02 April 2010

On Being Productive.

I'm a quasi-neurotic, close-to-type-A personality who sorts things like a damn squirrel. I keep calendars and measure my days by the marks made on my to-do list; as I read, I thumb the edges of the page, keeping a running tally in my head of what fraction of the book I've completed. It isn't something taught-- I just have to do it to refresh my own sense of being-human. If I don't, I start pacing my house, chattering aloud with the things in my head while plucking the little hairs under my chin until they bleed.*

In other words, my days -- every day, weekends not exempt -- are spent in various states of Being Productive -- a phrase that has, for better or worse, come to define every waking moment of my life, and sadly a few of the sleeping ones, too. It used to be that Being Productive was a matter of calculating which Activity would be Most Productive for me at any given moment, so that any losses would balance out in long-term gains in health and overall happiness. For instance, if I didn't feel like I could get any writing done, I would cut my losses and go hiking, or clean, or make yummy food. That way I maintained a certain form of Productivity (i.e., exercise, fresh air, being healthy & organized) that would facilitate other forms of Productivity later (i.e., writing with a newly-fed, newly-exercised brain).

This perhaps sounds ridiculously corporatized, this Productivity calculus, but it worked. I would take whole weekends off, telling myself I needed a "mental health day" -- a phrase I got from my mother, who would, once a month, let my brother and I stay home from school and do something we actually wanted to do, like fly kites or go to the beach or read Nancy Drew books in a hammock while eating mountains and mountains of cookie dough. Now, though -- lately, at least -- my calculus has failed me. I urgently feel (it may not, probably is not, true, but I feel it desperately) that I have so much work that I can no longer (I feel like I can no longer) justify a few hours spent hiking; it's just too much, even the enjoyment becomes a point of anxiety -- must consume, consume, consume those blooming cherry blossoms before they go -- quick quick, you could be doing work so make it worth the time (I tell myself). Relaxation no longer figures as its own form of Productivity.

I'm not sure how this change came about, but it's really sick.

Rather than encouraging Productivity, like my little calculus did, this new method is the dead-end of diminishing returns: I worry more than I do; I mumble things like how can I salvage this day? Since I no longer see, for instance, doing dishes as part of my "To Do" list, I find myself shuffling these chores-of-living off into separate lists, lists which accumulate without getting marked off because, really, they're lists of things I don't see as worth doing, given everything else I have to do. I stupidly get mad at my partner for not helping more with these lists -- doesn't he see that I just can't mark that as "Productivity"? -- and let things that make me feel healthy, things which used to make my other practices more fruitful, become worthless. How -- when -- why did relaxation become worthless to me?

Don't leave some comment like "Welcome to grad school." I just finished two years of graduate study at MIT, a place that proudly touts is model of education as akin to drinking from a firehose. And did this while working -- something I also did all the way through my undergraduate education, which included a double major, two senior theses, participation in an honors program and a very active life outside school as a community activist. In short, I'm someone who can navigate the white-water rapids of a busy life -- more than that, I'd credit my absurd little Productivity calculus with my often extreme ability to get shit done. Defining moments of relaxation as essential to and in fact part of my own Productivity brilliantly allowed my moments of reading/writing became hyper-focused, and unburdened my moments of relaxation from the fretting over Not Being More Productive that crushes so many students.

I was balanced; I could live in the present moment and enjoy it wholly. How did I lose that?

I love to garden; I spend my time gardening thinking about what a waste it is, in one world, even as I know how much I desperately need it, just to be me.

How do others cope?

My twitter feed is just rotten with people worrying about their Productivity. It bothers me, it bothers me so much -- we feel the weight as so crushing today, to mark oneself as someone doing something, so we can get into schools and get jobs and get tenure and get noticed -- we obsess over these things. Shut up, you know you do. I don't think anything in particular (media, universities, systems and structures) is to blame; well, no, maybe it's us that's to blame. There's a fine line between commiseration and competition, especially when it comes to public fora like blogs or Facebook, especially in academia. Perhaps we pressure ourselves to pressure others; maybe we do need to just turn off, shut up and focus for a little while.

At least, I do, if I'm ever going get back in the groove of Productivity.

*Don't mistake obsessive organization for being a neat freak. My bathroom has dangerously high levels of germs, my Camry can only seat one because of the piles of old food wrappers, and my bedroom is little more than a mountain of clothes in various states of disgust. Also, I wear clothing with stains on them. A lot.


Palimpsest said...

I admire your Productivity calculus, even as you say, it doesn't work any more. I'm guilt-ridden all the time. The only times I remember of not being obsessed with "productivity" were when death or illness loomed over a loved one. Magically productivity and doing something worthy faded away and everything, I felt, assumed their "right" dimensions.

Ryan Trauman said...

Cheryl Ball heartily recommended your blog to me this past weekend, and I have to say that I love what you're doing here. I sense an affinity, but that will likely play out in your subsequent posts.

About this particular post, I have to say that I feel much the same way, at times, here at U of Louisville (Phd, Rhet/Comp). I've been quite productive for so long, but now I feel myself less often satisfied with this productivity, and more often overwhelmed with what I'm "not" getting done. I think it has something to do with a stage that most academics go through (I hope, or I need to think this, anyway, to preserve my hope). It's something akin to these stages: I started college and then graduate school incredibly excited about what it means to be an academic, the work to be done, the lifestyle, the identity, etc. No shortage of motivation, for sure. But then, the more I really immersed myself in that work, the more I came to realize all of the "undemonstrated" work underlying the work I had hoped to perform (read: early dissertation projects). But I stuck with my tried-and-true approaches. Carve out a plan, and work through it, regardless of the scope. It's shocking just how much can be done, isn't it? But this immersion really serves to continue to reveal the depth of work that is never apparent until I've submerged beyond the initial plan. Inevitably, I've had to cut the scope of my projects for the sake of depth. Which is good, I think. Scope is good for the scholar; depth is good for the scholarship. Once I actually accepted that there were tons of projects about which I could be deeply passionate, but couldn't pursue, I sort of had this little moment of Zen. Which not so coincidentally, was at the same moment I changed my dissertation topic to something that blows my away every day I sit down to work on it. And since then, I've been more comfortable focusing on the way my hands move over the dishes as I wash them. The way my legs ache on the long hills of my bike rides. The way over-ripe strawberries mush in my mouth between sips of lemonade.

The process has not been fun, and I'm still figuring it out. It was embarrassing to give up on projects I had ill-advisedly started. I felt awful about pushing back deadlines to be more realistic and healthy. But the work now is very, very good. And the scope is small. And my mornings have energy. And the nights are no longer "not-long-enough," but just long enough.

So, no advice for you at all. Just a simple agreement that it's f-ing hard. But not hopeless.

Looking forward to more of your posts.


Anonymous said...

Good luck.

Megan Miri said...

I just discovered your blog and have been enjoying it here at work in the McGill Education Library. Then I came to this post. Even though it's a year later, I totally sympathize. I am finishing up a Masters in Library and Information Science and my productivity calculus is failing. It's nice to know I am not alone. Cheers!