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.

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