Nothing much ado
Escaping the Cult of Productivity
The first thing I wrote in my journal this year was a to-do list.
On the face of it, that may sound like what a journal’s for – recounting things you’ve accomplished from previous lists, looking ahead to future requirements, and a little analysis about how you’ll get from here to there.
But this year is different. I was laid off at the end of December, and for the first time in a decade, I’m not due at my desk each morning. My first thoughts upon waking have nothing to do with wondering if someone sent me a work-related message late last night or early this morning. Instead, I’m wondering how best to fill my time and what I can get out of this windfall of time, much like the early days of the pandemic when we were reminded of the virtuosic works produced by Shakespeare and Newton during similar periods of limited social activity.
So I made a list. Mundane, aspirational, and everything in between – groceries to buy, movies to watch, goals for the year. And I guess the idea was that I’d get started somewhere this week and keep it moving until life went back to normal. Sometime before starting this blithe mission to uphold my status quo, the shock wore off and I started to question why I felt the need to fill my time this way and what going back to normal would even mean.
In our hyper-competitive society, there is shame around losing a job, no matter the circumstances. There is shame around being idle. There is shame around financial assistance. Even when you’re gainfully employed, no one wants to be caught not working between the hours of 9 and 5. I worked remotely for years before COVID-19 made it commonplace and the way that project or task-based work environments puncture the myth of productivity scares employers and conditioned employees alike (consider, too, those who have paid off their student debt and now feel that the cancellation of debt for others compromises their situation).
This involuntary vacation brought the sad realization that during the past eight years, I only took one vacation where I didn’t bring my laptop or check email and/or Slack at least once a day. Most years, despite an “unlimited PTO policy,” I didn’t even staycation. I’d take off a few Fridays here and there for weekend trips, but I could always be reached “in case something came up.” Sometimes it felt good to be needed for a specific role, but more often, it was disheartening to be rewarded with more tasks for clearing my plate, no respite in sight.
All work and the illusion of play has warped our sense of productivity and efficiency. Raise your hand if you, too, have moved your mouse periodically just to make sure you’re still appearing active on Slack while actually doing your laundry or swiping through multiple apps. Keeping up appearances is exhausting, especially if you’ve already expended a significant amount of energy clearing your to-do list so you can take a rest (or in the case of most, finally take stock of everything else besides your day job, responsibilities that have fallen disproportionately to women during the pandemic, according to UN Women).
It’s safe to say that I’m burnt out, and this break is coming at a good time. I don’t know that I’ve earned it per se (those pesky societal taboos at work again), but it seems to me that terms like that reinforce the idea that rest is only for high performers. Vacation is for the broken mind and body after it’s achieved its total output and cannot physically accomplish anything more without being taken offline for maintenance.
Anne Helen Petersen has written extensively on the topic of burnout, including her 2019 book, Can't Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation, an expansion of her viral article by a similar name. In the article, she writes,
Why can’t I get this mundane stuff done? Because I’m burned out. Why am I burned out? Because I’ve internalized the idea that I should be working all the time. Why have I internalized that idea? Because everything and everyone in my life has reinforced it — explicitly and implicitly — since I was young.
What I first thought was a response to the acute pressure of being laid off during a pandemically-depressed job market is more likely what I would have experienced at any time in my history because of the conditioning I’ve succumbed to. If you’re not working, you’re a burden. If you’re a burden, you don’t deserve the same dignity as hard workers asking to (please, sir) have another.
There are some legitimate tasks that can’t be ignored this week. Filing for unemployment, making a budget, grocery shopping, checking in on friends, flipping Georgia (🤞🏼). Those things will keep whirring whether or not I take this time for myself.
So, rather than lock myself in a room with chimpanzees and a typewriter, I’m going to enjoy the quiet and lean into the stillness. I’m going to get some rest. I might make some of those recipes I bookmarked last year. I’m going to have some fun, and it’s ok that that won’t move me forward or backward.
When I am busy, the mountain looks at me.
When I am at leisure, I look at the mountain.
Though it seems the same, it is not the same.
For busyness is inferior to leisure.