The Productivity Mindset is Changing How People Spend Their Free Time

“Being productive” has infiltrated culture in such a way that we now conflate being non-productive with being unproductive. There’s a difference, I think. We can enjoy leisure time while being neither productive nor lazy. There’s a point of stasis somewhere in the middle. Have we lost sight of it?

What happens when we become so obsessed with personal productivity that it takes over our leisure time? Do we seek our leisure experiences that check boxes because we conflate box-checking with being productive? If we weren’t box-checking, would we think of ourselves as lazy? Is your bucket list is indistinguishable from your to-do list?

A research paper by two academics from Harvard Business School and Columbia Business School (Keinan & Kivetz, 2011) posits that people collect experiences the same way someone might collect baseball cards or rare coins. The art of collecting is considered a serious hobby, and because it takes effort, it has a “noble sense of purpose” (citing Belk, 1995). They then argue that the kinds of experiences people want to collect can sometimes be influenced by a productivity mindset. In all honesty, the experiments that the researchers design and carry out are ham-fisted. But the premise itself rings true.

The idea is that people who are productivity-minded prefer experiences that are rare over those that are pleasurable. It’s more “productive” to check a box for something rare than to have a pleasurable experience that’s always within reach. Additionally, the researchers say, productivity-minded people want to do something they have never done before rather than repeat an experience that they already know is pleasurable.

Here’s an example from the study: Would you rather spend your vacation in an ice hotel in Quebec or a Marriott hotel in Florida? (I told you it was ham-fisted.) The idea is that the productivity-minded people choose the ice hotel because it’s a more memorable experience, even though people rate it as less pleasurable.

Again, the study is problematic, but the idea is worth exploring. What’s on your travel list and why? What’s on your bucket list and why? It could be a good exercise to consider whether being productivity minded has influenced the items on your list and questioning whether they are the experiences you really want to have.


Belk, R. W. (1995). Collecting in a Consumer Society, London: Routledge.

Keinan, A., & Kivetz, R. (2011). Productivity orientation and the consumption of collectable experiences. Journal of Consumer Research, 37, 935–950.

Image by Brigitte Djajasasmita, CC.


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