The Money We Waste Making Productivity Look Pretty

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When I was 12, I would have happily traded a brand new Abercrombie sweater for a 200-pack of Hilroy ruled paper. Deadass.

Back-to-school shopping is typically divided into two categories when you’re a kid: clothing and school supplies. Growing up, I never cared much for the former, so my mom was spared from spending on pricey brand names. Unfortunately for her, the money she saved on fashion was a small consolation prize for the money she ended up spending at Staples. I love office supplies, and I always have.

I’ve been told that good advertising is all about helping the consumer make associations. The mentality is “We’re not going to tell you why you should buy this perfume, but instead we’re going to show you the kind of woman who wears it. Her life can easily be yours, if you’re willing to claim it by purchasing this scent.” I only vaguely understood this. That is, until a few months back, when I first saw the Kate Spade planner at Chapters.

It was black-and-white hardcover and, though I’d have been loath to admit it out loud, the key to all manner of career and academic success. I imagined all sorts of entries: appointment with thesis advisor (I am not writing a thesis), and lunch with Margaret (I don’t schedule lunch and I have never known anyone named Margaret). I got drunk on these daydreams, and while I’ve probably done this all my life, I was painfully unaware of it until that moment. For two months, every time I set foot in the mall, and saw the planner, I had to remind myself that this item’s $40 price tag was worth almost an entire shift at work, and put it back down.

This reminder (and way of thinking) has been my saving grace, because frivolous purchases are now entirely on my own dime. When I was younger I would insist that I needed things like a dry erase board that doubled as a desk, but now that I have to use my own money for school supplies, I’m pretty cool with taking notes on a napkin in my blood. Before the start of each of my last three years of university, I search my house for loose leaf paper and corporate pens that thank me for being a customer. After countless summers of guilting my mom into buying me over hundreds of dollars worth of supplies with lines like “But mom, this is grade six I’m going into!” I consider this progress.

I can’t call myself completely cured. In fact, notebooks are one item I have a particular weakness for. Honestly, they pile up shamelessly in my bedroom. The casual observer would compare my room to that of the protagonist in one of those movies about a reclusive math genius. But a quick skim through any one of those bad boys would reveal that I’ve filled out, on average, about six pages per notebook. I should have learned my lesson by now, but I have a hard time saying “no” to those notebooks.

Office decor is a particularly insidious strain of aspirational lifestyle porn. For me, body and beauty expectations make aspirational fitness and fashion almost hopeless to participate in. It doesn’t even seem worth the effort. The genre of aspirational office supply porn, however, is a gateway drug in terms of overbuying and underusing. Here’s the real danger: #Officespo (as I’ll have to call it until someone thinks of a better name) has a much less expensive entrance fee. The allure of extravagant workout gear isn’t as tempting because of the high price tags, but I can’t help indulging when the stunning notebooks, and beautiful pens are only, say, $10 a piece. But those small price tags add up.

An additional appeal of bougie office supplies is the obvious association to the professional and academic world. The right office supply gives the appearance of seriousness, and makes you look the part, in the classroom, or at the office. An Instagram pic of a brand new planner, perfectly poised pen, and a coffee mug, from the first day at a new job, has become a mark of success. But at the end of the day, our to-do lists aren’t worth the card stock they’re written on if we can’t manage to complete even one of our tasks.

My trips to the mall to cradle the Kate Spade planner finally stopped after a friend generously bought it for me as a birthday present. I showed it to absolutely everyone, and one encounter in particular stands out:

“Look at my new planner,” I gushed to one guy. “Isn’t it precious?”

He looked at it with sincere curiosity. “Why?” he asked. “Because it has stripes?”

I put it away. Clearly, he didn’t get it. But maybe, neither did I.

Neya Abdi lives in Toronto. She is on Twitter and Instagram.

Image via Unsplash

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