The Problem With Productivity

While volunteering at an NGO in the by-lanes of the area of Dhakuria in South Kolkata, one of my favourite things to do was to visit the sweet shop nearby to eat rosogollas. The only problem was that I could never satisfy my cravings for the sweet right after lunch. Once, when I tried to go there in the afternoon, I found it closed. After their lunch that was majorly rice, the shopkeepers had closed the shutters, blocked out the heat and settled down for their afternoon siesta. On realising this, I looked around at the empty lane- which seemed completely cut off from the noises of the rushing cars and buses on the flyover nearby, and thought: ‘Don’t the shopkeepers understand that it’s better for them to stay awake and sell? That way they’ll earn more and be so much more productive!’


We’re always talking about being productive, either trying to be it, or beating ourselves up about not having been productive enough. We have never ending lists of tasks, each one fitted into a time slot, and unless we put a tick mark next to the task in that exact amount of time, we don’t feel good about ourselves. Being productive is about getting things done: whether it’s writing papers, meeting sales targets or earning extra money. It’s about finishing as many tasks in as little time as possible, so that we have time to get even more things done. Living the 'time is money' mantra, we’re constantly waiting for that moment of satisfaction you experience by getting shit done; but that feeling is fleeting, because then the vicious cycle of productivity forces us into the next thing to finish and the rat race continues.

It’s easy to understand why our minds work in this pattern. The world is obsessed with productivity: if you do more work, you can earn more money and buy more things, and we’re told that the more things we have, the happier we’ll be. This idea that materialism can bring us happiness is dangerous, especially because all it focuses on is the quantitative outcome of our work. The world seems to have forgotten, that productivity has very little to do with efficiency.

When I chose to take a gap year after my BA to work in and learn about the social sector, a lot of people told me that I was ‘losing’ or ‘wasting’ a year. There was not going to be any clear outcome- no money, no certificate, no tangible result at the end, so it was seen as unproductive and useless. It actually turns out that the year in which I really didn’t get anything done, was extremely rewarding and shaped my personality and my career.


The pressure that capitalism has laid on productivity has us slogging in an assembly line manner. This results in most of us ignoring the quality in favour of quantity, which not only deteriorates our performance in the long run but also drops our ‘job satisfation’ massively.

In fact what those shopkeepers have been doing for generations, is something that employee friendly firms like Google with their ‘energy pods’ & Nike with their ‘quiet rooms’ have recently adopted. There is a reason why most millennials have a mid life crisis before they hit 30 while the shopkeepers of Kolkata have not only managed to survive, but flourish doing the same job from my grandparents’ young days to my youth. 

So, now, when I think of them I’m not exasperated: I’m actually inspired by the way they prioritise efficiency over productivity, and siestas over slogging.

words : rhea kaikobad