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.