The Theology of Productivity

Exploring why productivity can feel empty, and how we can make it whole again

Aaron Burden / Unsplash

Hi all! Dan here. Today I have a guest post from strategist, coach, and writer Sarah M. Chappell. Sarah believes that in many ways productivity has replaced religion in creating structure and meaning in our lives (guilty!). The problem is that this can sometimes feel empty. The reason things are this way is that we've taken some aspects of religious practice and applied them to our work life—but left other important pieces behind. By exploring the religious roots of productivity culture, Sarah believes that we can fix this problem, and find ways to be productive while also feeling good—rather than empty. Hope you enjoy it!

I've worked at the intersection of entrepreneurship and spirituality for years, and I've come to see our obsession with planning and productivity as the new religious fervor. We plan like God ordained it, iPhone calendar clutched in our fists like a rosary, mumbling our task list under our breath with the cadence of a Hail Mary.

In the year of our Lord 2021, 47% of the U.S. population consider themselves members of a religious group, compared to 70% two decades ago. This decline, though evident across regions and age groups, is particularly pronounced among millenials. But as formal religions step off the stage of our collective life, the human need for structure, purpose, and community is as strong as it's always been. What's playing that role for us?

Doing things.

Today, we find purpose and meaning in our jobs. We build our communities around loyalty to specific domains and disciplines, and to tools that help us work faster, better, harder. We put our faith in the idea that a fresh planner, a new project management methodology, or a rising SaaS contender for managing our second brain will open the door to a fulfilling future. This is not a mistake. God is gold. Prayer is productivity.

The decline in religious life is accompanied by a simultaneous rise in hyper-growth models and winner-take-all capitalism. We’ve conferred the role of moral steward and meaning-maker to a set of rules and habits designed to optimize our every waking moment, our sleep, our dreams. And the messengers of this new religion? Today’s prophets are not in rags, they’re in Teslas.

Am I bemoaning productivity as our modern shared religious experience? Not necessarily! Through my work as a business coach, I’ve helped literally hundreds of founders start new businesses, hire employees, and grow their companies. But I believe that productivity culture can be harmful, especially if it remains unexamined.  

The irony is that though productivity culture is our new religion, its roots are in religion. The problem is that we’ve ported only some of the pillars of religious practice into our modern work environment, and not others. I believe that looking into productivity culture’s religious roots might help us adapt some of the beneficial practices of religious life that have been left behind. In understanding this evolution—why it happened and to what end—we might be able to build a productivity culture that is more well-rounded and healthy. And in doing so, begin to divorce our sense of self-worth from our ability to produce work, stop agonizing about “outcomes”, and begin to re-experience the joy of making new things in the world. 

The Prayer of Productivity Pr0n 

Do you ever open a new planner, stare into its blank little boxes and think to yourself: What am I doing with my life? 

You’re not wrong to ask. Our days, as Annie Dillard wrote in The Writing Life, are how we spend our lives—and for the entrepreneur, the high achiever, the creator, those days are scheduled, considered, curated, and designed. They are productive. Productivity is the framework through which we approach the precise planning of every hour (even those left unplanned), sifting for a lasting impact, or at the very least some way of knowing that we have done a good job or a good thing or, well, done something.

Yeah but Sarah, what’s wrong with wanting to get stuff done and be good at my job? I’m growing my brand over here! You’re right, of course. It’s not a character flaw to want to work. 

The problem I see with productivity culture is that a feeling of accomplishment, the checking-off of the to-do, is not only a marker of our limited time, but the yardstick against which we assess our worth in a secular, consumer-driven society. When the day is complete and the task list is clear, there is an ease not easily replicated elsewhere. A feeling of certainty, even security, in knowing that our will has overcome inertia, the siren song of Twitter, and the fatigue of Pandemic Year II to enforce order on one small, finite corner of the universe. To know that we have done a good job.

My issue, then, is with the word “good.” Where does this idea of a “good job” come from? And how did we end up in a society where a “good job” is a sign that you are good, and a “bad job” a sign that you are bad? We have to dip into a bit of religious history to find out.

Where Does A “Good Job” Come From?

In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis makes his case for the existence of God by inviting the reader first to believe that there are shared principles—Moral Laws, he calls them, building on the natural law concept of Thomas Aquinas—that every person and every culture inherently possess. We know what is good, even if we do not always do it. We know what is bad, even if we sometimes dive headfirst into it. Lewis argues that any differences across time and location are essentially minimal when put in the context of the overwhelming similarities. 

Regardless of whether you find his reasoning sound, the idea of a Moral Law—something fundamental to all humans that transcends time and geography—is compelling, and starts to point to how we devise meaning in our lives through this shared morality, how we decide what is good, and why we keep creating religions to provide it.

Religion is often defined as being the worship of God, gods, or the supernatural. The supernatural bit I quite like, because all “supernatural” means is something outside of the visible world, and that opens up the possibility of all sorts of fascinating things being available for worship. I’m not as keen on the worship part—“spiritual, not religious” millennial that I am—but insofar as worship is defined as honoring something, I can get on board.

Religion serves many purposes, but most primary may be, well, providing purpose to existence. Religion shapes our days, offers rituals that mark the passage of time, prescribes the behavior that is best suited to the outcome of the religion (enlightenment, reincarnation, everlasting life, eternal damnation, other: take your pick), and enforces the associated morality (shunning, excommunication, imprisonment, that sort of thing). Religion tells you what your purpose is, dictating a path to help you navigate the creation of meaning in your life. Crucially, it connects you with other people who share that same purpose and who follow the same rules to meet it. It’s usually through these other people that you know if what you’re doing to stay on the path is good—or at least good enough. Gotta love accountability, right?

Our need for purpose is strong: we feel defined by what we put forward in our lives and what we make, and what we hope to leave behind. And humans are nothing if not makers of meaning, attempting to clarify our stints on this Earth through answering the question of “why” so our purpose can be fulfilled. Even as religion statistically fades, American culture does have a solution here: making meaning through making capital.

I’m far from the first to assert that generating capital is often pursued with a religious fervor, and with the establishment of the Internet age and its ever-increasing demands on our time, the fervor feels even more potent, for without its motivation and structure, we might, well, just read Twitter all day.

But even more than capital itself, it’s the “getting things done” (apologies to David Allen) that has superseded religion as the primary creator of meaning in our lives. With the exception of prosperity gospel churches and certain famous life coaches, it’s still gauche to admit to wanting to make money—even if that is the socially ingrained metric of meaning for many of us. Instead, we transmute the tangible reward of money into the ethereal reward of work, reverse-engineering our labor to no longer be about monetary compensation but instead to reflect a cultivated love of action. How many boxes have we checked? Words written? Instagram followers gained? Cold leads called? We are doing things in order to make meaning, but somehow there is never enough done, and an ever-increasing demand for ways to do even more. 

(I can hear many of you balking at the idea that you only work to make money, but think about what you’d be doing differently if you weren’t getting paid, or if you didn’t need to be. Unless you’re bootstrapping your own company, whether you are doing a “good” or a “bad” job is determined by the person or people who financially benefit from your labor—in some important ways, the religion of productivity is feudal. Entrepreneurs, you are not exempt: your customers are your overlords.)

The need to accomplish feels almost cult-like, an unquestioned status quo where those who do are somehow separate from those who don’t, and those who appear to derive sincere pleasure from the ritual of doing are a breed unto themselves, regarded with skepticism from across the company Slack. But we keep doing it, following this drive as if God Himself had proclaimed it, even though the returns are murky and any innate passion for creation is often buried under the weight of yet another Zoom meeting required for our professional advancement. 

Why We Feel Gross Trying To Do A Good Job

Modern mystic and poet Christian Wiman conveys this unease in his book My Bright Abyss:

“All ambition has the reek of disease about it, the relentless smell of the self—except for that terrible, blissful feeling at the heart of creation itself, when all thought of your name is obliterated and all you want is the poem, to be the means wherein something of reality, perhaps even something of eternity, realizes itself.”

While Wiman is searching for the Christian God in this eternity, the experience of ambition as both diseased and an ever-present social requirement is what we attempt to mitigate through our productivity structures, as if creating a delineated container for our desires will limit the “smell of the self” to an acceptable whiff, and perhaps also hide that seemingly shameful need for the deeper, true calling toward the realization of reality that proceeds from our very human creativity. Even without God, we still dream of the breath of eternity on our skin, and do actually want to find some deeper meaning for life. And without God, the act of making something new or feeling accomplished becomes the way through which we validate and affirm our existence: I make, therefore I am. 

We need some such affirmation in a secular world that lacks a way of understanding what happens after we die, and instead focuses solely on extending the life we do have. We’re death-phobic, which is not surprising in a culture devoid of any shared mythology around what happens after death. If there is no afterlife, and this moment is all there is, then maximizing the moment is a logical focus for life. 

Which brings us right back to productivity.

In fact, this law, rather than God’s law, is how we are now judged: your worth is equal to your rate of output per unit of input. One hour of time = how much revenue generated for the company? One motivational memo = how much increased efficiency for your team? One sales call = how much increase in lifetime customer value? 

If we are no longer seeking to be good in God’s eye, and religion is no longer the arbiter of goodness and a well-led life, productivity may not just be the new religion, but actually the creator of the new morality. 

The New Religion

Unlike religion, however, productivity has one major advantage: it is measurable. While some religious structures do have tit-for-tat, the Western malaise is deeply rooted in the Calvinist (with a debt to Augustine) doctrine of double predestination, which states that not only has God already decided who is going to heaven (regular predestination), He has also created people to populate hell (the “double”). A natural conclusion of which is the gnawing fear that we are those chosen not for eternal life but for eternal damnation. And we can’t change His choice. And that we should know if we’ve had the inner call to true faith that signifies being saved. And doubting that we know is a sign of not being chosen. And being confident that you’re in God’s grace is hubris and therefore a sign that you’re one of the damned. And not doing the kinds of things that someone going to heaven would do is a sign of hell for sure.

Talk about a high-stress environment! Makes that daunting to-do list a downright delightful domain to control.

The ephemeral quality of belief is often the part that’s both frustrating and enticing to believers, but for productivity fiends, the act of completion itself overcomes the fleeting nature of faith to become grounded, rooted in some reality of discrete tasks that enumerate the small worlds over which we have dominion.

Though why in the world are we doing so much?

For some of you, money will be the simple answer. It’s required, and it often (though not always) stems from the hard, focused work that productivity facilitates. Money is also the key to the kind of freedom that is available within an individualist economic system. In a dog-eat-dog world, we need money to make sure we’re the dog that’s eating.

But often there is a deeper drive, a push toward something more than money which, for all its joys and inequities, is just the stuff of exchange. The human animal has a craving for more, for the good of Lewis’s Moral Law, for the ability to do something that will hedge against our fears of being forgotten after we’re gone.

I believe that the need to make things is inherently human, but the elevation of that need to a purpose, even a calling, is something that the sociologist Max Weber theorizes emerged from Protestantism to become a defining force for the rise of capitalism in the West. In his book on the subject, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Weber traced the idea of worldly (that is, human) purpose from honoring God through ritual and hierarchy in the Catholic Church to honoring God through hard work. For Protestants, productivity was quite literally seen as a form of honoring God, and the only honest way to commune with God. Productivity was a form of prayer. This is the belief the Puritans, who were English Protestants, brought to New England in the 17th century.

According to Weber, a major change was the emergence of “the valuation of the fulfilment of duty in worldly affairs as the highest form which the moral activity of the individual could assume. This it was which inevitably gave every-day worldly activity a religious significance, and which first created the conception of a calling in this sense.”

Further, Weber demonstrates how this made “the fulfilment of worldly duties...under all circumstances the only way to live acceptably to God.” One of the things Protestants were protesting was the  cloistered activities of the Catholic Church, where only priests could read the Bible and communicate with God. In their radical proposal that everyday people should be able to read the Bible and worship in their own way, they elevated the mundane to an act of worship for the glory of God, shifting the moral responsibility of the believer from collective spiritual acts to individual practical acts. Doing a good job became, quite literally, the purpose of mankind for the Protestant faithful.

What happens if we embrace the religion of productivity and harness that desire for calling in our work?

I am not suggesting that we worship work—though many do. And I am not claiming that you must bow down before Agile or fully embrace this tenuous thesis that I’m putting forth. But due to the Protestant underpinnings of our culture that we’ve explored, there are already religious elements to our obsession with work. I am, then, curious about what we can learn if we explore our productivity through a spiritual lens and, more specifically, focus on the concept of a calling that emerged as such a powerful motivating force for the growth of private enterprise. 

A spiritual rather than religious approach introduces flexibility in the place of dogma, exploration in the place of prescription, and ultimately a focus on a mystical experience of life (where mysticism means a belief that knowledge of God, gods, and the mysteries of the universe can be experienced by an individual) that prioritizes personal agency over religious structure. 

This “moral justification of worldly activity,” as Weber called it, is far beyond justified now: it is necessary. And it shapes the morality of our time. So what can we make of the idea of a calling now, and how can that influence the way we approach productivity?

Can we honor our desire to get things done—wherever it stems from—and allow that to guide the shape of our days?

It’s rare to visit a business’s social media account or website without reading an enthusiastic piece of content marketing expounding on how important it is to “know your why.” Usually this is an exercise, some kind of journaling prompt or self-coaching activity to help you discern why you want to grow a business or excel in your position. As I mentioned earlier, money is certainly a factor. But business coaches and consultants often say that’s not enough: if you just want money, there are easier paths. It’s passion that drives the innovation and sustains the effort required for a start-up, for a sales position, or to bake your own slice of the entrepreneurial pie.

Your “why,” really, is the 21st century version of Weber’s calling. It can be a spiritual experience to clarify why your work matters, why you keep waking up and doing the hard thing, why you want to help people in whatever way your work does. And while it has a place as a business development exercise, let’s go somewhere a little different: how can your calling—your “why”—impact your productivity?

Let’s look back at why we have religions in the first place. I assert that one of the primary reasons is the need for purpose, so we can make meaning in our lives and have a system through which we can try to understand the world.

And if productivity is a religion of a sort, then it can—should, even—be used to make meaning. Remember, how we spend our days is how we spend our lives. Let’s anchor them into the meaning we want to create, and see if that unlocks a new possibility for our work and, ultimately, the impact of our short lives. 

This is the crux: most of us are going to keep doing a lot of things. If you’re here reading this, you’re probably just that kind of person. You would be fully engaging with creation even if you didn’t have to work for a living. You would still be following this call to effect change on the world in whatever way you can. 

And even if you’re not feeling particularly purposeful, you most likely still need to produce in order to survive, and finding some pleasure in the passing of your time can only benefit you regardless of the number of hours spent at a soul-sucking job.

So maybe, then, the way forward is not to think about production, but about calling. And not the warped calling that Weber found to be an excuse for an ever-expanding economy, the fallacious perpetual motion machine of Friedmanite economics. If our daily actions are rooted in the lives we want to experience rather than the work we want to produce—if we prioritize the things we care about rather than the things demanded of us, and if we reconceptualize what “good” work is—we can shift the productivity narrative from one of religious fervor to spiritual curiosity.

The sandbox of your schedule can then hold your desire to find purpose, and you get to decide what that means for you. Whether influenced by God or a deck of tarot cards or someone you love, you can frame your days with calling as the North Star, the progenitor of your productivity, rather than the hopeful byproduct of maximizing what you do on this Earth. And that calling? Maybe it’s not about work at all. Your purpose can be fueled by work, and it can be your work, but you can just as righteously choose to have your work be in service of other dreams, the ones that you tend to put off too long in the hopes of some implausible death-defying future when you’re working less.

Purpose-first productivity doesn’t force us to wait until retirement to find fulfillment. Instead, it guides us toward the here, the now, this one moment in which we can have an active relationship with presence. It is in this flexibility that we can find a spiritual approach where daily life opens doors to the experience of divine purpose, but without the religious fervor of dogmatic structures and beliefs.

This choose-your-own-adventure approach to your life develops from more questions rather than answers: How do you want to spend your days? What legacy do you want to leave? And how will you choose to engage with productivity if the output of your calling is fueled by acknowledging that your inputs—your very actions and activities—are, essentially, what constitute your life?

A productivity system that grows from purpose rather than being an end unto itself will necessarily have different guidelines than one rooted in the illusion of control. If we want to enjoy our days, then the guidelines must support enjoyment. If we want to use time management to create space for what we love, then our system must actually create space and not bury us under complicated tagging and tracking systems. When we develop rules based on how we want to define purpose each and every day, the frameworks will change.

Creating Your Own Goodness

A religion, in practice, often consists of:

1. Belief, usually in some higher power or spiritual entities.

2. Framework for understanding why the world is the way it is.

3. Sacredness, as in things that are set apart from mundane, everyday life for spiritual purpose.

4. Ritual and action to affirm the above.

Let’s apply these constituents to our calling to make and create a good, purposeful life. 

We can start by asking, what do you believe in? About your work and your efforts? Is it guided by a god? The muse? The voice of a parent pushing you to greater heights? The voice of a teacher who doubted you?

What is your purpose? Is it simply to enjoy the flush of accomplishment, embalmed as it is in the smell of self? Or is there a deeper calling, a need to create or impact that brings you asymptotically closer to some meaning of life?

What is sacred to you in your day? What do you want to set apart from the mundane to support the work you want to create? Is it as simple as having a door to close, a room of one’s one à la Virginia Woolf? Or a Roam Daily Note that holds your dreams?

Finally, what actions do you want to take to affirm these things? And how can those actions inform your productivity framework? What rituals do you want to enact, and why? Is it time blocking and Toggl tracking, a veritable Liturgy of the Hours for the secular life? Do you have a shutdown routine like Cal Newport, or a Julia Cameron-influenced morning pages practice? 

This spiritually inspired approach to engaging with the desire to produce transforms productivity’s innate religious foundation into the opportunity to divine your own dogma, the rules by which you want to create. You get to decide what makes a life good.

That is inherently personal, and I cannot (and will not) prescribe goodness to you here. And there is not, to my knowledge, an app that can tell you the answer or an organizational tool that can reduce the effort required to strive toward these understandings. A religion may offer some answers, yes, but ultimately the answers are yours and yours alone. 

What do you want your life to make with your life? Reclaiming the reins of the religion of productivity and infusing our own spirituality can help us rid ourselves of other people’s conceptions of a job well done and, therefore, a life well-lived. Being productive becomes less important than what it is we are producing, the value of what it is we are bringing into the world and, even more crucially, how we feel producing it. Spiritual productivity, then, affirms not a supernatural divinity, but the mirror of the divine within us: the power we all have to create. 


Sarah M. Chappell is a strategist, coach, and writer guiding non-traditional founders to grow holistic businesses. As the founder of the Holistic Business Academy, Sarah has helped hundreds of small business owners start their companies without selling their souls. Her work and writing have been featured in USA Today, Cosmopolitan, and Healthline, amongst others.


Footnotes

  1. Increasingly, people in the United States do not identify as religious. According to the Pew Research Center, the number of Americans who identify as atheist, agnostic, or “nothing in particular” increased by 9% in the decade between 2009 and 2019 for a total of 26% of the adult population, while Christian religions are decreasing their share and non-Christian religions have seen small growth. This shift is even more stark when examined generationally: 25% of Gen X claims no religious affiliation, compared to 40% of Millenials. While over 65% of Americans still name Christianity as their belief system, the shifting social mores have left a void in how and by whom a meaningful life is defined.


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Mark Jansen about 2 months ago

This spiritually inspired approach to engaging with the desire to produce transforms productivity’s innate religious foundation into the opportunity to divine your own dogma, the rules by which you want to create. You get to decide what makes a life good.

Divine = define?