Don’t be a machine, don’t burnout

Rahaf Harfoush is an expert on burnouts not only because she studied it, but also because she experienced it."A few years ago, my obsession with productivity got so bad that I suffered an episode of burnout that scared the hell out of me."
Rahaf Harfoush
Rahaf Harfoush


I’m talking insomnia, weight gain, hair loss — the works. I was so overworked that my brain literally couldn’t come up with another idea,” she says. It was this episode that indicated to her that her identity was linked with this idea of productivity.

But, does this idea resonate with others? Try out this check list: Do you feel guilty if you haven’t been productive enough during the day? Do you spend hours reading productivity hacks, trying new frameworks and testing new apps to get even more done? If yes, then you too are on the verge of a possible burnout.

But, in this competitive age, how else do we measure productivity? According to Harfoush, there is no single formula to determine this as every individual is unique when it comes to output. Harfoush says, “Historically, productivity as we know it today was used during the industrial revolution. It was a system that measured performance based on consistent output. You clocked into your shift and were responsible for creating X number of widgets on the assembly line. At the end of the day, it was pretty easy to see who worked hard and who hadn’t.”

“When we shifted to a knowledge economy, people suddenly had tasks that were much more abstract, things like writing, problem-solving or strategizing, tasks that weren’t easy to measure. Companies struggled to figure out how to tell who was working and who wasn’t, so they just adopted the old systems as best as they could, leading to things like the dreaded time sheet where everyone is under pressure to justify how they spend every second of their day,” adds the strategist and digital anthropologist.

But creativity does not go hand-in-hand with clocking hours. These systems don’t make a lot of sense for creative work. “We still think of productivity as an endurance sport. You try to churn out as many blog posts or we cram our day full of meetings. But this model of constant output isn’t conducive to creative thought. Today, knowledge workers are facing a big challenge. We’re expected to be constantly productive and creative in equal measure,” Harfoush says.

In 4.5 minutes, she crams in a lot of examples highlighting how the current models we’re using to measure our creative work don’t make sense. “We aren’t machines, and I think it’s time that we stopped working like one,” she concludes.

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