Kempis: The price of productivity


Nicole Kempis, Columnist

Productivity. The word has an economic ring to it that evokes black-and-white images of industrial glory. It is reminiscent of a time when people were valued more for their collective ability to produce than their significance as individuals. Today, it’s common to hear college students complain about being “unproductive,” and the meaning hasn’t changed all that much since the Soviet era. We are still essentially judging ourselves by what we do rather than who we are and creating a culture that makes us feel guilty when we aren’t doing something constructive.

It’s unsurprising Northwestern has a culture that values concrete accomplishments over personal discovery. NU’s selective admissions results in a student body that has needed to adopt an achievement-oriented approach to life in order to build the resume necessary for a shot at an elite college. The students here put enormous pressure on one another to be involved with academics, clubs and social activities. Moreover, NU is an expensive university and plenty of students feel pressure from their families to make the most of a costly experience.

The pressure to be productive, engaged in academics and active in the NU community can have positive side effects. We live in an age in which the average American between 18-24 checks his or her phone 74 times a day, and being immersed in a society that rewards efficiency can sometimes inspire us to finish an assignment instead of binge watch Netflix (or not).  

However, feeling like you constantly need to be doing something, and feeling guilty whenever you aren’t being “productive” has its dangers. I believe the mental stress associated with living in a permanent state of “productivity” is one of the reasons colleges are noticing an increase in mental health issues. No one can be productive all the time, and the failure to do so often makes people feel insufficient and insecure about their abilities. Trying to constantly be productive can result in a permanent state of uncertainty, as one is neither truly productive nor truly rested, which can lead to long-term fatigue and frustration.

Furthermore, a performance-oriented environment can quickly become a society of workaholics, in which people’s priorities become dangerously skewed in favor of material success and external validation, rendering them less likely to focus on developing personal character or follow their passions.

During college, many of us are under pressure to figure out what we are going to do, but we are rarely asked who we want to be and what kind of lives we want to create for ourselves. The pressure to be productive inspires people to rush blindly into majors or even careers, without considering if their choices will contribute to their personal growth. It’s essential we take the time to live intentionally and to think about what we want from the future instead of just living the lives that are expected of us.

So how can we overcome the unrealistic expectation to be permanently productive? To an extent it’s inherent to the American work culture, but I also believe there are ways to conquer this social pressure. First, by realizing we are more valuable than what we do or achieve, whether that be our GPA, our internships or the number of snapchats we receive. Second, it’s important to realize we can’t be productive all the time, and we should differentiate time when we are focused on work from time when we are relaxing or doing something we love, whatever that may be.

In an ideal world, having more self-acceptance would also decrease the collective social pressure we apply on one another. Perhaps a concrete way of doing this would be to change our dialogue and stop complaining about being “unproductive.” Sometimes when you’re overwhelmed with work, moaning about how much you have to do is a great way to relieve stress, but worrying about every minute you didn’t spend working is not. It’s time to start celebrating the unproductive moments. After all, they’re usually the ones we remember.

Nicole is a Weinberg sophomore. She can be contacted at [email protected] . If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].

The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern