The Definition of Productivity

I’ve realised lately, and frequently, that a significant portion of any stress that I have is closely related to my perception of productivity and how it matches up with both external expectations and my own understanding of what I “should” be doing. Depending on my level of intention, this drastically changes how a I feel on a minute-to-minute basis in my daily life. If I feel that I haven’t delivered on something by someone else’s standards, and I feel I should live up to those standards, I end up laden with anxiety, procrastination abounds, and it ends up being somewhat of a downward spiral.

As I wake up at 5am to the movements outside, I lay for a minute thinking about what my day is going to be like, what I expect to do and achieve. My morning is studded with a bath, teeth-brushing, and picking an outfit to wear (whatever I feel like, generally). Sitting for half an hour in the courtyard, watching as Siboro plays with the dog, or Fatimata is processing some food for the day, or joining in a conversation with Chairman or Gani, or just reading, I don’t worry about the time passing.

Siboro, generally whiny but somewhat intelligent for a 4-year-old. Not my favourite member of the household to be sure. He and his sister put nail polish on his face here?

Fatimata soaking and scrubbing the skins off of soya beans.

My 15 min bikeride to work means a plethora of “Good mornings” to the high school students going the other direction to school, and little time to think for myself as I pedal, something I tend to miss but am willing to compromise in order to get to work on time. 10 mins to talk with Arimiyaw and buy water for the day, 3 quick stops to say hello to Talhatu, Rafik, and another Arimiyaw, and I’m stopping to eat for 30 mins at THE egg and bread place on the side of the road. This is my favourite place to plan the day’s action at work, and enjoy the onion-pepper-omelette sandwich with a steaming mug of Milo. Knowing that I am more effective when I’ve eaten well, and understanding that planning for a day can make or break my flow of productivity, I generally start the clock for my day’s work as I sit with breakfast. Coasting to the office, I put in a good four hours until lunch time, during which I pick one of four places to get food, and bring it to whichever friend I feel like hanging out with for an hour. Back to work, and when I get off at 5pm, I have a precious hour until the sun sets, which I once again tend to devote to shooting the breeze. Biking home in the gloaming I think about the day, say hello to various people around the village, and roll my bike into my room where it will rest until the next morning. Bath, food, and bed all come before 9pm, but somewhere in there I will get some time to talk with my high school friends living with me, re-watch one of the movies on my netbook, read, and journal about the day.

Disarmingly simple, yet highly productive. Why? My measurement of productivity was how happy I was, which tends to be directly tied to the face-to-face interactions I get in a day.

A Canadian version could possibly have involved over 25kms of travel by bus, a coffee downtown and a beer at SFU and a group meeting for EWB followed with a good hour of reading the latest novel on my list or the tabs and tabs of internet articles. It would be one of greater movement and distance, more commuting time, and little space for the output version of productivity like going to classes, contributing to EWB content development and planning, or furthering my research. However strongly the achiever in me strains to live up to what tend to be externally evaluated forms of productiveness, the balance of time tends to land with the meeting of friends, having conversations, and hanging out with cool people.  So why do I feel like I need to live up to being productive on multiple dimensions? I commit to many projects, and that commitment is not something I easily relinquish. Once I’m in, I can’t let it go, even if I’m not delivering.

SFU, the institution that for me frames the vast majority of either type of productivity

A friend recently proposed that we tend to  live in “a self-imposed hell”, where we do have choices to increase or decrease workload and commitment, however workload tends to be better correlated to achievement and a life of meaning. But I’m seeing it slightly differently.  I think in my case it may be simply a problem of definition, where because of the invigorating people that tend to populate all of my areas of commitment, I have confused the achievement in those areas with my true definition of a life of meaning, which is instead the human interaction. And while my commitment may remain, the people may have changed or moved on, or there are new incredible people to meet and know, and somehow my productivities are no longer tied to one another. Thus the ensuing guilt of being “unproductive” in the external sense, while downplaying what really makes me happy and should be my main measure of productivity.


About Janine Reid

What is Janine? -board game enthusiast -political observer -Vancouverite -questioner -listener -health provider
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