The emotional cost of productivity

Last updated on 
January 3, 2020

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Am I productive enough? Could I be working harder? How can I get more done?

If you’ve ever asked yourself one of the above, you may have a productivity problem. In our hyper-connected, progress-obsessed world, it’s hard not to ask more of our own performance. But while some level of challenge is good, constantly setting intense productivity goals often comes at the expense of wellbeing; we simply don’t have the emotional space to realize we are already trying hard enough.

The Case of Elon Musk

When we talk about hyper productivity, Elon Musk immediately springs to mind. But despite his extraordinary success – owning a net worth of $20.2 billion as founder of PayPal, SpaceX, Tesla and Neuralink – he’s ironically come to represent productive meltdown.

In a tearful interview with the New York Times, Musk revealed the true cost of his commitment to productivity. Over the past few weeks he’s worked up to 120 hours a week, often not leaving the Tesla factory for three or four days at a time – even to go outside. On the occasions when he makes it home, he’s admitted to relying on insomnia drug Ambien to manage stress and complete fatigue.

While Musk has long been lauded for his astonishing work ethic, people are finally recognizing the grim consequences of his productivity. Perhaps most importantly, people are realizing that this type of exhaustion doesn’t just happen overnight. In Musk’s case, it’s the cumulative impact of 17 years with no more than one week of holiday at a time.

The mental cost of productivity

Devoting so much time to your work has far-reaching consequences; particularly for your mental health. The mental exhaustion of being “too productive” expresses itself through insomnia, fatigue, lost concentration, depression and anxiety – and that’s without going into the physical effects.

And stress and anxiety really constrict us. We literally can’t think straight. When we’re extremely anxious, our amygdala (the emotional/irrational brain) takes over. It actively hijacks the rational brain, resulting in unmeasured reactions, making us unfair and unreasonable – something again illustrated by Elon Musk’s recent behavior.

But there’s also the issue of not being fully “present” in your personal life. Healthy relationships depend on mutual support, so when you spend most of your time in the office – and the best part of home time vetting messages and emails – you weaken a crucial source of your own emotional wellbeing.

You are not a machine

For all our technological innovation and artificial intelligence, we are still not machines. Being so fixated on work productivity leaves no space for the self, which productive performance depends on; it’s impossible to connect to your creativity and talent if you don’t connect with yourself. When you actually feel stable and content, you have the potential for deep focus and effective collaboration with others.

Tycoons like Musk are proof of the incredible things people can achieve with single-mindedness, and many people believe they can learn from their successes. But we can also learn from their failings. Research has shown that there is simply no way to reach your potential while running on empty.

To keep productivity positive and mindful, re-evaluate what success means to you. Take time to appreciate what you have achieved and never castigate yourself for not working hard enough. Ultimately, it isn’t about working hard; it’s about working in a way that allows you to be your best self.

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