A man walks through the door and greets his wife. “What did you do today?”, he asks.
“Nothing” she says in a weary tone. “I didn’t get anything done!”
Truth is, she’s hardly taken a breath. She’s spent her entire day cleaning and tidying, preparing food, organising, driving, responding to messages, entertaining, soothing, fixing, talking, holding, planning, and trying to get through her to-do list at the same time.
She feels like she has nothing left to give but yet she believes she has done nothing. She believes she has been completely unproductive.
This is a common story.
Why do we feel like we have done nothing when we have literally not stopped doing things all day?
Why do we so often feel like we haven’t done enough? That we can never do enough?
Our society is obsessed with productivity.
If you are productive you are valuable.
If you aren’t productive (by your own or someone else’s assessment) you are lazy or not good enough, and likely to feel ashamed.
Technology (while it has definite advantages) makes the focus on productivity even worse, making us contactable all the time, sending us endless notifications which demand our attention, and enabling us to work, communicate and multitask from anywhere, at any time.
This obsession with productivity creates an unhealthy situation for us. We:
- Feel like we need to make the most of every moment and push ourselves to do so.
- Focus on outcomes rather than the process (we can’t be successful until things are finished).
- Equate our productivity with our worth.
- Feel like we’re never doing enough.
- Compare how much we do to others.
- Cannot take a break because there is always more to do.
Can you recognise any of these in your own life?
Being productive in motherhood
Before motherhood, most of us came to understand productivity in terms of study, extracurricular activities and paid work. The harder we worked, the more we got praised. The more things we did, the more impressive people thought we were. In simple terms, productivity is commonly regarded as one’s ability to do a lot of work.
In motherhood, we don’t seem to apply the definition in the same way. If you tick 5 items off your to-do list at your job, you would likely consider yourself productive. But spend the entire day mothering and you may consider yourself unproductive.
You’ve undoubtedly done a lot of work but certain tasks are considered more productive than others. Whether something is deemed more or less productive is often based on the value we (society) attribute to the action or the outcome.
Mothering work is undervalued in society, with an outcome that is hard to quantify and in some respects takes years to see, so it isn’t considered productive.
Tidying up after your children all day might be a lot of work, but domestic duties are not valued as much as income producing activities, so are not always considered as productive.
What are the tasks or work that you do, that you don’t consider productive?
What are the tasks or work you do consider productive?
There is another important contributing factor to mothers feeling like they aren’t productive. The unrealistic expectations on mothers to be the primary carer 24/7, while completing the majority of the domestic duties, carrying the bulk of the mental load, and also contributing financially to the household, and investing in our relationship with our partner, makes us feel like we are never doing enough (and we haven’t even had time to look after ourselves yet). Even when we are productive, we can’t get everything done.
A slightly different definition of productivity
I don’t think it is accurate or empowering to feel like we are not productive when we are doing so much to raise our children, as well as taking care of all our other responsibilities. So, I’ve been thinking a slightly different definition of productivity would be useful.
What if, instead of defining productivity as doing a lot of work, we defined it as creating a positive result?
Importantly, I don’t mean end result (that would be focusing on the outcomes rather than the process), but the result of all your efforts at every step of the way. You can’t have the outcome without each of the steps.
If what you are doing is creating a positive result, it is productive.
What is classed as a positive result depends on what you need and what is important to you. Here are some examples:
- Stronger connection with your children
- Being a role model for your children
- Keeping your children safe and healthy
- Restoring your energy
- Soothing your nervous system
- Deepening your relationship with your partner
- Building your support network
- Bringing more fun, enjoyment or joy into your life
- Expanding your thinking, your knowledge or your capability
- Improving your health and wellbeing.
Your goal in being productive, is to work out what is most important, most deserving of your attention at the time and doing that with as much of your focus as possible. You’ll never get everything done. In fact, that isn’t the goal at all. Sometimes we have to forgo things that are worth doing for things that have the greatest impact or positive result in the areas that are more important to us.
Taking a nap could be the most important and productive thing you could do if you need to restore your energy levels. Investing time in a hobby could be the most important and productive thing to do if you are craving more fulfilment and joy in your life. Allowing yourself to sit and just be still and quiet for 10 mins could be the most important and productive thing you could to if you desperately need to calm your nervous system enough to handle your children’s big emotions for the rest of the afternoon. It all depends on what you consider a positive result.
Busyness and multitasking
We can’t talk about productivity without mentioning two things that are often considered part and parcel of being productive – busyness and multitasking.
Being productive does not equal being busy.
We can be busy with lots of tasks that aren’t really that important or that don’t need to be done quite so thoroughly. Perhaps some of the smaller tasks don’t result in much of a positive result for us. To be productive you actually need to do fewer things, rather than more. The most important things.
Being productive also doesn’t have to involve multitasking.
Just like with productivity, women often pride themselves on their ability to multitask. However, multitasking may not be as productive as you think. Our brains can’t actually focus on two things at the same time. Rather, our brains switch rapidly between the tasks, which has been shown to make our brains operate up to 40% slower, with more errors, reduced focus, attention to detail and memory, and limited creativity. (The exception to this is when you are doing tasks that require little cognitive load, for example, folding washing or brushing your teeth. These sorts of tasks can be done simultaneously with other tasks.)
Productivity itself is not a bad thing. We all need to get things done. But we don’t have to subscribe to the definition of productivity that drives us to measure ourselves by our output and continue to push ourselves past our limits to constantly do more and achieve more. We don’t have to let others define which tasks are productive and which aren’t in our own lives. We don’t have to define our worth by our productivity. Feeling like you are productive and therefore creating positive results is a much more empowering and motivating state to be in than feeling like you’re unable to catch up and never doing enough.
We get to choose how we define and measure our productivity.
How would this definition of productivity change the way you feel about what you accomplish in a day?