm to find out. But do we really want to squeeze every infinitesimal drop of time and energy? Life may give you lemons, but productivity is at best trying to scrape the lemon clean and at worst trying to atomize the entire lemon as efficiently as possible.

Sometimes we delude ourselves into thinking that we have to live every moment to the fullest: work hard, play hard, laugh hard, sleep hard. We have to not only succeed academically but socially and physically at any opportune moment. In a way, life can feel like showmanship where you have to present the best image of yourself despite feeling utterly depleted. It’s not necessarily showmanship to others, but also proving to yourself that you can handle the barrage of citrus fruit-shaped grenades that life throws at you. So, how do we stop ourselves from feeling guilty when we aren’t being productive?

Quod Erat Demonstrandum (it means problem solved silly)

Procrastination is what happens when you don’t do something and you’re guilty enough about it to admit it. The word procrastination implies that you had something better to do and you didn’t do it. Otherwise, it’s just spending time. Guilt is what assigns time value when there isn’t any immediate positive feedback, so if you ain’t guilty, you ain’t procrastinating.

There comes a certain point in the day where the additional effort you put in doesn’t justify the change in output. Simple economics: produce only when the marginal cost equals the marginal benefit. Therefore, economically speaking, it’s a waste of time to continue doing work once you reach a threshold of tiredness. The same goes for anything that counts towards your productivity.

Productivity can mean so many things, but generally speaking, it is how much you can advance your goals in a given amount of time. You can be productive by writing a ten page essay in an hour, but also by doing something you’ve been meaning to do, like practicing an instrument. And from the conclusion we reached earlier, we should only be productive when the additional benefits and additional drawbacks net zero, which includes non-work aspects of life too.

So effectively, I just justified your Netflix binges in less than three paragraphs. You’re welcome. But jokes aside, there is immense value in taking the time to do productively useless things. It’s what allows the lemon tree to continue bearing fruit. In a sense, you are being productive by doing nothing. You’re welcome for the paradox too.