The Perils of Productivity

For a long time, I prided myself on being a productive person. I used my spare time efficiently, writing to-do lists and finishing every task on them. I managed my time well and left no room for error. Unfortunately, I’m human, and so errors would come up, and when they would, I would internally combust. Being thrown off schedule and not being productive was worse than death to me. I would struggle immensely if my mind and body were telling me to rest. I would fight it, still try to work through brain fog and period cramps to achieve at least one thing on my to-do list, so at the very least I was a little bit productive. I thought this was admirable, something to be proud of. I’m slowly learning that it was not.

I grew up in a pretty strict Caribbean immigrant household. A hallmark of immigrants is hard work, and with good intention. To them (my parents), working hard meant you achieved success and not working hard meant you weren’t achieving success. Unfortunately, the world and our bodies do not work in such a black and white way, but there was no convincing my parents. Rest was demonized and called lazy. We (me and my brother) were interrogated when we tried to take naps in the daytime. Sitting and watching tv meant our hands were free and we could peel garlic cloves and potatoes for dinner. I was forced to make a lunch for my little brother (and he was quite old enough to be making his own) but I “was already in the kitchen so I might as well make his too.” Growing up in an environment where every waking moment had to be filled with something productive was more damaging than I’d like to admit. It has shaped me into an adult that cowers at the thought of taking an entire day to do “nothing.” It has bent me to believe I have worth only because I’m productive. My parents did the best they could, but I am slowly coming to terms with the fact that I must redefine what productivity looks like to me, because this mindset is not sustainable.

By definition, productive means “achieving or producing a significant amount or result.” Truly, what does that mean? To what degree, standard or threshold is that up against? Who says I can’t decide what productivity looks like to me? For a long time, I didn’t think I could. To me, it meant having meaningful things to do and finish in the day, like errands, chores, and schoolwork. Things outside of that were not “productive,” they were just hobbies or things to do for fun. But what if those things were productive too? Who says they aren’t?

Productivity is a subjective experience. We can, and are more than allowed to, create our own meaning of it. You do not have to view productivity through the lens of your parents, through capitalism, through your job, or through anything you don’t want to define it through. Productivity is prioritizing rest. It’s reading in the sun. It’s laughing, singing, dancing, even just opening up your eyes and taking your first conscious breath of the day in the morning. It is whatever brings you unbridled joy. It’s what feeds your heart and helps you follow your intuition. It’s whatever allows you to honour your feelings as they come.

This was, and still is, a very hard lesson for me to integrate. Whenever my body cues me to rest, I still have impulses to retaliate. I am learning to sit with my uncomfortable feelings. And I’m learning too that that in itself is probably the most productive thing I can do.

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