When Productivity is Pathological
My journey in learning to do less
I have a problem, and it’s called being busy. I am hooked on productivity. It’s sort of like an autoimmune condition in that it seems to go into remission for periods of time and then bam I get slapped with a big fat flare-up, and find myself in a sea of overwhelm and rushing about. All the typical signs of a flare-up are there. I get irritable, forgetful, and I don’t sleep as well. Gradually, my routines are disrupted and I’m not eating on a regular schedule. I start resenting the fact that my dog needs to be walked or my laundry has piled up.
This is dangerous for my health (and yours too). Feeling overwhelmed, rushed, or frenetically busy causes stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol to spike. Doing this repeatedly can lead to serious health problems like heart disease, autoimmune disease, and cancer. Symptoms that arise first include fatigue, problems sleeping, headaches, mood imbalance, hormone and menstrual cycle disruption, appetite imbalance, digestive issues, and increased signs of aging.
I literally have to practice doing less. This means I have to look at my calendar and see that I’m going out of town and choose not to add 5 or 10 things to my to-do list for a couple days. I have to say, “those are going to be days off, where you don’t have any to-dos.” And it feels uncomfortable and a little scary. And then those days come and I have the nagging sense I’m forgetting something important at first. After a bit, that sensation goes away and I relax into the freedom, connection, and creativity that is possible when the day is wide open, brimming with opportunity.
What is Behind The Productivity Compulsion?
I base my feelings of self-worth very highly around what I’m able to accomplish in any given day. You may be the same way. We often create an identity around what we DO, what we can create, what we have to show for ourselves. But does it make us happy? I typically feel a disconnect: I don’t love how I’m acting or feeling during the process of being ultra-productive. The end result feels good, but not the doing.
So then, what’s the point? If I’m sucked into this trap of go-go-go in hopes that I can eventually arrive and relax, then I’m on the gerbil wheel. I’m not exempt because what I do helps people feel better. No matter how much you love your job in theory, if it’s not bringing you joy on a regular basis something needs to shift. Being weighed down in the minutiae of business and the adrenaline push of survival mode is no way to live. How do we unplug from it?
There are other reasons for a need to feel productive. For example, financial stress, or fear of not having your needs met. You may be avoiding the feelings that arise when you slow down. Oftentimes, people fear “boredom”. The sensation of boredom can be a defense mechanism that distracts from the underlying more upsetting feeling of emptiness. We can get pretty existential if we follow this road, but suffice it to say that when you’re busy you don’t have as much time to feel your feelings. This is usually telling.
Reframe your worth
You are not what you do. You are not your job, your role as mother, wife, girlfriend, employee, or any other part you play. There is deep essential worthiness inherent to your existence. We knew it as children, but this can be a hard truth to access as adults. In all seriousness, I recommend faking it until you make it. Act like you believe in your inherent value until you believe it. Notice ways in which you value other people that have nothing to do with what they do.
Certainly, a sense of purpose and feeling that you offer something valuable to others can be hugely helpful for cultivating happiness and fulfillment. However, this too is impermanent. Aging, illness, and injury can dismantle our sense of self when it’s deeply attached to our ability to be of service in a particular way. Having a foundation of worthiness that is rooted simply in existence, having the ability to offer love and light, is solid ground on which to stand.
Recognize the cost
Being busy without adequate downtime or unscheduled time has several damaging effects.
- You dimish your ability to think creatively
- You lose connection with your physical body.
- You create hormonal imbalance by operating in fight-or-flight mode.
- You burn out. The fatigue from burn-out can be debilitating.
- You miss opportunities for reflection, clarity, and growth.
- You limit your ability to access your intuition.
- You become less productive.
- You miss opportunities to connect with people around you.
Action Steps for Productivity Addicts
Are you addicted to feeling busy too? Is a need for productivity limiting your ability to fully enjoy your life? Try some of the steps below. Doing each of these has helped me towards creating more balance and joy in my life.
- Leave one day or an afternoon (start small) to be a no-plans zone. Nothing can be added to the schedule. It is time to be spontaneous, to feel into what you want to do that day, and to allow time for creative and deep thinking. You choose how you want to spend the time when the time comes, not before.
- Change your “to do” list to your “to be” list and watch how that shifts everything.
- Make a list of 10 things that make you happy. Make a list of 10 things you do every day. Start finding ways to make your lists overlap more.
- Create an affirmation for yourself. Try something along the lines of, “My worth is not dictated by what I do” and repeat daily it until it starts to feel true.
- Schedule in down time. If you are prone to booking yourself solid with work, responsbilities, and errands then you may need to book in relaxation too. Schedule in acupuncture, massages, yoga classes, meditation, or time to read or sit outside.