Productivity and Mental Health

5 minute read

When I was asked if I would write a blog post about productivity, I thought “Sure! It can’t be that hard.” But the only thing that just kept coming to mind over the past few days was “I just feel soooo unproductive lately!” My list of things I needed to do at home was piling up. The tasks at work aren’t getting done as fast as I want. My side projects are all on hold because other things are taking up my time. And to top it all off, I just haven’t had much energy for months to do things.

After all of this, it would seem I should not write about being productive.

But yet… the more I started thinking on productivity, the more daunted I realized I was by the idea that productivity is always measured quantitatively by some amount of stuff getting done.

I think when we think about productivity, we tend to think:

  • numbers!
  • statistics!
  • checklists!
  • phone apps to help get more done!
  • Pomodoro techniques!
  • lines of code!
  • synergy!

What about those days when you just do a tiny bit of something and it feels productive, but that’s all you can do? What about those days at work you stare at a programming problem all day and it’s just a measly typo or a semicolon out of place? What about the days when that mess in your kitchen is just so bad that cleaning even just one tiny part of it is worth it?

We live in this society that seems to love having bigger numbers, better statistics, more checks on checklists, and so on. I know I’ve worked at places that love to measure things by lines of code produced, which is horrible because it assumes our time is used exactly the same way to finish tasks, and that the more code you produce, the better you are at working. Similarly at home, the more things I can check off a checklist, the more productive I am, right? But what about “take out trash” and “clean bathroom”? The first takes less than 5 minutes, the second takes considerably longer, especially if I go into full cleaning mode. These tasks are NOT equal.

Agile tried to fix some of these inconsistencies with software development (and some other fields too). A lot more focus is put on interactions, adapting to change, and working code rather than being experts on certain tools, following some sort of lengthy plan, and documenting excessively. You don’t count lines of code (because, well, lines of code as a measurement sucks), but you now estimate effort needed to complete tasks, and then assign point values. You figure out you and your team can complete some number of points in some time period. That can help. It at least lets you know “I shouldn’t try to take on more than that many points for the next couple of weeks.” But at the same time, you don’t work the same speed all the time. Your team doesn’t work the same speed all the time. If you’re feeling down, you work slower. If you’re able to focus, you can zoom ahead. Turns out people aren’t machines. But still… if your teammate can do 30 points each week and you can only do 12, there’s a bit of internal pressure to sometimes perform better.

Companies don’t always help with this. Microsoft and GE are both famous for their “stack ranking” system which evaluated employees on a bell curve. They had top, good average, below average, and poor performers. The worst on the list either didn’t get a bonus or was fired. In a sort of messed up world, this makes some degree of sense. Get rid of employees that are not really doing their job. But what it actually did was make all the employees constantly fear for their jobs, try to sabotage other employees’ work, try to make sure they worked with low performers instead of top performers. And their goals were always short term, never looking into the future. And this is only one system. There’s no doubt there’s other systems of rating employees based on “you don’t work as well as our top people do.”

The more I thought about it, the more I realized just how bad the idea of productivity can affect mental health.

Everyone has their amazing days, days where we just Get Stuff Done. And then days where, quite frankly, we’re lucky if we manage to eat enough meals and get a shower in that day. Those kinds of days are the days I feel the worst. The days I don’t get much done. The days I feel like I just am a horrible, lazy person. And of course feeling horrible or lazy just usually perpetuates the cycle.

I wrote in a tweet once “Why is mental health SO important in the software development field? We use our minds to solve problems. You HAVE to have that health.” And this makes sense if you think about it. If we have a manual labor job, exercise and diet and such are important to our overall health, but also important to our job. In software, we are problem solvers. So if we don’t take care of our minds, it’s not good for our overall health, but also it hinders our jobs.

If you ever feel like me (and I imagine there’s many that do), I’d like to propose some ideas.

  1. What if we just have unproductive days on purpose? We have days where there’s no to-do list, there’s no chores, or we can just be rather mindless about things. Not only is this a good mental rest, but if we don’t expect to get stuff done, then we don’t stress out over it.
  2. What if we don’t invest ourselves as much into work? I value my work, and I always want to do a good job with it. But it’s hard to always leave your work at the door when you leave. As I mentioned above, our work is done with our brains, and our brains are always with us, even when not at work. Maybe it’s better to just say it’s ok to not invest ourselves so much we think about what we’re working on constantly. (Because we probably think about it whether we want to or not.)
  3. What if we realize it’s not always our fault? Sometimes we are lazy and not productive, but sometimes we don’t really choose it. And that’s ok. Life happens, and it’s ok to sometimes have our to-do lists delayed a bit.
  4. What if we could just forgive ourselves? If we don’t always get everything done, it’s ok.


Maybe focusing on our mental health might help us be more productive in the long run.

I’d love to hear other people’s thoughts on mental health and productivity. Tweet at me @geekygirlsarah or drop a comment on here.

And be nice to yourself!