I used to think that I was a machine.
Not literally—like I obviously know I’m a human. But, the way I lived my life didn’t reflect that. I lived with a focus on how to do more faster while wondering, “Why do I feel so tired?”
I couldn’t figure out why it was so hard for me to routinely do the same things every day. Like, I would have habits like eating breakfast, brushing my teeth, taking a shower—habits that were built around supporting my physical functioning. But when it came to work, doing the same work tasks day in and day out often left me on the verge of a breakdown.
All through my school years and even as an adult, the cost of routinized work has weighed heavy on me. In school, I viewed taking tests as a game where the goal was to figure out what the teacher wanted. Once I had test-taking down to a science, I decided to write novels in the margins of my notes during class because now it all felt boring and repetitive. I’ve quit jobs due to the body aches and mental numbness that comes from doing the same things over and over.
About ten years ago I was working on wrapping up my first webcomic. It took around three to four years to make, and I was working on it every day. There was not a single day when I didn’t draw something. I was always drawing, inking, editing and uploading. It was four years of self-imposed habitual work. This wasn’t my job. I was totally unpaid, and no one was forcing me to work this way. It was simply how I thought it needed to be done.
This process of creating brought me so much excitement and joy. But when I wrote “The End” and posted the last page, I was met with tiredness, depression, and an intense creative dry-spell. This was so frustrating because I knew my readers were waiting. They were waiting for my next thing. But I had nothing more to give because I had dried up inside. This shift in my energy caught me off guard, and I found the whole experience confusing. I just spent the last four years working on something that I LOVED every day. Why was I so burned out?
Like a comic page printing factory, I worked restlessly. But working this way disconnected me from what is the most essential part of any creative process—my humanity. I was dead focused on following the script and completing whichever task came next until there were no more tasks left.
I think in a way I was lucky that the todos eventually ran out. The years of numbness and depression that came after that project was a wake up call for me to reconnect to my humanity. My mechanized mind was like, “What? No more tasks to process? Let’s throw up an error code and shut down!”
Notice that I didn’t say “How To Get Things Done.” Nope. How I Get Things Done. As in, what’s best for me.
I’ve always believed that it’s essential to be aware of how I need to do things. This is because the way I complete tasks is how I reach goals. What I do and how I do it is what determines where I go in life and how I feel about it all.
I had just reached the amazing goal of finishing a webcomic. But I realized on a deep level that something in my process was broken. Something was wrong in the way I believed I needed to work. For one thing, it didn’t match the needs of my body, emotions, or the way I naturally prefer to process information.
Also, I found that the common concepts that make up the rules of modern productivity were constantly in conflict with the most human parts of me.
Meet Your Inner Taskmaster
Imagine that you’re working in a factory at the start of the 20th century. It’s hot. Loud. Relentless. Sweaty. What kinds of things are your factory foreman yelling at you?
You don’t have time for a break! Meet the quota!
Don’t let your hands become idle!
Keep looking busy!
Come on! Hustle!
Good god, you’re so lazy!
Do it faster! Do it now!
And do it RIGHT!
You keep hearing this as you process and assemble the same parts, over and over, day after day.
In early factories, there were no computers and robots to fully automate the work. Humans had to be the automations. In order to fill that role, people had to be put into an environment where their humanity ceased to matter. They had to become human machines that worked within an even larger, systemized machine.
Today, is this what you hear in your mind as you try to do your job, be creative, or just simply take care of your family and yourself every day? The voice of the factory foreman?
I know this is the voice I’ve often heard in my mind.
Is This a Test?
Test taking can be a strange thing, especially if you do it often enough.
It’s important to answer all the questions correctly within the allotted time. If you take longer than the time given to you, then, you’re going to have some problems. And if you decide to take a restroom break during a test, that time is lost to you. It’s better to get as much done as you can without taking a break or until the allotted break time comes around. And it has to be done right.
Just like work.
Just like factories.
Just like machines.
And machines can fulfill these kinds of orders almost perfectly. Machines are built to process more, faster, perfectly, with hustle and focus without rest for really long periods of time.
But I’m not a machine. I’m human. I have needs and emotions, and machines don’t. So why am I being expected to work this way too?
Why do I expect myself to work this way?
Our Mechanical Romance
If you’re just getting acquainted with me, one thing to know is that I am a weeb. I’ve been a Japanese anime and manga fan since I was introduced to Mobile Suit Gundam Wing back in middle school. Not only were the animated boys way hotter than any guy I could ever hope to lay my eyes on in my junior high classes, but I was also fascinated with the machines—the mechas—that they piloted.
I feel like my enjoyment of Japanese comics that explore the relationships between people and technology is one of the influences that inspired me to get a degree in computer engineering instead of in the visual arts. I’ve always had a deep fascination with how machines intersect with our human lives.
In my early twenties, back in the days of Tokyopop and English print editions of Shojo Beat, I was reading a Japanese comic series called Absolute Boyfriend. It’s the story of a high school girl who ends up falling in love with a robot who is designed to be a fully functioning (cough,cough) boyfriend. This romance is both kinda trashy and thought provoking at the same time.
My favorite character is Soushi Asamoto, the best guy friend of the female lead. He’s been by her side as a childhood friend since forever and is in love with her. But he is devastated the moment he discovers that she has decided to pursue a romantic relationship with a machine instead of with him.
I feel like at that moment, he realizes that he would never be enough for her. His human-ness is not enough, and the perfection and efficiency of the robot boyfriend won out.
When our humanity is rejected, that’s when we find ourselves sinking into feeling like we can never do enough, fast enough, perfectly enough.
The voice of the factory foreman is the voice of modern productivity, and it reminds us regularly of how the things that make us uniquely human are the same things that make us terrible machines.
Maybe, we’ve chosen being in love with the machine over loving our human nature.
And our humanity is being left devastated in the process.
On Being Naturally Productive
As far as productivity writers go, the things I write about are a bit strange. I write about things like rest, contemplation, reflection, compassion, acceptance, taking small steps and feeling joyfully challenged.
I did start out by writing about to-do lists and planners and the occasional productivity hack. I still do sometimes. But yet I realize that processing an unending list of to-do’s every day without breaks is what machines do.
Humans are naturally productive. We love to create, move, work, interact—this is how we feel alive. Machines however are not alive, and when we force ourselves to work like them, we feel less alive too.
If you want to feel alive, start working like a human.
Like most things in nature, humans need space to be optimally productive. We need room to rest, sleep, play, move, think, reflect, and contemplate.
Overloading our minds with a blind focus on what needs to be done next not only leads to mental exhaustion and stress, but it also hurts our creativity and ability to solve problems.
As humans, we also have to honestly acknowledge the impact emotions have on our work. Pretending that the emotions don’t exist does not make them go away. And unfortunately, this undervaluing of emotions when it comes to our productivity leaves us blind to the natural creative boost that comes from leveraging emotions in our work.
Being organic creatures, we’re also under the influence of seasonal and hormonal cycles. These cycles influence the speed and consistency of our work, and what we are attracted to doing. Forcing ourselves to do the same tasks every day in the same way is actually—inhuman.
Overall, being a productive human is often messy, playful, emotional, cyclical, and even unpredictable. It’s nothing like the way in which machines get things done. We’re only looking for trouble when we expect to completely control the unexpected and unknown by attempting to perfectly contain it in lists, calendars, planners, apps, and systems. This is also probably why many people find themselves with multiple productivity apps on their phone and a few notebooks to keep things together.
Add to that all of the mechanisms and tricks we use to keep ourselves on task, because when we are doggedly forcing ourselves to focus, it seems even harder to maintain. Like how I preferred to write novels when I was supposed to be focused on my high school classes.
Productivity gets complicated when it’s our goal to fit our humanity perfectly into boxes and machine-like systems. So this is why I’ve always believed that the simpler and more flexible the productivity system is, the better.
Here’s something to try.
Try letting go of attempting to contain and control it all. Instead, shoot for what’s good enough—the exact amount of planning that is essential for you. No more and no less.
Instead of looking for perfection, look for peace. And peace isn’t found in having the perfect system. Having a good planning system that works with the way you see the world can definitely help a lot, but I don’t think that’s where the peace comes from.
I suspect that productivity peace happens when we are brave enough to hold on to our plans lightly. We hope that things will go as planned, but we still stay open to the unknown and the fact that sometimes things have to be moved around and canceled. We leave room for things to go wrong.
We accept that we don’t always get to do what we want or expect every day, and that’s okay.
We also accept that our focus isn’t perfect and sometimes that simply means we need to take a break and return to that task later. And that’s okay too.
Working within this mindset has put me in a place where I simply write several tasks I want to do for the week and take on whatever is reasonable as each day comes around. I also keep myself open to following multiple methods and paths to reach my goals, instead of sticking to one rigid plan which can be easily derailed at the first sign of trouble.
How would you plan your goals and your days if you had to embrace the unknown and unexpected?
How can you let go of the unrealistic expectations that have been put on you and that you have put on yourself?
How do you NEED to do things?
Pay attention to that inner nudge or voice that tells you it’s time to take a break or that you should sneak in a nap once you get the chance. It really does have your best interests at heart.
Remember that you are a productive human, not a machine, and at the end of the day, it’s all about what works best for you and what you enjoy, as a person with emotions, needs, and a life that is ever changing.