Today’s Productivity Culture: Why We’re Obsessed With Work

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Do Nothing" by Celeste Headlee. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Do you work more than you need to? Do you feel pressured to stay busy?

Celeste Headlee writes that our modern productivity culture largely stems from changing perceptions of how valuable one’s time is and the pressure to achieve a more glamorous lifestyle. She also contends that the pressures can be even higher for women.

Continue reading for this important discussion about the productivity-obsessed culture of today.

Productivity Culture

Headlee says that the productivity culture—our obsession with a strong work ethic that started during the Industrial Era—causes many people to choose to overwork themselves. Many people still view hard work as a sign of good character, and when asked how they’re doing, “busy” is often the response that signals how important and valuable they are as a person (even if it’s stated in a complaining tone). As a result, many people willfully work far more than is necessary to survive.

Unpaid Labor and Compulsory Work

Research supports the idea that some people are not only working more hours than they need to cover their expenses but also working more unpaid overtime. A 2021 study of workers in 17 countries found that 10% of workers put in more than 20 hours per week in unpaid labor.

Some experts assert that poor management practices are to blame and suggest that unpaid labor may not be entirely “voluntary” if temporary or new employees feel pressured to put in unpaid hours to prove themselves or keep their position. Others point out that shortages of employees due to layoffs or resignations can lead to extra pressure on the remaining employees. These factors suggest that an institutional approach to changing the current work culture might be appropriate in addition to changing individual mindsets (as Headlee focuses on). 

However, Headlee shares a caveat to her assertion that people are choosing to overwork: This trend doesn’t apply to the many people who are involuntarily unemployed or underemployed (meaning they don’t get enough work hours to meet their needs). Many people don’t have the luxury of choosing to work less because they’re struggling to get by.

Headlee discusses a couple of factors that she believes are behind the productivity culture. She also points out the higher expectations on women to both have a successful career and take care of their families.

Headlee’s Argument Applies to a Specific Subset of Workers

Although Headlee generalizes about a global culture that’s preoccupied with productivity, there are complex factors at play that determine why some people choose to overwork, why some people can’t find work, and why some people have jobs that don’t have flexibility around scheduling and weekly work hours. Because of this complexity, it’s worth emphasizing that her analysis applies primarily to the subset of relatively well-off people who can choose to work less.

In one example of the nuance around work culture, some experts specify that the concept of busyness as a status symbol and a “badge of honor” is common among higher-paid workers in particular. On the other hand, for people of lower socioeconomic status, the economic pressures during the Industrial Era that Headlee mentions are still a driving force of overworking. In addition, even among higher-paid workers, the ability to work fewer hours varies by industry.

Lastly, there are many identity-based factors that may influence whether people fall into Headlee’s category of those who don’t overwork because they’re unemployed or underemployed. These include gender, physical ability, race, and more.  

Time Feels Scarce & Too Valuable to Squander

Although people aren’t working longer hours on average compared to the Industrial Revolution era, they still feel exhausted and overworked. Headlee says this is partly because, as someone’s hourly wage or salary goes up, their time becomes more valuable. And, because time is more valuable, it also feels more scarce. Thus, people feel anxiety at the prospect of wasting time by not doing something productive.

As a result, the urge to be productive spills over into people’s non-professional lives. So, even when people aren’t at work, they feel like they still should be pursuing self-improvement or self-advancement. This means that activities that should be relaxing, like meditating, often become tiresome and stressful because people overanalyze the activity with an app or post it on social media to impress others. In other words, activities turn into work when they’re goal-oriented instead of being done just for the sake of enjoying life in that moment.

Chasing Economic Advancement and Social Status

Headlee argues that another reason behind the modern obsession with work is the pressure to achieve a more luxurious lifestyle by working hard and making more money. The narrative of the worker who gets rich by never taking a day off dates back over a hundred years. The problem with this, Headlee says, is that social media causes people to chase ever more glamorous lives as they compare themselves not only to the people around them but to the billionaires and millionaires that take up a disproportionate amount of media space. 

(Shortform note: Psychologists affirm Headlee’s argument that social media exacerbates the negative aspects of social comparison—instead of feeling inspired to improve something about yourself when looking at social media, you’re more likely to suffer a drop in self-esteem because you only ever see the highly curated, best parts of other people’s lives. Some tips to avoid the negative effects of social comparison are to compare your current self to your past self to reflect on your progress, focus on gratitude for what you have, identify strengths that you have in common with others, and limit your social media time.)

Headlee also points to capitalism and the psychology behind consumerism as driving forces behind the compulsion to work more to buy things. To keep the economy growing, people have to keep spending money, so the marketing industry continues to put enormous amounts of resources into making people feel like they need to buy products to be happy

Headlee notes that, psychologically, people do get a boost of happiness when they get something new. Unfortunately, when the novelty wears off, they need another new thing to feel that joy again, so what someone has never feels like enough. The same vicious cycle occurs with people’s salaries as a result of what psychologists call the “hedonic treadmill”—the phenomenon in which humans go back to a baseline level of happiness after something good (or bad) happens. 

(Shortform note: Although the cultural pressure to buy new things has been part of the global culture since the Industrial Era, data suggest that consumerism in the US is higher than ever. Some experts point to several driving factors behind increased spending: the ease of digital shopping and the ability to impulsively buy things anywhere, at any time, as well as the constant exposure to digital advertising. Psychologists recommend resisting the trappings of consumerism and the hedonic treadmill by keeping a gratitude journal and doing altruistic and meaningful activities like volunteering.)

Women Experience Additional Pressures

Headlee also argues that women are disproportionately burdened by the modern work culture because they’re expected to do more unpaid domestic labor (such as cooking, cleaning, and childcare), often while working outside of the home for less pay on average. Headlee writes that women with children tend to be paid less than women without children, while the opposite is true for men. This means that many women have more economic pressure and more family duties to juggle on top of the cultural expectations to be ultra-productive at work and outside of work.

(Shortform note: Research shows that the Covid-19 pandemic exacerbated this unequal distribution of labor in many households. One global study found that women did three times as much additional childcare compared to men in 2020. This widened the existing income gap since many women had to work less or stop working to care for their children.)

Today’s Productivity Culture: Why We’re Obsessed With Work

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Here's what you'll find in our full Do Nothing summary:

  • How our fast-paced world is causing us to work less efficiently
  • How the culture of overworking has led to social isolation and poor health
  • How to embrace true leisure to live a happier and healthier life

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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