How to Beat Back the Productivity Panic
About a week after the inauguration, Vice-President Kamala Harris sat down with an NPR reporter to chat about where the administration was headed. The reporter knew the recent Corona Virus relief bill was the administration’s priority. But, “There is going to be so much else going on,” he pointed out. “You have to confirm the Cabinet through the Senate. There is an impeachment trial. How does that affect everything you’re trying to do?”
Here’s what Harris said:
“We know how to multitask (laughs). There’s a reason that word exists in the English language. That’s what going to be required, we have to multitask. Which means, as with anyone, we have a lot of priorities and we need to see them through.”
I love everything about Kamala Harris’s response. Not because any of it is right. But because every little bit of it is wrong. And it’s wrong in a way that’s incredibly instructive, as it helps us see 1) the power dynamics behind our Productivity Panic and 2) how all of us—Vice President Harris included—are constrained by them. Thankfully, it also helps us see how we can get out of them. Let’s take a look and see what our Veep has to teach us.
“We know how to multitask (laughs).”
No need to spend a ton of time here: Multi-tasking does not exist. Except in very specific circumstances, our poor little brains can only focus on one complex task at a time. What we’re doing when we think we’re multi-tasking is switching rapidly between two tasks. It’s just that we switch so quickly (10ths of a second) that we don’t notice the time it takes. Apparently, bilingual kids are especially adept at task switching, because their brains are constantly switching back and forth between the two rule sets that govern their two languages. But nevertheless, we all incur “switching costs,” when we flip back and forth between two different foci. In other words, our task performance suffers when we do this, which in the end reduces the amount and the quality of our writing.
“There’s a reason that word exists in the English language.”
Why does this word exist in the English language? This question deserves a book, not an essay, but let me offer just one thought: The idea that we can multitask fits very neatly with the recent work intensification in academia. In other words, as universities demand more publications from scholars they hire; as those faculty have been required to complete more service work, even before tenure; and as faculty at teaching institutions are increasingly expected to balance 4/4 teaching loads along with a research agenda, it’s not surprising that institutions and scholars alike are clinging to the idea that we can get more done with less time by doing multiple things at once. This notion puts the onus on you, as an individual scholar, to boost your writing productivity—instead of requiring universities to admit that the demands they place on scholars are damaging to both your quality of life and the quality of your work.
“That’s what going to be required, we have to multitask.”
I find this assertion especially helpful, because it illuminates how our commitment to multitasking is not an individual failure: instead it reflects how the context in which we operate constrains us, and how difficult it is for individuals to escape these constraints on our own. It’s fun to mock administrations—university and presidential—but the truth is, Harris is as trapped by her context as we are. The Biden Harris administration has many constituencies it now has to serve. There’d be a high price to pay if Harris were to say “Well, we know women’s organizations helped to elect us, but actually, we’re way more concerned about immigration right now—women’s issues are just going to have to wait.”
Likewise, scholars and writers have multiple constituencies we want to please: the people in your field who assess the quality of your work; your senior colleagues who judge your promotion cases; the funding committees who review your grant and fellowship applications; your families, who wish you spent less time working. All of us are subject to constant assessment from people whose opinion matters to us. In this circumstance it’s easy to feel like we can’t let anything slide.
“Which means, as with anyone, we have a lot of priorities and we need to see them through.”
Which takes us back to our unending attempt to multitask, to get everything done at the same time—even when we know it’s impossible. The real solution to this problem goes beyond what you and I can do as individuals. And our best bet is to say “No,” to more things from the get-go. But what good does that do you now, when you already have so many Yeses on your plate? So in lieu of the more complete fix, let me offer you a partial solution.
When you’ve got too much on your plate, ask yourself: “Who’s gonna get my A-Game?” You can ask yourself this question at the beginning of the day, at the beginning of the week—even from hour to hour.
The A-Game question acknowledges the truth of VP Harris’s assertion that “we have a lot of priorities and we need to see them through.”* In other words, when we’re awash in commitments, we often can’t escape having to give a little bit of ourselves to everyone.
But the A-Game question also recognizes that not everything deserves the very best of us. And asking yourself this question regularly helps you practice the skill of actually turning something into a priority, by deliberately choosing to give it your best effort. You may still have to give it time. You likely still have to get it done. But you don’t have to win at it, love.
You don’t have to win at everything you do.
The A-Game question makes us admit something we often can’t face until the day is done and we’re totally wiped out—that something is gonna get dropped. When we face that reality earlier, rather than later, we can at least feel good about the fact that we sorted through the detritus and gave our best to what mattered most.
Here’s a short list of things that might not deserve your A-Game today.
I could go on, but I think you get the point. Your list doesn’t have to look like mine, it just has to exist. If you look at your to-do list and feel like everything on it has to get your A-Game (yeah, I see you, boo), then turn the question around a bit, and ask “What would it look like if I gave this item my B- or my C-Game?”
‘Cause let’s get real: VP Harris knows multi-tasking is for the birds. She only said that shit cause she understands that managing public perception of the President is one of a VP’s most important roles. And that's why that NPR interview got her A-Game.
So do whatever you need to do: Slide into your purple dress suit. Slap on some pearls. Or ditch both if they’re not your thing, and show up in your Zoom sweats. Just make sure whatever you’re showing up for really deserves what you’re giving it. And make sure that at the end of the day, you’re showing up first for yourself.
*actually, we can’t have a lot of priorities, since a priority is the thing that is more important than everything else.
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