The Productivity Paradox
A reflection on the pressure to make the most of our time.
24 hours. 1440 minutes. 86400 seconds.
If we could distill life into a series of numbers, this would be it — just a collection of seconds, minutes, hours and days, one after the other. With each stroke of midnight, we’re given 24 hours to spend however we’d like. Personally, I find it beautiful that every person will experience them differently.
With the gift of time comes a feeling of responsibility. And at an institution like Dartmouth, this may be driven by a feeling of scarcity, because the years we’ve been allotted will soon be over. This feeling of existential dread, if you will, might also stem from the realization that inconsequential moments hold a significance beyond themselves. The minutiae of the day — in which we’re waking up, getting dressed, grabbing meals, standing in lines and reading for hours — are what end up defining our days and, consequently, our lives.
Dartmouth has its constraints, but in reality, being in college means we have a lot of control over our lives now. That kind of control — the freedom to choose your major, your community and where the rest of your life is headed — is scary. And it seems like the experience of reckoning with independence has existed for quite some time.
However, being overcommitted isn’t necessarily the lesser of the two evils. After all, how could anyone not be near enlightenment while splayed out sunbathing on the Green during the first sunny spring day? I can almost feel the essence of really living, amidst the chatter of students playing Spikeball, but it eludes me nonetheless.
This doesn’t mean, however, that we’re destined to live with an angst akin to that of Holden Caulfield’s. Our lives — extraordinary, successful, mundane and beautifully normal — are lived because we feel pressure to “make something of ourselves” in spite of the fact that we are running out of time to do so.
Perhaps the urge to conquer ever-elusive time is inherently human, or maybe we’re all just in over our heads. After all, how many nights have we found ourselves racing against the clock, trying to meet a deadline at the expense of our sleep or food or other basic human necessities? And how sustainable is it, really, when we have every single minute of every hour planned out on our calendar? From our classes to our clubs and our meals and workouts, we’ve planned it all. For God’s sake, even our naps are scheduled.
Occasionally there are moments — scheduled in the Google Calendar of course — in which I ask myself, is this really what it’s meant to be? Is it normal for me to be swept up in this inevitable, all-consuming hustle and bustle? If so, then maybe we can all take solace in the fact that this style of hour-to-hour living is normal: at least here at Dartmouth, it’s not just you feeling this way.
But the strangest thing of all is that often, this isn’t enough. So many people — myself included — have decided that to live means to do it all, preferably even within the first quarter of our lives. To this day, I have yet to understand where exactly this sense of urgency, or impending doom, stems from. When was it decided that our formative years would be tainted with pervasive stress, stemming from an arbitrary notion of success?
It is absurd that campus culture has many of us believing that living overcommitted is somehow living better. How sustainable is it, really, to be involved in every club on campus? Or to be constantly running from a meal, to a class, to a hike, to the library, to a frat, to bed — and then to do it all over again? God forbid that I spend a day that isn’t as productive as the last.
When I do so I’m plagued with guilt for failing to take advantage of every second that I’ve been given at this place. And it’s awful that I hear this sentiment echoed around me every single day. It seems that even as we do the seemingly impossible, sucking the very marrow out of every minute of every day, we are not doing enough. Somehow we could be doing more, even as we run ourselves into the ground.
The truth of the matter is that we only have so much of ourselves to give. As much as it may hurt even my own irrational and idealistic feelings, the very nature of time dictates that we cannot do it all. By doing something, we are effectively rejecting the infinitely many other possibilities that we could be living out at that moment. Realizing this used to stress me out (FOMO much?) but this notion can be comforting instead of anxiety provoking. By definition, to be human is to have limits; you cannot give 100% of yourself to everything all of the time, and by trying to, you’re gathering a smattering of superficial experiences at the expense of a few rich ones.
This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t go out and explore all that this beautiful world has to offer; by all means, that may be the fulfilling experience we’re all searching for. But we can all be kinder to ourselves and recognize that the greatest privilege afforded to us is agency over our own time — and consequently, our own existence. In our efforts to be superhuman, we seem to be losing sight of something that I would argue is infinitely more beautiful: the experience of being human.