Reflections on “Productivity”

According to Webster’s Dictionary, productivity is “the quality or state of being productive.” Going one step further, we find that productive is “having the quality or power of producing especially in abundance.”

For the most part, I think I agree with this definition. However, I do have a problem with the idea that in order to be productive, you must produce “in abundance”, and not just produce. In addition, who is to say what is abundant or not? For one person, producing one essay that later gets published is abundant. Whereas for another person, abundance might be gaged upon the number of widgets produced in a factory under an hour.

Ultimately what’s got me thinking about productivity are my own reflections (and doubts) about my productiveness in my service, especially during this lull in the year. The fact is, my school is out on vacation. And despite having attempted to organize summer school, I find myself without work on most days and feelings of “unproductiveness.” So here I am, philosophizing.

Social Constructivist Outlook on Productivity

Productivity is a socially and culturally constructed idea. What does this mean? It means that how people define productivity depends on who they are and where they are. For example, my thoughts on how I am being productive or not varies greatly from those of some of my Peruvian counterparts and community members. For example, I have been told multiple times that I “don’t work”, or that I don’t “understand work”. Why? Because I don’t have a farm. I don’t raise crops or take care of animals. In this way I am unproductive.

Now I don’t really want to get into how I tried to argue and explain to this person why I think they are incorrect. I just want it to serve as an example of the constructedness of a word like productivity. Ultimately I think the words “productive” and “productivity” can be dangerous. Or rather our definitions of them. How we set our parameters around what we deem productive or not is crucial to how we take pride in the things we accomplish and our levels self-worth and gratification. Understanding that we have power over how we define words like productivity, and therefore how we define ourselves, is super empowering and important for maintaining autonomy over how we feel about ourselves and the work we do end up doing.

Altruism and Productivity

For the most part, altruism and productivity go hand in hand. Other times, they do not. Doing volunteer work, for many, is the epitome of altruistic behavior. Doing something for someone else (or something else), whether it be physical, intellectual or emotional labor, is valued because of how it makes us feel. Personally, pumping thousands of hours into unpaid labor is worth it because of how I feel at the end of the day. The smiles, conversations, letters I receive and words of encouragement are all I need to know I did a good job, not a paycheck.

However, altruism and being productive don’t always line up. From my experience, and from those of my volunteer friends, when this disconnect happens we get flooded with feelings of guilt, self-doubt, and low self-worth because we feel like we aren’t accomplishing what we “should be doing.” It’s like riding a roller coaster. The highs I feel come after days when I felt like I put my best foot forward and accomplished something. Maybe I was proud of the session I led with the high schoolers, maybe I told a good joke in Spanish, or maybe I helped my team win in volleyball.

The low moments I feel mostly come from feelings of unproductiveness. Maybe there was a slow day and I felt unprepared for my session. Maybe the presentation I planned got moved to a later date. Maybe just getting out of bed and off to work felt utterly impossible because I didn’t sleep well the night prior thanks to being sick to my stomach.

When someone can’t be productive in altruistic situations like volunteer labor it really takes a toll. Ultimately what I think needs to happen is a process of reconstructing the definition of productivity in order to feel more fulfilled. Even if it means changing that definition daily. This is obviously easier said than done, and something I attempt to practice as much as I can, but nobody can be perfect (nor productive all the time).

Productivity in the Peace Corps and Comparing Across Services 

From the beginning of pre-service training (PST) volunteers get told to not compare their service with those of other volunteers. I really enjoyed being taught this. And for the most part, I think I’ve done a good job at it. Mostly because I love where I live and the opportunities I have for work. However, it is when I am feeling unproductive that not comparing my service to those of my friends becomes really difficult.

A good example of this is right now. The whole Peruvian school system is on vacation until March. During this down time summer school programs are offered in a lot of communities . Some students go to sports camps while others do more academic style courses. Some go to the pre-police academy while others study the entrance exams for college. And some students do nothing in particular or work heavily in the chacra. What is available to any given student depends primarily on what their school or local government is willing to pay for and offer as a service.

In the case of my community, it’s not a whole lot. In fact, its’s nothing. Last year during this time I organized an english learning and sports workshop for the students of my colegio. Unfortunately, the event fell far below my expectations. The workshop was unsuccessful and unsustainable for a number of reasons, not all of which were my fault.

Despite last year’s failure, I attempted again this year to organize a leadership and environmental studies workshop based on a manual that previous PCVs had developed. The plan was organized and ready to go except for the fact that I was missing a Peruvian counterpart to work with. As volunteers we don’t work alone, at least we aren’t supposed to. Especially in classroom settings. Why? Because its not sustainable. Meaning if the volunteer was not there, could the project or activity still go on? If you’re working a lone, the answer is obviously no.

It’s not easy to make the decision to not work. Especially in altruistic situations when the consequence could have negative impacts on your attitude. In addition to that, what tends to happen is we compare what we are up to (or not up to) with what other volunteers are doing. I’ve seen lots of photos and videos from my fellow volunteers about the productive summer school sessions they organized and are running. It’s easy to feel less self-worth and unconfident in the service you are providing when you’re “not doing as much” as other volunteers.

What’s not so easy is understanding and coming to terms with the fact that the conditions in their communities are different than those in your own. Perhaps they have more involved counterparts. Perhaps there is a history of summer school in their communities and they got lucky to be a part of it. Perhaps what they are doing looks good on camera but in reality is incredibly unsustainable. All of these could be the case. I personally hope its not the last one but you never know.

Redefining my Definition of Productivity

Redefining my definition of productivity has been really important for me in this first month of vacation. In fact, its probably the most productive thing I’ve done! Coming to terms with the amount and type of work I will be able to get done during vacation has taken a big weight off my shoulders. No it’s not ideal. No it’s not what I hoped or organized. No it’s not like some of my fellow volunteers. But it’s my reality and thats okay.

I may not be in the school everyday or working with the kids, but I am accomplishing things that make me feel productive. I am spending time outside. Working out. Cooking more. Reading. Climbing with friends. Writing. Etc. What it boils down to is that I am spending more time on me. I am done feeling guilty for not “getting work done.” I am embracing that I am on vacation and away from school like every one of the other teachers in my colegio. I am good with that. It makes me feel good. I don’t need to be “productive” in the conventional sense of the word.

2 Comments

  1. Fantastic article, brother! I similarly am finding ways to stay “busy” right now. I think you nailed it perfectly with this phrase:
    “Understanding that we have power over how we define words like productivity, and therefore how we define ourselves, is super empowering and important for maintaining autonomy over how we feel about ourselves and the work we do end up doing.”
    It’s all about expectations and perspective!

    Liked by 1 person

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