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These are the hidden biases in mainstream productivity advice

Self-improvement advice often assumes that productivity is something that’s in your control. That’s not always the case.

These are the hidden biases in mainstream productivity advice
[Photo: Andreas Klassen/Unsplash]

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been that person obsessed with all things self-help and productivity. I’ve read self-help books with a notebook in hand, dutifully working my way through the exercises—because there are always exercises involved—until I got bored and another book caught my eye.

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When it became my job to sift through, write, and edit productivity content, I began to view any new productivity book with a dose of skepticism, alongside cautious optimism. Part of my skepticism arose out of its repetitive nature. Anytime a book claimed to provide a “novel solution” to inbox zero or procrastination, I generally found the same advice over and over again.

But I also realized another less-obvious theme that irked me. The narrative that many productivity books touted often left me feeling stressed, unsure of myself, and inadequate for not being as productive as they claimed I can be. No doubt the glorification of work and obsession that Americans have with quantifiable achievements played a huge part. But I also questioned whether part of it was because many productivity books were intended for (and written by) young affluent white men.

Who productivity advice often targets

It turns out I’m not alone in feeling this way. Jason Shen, cofounder of esports and gaming analytics company Midgame (and a Fast Company contributor), also observes that much productivity advice rests on the assumption that an individual has the flexibility, privilege, and freedom to structure their life and how they work. He gave the example of writing shorter responses to cut down one’s email time. It may be acceptable for men to do this, says Shen, but a woman who chooses to be curt in her communications may face backlash.

In a recent article for the New York Times, Smarter Living editor Alan Henry unpacked how the success of productivity hacks is highly dependent on a person’s privilege. For example, a woman or person of color who chooses to set boundaries around emailing after hours might not be seen as organized or productive, but are instead viewed “as unmotivated, lazy or disengaged.”

Cassandra Lam is the CEO and cofounder of The Cosmos, an online community that organizes events, retreats, and book clubs for Asian women. She sees mainstream productivity advice as generally targeting white, college-educated millennials “with access to a Chase sapphire credit card—not so much the person who is living at the poverty line, or the person who didn’t go to college.” Melanie Santos, a wellness entrepreneur, writer, and speaker, agrees. “Right now, I feel like most [productivity] articles cater to mostly millennials, white males, someone working in an up-and-coming company. The things that affect my environment are totally ignored.” 

These narrow assumptions mean that “mainstream” advice doesn’t often apply to a significant segment of the population. Sometimes, they can perpetuate stereotypes (like the example Henry provides) or do the opposite of improving productivity. For instance, telling a sleep-deprived single parent to get up earlier to meditate and exercise may be frustrating at best. And if they were to follow such advice, they might find themselves more tired and less productive than before.

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What mainstream advice often misses

At its core, Lam believes that most mainstream productivity advice centers on one problematic tenet, and that’s the idea that wellness and productivity is a personal problem that one can optimize or solve with a tool or app. “It doesn’t challenge or question enough the structures and systems that are in place. These articles are a Band-Aid, when we have cultural forces that have normalized and glamorized the way we’re living right now.”

Lam discovered the futility of mainstream advice when she was an overworked management consultant, living out of a suitcase and working long hours. “I really began questioning, why am I working so hard to survive, and why am I working so hard just to be at my job? When you’re in an environment where everyone seems to be doing just fine, you begin questioning whether it’s you that is the problem.” At The Cosmos, Lam and her cofounder Karen Mok lead conversations around what it means to thrive as Asian American women. Because productivity advice is often framed in the context of personal responsibility, Lam says, it often ignores the cultural pressures and conditioning that certain groups have to contend with when it comes to taking control of their lives or advocating for themselves. 

Speaking of her experience as an Asian American woman, Lam believes that the struggle within her community has never been about finding the time to get everything done. “We have the opposite problem where people are burning themselves into the ground,” she says. According to Mok, what Asian Americans really need are resources and spaces to have conversations about what they need to do to stop burning out in the workplace. 

Lestraundra Alfred, a personal trainer, nutrition coach, and host of the podcast Balanced Black Girl, believes that in the context of entrepreneurship, there’s a narrow definition of what it means to be successful and productive. Most advice, Alfred says, tends to center on achieving financial growth. “I don’t think there’s enough conversations around work-life wellness integration and teaching the everyday person, [who] maybe doesn’t want a six-figure business,” says Alfred. Everyone’s definition of success looks a little bit different, but “there’s a narrative that if you aren’t striving to be your own boss or living a four-hour workweek, then there’s something wrong with you.”

The importance of nuanced conversations

While Santos says that she is starting to see more and more productivity advice aimed at women of color, she is somewhat troubled by just how much of that advice centers on dealing with emotions at work. There’s an assumption that women of color are emotional, she says, and that’s the barrier that they face when it comes to improving productivity. “I don’t know if that’s positive. Why is there an assumption that we’re not productive?”

At the end of the day, productivity advice is often written by (and for) people who are obsessed with getting more out of their day. As a result, this advice often speaks with that audience in mind. Shen doesn’t necessarily see this as a problem, but he does challenge people to think about why they feel the constant need to achieve. Is it because you’re genuinely excited to do more, or is it because you feel an expectation to be maximally productive? For immigrants, Shen said, “the feeling that you have to be successful is very intense. Your parents took tremendous risk to allow you to be in a better place. There’s a certain amount of guilt that if you’re not maximizing what they provided for you, you’re letting their effort go to waste.”

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Mok acknowledges the pressure that drives a lot of the people she works with, but cautions that for Asian Americans there is a danger in continuing to perpetuate the model minority myth. That’s why it’s important to have nuanced conversations around wellness and productivity that balances those pressures and realities, she argues, while acknowledging that the prescribed model of “success” isn’t always conducive to one’s mental health and ability to thrive.

For Alfred, the key to having these conversations is to expand the voices that dominate the productivity space. Not only from people of different genders, ethnic backgrounds, and socioeconomic groups, but also people across a range of industries who have different thought processes. For example, Alfred says that she often struggles with the organized, analytical approach that experts tout as the gold standard of productivity, and it can be helpful to hear from people who may not be naturally productive but have found a system that works for them.

Having those kinds of representations, Alfred says, can go a long way in dispelling the myth that “hard work is all it takes to be productive.” Not everyone has the same 24 hours, she points outs. “Things like having to take care of a family, having to have multiple jobs to make ends meets to be in the same place financially—those things factor in how much time you have.”

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About the author

Anisa is the assistant editor for Fast Company's Work Life section. She covers everything from productivity to the future of work

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