How Compulsive Productivity Turns Humans Into Workhorses
On precariousness, vocation, and those who exploit both
Do people know you as a safe pair of hands, reliable, dedicated, a stickler for accuracy, and so relentless you are never not working? When I set out to extricate myself from illness and hardship through the strength of my words, I knew the journey would be long but I saw no other way forward. Depression grounded me for five years, destroyed everything, and took away my main work tool, i.e. my writing voice, tough luck for a journalist. I couldn’t think so I couldn’t write and yet I had already fought to create a career I loved so I knew I had it in me to go to extremes again to service vocation.
Do or die wasn’t so much my motto as it was my reality; even though I’ve never not had insurance, I was too cash-strapped to access the care I desperately needed. By then, it was clear no help or support would ever be forthcoming unless I provided it myself so I finally committed to rejecting suicide and got to work. Because vocation had taunted me all those years, I reasoned it could help me get back on my feet if I surrendered to it and let it guide me. It put me through the paces as I relearned how to do my job, conducted various editorial experiments, and kept my head down and my fingers on the keyboard.
Instead of plugging the half decade gap in my résumé with spin and aggressive self-marketing, I chose to show what I could do. I come from a culture of meritocracy and people who bootstrapped social mobility; my father started working at 14. If a kid from the countryside with no high school diploma could become a computer engineer, anything was possible. By the time depression felled me, I already had extensive international experience under my belt. I also had education, languages, and several careers attesting to my adaptability and resilience.
No matter how many years depression stole from me, I was determined it would not destroy what I did before it struck but I was unsure of what I was capable of so I focused on doing the work. I hoped it would speak for itself and facilitate re-entry into professional life, a modicum of financial ease, and better health at last.
Coming from a news and current affairs background, I never once had to concern myself with productivity; it comes installed as standard. Mine is an industry ruled by unpredictability and deadlines; you either get on with the job or you don’t have one anymore. There is no time to second-guess yourself. Having been a freelancer for years, I already had the habit of taking on as much work as I could because the next pay check is never guaranteed. And there’s no telling where the next opportunity might come from either.
As I learned in Portugal, extreme work ethics do not insulate anyone against poverty, hunger, and illness. Monetizing as much of your time as possible is the credo of the gig economy, with many of us combining several jobs to try and make ends meet.
Despite our best efforts, we still struggle, we still fail, we still go hungry; worse, our extreme work ethics put us at risk of exploitation. Being taken advantage of is as soul-destroying as it is humiliating so it remains taboo; to make up for the financial shortfall, we take on more work. We blindly trust in our compulsive productivity and hope not to collapse before we’ve arrived at a stage when we can afford to rest, be it only for a day.
But when that day remains elusive, what do you do?
Eating one daily meal is a habit I acquired under duress over a decade ago, long before intermittent fasting became an acceptable way of covering up food insecurity. Like the humiliation of working without pay, hunger is something that flies under the radar because it is easy to disguise. All you have to do is invoke productivity and suddenly poverty looks like discipline. The only thing that might give you away is stomach rumbles, which can be covered up by drinking enough liquid. Should anyone get a little curious, casually mention the internal economy is out of kilter and I assure you they won’t press for additional info.
Not eating for a day or two while continuing to tap into compulsive productivity does test one’s resolve and running on empty can get scary. Combine it with chronic lack of sleep and your health slowly becomes a ticking time bomb. Then again, what else can you do when monetizing as much of your time as possible is the one and only thing that might make a difference at the end of the month?
Or not as the case may be. Hard work isn’t always commensurate with improved financial circumstances. This isn’t specific to media and publishing; start-ups fold, clients go bankrupt, people sell you illusions to get free work out of you. They know you’re desperate and dedicated, especially when you’re in thrall to this rare and much coveted thing that is vocation.
Urgent passion demands an outlet and personal fulfillment isn’t contingent on pay when vocation drives you. When livelihood and vocation align as is my case, this can be a recipe for disaster rather than success. Failure to consider or discuss financial implications beforehand isn’t a smart move and yet it may not stop you. Although I try and rein in my enthusiasm when anyone solicits my skills for free, I’ve also fallen for mirages more than once.
Alas, the price to pay for compulsive productivity isn’t a temporary loss of earnings, it is the textbook definition of a bad investment.
As a freelancer, you should always strive to diversity your income streams instead of relying on the one client. Having complementary and transferable skills to call upon helps hugely but if you are already working all hours then this attempt at diversification calls for initial sacrifices. There are only two ways to find more time: Either you cannibalize your existing workload or you sacrifice rest. At this point, the choice anyone in a precarious financial situation will make is obvious.
The longer you do it, the more clients will take your work for granted until you either collapse or stop working for free. Further, it is extraordinary how many folks will plead poverty and exhaustion to your face until you actually pick up the tab, thus adding insult to injury. I have both put paying work on the back burner and pulled all nighters for unpaid work in the name of vocation and this has created much heartache. Whatever you do, you will always have the impression of letting people down because vocation overrides everything, including your better judgment.
In that sense, compulsive productivity has supercharged my life by cramming it so full of work I have no time for anything else. It continues to rob me of sleep and keep me well under the poverty line, unsure whether I will be able to afford rent or food from one month to the next. Nevertheless, I still don’t shirk responsibility, I still don’t slack, I still don’t pass the buck, and I still persist. Standing still for years means I have to relearn how to take care of myself but I cannot afford to do so just yet even though I cannot afford not to either.
In a culture that has elevated greed to a virtue, compulsive productivity is seen as an asset and an advantage, never the health hazard it can turn into when weaponized. Late-stage capitalism knows the working poor will do anything to hang on to their dignity, showing up and showing willing even when there’s little or no pay.
As I learned from experience, hungry and tired people are docile workhorses, unfailingly grateful for crumbs and consideration, and easily manipulated.
I’m a French-American writer, journalist, and editor now based in the Netherlands. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.