The productivity trap

This post was written 10 years ago.
Sat, 08 Nov 2014
About two months ago, on a warm summer's evening - this summer, that never wanted to end, but now has - I was sitting on the floor by the Arnolfini with some attendees and speakers of this year's JavaScript workshop. Next to gender stereotypes I remember us at some point discussing productivity and how it seems to be so utterly important these days. I heard myself saying: "I have become more productive since I have given up trying to be productive". It was something I had only realised quite recently. People are different, and it seems to me, some are genuinely capable of working steadily most of the time, being efficient and productive. But I have to admit that for me that is difficult, and I am starting to think whether it would even be a desirable world where everybody can do that.

I remember, about five years ago, reading somebody's blog post about how GTD just didn't work for them. At the time I hadn't known about the book, and when I read it a year or so later, it seemed such a revelation. I really did spend two days where I dealt with all the lose ends, I organised all documents worth keeping in stand-up folders and hanging files. I felt so good afterwards. And I had a brief spell of dealing with things immediately, finding the next actions etc. But it didn't last, and I am pretty sure I am not the only one.

There must be thousands of blog posts now where people share their stories of how they managed to become more productive. There's usually a list of tips. And a lot of them are really valuable, like turning off distractions, especially online distractions. But what is a bit questionable in my eyes, is when "time off" is just seen as an opportunity to recharge the batteries. When it is just a means to an end, and the end is to become ever more productive. And I have seen this viewpoint being expressed several times.

Against productivity

Then today, I saw two tweets that were posted in quick succession by two different people. One was pointing to a post on Medium wirtten by Quinn Norton which I could relate to very much. It is called "Against productivity". I could quote endlessly from it. One thought I've had myself is that this demand for productivity started with the industrial revolution. It is not entirely a recent thing. It is just that it has come to a head now. It might be time to stop and think, is this really how we want to live.

And then there is this about the American dream: "I began to think no iteration was quite as vile as this one. Despite all the greed and hatred of the past iterations, no version of the dream had been so mechanical — so dehumanizing — as this dream of productivity."

And the other tweet? It linked to an infographic of "Take back your mornings" - take back your mornings to be more productive. What else?

Productivity paradox

The tricky thing is that on the other hand we are probably happiest when we are productive. When we create something, when we finish a difficult task, when we have done something that makes a difference to others, or even just to ourselves.

I often get restless because I do a lot of "unproductive thinking". I have this habit of "philsophising" all the time. And I most certainly overthink things. It is not always totally useless, sometimes I might be able to see some connections that others don't, and I might get some useful ideas. But on the whole, it often seems a bit too much. And of course it keeps me from being efficient!

So for me, I think the real challenge is to not get too distracted (and the online world really can be a bit of a problem, here) to keep myself from working on some things, that I then do finish and can feel okay about. Also, to not get disheartened by what I am thinking.. although that's not entirely avoidable and maybe shouldn't be. - Act on the good ideas that pop into my head. And ironically you can become distracted from putting good ideas into practice, because you are asked to do so many other thing. Be productive, be busy! And then you forget what it is worth getting busy with!

No "Getting things done" != Getting no Things Done

At least for me, there will always be a tension between the things that I'd like to accomplish and what I do in reality. But I do feel a lot less bad by now, about "wasting" some time by just thinking about things, about life in general, about how the human mind works, about how society works (haha those are the high-brow ones, I am not telling you about what else I think ), without seeing an immediate benefit of it. Perhaps that is something that we have to learn again. That when there's no immediate outcome that doesn't mean that nothing positive has happened in the meantime. And it would be good to accept that; in ourselves, and in other people, too.

People have always got things done, and got some amazing things done, before both the "positive thinking" and the "productivity" industry.

This post was written 10 years ago, which in internet time is really, really old. This means that what is written above, and the links contained within, may now be obsolete, inaccurate or wildly out of context, so please bear that in mind :)

Giving up Depression

This post was written 10 years ago.
Sun, 02 Nov 2014
This is a uniquely stupid title, you might think. You cannot just 'give up depression', obviously, it's an illness. And I have to agree with you. In fact, I am not sure if I will keep the title. But maybe I should, just for the sense of unease it gives me.

It makes me feel uneasy, because I find it difficult to let go of depression - or perhaps, rather the idea that depression plays a huge role in my life and will always continue to do so. It might be a weird case of Stockholm Syndrome. It has been a companion for so long — and when it wasn't there, the fear of it —, what might a life without it even look like?

The thing that for me personally has come out of the Geek Mental Help Week is that I gradually realised how well (although not necessarily always happy) I have been recently. This was not, because I read other people's articles and thought "They are so much worse off than me". It was rather all the stuff I scribbled down and didn't publish in the end. At the same time, when I was failing to get my article together, the old panic — and I get this panic a lot — resurfaced again. I was scared that I might have actually triggered a bout of depression by focusing so much on it, and it would turn into a prolonged period of depression, and eventually major depression.

(The next bit is a record of some experiences from my 20ies, skip if not interested in that)

I had a few of those in my teens and twenties. For example, a very dark month during my time as an ERASMUS student in Pisa, which was otherwise the happiest year during my studies. One day, I sat on the lawn in front of the leaning tower, and was struck by how my life had become just as wonky as that tower. The German term for crazy - "verrückt" - literally means "shifted". I thought how apt that word was. My reality had shifted, it was as if I was living in a different dimension, and I could not find my way back to what felt normal and familiar. I also remember bumping into some people in the canteen during lunchtime, and finding I could just not coordinate anymore the necessary parts and processes to properly say "Hello". The muscles, my voice, my motivation - I could just not get them to play together in a proper fashion.

Or that time when I joined an acting group. I'd been meant to play a leading role, but decided against it when dates of some of the performances clashed with an excursion I wanted to do at university. Instead I became 'assistant to the director'. Except I was not much help at all, had no initiative, and was more of a burden than assistance, despite spending loads of time at the rehearsals. Instead I smoked like a chimney. I often felt almost paralysed and started calling this state my 'strait-jacket'. When I helped at the performances, I remember being almost completely mute and at some point I thought: At least, if somebody else is feeling insecure and not good about themselves, it might make them feel better when they see me. Sort of, "if you are no good, you can still serve as a bad example". That was really the only use I could find for myself!

But I did not get professional help during those two (and previous) episodes, I somehow came out again. In Italy, one day I suddenly started feeling this rage, not directed at anyone in particular, just rage. And then I gradually got better. In the second case, I had a meltdown where I ended up crying in the director's arms. Again, very gradually came out of it. And then I was an actor in the next play, and had the time of my life! Just neglected my thesis a bit, mmh.

The first time that I got help was after I'd fallen in love with a PhD student at the place where I did my Master's thesis, and it didn't work out. I had shared a 'transcendental kiss' with him once (it really was that, and for him too, I know that!), but mostly tried to 'act cool', while at the same time I started to believe it was my destiny to be with this man. I accumulated all kinds of 'evidence' for this, too. And we did get quite close to.. okay, let's leave that. And then, well, he went off to South America, but came back a year later for his viva. I knew he had to come back, and I waited for him, and I waited for him to realise that he loved me. So much arrrrrgggggggghhhhhhhh. If I could tell my twenty-something-old self just one thing, if I could tell any girl just one thing: DO NOT WAIT FOR A MAN (unless I mean there are valid reasons, like you are already together and waiting for him to come out of hospital or something). DO YOUR OWN THING.*

I didn't very much do my own thing at all. I spent a whole year after leaving university, hanging around. Among the few things I got myself to do was once working for the post-office, and once writing an article for the local pages of a Munich newspaper (I thought I could become a science journalist eventually; but I only managed to write one article about genetically modified tomatoes). I met the PhD guy again, when he invited everyone (including me) to a pub after his viva, on which occasion he uttered the unforgettable words: "I don't love you. I could never love you". (He could be quite dramatic, just as me). That was when this whole world that I had built up in my head, collapsed. And a month later, I collapsed, too. One night, I could not sleep at all, and it felt like I had pins and needles all over my body, while my mind was completely numb. The next day I went to my parents' house. It was my mum's birthday. When she walked across the lawn to greet me, I cried and just pointed to my head. - I stayed at my parents' house for some weeks. I got to see a doctor and was prescribed Amitriptyline, and when that stopped working after a while, Fluoxetine. I got therapy, too, and eventually started crawling back out of the hole..

I've not had it as badly anymore since then. I just know I never want to go back there. That's why I sometimes get a panic when low moods persist for a bit. Perhaps it is the panics that keep me from getting it.

Depression versus Crisis

There's one thing I am not quite sure about. Because, you see, up till now, I was thinking: I keep having bouts of depression.

I just started describing what happens then, but find there's no point in going on too much about it. Because in a way I probably feel a bit ashamed about what triggers these bouts, when there are people who have real problems, like losing somebody they love. What is a kind of confidence crisis, where I suddenly believe I am an inadequate person, against that? And yet, they do happen. They follow a certain pattern, and I get distraught, I cry, I have negative thoughts. When my husband comes home, he helps me - challenges the thoughts and otherwise is there while I 'go through' the crisis. As for the negative thoughts, reading David Burn's book (which I believe is the best book you can read about cognitive distortions) has helped a great deal, but there are moments when all the insights I've gained are flushed away in one big wave of all-too-familiar thoughts and emotions.

The question is, what is meant by the term 'depression'? Robert Sapolsky says in his lecture on depression: "Right off the bat, we have a semantic problem". He then goes on to make a distinction between 'everyday depression' (that we all experience every now and then), 'reactive depression' (somebody reacts badly to something, is impaired for a few weeks, then gets out) and 'major depression' (somebody reacts badly to an event, slides into low mood, and weeks, months later has still not got out).

Elsewhere I have read that depression can last any amount of time, sometimes just half an hour, and there was no distinction made between different types. So, I will just make a distinction here for myself: Depression which is also a biomedical condition, versus a crisis with depressive symptoms. Or, in short: Depression versus Crisis.

Because, you see I do keep getting these crises, and they follow a certain pattern. And they are problematic in some ways, in what they prevent me from doing, and in keeping me 'locked down' in an unhelpful thinking pattern. But can I call them depressions? - And might there not be a way to challenge them, and make them become less frequent? Also, there is actually a part of me that can come across as quite confident. What if I managed to focus more on that?

And then there is this: Like, I am convinced, a lot of other people, I am so bogged down in things, and feel the pressure of all the things I am supposed to do, that often it can be difficult, to just feel happy or even just okay for a while, when in reality, there would be enough reason to do so.

On Halloween night, just after I had submitted my — I think now, pretty strange — post for Geek Mental Help Week, I kept feeling so calm. And suddenly there was another, very powerful, feeling that I had not known before. I can't quite describe it. It was beautiful. Like some sort of veil had been lifted from me. And I just felt well.

Since then I think: What if I could indeed give depression up? What if it was - by now (and for now) - my choice?

Coping strategies

So, this is a brief summary of the things that helped me, and keep helping me:


There are various different aspects to this:
  • Accept that your current experience is what it is.
  • Accept yourself fully
  • Even accept your inner critic (before you tell it politely, but firmly, to shut up: "I know you mean well, I have heard you, now please go." - ha, I only just remembered this; I don't really do this. But I will do now!)
  • Accept that other people behave in ways that irritate you, or that you might find hurtful. Try not to immediately criticise them, but understand that there are reasons for them acting like that that you might not know of.
I could go on. By far the most important thing though, is to accept yourself, and develop self-compassion. You cannot be kind to others, if you are not first kind to yourself. This is such a simple rule, and yet it took me so long to come across it, and still longer to make any real progress with it.

Find out what makes you feel good, do more of it

I once saw a tweet that said something like this: "Three most important factors for good mood: Good sleep, exercise, meditation". Recently, I have managed to have a better sleeping pattern (although it's pretty much down the drain tonight). And I started to go running. The latter is probably the external factor that has helped by far the most in my case.

Likewise, the advice could be: Find out what doesn't make you feel good, do less of it. But I am not good at that at all so far! I want to try and do that though. For example, not spend so much time on the computer when I am not working.. And have boundaries between different aspects of my life. When I am with the children, I want to be with my children, not start writing emails from my phone. When I cook, I stick with the cooking, and don't go to the computer inbetween to check emails and Twitter.. As I said, I have not been very good with this so far, but then I was maybe never as aware of all this as I am now.

Mindfulness and CBT

Probably, the single most helpful thing for me has been Mindfulness and meditation. Be present with whatever you are experiencing (see 'Acceptance' above). Recognise that your emotions, and your thoughts, are just passing events. This is a very short but ultimately of course insufficient summary. You have to really experience it, to feel the benefits of this approach.

I have not specifically had any CBT (Cognitive behavioural therapy) recently, but would count the David Burns book mentioned above as such. And it really did help, too, and still helps when I remember doing it, to discover how certain thoughts and beliefs you have, are distorted.

I just realised that what is missing from this list, is what many others have put first: "Talk about it". It is missing from my list, because I have already for a long time been able to talk about it. But, of course, it is helpful. Although there is caveats to this. You might feel, you can't keep going on about it all the time, you don't want to become a burden. Also, talking might not always help as much as you'd have hoped. Still, if you never talked to anybody about it, if you just cannot 'sort it out' by yourself anymore it is important to do that, rather than suffer in silence.

See also "Resources" below.

Can I help others?

I'd hope so.

And I'd hope that writing this all down, in whatever convoluted ways, might help someone besides me, too. I also hope that the Geek Mental Help Week, well - helped. What I can see coming out of it: People feeling less alone, and seeing mental illness as less of a weakness (as some successful and well-known figures in the web industry talked about theirs). Also: Pointing out how helpful talking can be. How helpful psychotherapy can be.

For me, there is a wider, almost political dimension to this: If we don't just 'medicate the problem away' and recognise that it is not just a medical condition, as the so often quoted broken leg is, we might be better able to change the conditions that make us depressed in the first place. - What I mean: If it was just this illness that comes out of the blue, and you just take some drugs and it goes away again; then nobody might start to question why so many people suffer from it, and ask themselves if there's something we can change.

If we manage to accept that we don't always have to be productive, if we collectively managed to move away a bit from the maniacal pace at which the tech industry is moving. If we recognized that there is no point trying to learn all the new things, putting yourself under that pressure. If instead we managed to fully accept ourselves, with all our 'shortcomings', that would mean that we'd have more time to think, to properly see things, and, as was said in one of the contributions to Geek Mental Help, to properly see each other. And we might not be so easily manipulated by corporate interests.

Or you could put it this way, perhaps: To fully accept yourself is a revolutionary act. - I am sure somebody must have said that before me!

Should I stay or should I go?

Just to finish off on a personal note. I do have some (not insubstantial) doubts about all this. This whole post, my opinions expressed in it. My ah so brillant 'advice'. Do I have the authority to write any of this? Do I have the authority to give advice? Even to wonder if I could be out of the 'field of vision' of depression for a while?

Especially, within the tech community, what authority do I have? The thing is, for a long time I really didn't know if I even belonged. I felt so unsure that any of what I was doing was any good.

I am not as unequivocally commercial as most people in that community. You need to be 'commercial' if you want to properly earn money. And I don't need to (or feel the need to) earn as much money as others, as my husband is the main breadwinner. This might at first sight, be a big advantage I have. But my situation comes with its own set of problems. Foremost, in my case, really bad confidence. And I probably do manage to do less (although on the other hand, possibly more than some people think!) than somebody who works full time. Less in volume, that's clear anyway. But less in terms of skills? Well, that's an interesting question, and one I don't really have an answer to at the moment.

Then, I also have certain ideas of where I want to be heading. I want to become good at programming and be able to make applications. To "hack".

A lot of my above-mentioned "crises" revolve around that: Does it make any sense what I am doing? Would it not be better to give it all up? Just take any job, so I can earn some money in addition to my husband's (It could even be things like database entry, online editor; something to do with the web or technology, just not as ambitious?)

Basically: Am I doing the right thing?

And again, this seems so self-indulgent. What kind of problem is this?? Compared to people who have to flee their home country? Who experienced physical and emotional abuse? - But then, everybody has to deal with their own life, and if that is what you find difficult at the moment, it just is.

I am just starting this experiment. I have left my "regular freelancer" role at an agency, and started something new, where I work together with somebody who is my mentor. I don't want to write about the ins and outs of this at the moment. It does look like we both benefit from it, which is what I'd always wanted from a mentor relationship. That is a good start. The rest we will see.

The important thing for me will be: I will give myself permission to just learn and code, without asking myself if it makes sense, and if I will be good enough. Just for three months. No looking at the outcome. Just throw myself into it. It is an experiment. I hope to write about it soon, and it will hopefully be positive.

Then there's CodeHub :) Don't let me get started on that!


- Robert Sapolsky video "It's a biochemical disorder with a genetic component with early experience influences where somebody can't appreciate sunsets."

- The Mindful Way through Depression

- Feeling Good by David Burns

Self-Compassion / Self-Acceptance
- Self-Acceptance project:
- Lovingkindness by Sharon Salzberg

* There is a passage in the book "La mort heureuse" (A Happy Death) by Camus, where the protagonist says to a woman called Catherine: 'Ne renonce jamais, Catherine. Tu as tant de choses en toi et la plus noble de toutes, le sens du bonheur. N'attends pas la vie d'un homme, c'est pour cela que tant de femmes se trompent. Mais attends-la de toi-même!' (I wrote this from memory, there might be mistakes in it. I think I had an English and a French version of this book for some reason, I did not read the book in French, but have always remembered this one sentence). — 'Never give up, Catherine. You've got so many things in you, and the noblest of all, the sense for happiness. That's where so many women go wrong. Don't expect life from a man. Expect it from yourself!' - And yes, it's kind of ironic that a man had to tell me that.

This post was written 10 years ago, which in internet time is really, really old. This means that what is written above, and the links contained within, may now be obsolete, inaccurate or wildly out of context, so please bear that in mind :)