Productivity Plateau

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From Confucian society to the Italian Renaissance to the current Digital Age, each generation has had its definition of ideal human behavior. Every society places a premium on different values and philosophies. Our contemporary society seems to be fixated on one thing – productivity. This is undeniably a by-product of capitalism, characteristic of a world that revolves around GDP growth and performance metrics. In today’s society where workaholic CEOs rule the world and have their militant lifestyles printed in every self-help book, I can’t help but wonder – is this regimented way of time management really the best way to live? This lifestyle where humans are governed by our schedules, obsessed with time and slaves to our jobs strikes me as, well… robotic. Since when has the values of humanity converged with that of machines?

Back in secondary school, I proudly proclaimed to a good friend of mine that I wanted to be a farmer. I appreciate a slower pace of life, I told her. I don’t want to be exceptional; being mediocre is good enough. I spent my school days slacking off by scrolling through too many Tumblr posts, avidly procrastinating then panicking right before exams and sleeping so little I could barely open my eyes the next day. My friends were kind enough to describe me as being “blur”, euphemistically put for “not having a clue what is going on”. I needed more skills in time management, my teachers told me. My parents were exasperated at my lack of self-control. In other words, my life was a bit of a mess.

Fast forward four years later in university where I set myself 15-minute lunch breaks, clock 8 hours of sleep every night (okay fine, except Finals week) and hole up in the library for more than 12 hours a day, I wouldn’t be surprised if my friend turned around and labelled me a big, fat hypocrite. In my Freshman year here in NYU, I embarked on the challenge of living the most productive life possible. To give you an idea: My dorm is perched on the corner of Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village. My classes are down the street. The dining halls are a few blocks away. The library is right across the road. In other words I could eat, sleep and study all within a minute walking radius. With travel time almost altogether eradicated from my life, I could essentially spend my time doing all things “productive”. Just in case there was buffer time, I also kept Philosophy podcasts handy. To keep myself healthy I hit the gym, practiced yoga and attended dance classes. In addition, I ramped up my walking speed so fast I apologize belatedly if you were greeted by a breeze whenever I zoomed by you on the streets. I went to all my classes, finished all my readings, did all my homework, and jumped onto any activity that caught my interest which sounded mildly “productive”. Media and Technology conference? Check. Arts and Social Justice symposium? Check. Future of Work employer meetup? Check.

And that is why contrary to popular belief, I did not spend my semesters in NYC teetering on a rock in Central Park or taking photos of plants in Brooklyn. I spent the vast majority of it developing an intimate affair with Bobst Library, which has since turned into my favourite camping spot on campus. The rare instances where I do conjure up new content to update my Instagram are done during the fleeting moments of breaks that I allow myself. The more we try to program ourselves into living operating systems, the more we need timely reminders of the most obvious truth – that we are human. When I create, I do precisely that. It is a method of reaffirming my human-ness, a means of acknowledging the individuality that exists within me. To actually feel is quite a rare thing nowadays, with Google Calendar dictating what I do with my life every hour of the day.

But somewhere along the way, I was hit by a scary reality – I struck a productivity bottleneck (without compromising my 8 hours of sleep, for I knew from enough prior experience that lack of sleep makes for a very cranky Zikki, and neither did I take a single sip of coffee). For someone who deems self-betterment as the key motivator in all personal pursuits, this productivity plateau came as a huge slap in the face. Is this really all that I can fit in one day? Am I at the saturation point of my personal productivity? Will I stagnate from now on?

I guess this is when I realized that any lifestyle should have a balance. (Duh!) But the day I watched tap water flow into my bottle and tried to will it to “Just fill faster!” was when I decided – I should probably slow down a little. Over the two semesters, I began to feel my heart rate increasing. Taking a stroll became almost unbearable. My friends told me I constantly sounded on the edge. Even my parents started telling me to take it easy. Fast forward one and a half months into my summer break, I am still struggling with the after-effects of winding myself up too tightly. Insomnia and rapid heart rate are still haunting me despite the rest I am supposed to be getting.

I think many of us don’t realize just how malleable our habits are. We are creatures of habit, and Aristotle got it right on with “We are what we do repeatedly”. It is incredibly empowering to know that we have the ability to create dramatic transformations to ourselves just by making small and gradual changes to our lifestyles. (Admittedly, I was forced to shape up in a short period of time before A levels, but that’s a whole other story I will save for later.) Who you are today may only be a wisp of who you are years later. We are shifting in such motion, changing in such dynamic flux that if we turn around, we might not even recognize the skins we left behind. At the end of the day, while there is no one best way to live, there are certainly better ways to live. Let us keep seeking until we catch that slippery little Snitch named balance – ostensibly within sight, yet never quite within grasp.

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