We need to talk about productivity

Houseplants make workers 40% more productive! Paint your workspace yellow to be more productive! Take a cold shower! 4 a.m. is the most productive time to work!

The internet is full of productivity ‘hacks’ that focus on, essentially, maximising output. Usually the reasons are economic. Start-ups backed by venture capital, and big creative corporations like Google, famously offer free food in the office, fun chairs, parties every Tuesday, cocktail hours and so on. A huge amount of money has gone into research that shows an engaged workforce is a more productive one, and so businesses across sectors routinely make huge efforts to boost the satisfaction of their workers, in an attempt to increase profits. It sounds great, doesn’t it? But this relentless obsession with productivity comes at a cost, precisely because the focus – if we’re honest – is on profits and it’s often only superficially a genuine invitation to creativity.

The publishing industry is an industry that prizes itself on being led by creativity. The story we tell our readers, and critically our writers, however, is often slightly skewed. We sell courses and programmes with the promise to ‘get you published’, ‘hook that agent’, ‘write that bestseller’. The message is almost never ‘how to be creative’, ‘how to give yourself license to play’, ‘how to fail’, or ‘how to work out who you are as a writer’. Of course, we want talent. We want to find the literature of the future. But if we don’t let writers have, and inhabit, time and space to write outside of the on-brand messaging around writing exclusively for market, then what kinds of literature are we producing? It’s always going to be more of the same, making more of the same. We are basically saying to writers, you too can write a bestseller if you just do these courses, buy this pen and recite this mantra. We are saying: you too can earn a living through writing if you just happen to be plugged-in, clued-up (probably benefiting from privilege in some way but that’s another article in itself) and write in a yellow room surrounded by plants. Not ‘made it’? Maybe you should just try being more productive.

The flip side of the productivity myth is a sleep deprived workforce costing the UK economy £40bn a year. And it’s not just the workforce. The impact on writers is huge. If we influence the narrative of what they ‘should be’ writing from inside the industry, we must admit that we are directly responsible for some of the external pressures, and for contributing to the voice that tells them they are less than, simply by not ‘producing’ in the expected way. 

“I’m trying to unlearn the lesson that productive = worthy”. This is what author and poet Joanne Limburg wrote to me, one of over 40 writers with whom I have had correspondence over the last week after over 50 authors responded to a call-out on Twitter, asking questions about writers’ perception of and responses to the concept of ‘productivity’.

Novelist Tom Huddleston expanded: “I suppose the pressure I feel is societal, or even moral – I want to make a contribution, to create something worthwhile…. I’ve always felt a self-imposed need to give my life purpose (whatever that means), to leave a mark behind me.” When I asked him whether he felt productivity was a useful measure of creativity, he wrote, “If you mean time spent at the desk, in the work environment, then yes”, with the caveat that “There needs to be room for inspiration”. The conditions are important.

But how is it possible to arrive at the correct conditions, particularly in a time of crisis? Many writers responded to me privately, with several saying that they found traditional definitions of productivity, i.e., word counts or quantitative measures of writing, useless at best; at worst, harmful and inhibiting. Some (notably two authors who make their living from writing) felt it was useful as it gave them structure and discipline. I include the note in parenthesis because if we talk about productivity, we also need to talk about who feels able to be productive, who doesn’t, and why. A stable income from writing or other sources (just a quarter of all professional writers earn a living from writing alone), a space to write in comfort, all undoubtedly help ease the pressure and turn ‘productivity’ into something manageable, even incentivising. But add childcare, illness, and precarious finances into the mix, and it starts to feel very different. 

"Productivity is privilege," says writer and mental health activist Dan Holloway. “Many mentally ill or neurodivergent people's minds simply don't work in a steady linear fashion and the demand they do creates desperation and guilt – the "helpful advice" about "just finding time" is an act of erasure in itself if you are speaking to an audience that may contain people who cannot "just"”. Instead, Dan encourages writers to re-define what productivity means: “Read what works for others, borrow what works for you, forget about what doesn't.”

When novelist Yara Rodrigues Fowler’s mother became ill and retired, she said it changed her perspective on productivity and its moral value in a way that chimes with Dan’s advice: “Why do we need to be productive to be ‘good’? John Cooper Clarke talks about poets needing to be lazy, and so I try and do that. I work as little as possible, I think and read a lot, and I do stuff I enjoy with people I love. When I really want to write then I do… I’m lucky and privileged that I can afford to do this for now: I don’t have dependents and my non-writing income has remained stable during COVID-19.”

On the matter of lockdown, writers were split. Childcare came up often. One novelist who wrote to me is furloughed and has found it has freed up writing time for him. Another said that despite the lockdown, their constant fear of financial ruin was making them physically ill and unable to feel creative. One author considered their perception of others ‘doing amazing things’ during quarantine not as a motivator but part of an ‘overwhelming pressure to be productive’. Echoing this, novelist Awais Khan admitted, “Writing mostly happens for me when I am calm and inspired.” Waiting for inspiration can be procrastination; but procrastination in turn can often be a symptom not of laziness but of anxiety.

It’s time to change the narrative. We need to talk less about productivity, and more about creativity and resilience. And we need to do this with compassion and empathy. We need to let writers explore their motivations for writing in the first place, and find ways to help them tackle self doubt, take practical steps to make time and space even when conditions are not optimal, and most of all, support them to take creative risks, regardless of outcome and irrespective of output. Just imagine the kinds of writing that might spring up from a culture that genuinely prizes creativity, and values process as much as it does product. My guess? The ‘product’ will follow.  And it will be better for it.

Aki Schilz is the Director of The Literary Consultancy and the founder of Being A Writer, a unique online platform that focuses on how writers can explore their creativity and build their resilience.