On Productivity and Motivation

[Allahummabārik. May Allah bless my writing endeavours, as well as you, the reader. Ameen]

“Have you been productive today?” 

“How many hours of work have you done today?”

“How productive have you been this week?”

I now find all this talk of ‘productivity’ to be rather tiresome and, at times, almost suffocating. And the above examples are exclusively of the conversations pertaining to social accountability that we may find ourselves being subjected to — but there is a deep ‘self-talk’ element to all this, as well. We stress ourselves out with considerations of checklists, direction, ambition, abstract timelines, productivity. But what are the merits of such a culture, and what might its downsides be? 

To be productive means to produce (much). Actions towards our goals, products… It means harnessing one’s time and efforts towards producing; towards being fruitful.

The value of a tree, surely, is not rooted [pun intended?] in just how many fruits it can produce. Surely we need to deeply care about other aspects of its being – the health of its branches, whether it is being watered enough – too? Moreover, it is not strictly and solely about the quantity of fruits the tree is able to stretch itself towards bearing (and, likewise, it is not about how many hours of work the human being can subject itself to, nor is it necessarily about other quantitative factors like how many chapters of a textbook one can manage to glide through on any given day). Rather, we should care far more about the holistic health of the tree, as well as the quality of the fruits it subsequently – consequently – comes to produce.

I find some individuals to be excessively ‘productivity’-obsessed, hyper-competitive. I feel like I know what they are doing when they emerge, after months of no contact between the two of us, to ask after how “productive” I have been of late. [Is this the new “How are you?”]. And these are the sort of people that, with all due respect, my life could really do without… the ones whose ideas of ‘connection’ are restricted to the kind that one may expect to find on LinkedIn. The ones who will terminate friendships if they think their friends aren’t ‘on the same level’ as they are; if they are not as ‘driven’ or ‘productive’. Pfft.

Of course, I, too, do feel that unique sense of joy and accomplishment whenever I have managed to complete, and to a good standard, the tasks I had scheduled for a particular day. Sometimes I am also prone to being given to unhealthy ways of thinking about this. I think about all the time I have ‘wasted’, for example, on my phone, or on YouTube or Netflix. According to the paradigms of ‘productivity’ that many of us appear to have set out for ourselves, true self-satisfaction must rest in optimum performance in terms of school, work, and more, every single day. But, in truth, such ways of thinking are incompatible with the nature and the condition of the human being. And when – at what point – did we even begin to start thinking like this? We sure weren’t like this when we were ten years old…

Were these attitudes activated within us, perhaps, during the time of our GCSEs? When we newly had exams and grades to think about – and people to compare ourselves to, in this regard? 

When did our worlds become way less about ‘play’ and way more about hungrily seeking professional prowess and ‘productivity’? 

Intrinsically attaching the worth and value of a human being to how much output he or she can produce is akin to perceiving the human body as a machine [insert here an unsolicited ramble about the numerous ‘cons’ of capitalist structures and ways of thinking]. We oil the machines, with the goal of optimal production in mind. But I really do think that the practically Godless world of capitalism seeks to fill the void of meaning with such things. If you do not agree that all human beings have an intrinsic, objective, divinely-given sense of worth, of course you will become prey to notions of selfless competition and machine-like productivity!

I, a person, an ennobled animal, a creation of God, am a do-er. I like to be inspired, and to funnel feelings of inspiration into things like writing and debating. But my purpose here is not to be a perfect performer at all times. I will have days of cancelled plans; days of adventure, and, on the flip-side, of misery. I am not, hopefully, attached to the work I do in order to garner a deep sense of meaning and worth: that comes from God, and from being a creation of His, alone. Heck, I have been designed to feel productive and inspired sometimes, and to make mistakes, and to learn from them, and to be messy and raw at other times. Some days, I will rise with the sun (well, hopefully before the sun, so that I may perform Fajr Salah!) and I will feel the motivation running through my very bones. Other days, undoubtedly, I will want to sleep in; I will want to satisfy my heart with doing things that perhaps do not belong on a neat checklist. Peaks and troughs, peaks and troughs. But in terms of ‘productivity’, the troughs are not always bad; the peaks are not always meaningful. And life was never meant to be a straight line with all these things, anyway.

But, throughout all of it, I know that the true source of my contentment and fulfilment and meaningful (spiritual) productivity rests in my adhering to the rules, rituals, and beautiful wisdoms that Islam provides me with. A day in which I have managed to perform all five daily prayers, for instance, is far better than a day of endless professional productivity, without them. 

Nowadays, when people talk to me about ‘productivity’, I try not to immediately think of ‘professional goals’ and such. I try to think of the tree analogy, and of holistic productivity. Have I eaten well today? Did I laugh today? Did I talk to an old friend today? Did I manage to fit in an hour or two of ‘writing time’, so as to work on a blog article? One thing is for sure: I am not going to forfeit the rest of what makes me human for the sake of ‘grinding’, and to appease those who only want to know about my more material goals and progress [and, of these particular people, I am most ‘done’ with those who seek to know about what I am up to, in order to compare their own doings with mine. I am not in competition with you. I am – Insha-Allah – on a quest for private fulfilment and peace and the nurture of my humanity].

An unchecked box, for instance, on my personal ‘to-do’ or ‘goal’ list might (and, does, more often than not) reinvent itself into something really lovely. A soulful moment shared with a friend, perhaps, a spontaneous decision to cook something nice, two hours spent playing ‘Club Penguin’, a mug of milk enjoyed with cookies! 

I think, as always [and, the veteran readers of my blog have probably already guessed it] that the secret, here lies in balance. We urgently need to grant a higher degree of consideration to things like the quality of the work we commit to, as well as things like inspiration and creativity. Yes, being ‘productive’ in lieu of being absolutely lazy and unmotivated is a virtue. But, when carried out in excess, a virtue becomes the opposite of itself – a vice, unhelpful, oftentimes quite damaging.

Sure, we should, in earnest, respond to these deep senses of responsibility that we have towards ourselves – to have dreams, and to pursue them; to expand our minds; to look after all branches of our lives. But duty devoid of compassion, love, and understanding on a human level is, frankly, pointless. Self-compassion is not necessarily about making so many excuses for ourselves that we become ‘couch potatoes’. But it is about things like sleeping for longer if we feel like our bodies and minds could benefit from it; deleting things from today’s checklist if we find ourselves feeling stressed; refusing to pit ourselves against ourselves by inwardly pitting ourselves against others.

At the end of the day, it will not really matter how many books you have read, how much money you have managed to accumulate, how many hours of your lifetime you committed to sitting at your desk. It is more about how much you really looked after, with a deep sense of duty intertwined with compassion, your heart, your spirit, your body, your mind. And who cares who knows, or who does not know, that you are struggling with, or succeeding in, the pursuit of more outward, ‘material’, goals?

More times than not, people are motivated to randomly ask questions of ‘productivity’ by desires of self-comparison, which can then morph itself into its less pleasant version – competition. But I hope that we – you and I, dear reader – can be secure and content in ourselves and in the truths of being human – to not care at all about bullying ourselves into feeling ‘less-than’ as a result of unchecked boxes on our to-do lists, nor about our own performances in comparison to others’.

[I guess this is a fact that I really need to fully accept and internalise: the worth of anything – be it how one spent one’s day, or a personal hobby or decision – is not contingent on how well it can be justified to others, by their own criteria. I must be brave enough to always commit to adhering to my own criteria!

I also, very much, need to focus way more on what I have done, as opposed to fruitlessly thinking about what I have not done. I appreciate me, and all my efforts! Now, these are some truly ‘productive’ ways of thinking!]

Please share with others, if you found this post beneficial / think others might!

Sadia Ahmed J., 2020 

5 thoughts on “On Productivity and Motivation

  1. Could it be that people feel spiritually inclined to be productive? Like someone could feel their life’s meaning is to make as much money (and therefore be as productive as possible) for their family who they want to give the best possible life so that they don’t need to worry about anything but be the best they could be spiritually, physically, mentally e.t.c and get out of the corporate rat race


    1. I do agree with you. I feel like the ‘spiritual inclination’ part is like a misapplication of the Fitrah – the natural inclination toward religion, and worship of Someone (or something). If people do not have objective meaning, they are likely to create subjective meaning in (objectively meaningless) things like money. And, yes, it is noble and virtuous for people to care about providing for their families. But once again, this should be in moderation, because after a certain point, people just hoard the stuff; it serves no meaningful purpose…


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