By Megan Bruneau
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 it was the best way I could ensure productivity. I had to be productive. All. of. 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 “easygoing” and “spontaneous” like some of my friends. I wished I could have nights where nothing was scheduled in 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 always comes up. Productive = good. Unproductive = bad.
Even if we somehow escaped the message from our parents during our upbringing that we should “be productive,” we likely got caught up in it in school. And if we somehow escaped it there, we likely heard it from a society that celebrates productivity and multitasking (which lessens productivity, btw). And these rules are now deeply embedded. I wish I could say “I never feel shitty about myself when I accomplish nothing in a day” or “I never feel good about being productive,” but even after all those List-Makers Anonymous meetings, it’s not so. But know – there are ways one can feel productive without producing and actually enjoy things without guilt! How? Pull up a chair, my dear. Let me explain.
First, let’s look at what “Productive” means:
– producing or able to produce large amounts of goods, crops, or other commodities.”the most productive employees”
– relating to or engaged in the production of goods, crops, or other commodities. “the country’s productive capacity”
– achieving or producing a significant amount or result. “a long and productive career”
– producing or giving rise to. “the unconscious is limitlessly productive of dreams, myths, stories”
– LINGUISTICS (of a morpheme or other linguistic unit) currently used in forming new words or expressions (“many suffixes are common and
– MEDICINE (of a cough) that raises mucus from the respiratory tract.
Okay, so realistically, the majority of us are not talking about crops or mucus (farmers and doctors, hush). We’re talking about the 3rd and 4th definitions – “achieving or producing a significant amount of result,” or “producing or giving rise to.” See, the problem with the word “productive” is that it basically just makes everyone feel bad when you’re not doing or achieving. The definitions of the word (that we use, anyhow) 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. No fun.
The solution? Easy-peasy: 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. However, focusing on having a “meaningful” day or hour allows for enjoying life without guilt while still gittin’er done. This opens you up to a galaxy of possibilities that were once “unproductive” but are now “meaningful.” For example:
Time with friends, family, your significant other, or that person you wish was your significant other: Beating yourself up for being “too social” this weekend or choosing a date over that massive to-do list? As social beings who yearn for connection, we need relationship (romantic or otherwise) for positive mental health. Social isolation is negatively correlated with illness, mental and physical. I’d say that’s pretty darn meaningful.
Time when you learn experientially that you don’t want to do that again: 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.
Time to recharge, zone out, and rest your brain: The brain needs downtime. Even Scientific American agrees. And ain’t nobody calling them unproductive. So, watching TV? Doing “nothing?” Mindlessly surfing the Net (although perhaps with less guilt than the previous example)? I’d call that (meaningful) recharging. Nap? If you’re tired enough to take one, you probably need it, physically, emotionally, and/or cognitively.
Time to reflect/time 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. It was a big part of the reason I did that crazy-making retreat. 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 generally 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 emotionally. Reflect. Be curious. You’re doing research, here. Research is meaningful, especially when it’s relevant to you.
Time to sit with uncomfortable feelings/the anxiety that comes with doing nothing: 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 non-judgment 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!
Time to just be a human being: 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, labelling 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.”)
Time to breathe/be alive: 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.
Time to 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 life 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 fewer lists. But considering how anxiety and self-criticism occupied much of my time, I doubt I actually got more s#%$ done back then. Plus, all of my time is meaningful now, rather than just the “productive” time :). I’m also a helluva lot 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!
Megan Bruneau is a psychotherapist and Registered Clinical Counsellor who specializes in helping people improve their relationships with themselves. Originally from Vancouver, Canada, Megan recently made the move to The Big Apple, specifically Manhattan. You can read more about her, her work and her witty, straightforward take on life on her blog, One Shrink’s Perspective.