Sometimes I wonder if our obsession with productivity is making us less productive. The word itself makes me feel a little guilty, and guilt is not a feeling that is at all conducive to accomplishing more, at least for me.
Being productive looks so different for me than it did for my parents and grandparents. My very recent Amish Mennonite farming roots (approximately my grandparents' generation and before) mean that until my mom started telling us to "Go do something productive," when we'd complain of boredom as kids, no one in my family really used the word "productive." Instead, it was said that one was a "hard worker." This was some of the highest praise. I think it still ranks pretty high on my list of Things I'd Like People to Say About Me.
My recent ancestors weren't thinking in terms of "must produce, produce, produce," they were thinking of what next tasks lay ahead of them and the most efficient way for them to be accomplished. That sounds like productivity, but not the way we think of it today. They didn't spend cumulative hours reading thinkpieces on productivity or experimenting with new email and calendaring strategies. Farm culture doesn't allow for procrastination. Sometimes, I'm sure, they spent some time thinking of ways to do things faster and more easily. They worked together, with family, friends, and hired help. They raised barns and showed up with large amounts of food in times of trauma. They did this with and for their community. It's part of the culture. It's something that's expected, but not something that is talked about much.
They just did things. And then they kept doing them.
And that seems like the hardest part to me, but it's also the simplest.
I do not mean to glamorize this. That lifestyle is hard. The culture can be hard. The work is backbreaking, especially after decades, and there's almost no such thing as a weekend or a vacation. Sundays, sure, but you still have to feed and milk the cows. It's still like this for my dairy farmer dad.
Right now, what helps me be productive in the internet-essay-about-productivity sense of the word includes an SSRI, staying hydrated, eating enough, going to the gym, a weird little checklist system I developed during a time when it was particularly difficult to even get out of bed, morning pages, and keeping my space tidy. I suppose there's some overlap here with my recent ancestors — feeding myself well, being in good physical condition (via the gym rather than manual labor), and keeping my space tidy — but it feels worlds different. Coincidentally, the practices that fall into that overlap are the ones I find the most difficult. (How did my grandma feed her six kids three times a day every single day over a span of approximately 30 years? I can barely meal plan for myself and my partner.)
All the practices I've adopted are long term. They're my current self doing favors for my future self and freeing her up to get to work without barriers. I'm trying to anticipate her roadblocks so that I can preemptively clear them out of the way. I haven't found any listicles of life hacks that suddenly propel me to new heights of production, just this slow steady pace of trying to make things a little easier for Future Lisa.
Still, I do often find myself caught between gulping down everyone's quick internet productivity tips and reining myself in, again reminding myself that, no, we do not have as many hours in the day as Beyonce, and it does us no favors to pretend that we do.
I am at my healthiest and most productive when my immediate physical and mental needs are met and when I've created space in my life and my day to do work that feels meaningful. Sometimes, that means writing code to build websites and having a good relationship with my collaborators. Sometimes, that means taking time out of my afternoon (I'm currently a freelancer, so I can do this) to sneak to my bedroom and read Rebecca Solnit essays, and then do more work later in the day. Sometimes that means sitting quietly and unintentionally twirling my hair while mulling over what I could possibly have to say about productivity that would be at all useful to someone else.
I try to set myself up to do things. And then keep doing them. It's simple, but it can be very difficult.