I want to share some kind of raw thoughts about the endless cycles of consumerism and the flip side of the same coin, which I’m calling “producerism”.
First, let’s get this out of the way: talking about consumerism is kind of juvenile. But after my recent burnout I realized that designers, product makers, and others like us face an equal and opposite force that’s damaging in a very real way.
I don’t know about you, but I feel a constant pressure to produce. If I’m not sitting at my desk making something to put out into the world, I don’t feel like I’m working.
And recently after a pretty intense period of work, I found myself totally unable to keep going. It was like my brain and creativity just shut down. (And, I did it to myself by taking on 5 big projects at once. I knew it was dumb, but I did it anyway.)
So I had no choice. I had to take a break from producing.
I’m writing to you about this to share what I learned—that taking a break isn’t unproductive. It might actually be the most productive thing you can do.
If this sounds obvious to you, you’re either very lucky to not feel that pressure, or you are totally oblivious like I was.
So anyway I took a sabbatical. I shut it all down. I didn’t design, write, or sit at my desk to produce anything. I took a hike—literally. I sat in coffee shops without a laptop. I put on my headphones and listened carefully to music, rather than using music to get inspired to work.
This might have been the first break I’ve taken in almost a year. Sure, I’ve had “vacation” and spent time with my family for holidays. But as much as I love that, it’s not the same. Last week was the only real separation from work I’ve given myself to recharge and reflect in quite a while—and maybe the first time I’ve gotten some solitude since my son was born 3 years ago.
And honestly, stepping away from work like that was hard, because I felt like I was wasting time. I wasn’t productive. I was falling behind.
It only took 1 day for me to realize how wrong I was. After day 1, I already felt more focused and clear-headed. 2 days in, I realized just how tired I had been without realizing it. On day 3, my stress was gone and my mind was racing with new ideas to try. By the end of the week, I felt like a totally different person.
Now I’m back at work, and I’m producing better than I have in months. I feel more focused. I can clearly identify which types of work are meaningful and which aren’t.
But the key here is that I can do all this because I don’t feel the pressure to produce. I know that my business won’t fall apart if I step away. And somehow, removing that pressure makes me paradoxically more productive.
This seems totally obvious when you’re well rested, but when you’re in the middle of the grind, you might not always realize how much you’re wearing down.
There’s an aspect of our culture that expects us to be constantly producing and consuming. It’s almost like an addiction. Who knew FOMO could be such a dangerous drug?
Whatever it is you do, there is a pressure to be constantly producing. Always be designing something new for your portfolio. Always be marketing your business. Always be looking for new clients. And so on.
Stepping away from both the production and the consumption—not writing, but also not reading; not designing, but also turning off my iPhone and iMac; not watching TV or reading the news—was like finally turning off the faucet of all that pressure I’d been feeling.
Sometimes financial pressure can be very real and you don’t have the luxury of a fancy sabbatical. I know what that’s like.
But there’s a chance that the pressure you feel to produce isn’t as critical as you make it out to be. It certainly wasn’t for me.
Trying to be productive makes you less productive. When you choose mindless, relentless production, you are choosing not to do your best work. And, you might even be choosing to give up meaningful work completely.
This is producerism. Mindless production because we don’t know anything else. Production for production’s sake.
I know this is nothing new. I’ve read this exact same advice from other people. Maybe this is just a lesson you have to learn for yourself and this article won’t truly sink in until you learn it for yourself like I did. But I hope the signal gets through:
Mindless production is just as bad as mindless consumption. Designers, makers, and creators everywhere endure an endless pressure to produce. But we can say no.
Productivity is killing us; it’s sapping our creative energy, deceiving us to work on unimportant things, and sucking the joy out of the act of creation. Productivity is just the invention of some corporate overlord meant to keep the worker bees churning out profits. My business and my work can be more meaningful than mindless production. I’m not going to let productivity get in the way of doing work I love any longer.
Wanna join me?
P.s. So I’m trying some changes in my writing and to my business as a whole. For starters, I’m going to try sharing what’s on my mind, what I’m working on, and what I’m learning rather than making you polished, fancy articles. There might be typos. There might be thoughts that aren’t fully formed. I might cuss a little bit because cussing is easier than writing pro grammar. Sometimes I might not write anything new for a little while. And I think that might just be ok.
Design's Iron Fist is a collection of essays with advice for both design learners and professional designers. It's been featured as one of the best free design books by the Creative Bloq and the AIGA.
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