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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Tuesday, June 25, 2024

The productivity paradox: How to rewire our brains as college students

Students are pictured studying together in a Starbucks.

As overachieving students, I know that many of us will graduate with an expectation to achieve the best in all areas of our lives. However, this understanding that we have of success and productivity is negative in that it has become a commanding authority in our daily lives. 

There is a mismatch between our expectations as students and what we actually have the capacity to do. There are an infinite number of possibilities of where we can funnel our productivity, but the amount of time we have to devote to these activities is finite. This so-called productivity paradox is a Catch-22 — a no-win scenario.

The first thing we have to ask ourselves is how we should be tackling our aspirations. There are often two conflicting inclinations: Our desire to savor every minute of life is at odds with our scramble to achieve as much as possible with the finite time life provides. The more realistic alternative is to let go of the notion that life is made to accomplish everything, and instead, live in the present moment without feeling a perpetual need to check items off a to-do list. There is nothing wrong with the fact that our inherent capacity as humans is limited, and we should not try to transcend this situation to compensate for our lack of time and ability. Alleviating this impossible tally of demands will allow us to focus on the few important things that matter most.

Another essential aspect of the productivity paradox is our concept of self-worth. We tend to determine our self-worth based on our ability to check things off of our to-do lists. We wake up every morning with this feeling of existential debt: a need to get things accomplished throughout the day or else the debt will pile up. However, in reality, there is no one monitoring us throughout the day. There is no one checking to see if we finished that extra algebra set or deep-cleaned our room. We need to practice more self-compassion with ourselves, and we need to show gratitude for ourselves. Even if a day is spent doing absolutely nothing, our existence is still justified. Relieving that stress will allow us to become more productive without reinforcing this harmful idea that our self-worth is related to the tasks we perform. 

The last facet of the productivity paradox is our relationship with time. Here at Tufts, we have internalized the idea of the school/life balance. This mindset is not only disadvantageous but unfeasible. Although this view may appear promising at first, it often makes students feel the added burden of not only doing well in school but also having a flourishing social life. The need to excel at both often requires 200% of our effort: making it completely impractical for students to handle. 

Perhaps the cultivation of imbalance is more beneficial. Sometimes we decide it is appropriate to do the bare minimum, and other times it may be more fitting to study at the library for an additional hour. This imbalance serves students and provides a lever to manage their time without having the burden of trying to achieve an impossible equilibrium between school and life. 

The same could be said for hobbies and clubs. The productivity paradox demands that even our recreational time be high-yielding. We have monetized these pastimes or converted them into tasks required to move towards a goal. We need to let go of that predisposition and learn to simply enjoy an activity without having it be conducive to profit. Let's make the practice of hobbies — not side hustles — popular again. 

The productivity paradox encompasses different fallacies that snare the majority of students, but being mindful, limiting self-judgment and starting to change these perspectives can ultimately help make our college experience — and life itself — as fruitful and productive as possible.

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