Paranoid Productivity

Melanie Wasser / Unsplash

By Christina Luo

Productivity is about managing emotions as much as projects. Yet we often focus on productivity as a toolset more than a mindset. Our proximity to an abundance of information makes us think we’re making progress when we’re merely deciding how to react to stimuli. The means of note-taking, task-making, and time-tracking become ends in themselves as we conflate an app’s efficiency and memory with our own. There’s something paranoid about the way we configure and connect our tools to each other, and eventually back to ourselves. 

In her essay “Paranoid and Reparative Reading,” literary scholar and critic Eve Sedgwick examines the ways we seek, find, and organize knowledge through our reading practices. In an approach Sedwick calls “paranoid reading,” we default to critique when analyzing texts—and extend that analysis to ourselves as readers. “Reparative reading,” in contrast, looks beyond critique as a prerequisite for understanding. Paranoia, as an emotion and an analytical lens, isn’t inherently bad. Instead, Sedgwick defines paranoia in the following ways, which I’ll be further unpacking:

  1. Anticipatory: We perceive knowing in advance as an advantage.
  2. Reflexive and mimetic: We copy what we covet, then covet more of what we copy.
  3. A strong theory of negative affects: We design our systems to avoid negative emotions.
  4. Placing its faith in exposure: We equate visibility with utility.

When Sedgwick describes paranoid reading as being a defensive reaction to negative emotions—particularly our discomfort with uncertainty—I can’t help but draw parallels to digital productivity culture. At times, the online fervor around tools, tactics, and templates feels like a response rooted in deeper motives and beliefs. To better understand this response, here’s how Sedgwick’s framework has guided my exploration of what I’ll call paranoid productivity

1 | Paranoid productivity is anticipatory

The first aspect of paranoia is that it’s anticipatory. Sedgwick describes a paranoid reader as someone who is prematurely critical of a text before they read it. They prepare to read with skepticism, to deconstruct and poke holes in arguments, and practice other forms of “future-oriented vigilance.” Motivated by the belief that “there must be no bad surprises … bad news must be always already known,” knowing in advance deflates the anxiety of being caught unprepared or ignorant on a topic. 

In paranoid productivity, there’s a similar preoccupation with desired future states. Think of the pull towards visioning, goal setting, time management, and other tactics to plan for and avert surprise. When we do look to the past through reviews and retrospectives, it’s often to gather intelligence on what can be done better, or how we can be better, in anticipation of what we expect to be ahead. This future orientation extends into our productivity systems, where anything far back enough gets physically or mentally filed away as Archive or Trash. But in our aversion to the past, we wind up likelier to repeat it, building only on what’s recently known.

Paranoia comes not from clarity on an outcome, but in response to our own attachment and anticipation to what could be. Our proximity to our own thoughts and context raises a degree of suspicion that if an idea or approach is clear to us, we’ve overlooked flaws obvious to others. After all, if you’re actively looking for fault, you’re more likely to find it. Maintaining a sense of control over future outcomes requires actively intercepting and improving worse-case scenarios—real or imagined. Even if it means inventing new tools, frameworks, and knowledge in pursuit of that control. 

Even if, after all the effort, we never actually get around to confronting the source of our anticipation. 

2 | Paranoid productivity is reflexive and mimetic

The second element of paranoia is that it’s “reflexive and mimetic.” “Mimetic” means imitative, while “reflexive” in this context describes the feedback loop between what we imitate and what the process of imitation reinforces in our beliefs. 

Sedgwick explains that “the way paranoia has of understanding anything is by imitating and embodying it.” The value of imitation comes from the sunk cost of our actions. We copy what we covet from others, then covet more of what we copy. Even if the behaviors initially feel incongruent with our identity. Over time, it becomes difficult to determine whose desires our actions are in response to. The cause and effect of our actions become interchangeable and self-reinforcing, which makes the relationship reflexive. That we don’t pause to consider whether someone else’s motions align with our own motives is what adds to the paranoia. 

Likewise, the desire to be productive is first learned from observing and copying how others have defined success. We value certain traits and behaviors in ourselves only after seeing them valued by and in others. Think of the endless search for tutorials, templates, courses, coaches, and other forms of advice and reassurance. We stockpile content because we confuse inspiration for permission. Before starting a project or taking action, we first look at what others have done to understand how we can achieve similar results. Self-awareness, self-improvement, and even self-criticism are reflexive ways we internalize and embody these expectations. We aspire not to build the ultimate zettelkasten, digital garden, or second brain, but to become the type of person who has use for one. The perception of what achievement or intellect looks like influences what we desire, which in turn reaffirms what we imitate. Mimicry is a reflexive way we learn from others and practice that newly acquired knowledge on ourselves. 

This pattern extends to our productivity tools in a sort of digital biomimicry. We’ve tamed and mechanized the natural world so that tomatoes (pomodoro apps), bees (Beeminder), and tiny forests (Forest) tend to us like clockwork, telling us when to start and stop working in 25-minute intervals. A layer of gamification has my Focus To-Do app rewarding me with collectible sunbeams after each session. In the search for flow-inducing nature sounds, droplets of water are digitized into synthetic waves and windows are shut to better hear a recording of trees rustling halfway across the globe. Here, elephants (Evernote) become forgetful, losing memory of the sheer volume of the just-in-case notes we save. Our attempts to press nature under a screen has changed the nature of how we get things done. 

Productivity tools aren’t the problem, but we forget that they’re opinionated by design. Their idiosyncratic structure or lack thereof imposes a worldview, one software update at a time, on how information should appear, and disappear. How ideas should have hierarchy, borders, and modularity. In substituting tooling for troubleshooting, these architectural details are opinions that we outsource to our tools, but uphold and adopt as our own, all the same. We don’t just shape our tools, we mimic them. And in reflecting the likeness of our thoughts back to us, they shape us. While all of this reflexive mimesis might shorten certain learning curves, when done without deliberate and independent thought, it tightens paranoia’s feedback loop, limiting other ways of understanding. 

3 | Paranoid productivity is a strong theory of negative affects

From meal prep to mindfulness, with entire industries dedicated to optimizing our lives, we’ve never had so many opportunities to be so productive. Conversely, it feels like there have never been fewer excuses to not be. Productivity becomes a means to evaluate and justify the value of every activity, even those as mundane yet essential as sleep and rest. In this way, paranoid productivity is a “strong theory” in the way it becomes central to how we analyze and interpret the world. 

“Affect” is how we experience emotion beyond language. It’s visible in facial expressions, gestures, and other physiological cues that amplify an underlying mood or feeling. We tend to seek out positive affects (joy, enthusiasm) with the goal of maximizing pleasure, while avoiding negative affects (anger, shame, fear) to minimize pain. 

Paranoid productivity then, organizes systems, energy, and time around avoiding negative emotions. Productivity becomes a means of avoiding emotional discomfort or “forestalling pain.” Often at the expense of finding pleasure in our work. Paradoxically, paranoia gains strength through the failure of its strategies to anticipate and alleviate negative impulses and experiences. The less productive we feel, the more we look towards productivity advice. In this state of mind, we turn to self-help articles and how-to videos when we’re struggling not just to get something done, but with the feelings of guilt, shame, or anxiety that surround our inertia. Then we mistake those feelings as conditions necessary for productivity to take place. 

To avoid these negative affects, we’ll often look for an emotional lift through the content we consume, despite the eventual cognitive cost. Digital nutrition startup AeBeZe Labs sees online content accompanied by the same standardized labels we expect of food packaging and prescription medication. In developing a periodic table of elements for digital content, its Moodrise platform organizes media by neurotransmitters—the brain chemicals linked to specific moods and feelings including happiness (serotonin), calm (gaba), focus (acetylcholine), and motivation (dopamine). Just as Spotify playlists categorize media by genres of mood from a “Confidence Boost” to feeling “Down In The Dumps,” algorithmically allowing us to escape to or from a specific emotion. Content, then, is a biochemical means of achieving a desired mood state. Consuming content, then, is as much about managing how we feel as it is about what we know. 

Scrolling mindlessly through social media, unfocused multitasking, procrastination, and other activities we associate with being unproductive can be reframed as chemical conduits for avoiding less desirable emotions—even if they wind up exacerbating the discomfort afterwards. With a perceived tradeoff between doing good and feeling good, paranoid productivity is about avoiding an emotion as much as it is about confronting a task.  

4 | Paranoid productivity places its faith in exposure

The final characteristic of paranoia is that it views exposure as the most effective way for knowledge to make an impact. With paranoid reading, critique is the primary way of producing knowledge, with readers looking to expose or reveal the problems with a text—and by extension, its author. The idea being, if you could somehow help others see how illogical an argument is, how unfair a situation is, or how hypocritical someone’s actions are, they will take your side. This need for confirmation is what makes paranoia feel conspiratorial. There’s an instinct to break ideas down to build them back up into a cohesive and visible narrative, as a means of persuasion. Even if the reality is more complex and random. As Sedgwick writes, “work would be accomplished if only it could finally, this time, somehow get its story truly known.” Implicit here is the belief that work’s utility comes from its visibility: evidence that you’ve put effort into exposing knowledge supersedes the quality of the knowledge itself—whether or not that exposure actually reveals anything useful. 

In parallel, paranoid productivity is about exposing our own efforts. With knowledge work in particular, exposure is about mitigating the suspicion around work that might not look like work: creativity, analysis, decision-making, resolving conflict, and other forms of cognitive and emotional labor. The irony here being that the concealed effort that elevates strategic or creative work can also be what undermines its value. A sense of guilt or imposter syndrome might accompany the realization that a job that requires degrees and designations involves a workload that demands neither. To avoid being on the defensive by being exposed is to be on the offensive, and first expose a vetted persona of yourself that is “inescapably narrative”—that is, storytelling. By shifting from making progress to projecting it, paranoid productivity becomes performative. 

This performativity tends to surface through the language we use, to signal that work is being done. Productivity plays with three core comparatives-turned-directives: more, faster, better. Take reading. The productivity space is filled with listicles, hacks, and tweetstorms on how to read more, read faster, read better, read less—but understand more. Replace “read” with “work,” “learn,” or “produce” and the pattern persists. There’s a competitive and combative undercurrent to how we spend years trying to save seconds, with life becoming something that must be regularly consumed, measured, and annotated. 

In the rush to externalize our progress, we also externalize its validation. But making effort visible doesn’t always equate to recognition. Often meaningful work isn’t hidden, but already in plain sight. Its continued invisibility, a deliberate and conditioned choice. 

Toward reparative productivity

Later in her essay, Segwick offers the idea of reparative reading as an alternative to paranoid reading, though she doesn’t push the two modes into a good-bad dichotomy. They work alongside rather than against each other, anchored to the same traits, but motivated by different intensities of ambition, emotion, and risk. Rather than avoiding uncertainty, reparative reading openly invites in surprise, and the occasional pleasure that comes with being surprised. Sedgwick quotes Jonathan Culler, who further describes this openness as “an adventurous state where recognitions, pleasures, and discoveries seep in only from the most stretched and ragged edges of one’s competence.” 

To imagine productivity as “reparative” feels suggestive. To repair something implies that it’s broken, further implying that it was at one point whole, or at least that it could be. The simple revelation about paranoid productivity is that it’s rather unproductive. For all its anticipation, mimesis, and suspicion, it doesn’t actually get anything done. But understanding the paranoid mindset is what unlocks its reparative counterpart. When the default is to structure life around existing expectations of work and self-worth, there’s a quiet defiance in choosing only the structures relevant to your life. 

In the muddled moments of writing this, I found myself grappling with the very paranoid tendencies I was trying to describe: anticipating what I might have overlooked or under-researched that an imaginary critic would call out, procrastinating to delay not just the act of writing, but the feeling of dread that came with realizing the more I wrote, the less I was sure about. Could I really apply these dense, complicated concepts on critical and affect theory to productivity culture? Had I misinterpreted Sedgwick’s ideas? Could I make sense of my own?

I began approaching this with a different frame of mind, telling myself that despite the mass of disjointed notes staring me back: the essay was already written. It was done. The best parts had come and gone, and so had the worst. In forgetting my expectations for this piece of writing, all I had left was to remember the sense of peace that writing itself brought. Instead of proactively finding fault in my work, I found myself enjoying the process more, open to being surprised, and figuring out what I didn’t yet know along the way. I had been writing about productivity against a feeling of vague, overstimulated indifference. Now, I started writing toward it.

While paranoid productivity is about avoiding negative emotions as problems, reparative productivity is about confronting them as possibilities. The latter is about a more generous and generative mindset grounded in vulnerability and hope toward, rather than against, our own uncertainty. It’s about how we can be critical about the systems that shape our work without being combative with ourselves. New productivity tools and tactics will come and go, looking to harness undirected attention and ambition. But if the desire to be productive remains a constant, our tools and methods can evolve with and for us, meeting the variability of our energy, time, and emotions. 

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It's too lengthy when it didn't need to be. I appreciate the concept: managing emotions is as important as managing projects. But given the sheer number of articles when subscribed to Every, I feel readers, or at least I, only want the most concise of points. If there's going to be a summary of this, I think it'll be great to be informed in advance, so we don't have to wade through long, "literary-styled" texts.

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