I used to be a list-maker. Not like a grocery list or a packing list list-maker. A plan-every-second-of-your-day kind of list-maker. I remember a boyfriend during that time (poor thing) once looking over my shoulder, horrified. “Do you really need to schedule “trim nails” into your day?” (This intermingled between the gym slot–with a detailed workout description following, the laundry slot, the dinner slot–no ingredient left unaccounted for, the clean-up dinner slot, and so on.)
I was embarrassed. I knew this was different, but at the same time I knew I could ensure productivity. I had to be productive all the time. If I wasted time, the guilt would be unbearable. If I wasn’t productive, it meant I was lazy. Useless. Indulgent. Irresponsible. Worthless. I wished I could be “easy-going” and “spontaneous” like some of my friends. I wished I could have nights with nothing scheduled on my calendar, but an empty day or schedule caused me more anxiety than a packed one. Are any of these experiences familiar to you? When I’m watching my clients beat themselves up in our sessions (intervening where possible), this theme is always coming up.
The definitions of the word productivity feed perfectionism and set us up for anxiety and self-criticism in that they focus on a result/what the productivity “giv[es] rise to.” This devalues the process, tells us to feel inadequate until the task is complete, and makes us feel guilty when not producing.
“Productivity is never an accident. It is the result of a commitment to excellence, intelligent planning, and focused effort.”
– Paul Meyer
1. Replace the Word “Productive” with “Meaningful”
Focusing on having a “productive” day or hour restricts us to feeling as though we’ve fallen short of our goal(s) unless we complete or produce something. See, the problem with the word “productive,” is that it just makes everyone feel shitty when you’re not doing or achieving. However, focusing on having a “meaningful” day or hour allows for enjoying life without guilt while still getting accomplished. This opens you up to a world of possibilities that were once “unproductive” but are now “meaningful.”
2. Learn from Experience:
Ever found yourself so deep into Facebook that you’re into your ex’s ex’s cousin’s wedding photos? You’ve never met anyone in the photos. You don’t even know how you got there. Or maybe you started on the Daily Mail and ended up in the depths of Perez Hilton and you now you just feel dirty? Well, you could justify this one as being “entertainment” or “recharging,” but you can also take this as experiential learning for next time you’re on your second banal article about Gwyneth.
3. Recharge Your Brain:
Your brain needs downtime. So, what does this look like for you? If you think mindlessly searching the net and checking your facebook comments helps your brain recharge, your wrong. This actually stimulates your brain and can even cause you to feel anxious, and more unproductive. Think more about what helps to feel relaxed. This could be going on a walk, sitting on your porch with some coffee, or reading even taking a bath with some music. Our brains need to rest, this means recharging all three of your batteries. Your physical, emotional, and cognitive battery.
4. Reflect with Yourself:
I used to have a lot of trouble being alone. I still do sometimes, but I’m much more comfortable with it than I used to be. Spending time with ourselves, without distractions, paying attention to our thoughts, sitting with our uncomfortable emotions…that’s damn meaningful! And even if you’re not meta-thinking, you’re still thinking, which serves some purpose in making sense of our worlds. So watch your thoughts. Notice patterns. Notice if you can connect them to what you’re feeling emotional. Reflect. Be curious. You’re doing research, here. Research is meaningful, especially when it’s relevant to you.
5. Accept Your Feelings:
As I’ve mentioned in past articles, one of the lies anxiety tells us is that by avoiding it, it will go away. If you’re not “being productive,” chances are you’re feeling some anxiety or guilt or some other uncomfortable feeling. Take this as an opportunity to sit with those feelings and practice compassion and nonjudgment toward them. Once you can sit with those uncomfortable feelings more comfortably, you might find you don’t feel so compelled to occupy every moment with something productive as you won’t feel so anxious!
6. Be a Human:
A colleague once told me how it’s like we’ve become “human doings” instead of “human beings.” This one has always stuck with me. When did we ever start having to “do” rather than just “be?” I mean obviously you’re not just going to “be” all the time (unless you’re independently wealthy and don’t require income), but maybe you’re never letting yourself “be.” Be mindful of all-or-nothing thinking labeling time as either “lazy” or “productive,” and perfectionism globalizing a state to a trait (i.e. I was lazy this afternoon, and, therefore, I am a lazy person.”)
7. Stop and Breathe:
OK, before you think this one is a stretch, hear me out. I was in a yoga class, once, and during savasana, the instructor said, “you are doing something. You’re breathing.” That was an awwww shiiiiiieeeeet moment for me. I had this vision of a dog hanging out by the fireplace, its belly moving peacefully with the breath. Now, when I find myself feeling anxious and thinking I should be doing something, I remind myself that I’m breathing, come back to that breath, and envision a dog by a fireplace. I give you full permission to borrow that visualization. Be a dog, my friend. Be a dog. Let yourself relax, its ok.
8. Be Mindful:
I think I’ve told this story before, but I was once at a mindfulness meditation workshop with a bunch of people for whom the concepts were new. When we debriefed our experiences at the end of the workshop, one woman–prob in her late 60’s–whispered through tears, “I’ve missed my whole life. All this time, I’ve been looking ahead, and I never stopped to pay attention to live in the current moment.” Let’s all learn from her experience, and start “paying attention” now. Take snapshots in your mind of the cherry blossoms and snow-dusted mountains. They–and you–might be gone at any time.
Nowadays I cross less off my list, because I make less lists. But considering how anxiety and self-criticism occupied much of my time, I doubt I got more s#%$ done back then. Plus, all of my time is meaningful now, rather than just the “productive” time ;). I’m also hella less anxious, stressed, and crazy. So. Freaking. Worth it.
So, unless you’re reading this from the comfort of your farm (which, if you are, is totally awesome and I thoroughly encourage you to continue being “productive”–self-compassionately, of course), I invite you to replace “productive” with “meaningful” and play with expanding your beliefs around what qualifies as “meaningful” time (i.e. connection, awareness, rest, recalibration, entertainment, fun, novelty, challenge, etc, but don’t let me stop you from expanding on what’s considered “meaningful time!”). Less guilt, more life enjoyment. Oooooh yeah! Fives all around!