• Nathan Riley, MD

The Deception of Productivity and the Value of Slackerdom

Updated: Jul 20, 2019

Warm toes, click-clack, lemongrass.

I wrote my first professional personal statement on a train in Thailand. My beautiful partner — now wife — was sitting across from me, her soft curls lapping in the breeze. My feet were perched on the open window frame, warmed by the sun. Moist wafts of lemongrass and earth cooled the air.

The train was old-timey. No AC. No WiFi. Heavy wooden beams groaning under the weight of heavy alloy rails. Click-clack. Click-clack. Click-clack.

There’s an unspoken beauty to life without distraction, in savoring those moments.

The essay I wrote on this train to Chiang Mai got me into medical school. As a physician, “watchful waiting” is comparable to giving up. After all, what value or service have I provided if I’m not actively doing something for you?

This deception likewise impacts our personal and professional lives. Our oldest family members are discarded to nursing homes when they stop producing. We anticipate we won’t get a raise next year if we don’t produce more this year than last. DO MORE.

We’ve been made to feel that this is the way of the successful warrior.

I have my doubts.

With physician burnout rates hovering around 40% and the vast majority of baristas holding college degrees, I can’t help but ponder: To what end am I producing more?

The story of the old crocodile has become my new quandary. Could I be more fulfilled by doing less? By saying no to new projects? Could less production lead to better production?

By modern productivity standards, Darwin was a slacker. He exuded effort sufficient only to meet the demand of his art, as did Dickens, Poincaré, Zola, Rodin, Saint-Saëns, and Hemingway.

It has occurred to me of late that the more work I have on my plate, the less effective and satisfied I become. With my toes dangling on that train, I was without distraction, without cell phone. My plate was empty that day apart from that hour or so of writing. Yet, in the age of productivity, leisure and acceptance of boredom are sacrilege.

From a career standpoint, experience has reiterated the value in “climbing the ladder” and the value in long hours, less sleep. More more more — is this the great deception?

At my residency graduation ceremony, a faculty physician shared a list that his 6-year old daughter had created in school. The task was in the practice of utilizing the phrase “I love…”.

Her list started with “I love grandma”.

It continued with “I love mommy”.

Then “I love Corky [their dog]”.

The list continued until she had completed her list of fifteen items. The name of her father was missing. He initially was upset, but then he reflected on the past several years of career development. He had spent little time with his daughter. His absence — or at very best lack of presence — had influenced her in likely irreparable ways…all for the sake of productivity.

Reflecting on his story, my aim has shifted to becoming less productive. Producing better art, not more art. Perhaps this should be at the center of our conversations around health and wellness, because I feel better already.

I have been wearing multiple hats my whole life, and most still look to be in decent condition, though the head upon which they rest is growing weary. Parting with a few of my professional roles, side gigs, and personal pet projects has permitted the space to become a more present husband, a more diligent physician, and a more thoughtful (future) dad.

Click-clack. Click-clack. Click-clack.

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