The Conscious Ape

The Lost Art of Doing Nothing

Cult of Toxic Productivity

One of the most perverse and deeply telling symptoms of modern human's unstable state of mind is the rise and proliferation of online productivity gurus, peddlers of brain hacks and tips on how to be 500% more efficient, and harbingers of the never-ending rat race to earn more, own more and spend more. Productivity is a tarpit that will entrap you as surely as the real ones trapped and suffocated our saurian predecessors.

Nobody in the history of humanity has managed to achieve work-life balance, from Marcus Aurelius to Churchill, and the problem isn’t our limited time or how we cut and parcel that time no matter what the members of the cult of productivity would want you to believe. The real problem—or so I aspire to convince you—is embedded in our biological code conjoined with the pressures to live by a vexing array of ideas about how to use the limited time imposed on us by our cultural surroundings and the burden of tradition, all of which batched together are as good as guaranteed to make things exponentially worse.

We have for hundreds of thousands of years lived a much slower life, millions even if we are going to expand the timeline of humanity outside the limits of homo sapiens all the way back to homo habilis which is widely taken to be the first hominid representative of the human species. Yes, life was much harsher in those days, and predominantly surrounded by the daily tasks of eating, sleeping, and procreating which can be all boiled down to a single task; surviving. And that’s just it, no matter how harsh life was - there was only one daily task to do, to survive. There were no yearly, quarterly, or weekly plans on budgeting, no gym memberships, no maintenance of subscriptions for ceaseless streams of varied content to keep you distracted, and no high-level stress zones like the sprawling megalopolis cities of today that have been inundated with ungodly levels of noise, movement or happenings. No, there was only your small tribe and the calm albeit deadly nature to live in.

We have effectively evolved to monotask all day long and parallel to that we have with the gift of our consciousness and sheer will to survive developed our modern day of living in large communities accompanied by industrial-level production of pretty much everything that we need. In full disclosure, I am not here to lambast the folly of early humans for reaching out to live in better conditions and raise themselves above the need only to survive. There are plenty of good things we have made, from art to exploration to modern medicine, we have undoubtedly made our lives better and more sustainable in the long run. But we have also forgotten some important parts of what makes us tick. We have let the foundations of our existence crumble under the sledgehammer of capitalism and its need to be infinitely productive and in tow produce more capital.

The development of industrial culture and the forging of its traditions have set us on a trajectory that is colliding with the limitations and flaws of our biology. We are anxious by default, prone to overthinking, we love distracting ourselves from what is really bothering us, in short, we possess an onerous fear of our mortality and the imminence of our demise which our bodies fight with aforementioned coping mechanisms. These conditions created the perfect storm for the rise of the cult of toxic productivity so they can sell us information on how to make our lives more productive and be better in what we do or the amount of things we should do so we can be happy with our lives.

But all they taught us was how to be more busy. Doing constant research on the perfect note-taking system or app is not gonna make you a better note taker, or a writer, nor will tracking every calorie, step, and workout with your 1000-dollar smartwatch help you lose weight and get in better shape. All it will do is give you colossal anxiety that will stop you dead in your tracks and push you into an ever-deeper well of depression and self-hate. By teaching us only how to be more busy they have put the cart in front of the horse. Busyness amounts to nothing and only exacerbates the underlying condition. What we need to re-learn is that it is okay to slow down and not be productive, what we need is breathing space for ourselves and our thoughts, the shallow ones and the deep ones, as the meme goes; we just need to stare at a wall.

Discomfort with Time Management

The worst seed that has sprouted from this cult of productivity’s dissemination of “knowledge” is the vast and micron-level precise time management of what, when, and how you will do everything. Reminders, tasks, to-do lists, colour coordinate calendars, and 10000 different apps to use simultaneously and at all times. The discomfort that this causes us to feel is palpable to a staggering degree. We make impossible demands of ourselves in our tasks and goals planning and then self-flagellate when we invariably fail because of course we can’t do everything, we shouldn’t do everything even if we can because the human mind can only take so much mental toil before it breaks down.

Of course, I am not also saying that you should not plan at all, or that you should fully abscond from the concept of time and sell your watch and implement the policy of waking up when you feel like it or doing what you can whenever (unless you can afford it and it won't jeopardise your life - if you can live in accordance to our cavemen biology go for it). What I am proposing here is to be realistic about what you can achieve in a given timeframe. We continually overestimate what we can do in a short amount of time and we are even worse with how we underestimate what we can do on a longer timeline. We should not manage our time as much as we should make our smaller and bigger plans and then give in to the flow-like state of time, what we can manage and do in a day we should, but we should not try to cram as much as possible, or even if we are done earlier than expected keep adding tasks to our never-ending list, owing to the fact that this route is bound for only one road; total and complete burnout.

Discomfort with time management is easily displaced by sitting down and thinking about what we want to do and then simply doing it. I know we think we want to do a million different things, but that’s just a clever ruse pulled on us by our minds, that’s our anxiety that pushes us towards survival, that same mechanism that makes us want to gorge on food in case there is non later even though there is food all around us. Sit down with your thoughts in silence and embrace the short-term discomfort of acquainting yourself with yourself to alleviate the long-term discomfort of wanting to do everything and failing. And even if you don’t find an answer, there is no harm in just sitting down and meditating on what you want.

Far from it, it is much healthier for your mind than stressing about the next batch of tasks that you could do to escape from yourself.

Never-ending optimization

The next sprout of pain in the forever-expanding grinder of productivity cultists is never-ending optimization.

  • “If you could just create that ultimate config file for Vim, if you could tweak your Emacs setup just perfectly that is what will make you a 10x engineer.”
  • “If only you could find the perfect note-taking app or a piece of writing software, you could win the next Pulitzer.”
  • “If you could only manage to implement a perfect system of minimalism in your home and every strata of life and eliminate all the superfluous elements in your surroundings, that is what is gonna cure your debilitating anxiety.”
  • “If you just buy that last flagship smartwatch, a pair of high-level running shoes, a nice running outfit, band, heart rate monitor, and arrange a list of music of such magnificence, well when you do all that it's what is gonna propel you to be the next Usain Bolt.”

And so it goes, on and on and on. The optimization never ends, because if it did, if you just went on and did what you so meticulously planned to do, well then you would put yourself at risk of failing and spiralling down a self-hating hole of pain and despair while fully ignoring the fact that all of this together is from the start what is making you anxious and it is a self-propelling system that is designed by corporations exploiting your biology and cultural fears to make you a better consumer.

You don’t need a perfect system, you don’t need a system at all. A half-baked plan executed based on an underdeveloped system is better than a perfect plan executed never due to your inability to leave the optimization stage. Perfection is not hard to get, it does not exist, it is as much a construct of human making as is timekeeping. As Paul Valery infamously said; A poem is never finished, only abandoned. So go out of your way and stop putting stones on it. You can just do it and be okay with it, but also you can embrace the art of doing nothing and see what sprouts from that.


All this brings us to my final point, boredom. Boredom should be seen almost as a religious experience where you are its primary worshipper, augur, and head of the congregation, minus the foibles of organised religion. We do everything we can to escape the clutches of boredom and its tedium. Nothing afflicts us as monotony does. Everything is better than it, we will gladly ride the never-ending hamster wheel of productivity just so we don't need to get off it and feel the draining ennui of boredom.

Boredom just may be the most fascinating survival mechanism that we have developed. It is at the same time the primary moving force towards the betterment of our lives and the single easiest point of failure that can be exploited so we consume more, do more, spend more, and do just about anything but sit in solipsistic silence.

Boredom is a precious thing, and it has been taken away from us with the advent of never needing to leave the digital realm and be forever engrossed in consuming content and chasing productivity tips and tricks. Boredom is the lost art of doing nothing, it allows us to be creative, to drain the overwhelming insanity of data that is burdening us, and it literally and figuratively propels us forward. But the little supercomputer that we carry around us everywhere with access to the totality of human knowledge and entertainment is preventing us from reaping the benefits of boredom, same goes for computers, television, and the internet in general, however, the mobile phone seems like the worst offender on the account of it being, well mobile. At this point, it is a self-aware meme that the phones are bad for us and we all together perpetuate it accompanied with a high-pitched laugh that has been the mating call of the anxious and socially inept since the time of yore.

I am not here to postulate that boredom will cure our problems, what I am saying is that boredom is a stepping stone towards finding the cure for what ails our minds. Embracing boredom will help you develop patience and that patience can culminate in an act of daily meditation. Furthermore, I am also not claiming that meditation is the cure, that in itself is only a tool that works well in sync with boredom. Boredom and meditation could help you to learn more about yourself and what is gnawing at you from the inside out. A little bit of patience in an empty room alone and without stimuli can and will tell you a lot about who you are, and maybe it will help you regain that lost art of doing nothing and being okay with some degree of silence and solitude just as our pre-tech ancestors have been.

I'll finish this essay with the quote by Blaise Pascal: All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone.