At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, I was on a Zoom call feeling flustered and overwhelmed when one of my colleagues assured me I was doing my pandemic best. Like many perfectionists, overachievers, and workaholics, I was determined to make the most out of my newfound down time without realizing that hey, surviving a global pandemic is more than enough.My colleagues kind words made me smile because I was doing my pandemic best. To compare my productivity and creativity to pre-pandemic times was simply outrageous and borderline dangerous. Yet, here I am, three years later reverting to my old ways and getting frustrated with myself when I dont have a productive day. You know, the ones where youre firing on all cylinders, crossing items off your to-do list left and right and everything you touch turns into editorial gold.
Lately, those days have been few and far in between. Admittedly, a lot has changed in these last three years. Ive switched jobs (twice) and gave birth to a beautiful daughter who is now a spirited toddler. I also wrote a whole book!
So instead of crossing off 10 items on my never-ending to-do list, I typically get around to one or two, if Im luckywith keep tiny human alive being the primary one. My productivity (or, rather, the lack thereof) looks different now and Im trying my best not to burn both ends of the candle (though book deadlines demand otherwise). Moreover, Im slowly starting to accept that not only is unproductivity okay, its also not a reflection of my worthiness as a person.
There is an immense amount of pressure in our culture to perform and produce at all hours over the day. Were encouraged to squeeze every ounce of productivity out of the work day and then turn around and do the same in our personal lives. No wonder were a society of stressed out, burned out, and otherwise unwell individuals.
Im reminded of a New York Times article late last year that simulated software used to measure workers productivity. I happened to have been eating breakfast when I was scrolling through the article and got pinged with a We can tell youre idling notification when I stopped to load more oatmeal onto my spoon. Is this what weve come to? Deducting points when someone pauses for a bit to nourish their bodies?
Welcome, folks, to the world of toxic productivityan incessant need to always be productive, often at the expense of your mental, physical and emotional health. Im of the belief that productivity on its own isnt inherently damaging, rather its the glorification of productivity above all else that is problematic. If youre constantly doingattending meetings; churning out stories; traveling for workyou leave yourself little to no down time to pause, reflect and rest. You run the risk of burning out and running yourself into the ground. No one wants to be labeled lazy, especially not at work. But is that concept of laziness necessarily a bad thing?
Last summer I read social psychologist Dr. Devon Prices Laziness Does Not Exist. Ill be honest, I was a bit skeptical about the premise and the title alone challenged some preconceived notions I had regarding productivity and laziness. But Price argues in the book that laziness is a social construct designed to make us feel unproductive and unworthy. And Ive certainly fallen victim to its ugly trap.
In an interview with NPR, Price said, Laziness is usually a warning sign from our bodies and our minds that something is not working. The human body is so incredible at signaling when it needs something. But we have all learned to ignore those signals as much as possible because theyre a threat to our productivity and our focus at work.
When I hear that, I think back to a phrase I first heard during a yoga class: were human beings, not human doings. We were born to daydream, to drift, to create, to wonder and to wander. What we were not built to do, in the words of Rihanna, is work, work, work, work, work.
At the same time I acknowledge that old habits die hard and, without healthy boundaries in place and ample role models of rest, its easy to always do just one more thing. Cross off one more item on our to-do list. Respond to one more email in our overwhelming inboxes. I should know, Ive been living and working this way for the last 15 yearseven more if you count by highly ambitious academic days.
What I crave more than anything is to get back to a childlike state of rest and wonder, and Im grateful to have a role model and accountability buddy in my 16-month-old daughter who loves to read, laugh, dance and practice her walking up and down our hallway. Shes not being lazy by lounging about and eating her Cheerios. She doesnt have to earn her rest or right to exist. And neither do I.
Unlearning productivity is going to take some serious practice, but Im certain its possible. For starters, it looks like actually dragging myself away from my desk to eat lunch and unplugging while Im at it to listen to a few chapters of Spare or take a little mental health walk. It looks like meeting up with my best friend for coffee every week. It looks like not trying to cram every errand and activity into one weekend and intentionally taking time to donothing.
There is beauty in having an empty calendar. We dont always have to be on. Hustle culture can wait (or, better yet, it can die a quick death altogether). We are more than our work and our productivity doesnt have to define our worth. Lets give unproductivity a try.
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