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Overview from TED

Our obsession with productivity - to-do lists, life hacks, morning routines - is making us less productive, says digital anthropologist Rahaf Harfoush. She explains why we need to redesign our workday around creativity - not just efficiency.

"Letting our minds wander is an essential mental state that helps us develop our identity, process social interactions, and it even influences our internal moral compass."

White Brick Wall
Rahaf Harfoush

Digital Anthropologist

Rahaf Harfoush is a strategist, digital anthropologist and author who focuses on the intersections of emerging technology, innovation and digital culture. Her research centres on the human impacts of artificial intelligence, algorithms, social networks and big data.



Rahaf Harfoush’s The Way We Work segment focuses on productivity, and how our outputs – and the way they are quantified – have changed over time.

She points to a collective obsession with feeling “busy” as a reason many of us will experience burnout (to varying degrees) at some point in our working lives.

In Harfoush’s case, burnout resulted in insomnia, weight gain and hair loss. In others, it may trigger fatigue, anxiety, depression, indifference… The list goes on. In almost all cases, burnout is the unfortunate consequence of our pursuit for productivity: to be seen to be busy, to be a team player, to feel useful, to get that project over the line, working late, skipping lunch… Sound familiar? It does to me.

In 2019, I crashed for the first time in my career. At the time, I thought it was a one-off resulting from a perfect storm of shifting priorities and team transitions. I fell head first into the trap of believing I could keep every plate spinning – including family life - without significant ramifications on my health and wellbeing. After all, I’d been doing just that for fifteen years already. But I was wrong, and this time my body was making no bones about it.


If you live in the UK, you’ll be familiar with “It could be you” as a slogan for the National Lottery. Television adverts would depict a huge hand coming from the sky, pointing to the next lucky so-and-so whose bank account was about to receive a major boost.

If only such a dramatic, unavoidable sign pre-empted burnout. Perhaps we’d do something about it. Instead, we write off the symptoms as “no big deal”, “nothing to worry about” or “nothing new”. We’re so used to feeling under pressure that it becomes our normal.

It’s curious to think that any other type of “holic” (or addict) is deemed in need of help, but being a workaholic is a badge of honour. Recruiters look for candidates who will “go the extra mile”, their only known mode being “above and beyond.” When did you last see a job advert seeking someone who won’t arrive early, will leave on time and take a full hour for lunch? It just doesn’t happen. 

Many companies spout about the importance of work / life balance, but how many genuinely enforce it? Not because it makes them look good, but because it’s the right thing to do?

There is the argument that companies can only be held partly responsible for the wellbeing of employees, with the onus on individuals to know when to draw the line. This is especially true when working for big organisations, where the sheer scale of operations makes it nigh on impossible to adequately monitor everyone all of the time. In these cases, it is the company culture that needs to change – and from the top down. Managers can’t be seen to be clocking off late at night or sending emails in the early hours. Such behaviours don’t equate to a strong work ethic, they only serve to instil fear in those working below them.

We all need to recognise when enough is enough, and in October 2019 that’s exactly what I did.

My descent into burnout territory was gradual. Since childhood, I adopted behaviours that replicated my father’s. His attitude was to work hard while young, invest wisely and retire early. My dad left his last job as CEO of an electronics company in January 2012 after an incredibly successful career. He died six months later at the age of 53. His death certificate read cancer, but I’m in no doubt that his illness was intrinsically linked to his work. Both his lack of focus on his health while working, and the rapid decline when he ultimately stopped confirm this. I do not intend to follow in his footsteps.

I joined Pfizer in November 2004, and didn’t take a single sick day for the best part of 15 years. I visited the doctor just once in that time – at my wife’s insistence – when a cough got so bad, I could no longer talk. I’d experienced similar symptoms each winter for more than five years before seeking help. Each and every time I fell ill, I chose to power through, pushing myself to keep going to deliver that “important” presentation or attend that “essential” meeting. It didn’t occur to me to apply those terms to my health.

A vicious cycle had begun. I’d convince myself that “powering through” worked and relied on adrenaline. When I finally had the opportunity to stop with weekends and holidays, I couldn’t keep going. It wasn’t work that suffered, it was my family.

In the early days of my career, I worked every evening and travelled most weeks. My wife would often visit wherever I was staying and for a while it was fun, and a sacrifice we were willing to make. But then came children. My circumstances had changed dramatically, but my mindset remained the same. The baseline that I had set myself for so long was no longer tenable, but anything less felt like slacking off.

And then came the excuses…

“It’s better to stay connected” was my go-to where holidays were concerned. I’d whole-heartedly subscribed to the theory that checking in every day was better than the anxiety of not knowing. It was never “somebody else’s problem”. Looking back, it really should have been. That’s what co-workers are for. Such obsessive oversight of projects isn’t just bad for you, it reflects badly on your team. It suggests a lack of trust, whether that’s the case or not.

And whilst “checking in” with work during your son’s birthday party may seem like a minor transgression, these instances soon build up. It’s like driving home on mental autopilot. You reached your destination, but you have no idea how you got there. You missed out on all of the sights along the way, or – in my case - the little things that make life special. A holiday is not merely a break from work, but precious time to spend with loved ones. Time you will never ever have again.

The flip side of valuing time is that I’d focus so heavily on making every minute count that I’d fill each sixty seconds to the maximum. I wouldn’t just walk to town to get my haircut, or cut the grass, or do a DIY project. I’d combine those activities with work calls, catching up on a podcast or listening to audiobooks.

In the same way an overloaded computer will close programmes in order to restart, it was inevitable that my body would shut down at some point. I could no longer function, but it would take more than a quick diagnostic test to figure out why…


Harfoush introduces her experience of burnout with a thought-provoking statement: that identity is linked with the idea of productivity.

The old school notion of productivity is basic, that performance is judged by quantifiable outputs – like workers on an assembly line. Nowadays, things aren’t that simple. Many outputs, especially in creative fields, aren’t quantifiable. For instance, a blogger may write 50 blogs in one month with no engagement. A different blogger may write just one piece in the same time frame which reaches over a million readers. Does the lack of quantity mean the second blogger isn’t productive? No.

It begs the question, then, why we still hold ourselves to these outdated standards? Do we consider back-to-back Zoom calls as an example of an unproductive day as there are no tangible outputs?

In the modern age, the notion of productivity is fundamentally flawed. Rather than beat ourselves up about how productive we’ve been, we should ask ourselves one simple question: Did I do the best I could in the time I had? If the answer is “yes”, no one can ask for more – even you.

For me, it’s been difficult to adjust my unhealthy attitude towards time. “Free time” isn’t something to be avoided. It’s an opportunity for the brain to rest and reboot, which in turn improves my performance across all indicators. I’m a better employee, husband, father and friend when I’m functioning properly. As Harfoush explains:

“It's actually almost impossible for our brains to continuously generate new ideas with no rest. In fact, downtime is a necessity for our brain to recover and to operate properly. Consider that according to a team of researchers from the University of Southern California, letting our minds wander is an essential mental state that helps us develop our identity, process social interactions, and it even influences our internal moral compass.”

This shift in perspective also requires setting boundaries. No one else will set them for me. Having a separate work phone is a great place to start. If I’m not on call, I’ll leave it in my home office.

Another example is dinner time with my kids. There should be no ifs and buts about enjoying a family meal when I’m at home – there will be enough occasions when I’m not. It doesn’t matter that teams are returning from lunch on the East Coast, my family should always take precedence.

Over time, these small steps will amount to big change. I’m still far from perfect, but so what? Perhaps “perfect” is as unattainable as “productive”. I recognise my negative behaviours and attitudes now, and resolve to do the best I can with the time I have. What more could I ask?

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