the culture of productivity and wasting time


Recently, I had a conversation with my stepfather that made me reflect a lot about what it means to be productive. I’m currently studying in a graduate degree program. It’s recommended by our program administrator that we don’t work more than ten hours a week since we’re full-time students that should be focusing on our studies. This ten-hour maximum is pretty typical for most graduate programs. Some people don’t follow this guideline and work part-time or full-time hours, but many others do.


My stepfather thinks that I should be working while I’m studying. When I brought up that I’m working as a graduate assistant to some professors, he said, “That’s not a real job.” In some senses, I understand his point. I work less than five hours a week, which is far below the average forty hour standard full-time work week in Canada. He brought up that like me, my mother pursued graduate studies but she had been working full-time and raising her family while doing so. Further, my younger brothers, in high school and college, are both working part-time at around ten to twenty hours a week, which is comparable to what I worked while in high school and university. The implication here was that by not working what he considered a “real job” with long hours, I was being lazy.


This criticism that I was lazy for not working while I’m in graduate school revealed to me that we have a fundamentally different understanding of what it means to “do” something. He sees value in things when they can contribute to one’s financial growth, either directly through monetary gains or indirectly through building a resume of experiences that will lead to a higher salary.


He is not alone in this. Now that people have had an influx of free time while working at home, the culture of productivity has been especially prominent. There has been an emphasis on ‘side hustles’ or things that you do in your spare time that are not explicitly connected to your job, but make you money, nonetheless. This doesn’t leave a lot of room for relaxation and in cases where people need time to relax or unwind, they might feel pressure to “do something productive.”


But further, I would suggest that this culture of productivity only makes room for one type of productivity – a capitalist, money-driven productivity. It’s true that I have a lot of time in the day where I do not do anything related to school. But in the time that I don’t do schoolwork, I engage in various other activities that I would consider to be productive. On each weekday, I write one thousand words, read fifty pages of a novel, exercise, and walk my dog. In the evenings, I either watch a movie or play video games with friends.


I find all of these things productive in various ways, but mainly relating to my mental or physical health and self-improvement, though none of them are productive in terms of the meaning of the word that my stepfather probably has. They don’t contribute to my bank account, but I find that they offer me wealth in other ways -- in terms of self-care, developing personal skills, and keeping habits.


However, an even deeper issue here is that there is the idea that everything we do has to be “worth” something, even if not in terms of money. People have always had hobbies, but I find more and more that the idea of a hobby is disappearing because of productivity culture. There now exists the idea that we should find some productive value in our hobbies. In talking about the things that I do every day and justifying them, I’m still imbuing them with a sense of productivity -- one that diverts from capitalist understandings of the word, but follows a sense of ‘getting something out of’ the activities that I do.


Even though I find some kind of productive value in the things that I have mentioned, what is more important to me is that they are things that I like to do. I like exercising because it makes me feel good. I like walking my dog because I like breathing in fresh air. I like reading, watching movies and playing video games as forms of entertainment. I like writing because I enjoy expressing myself through words. Though the quantifiable goals that I attach to writing and reading make them seem as though they’re just tasks on my list of things to do, I use them in a different way. Having the goals attached to these activities reminds me to take the time to do them. I use these things - writing and reading for my personal interest - as rewards for getting through the monotonous parts of my day like reading academic articles or writing papers. I have a responsibility to do these monotonous things so having these goals gives me something planned to look forward to in my day, while still keeping in mind that I have these responsibilities so I can’t necessarily, for example, spend a whole day reading a book. All of these things I do merely for the sake of doing them -- that they might have additional benefits does not make me more or less inclined to do them. I want to do them, so I do.


To be truthful, my stepfather’s comments did not really bother me because I have confidence in the things I’m doing as being worthy of my time. But the culture of productivity that is being suggested by his comments is something that I’m very strongly against. I’m in an advantageous position where I don’t need my job right now in order to live, given that I have quite a bit of money saved up, live with my parents, and receive funding for my studies, and so I enjoy indulging in my hobbies every day. They make me happy. I believe that we as people should be able to do things just because we find joy in them and that not everything has to be a means to an end.


Images by Caitlyn

Japanese Translated by Mia, Hikari and Kiara

Edited by Kiara