When Productivity is (Un)productive

The inability to sit quietly in a room

Hey friends,

I’ve been thinking about this quote the entire week: “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room.” This has never been more true than today. As 2020 blurred lines between ‘work’ and ‘life’, we were literally stuck in, a, room. Yet, as a society, we were more active than ever.

In April 2020, this is how our Zoom usage spiked:

And this is how we coped with social distancing in April 2020:

This oddity, though, is the new normal now.

As our problems still stay the same (or are exacerbated with this), it’s useful to think about the quote above and reflect on when productivity itself becomes ‘unproductive’.

We sacrifice leisure for future productivity

Bertrand Russell wrote that our society is guided by “continually fresh schemes, by which present leisure is to be sacrificed to future productivity.” This is exactly why we prefer to work a bit more than what’s required.

We cannot sit idle

This is also exactly one of the reasons why we have “problems”: We have lost the ability to sit idle. In her book Open House for Butterflies, Ruth Krauss writes: “Everybody should be quiet near a little stream and listen.”

We have redefined leisure

One article that particularly struck me was this one from Brainpickings, that reminded me of how our relationship with ‘leisure’ as a thing has fundamentally changed. Today, we think of leisure only in the context of work. We think of leisure as a “break” from work, but that is not true leisure.

The simple “break” from work — the kind that lasts an hour, or the kind that lasts a week or longer — is part and parcel of daily working life… Nobody who wants leisure merely for the sake of “refreshment” will experience its authentic fruit, the deep refreshment that comes from a deep sleep.

Leisure has a much deeper meaning, which, Josef Pieper puts very well:

This is why the ability to be “at leisure” is one of the basic powers of the human soul. Like the gift of contemplative self-immersion in Being, and the ability to uplift one’s spirits in festivity, the power to be at leisure is the power to step beyond the working world and win contact with those superhuman, life-giving forces that can send us, renewed and alive again, into the busy world of work…

This is true leisure, independent of work.

When Productivity becomes (un)productive

With this context in place, note that when you’re not able to sit quietly in the room that you’re working from, then:

  • You have sacrificed leisure for future productivity, or
  • You cannot sit idle and listen, or
  • You have misunderstood leisure as a “break” from work.

This understanding has greatly helped me, quite ironically, supercharge my productivity. The reason is simple: Productivity multiplies when you give yourself a ‘fun factor’, or better, a ‘leisure factor.’


I’ve been in quite a few rabbit holes this week, but this, in particular, was the best. Dive deep into this gem of a resource, to understand complex ideas explained in a visually appealing way. 😊