Productivity and me: a break-up story

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As I lamented over upcoming research papers at 3 a.m. one night, it hit me. I didn’t want to be productive anymore — not when it cost my health and happiness. I stared at a vintage desktop Mac that ran Internet slower than a sleeping snail, trying not to wake my roommate. Sticky notes, which contained revised versions of my weekly to-do list and research ideas, plastered my cheap Goodwill desk. I crumpled up half the sticky notes, flicked off the lights and sprawled on my frameless mattress. After surviving three all-nighters, I was done.

Unfortunately, I’m addicted to productivity. It’s as though checking off tasks X, Y and Z will get me to a point in life where I’ll experience unadulterated joy and zero stress. But productivity and perfection exist as nasty parasites, constantly demanding more from their host.

Last semester, I convinced myself that I would take some time off to preserve my sanity, participating in no extracurriculars. My goal seemed simple enough. No longer would I be Stacey, the stressed-out weirdo who brought books to parties, but “Baecey,” the it-girl lovechild of Amal Clooney and Beyonce. Beware, T-Swizzle: I am a talented woman of color who, too, will be a singer-writer-style icon. After I find confidence.

Here’s what happened: I enrolled in 18 units to compensate for my lack of professional development. Amid the flurry of midterms and papers, I pulled three consecutive all-nighters in April. After the storm passed, my new life goals included stealing a spot on the couch at the campus’ Student Learning Center for sleep and allocating enough time weekly to watch “The Voice.” The book-wielding weirdo in me never quite escaped. School became my second home. My ambition pulled me into a trap of loneliness, and I grew irritable spending time with friends and family.

I craved the approval of authority, namely my instructors. Drowning in anxiety, my trusty brain produced praiseworthy work rather than personally meaningful work. While I wanted to turn in submissions to writing contests and freelancing gigs, I frequently found myself reading snooze-worthy social scientists at 3 a.m.

Those late nights made me realize that most of my hard work stemmed from a feeling of envy. I wanted to be like those who dominated class discussions and had bustling resumes — those knowledgeable, opinionated, future Hillary Clinton types. That was a major part of the problem: persistently comparing myself with people whom I did not want to be.

This was an A+ example of Marx’s commodity fetishism. I marketed myself a certain way, so keen on producing an embellished product that I forgot about the human behind the labor — me. I possessed no sense of self whatsoever, and productivity allowed me to distract myself from this harsh reality. If I completed a neverending series of tasks, then I, too, could be deemed successful.

Yet “productivity be damned!” is, indeed, a tough sell. Deadlines and small tasks simply make our world run more smoothly. Moreover, life would be but sweet nihilism if we sought no purpose and spent our time on Earth binge watching “Scandal” on Netflix or entertaining ourselves with funny cat videos on Vine.

I’m not saying we should distract ourselves. Rather, we should question why we value productivity so much. In an interview with Bluestockings, professor Mimi Nguyen contemplates, “I would challenge the ideas that work is good for us, that we be productive or measure other persons and things by their usefulness to us, and that we engage in constant calculation about value.” So how do we figure out what we want if we’re constantly driven by a world that never seems to stop?

The child of sacrificing immigrant parents and soon-to-be graduate of a prestigious university, I constantly feel indebted and nervous about holding back after 20 years of nonstop productivity. Getting rid of all productivity is ridiculous, but taking time off for yourself is a worthy goal. I firmly believe that we should all seek the chance to distinguish between obligation and gratitude, as well as between satisfaction and joy, instead of living like mere work zombies. Upon reflection, no way in hell was my GPA or pride worth horrible eating habits (or lack thereof), screwed-up sleeping cycles or crumbling sanity.

This summer, I want to feel like Lizzie McGuire did when she sang “What Dreams Are Made Of” in Italy. Who wants more than somewhere to belong and somebody to love? Last week, I canceled my summer classes, much to the consternation of the Berkeley Summer Sessions office and my wallet. My schedule comprises mostly work and writing — sometimes the gym, if I’m ambitious. Recently, I have read frequently, spent more time with my friends and family and even picked up a brush to work on a few watercolor projects.

Ultimately, I choose focus and embrace purpose. But I refuse to hail to the cult of productivity.

Contact Stacey Nguyen at [email protected].

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