Do you ever feel guilty for being unproductive?
Though ‘sharpening the saw’ is a very important part of maximising our productivity and creativity, I often find it hard to settle down to take a break. I feel like I’m wasting my time. Instead, I’ll cram my schedule full of tasks to do in order to make myself feel like I’m doing something useful.
Unfortunately, I recently discovered the hard way that this isn’t the way to go. After a year or so of being busy, busy, busy under the impression that the less free time I had, the more productive I was being, I suffered some serious burnout. This resulted in me not wanting to do any work at all, and becoming super grouchy and angsty on top of unproductive- by using all my time ‘productively’, I was actually harming myself and the quality of any work I wanted to do.
During the worst periods of my burnout, I felt like I had lost myself. I didn’t know who I was anymore. For the past year, I had been trying to define and control who I was by working, achieving. I was only focusing on the version of myself that I am when I’m working, and neglecting the other facets of my life and myself. I’d failed to see that things like work, grades, and achievement do not define us. When it all boiled down, without something to work on, I barely knew myself. I couldn’t reflect on the good things of the past or look forwards to the future, because I was so overwhelmed by negativity in the present.
At one of my lowest points, I was lying in my bed in the dark watching Youtube, feeling thoroughly demotivated, exhausted, and hopeless, when I stumbled upon this Youtube video by Kalyn Nicholson, a beauty/lifestyle guru who also talks extensively about life and her personal experiences. During the video, she opened up about a past period of her life in which she’d experienced great difficulty, to the point of having suicidal thoughts, and how she pulled through it.
(Below quote starts at 7:45 in the video).
You have to find something to have faith in… Everything in life happens for a reason, and everything in life is a blessing or a lesson. The only way you can ever see the blessing is by finding the lesson… It’s kinda like driving down a dark road, and your headlights are only letting you see so far ahead. ‘This sucks right now. The way I feel sucks right now…’ but maybe I’m only seeing this far ahead, and if I give up now, I won’t know what’s further on down the road because I quit and dropped off the road too soon. And so I decided to have faith that I can’t see the bigger picture, but something else has a bigger picture in store for me.”
These words rang true for me. They gave me a starting point to get back up. I’d reached a new low, and probably could go even lower, but since I couldn’t see the future, there was no telling that I had to go lower. That was up to me. The future, I realized, was a bigger picture that I couldn’t see, but one which I had the power to help create. I felt stuck, but in reality I wasn’t. I had more power over my circumstances than I thought: I was in control of my own perspective on my life.
From then on, in baby steps, I made it a priority to feel happy every day. Not a resolution, because the word resolution connotates deadlines and pressure. Rather, a priority. I decided I would do more things and make more decisions because they make me happy, not because they offer me an illusion of productivity. I would read and write more, because I enjoy it. I would spend more time with friends and family, giving my loved ones the best of me. I would learn to feel happy and relaxed while taking breaks, instead of guilty, because no matter if I think otherwise, I deserve them.
Operation Get Happy
During my most recent school break, I truly made time for myself. I met up with friends to watch lovably horrible chick-flicks and to dye my hair for the first time ever. I read a book for fun. I watched movies for fun. I played badminton with my mom, and had fun. I indulged in an assortment of menial sources of enjoyment, and you know what? It wasn’t perfect, but it worked.
All these things I’d deprived myself of on the excuse of being ‘too busy’ helped me recover. The first time I sat down to watch a movie, did I feel guilty? Did I think of a million more ‘productive’ things I could’ve been doing? Yeah, but I pushed my homework away and sat down and told myself that this was necessary and that I deserved it. And it was true. And it helped. It seems contradictory, but sometimes, to be the most productive, you have to be unproductive first. It’s like firing a sling: you have to pull back first before releasing your ammo.
The Problem with The Hustle
Balance. It’s something I’ve always struggled with. I’m a firm believer in diligence and dedication, which means I can do lots of work when I put my mind to it, but also leads me to forget that it’s unsustainable and unhealthy to try to be 100% all the time.
When you devote yourself to working, whether it’s school, work, art, sports, or something else, it can be like placing all your eggs in one basket. You tell yourself you’re going to give it your all. You will be the most productive, efficient version of yourself. You will work, work, work until you’re proud. You will succeed. That’s the hustle, and the hustle is what’s going to get you where you want to be.
But there’s a flip side.
The problem with the work, work, work mindset is that it doesn’t always leave room for rest- an extremely unfortunate and crucial negligence. The hustle is glorified, while self-care takes a backseat. When constantly working becomes ingrained as a habit, we experience feelings of guilt when we stray from this habit in order to rest and take care of ourselves, even though it’s necessary. We say that we can do it, no matter what!- and in this, we forget that sometimes, some things are better left not done for the present moment because rest needs to come first.
Taking Breaks ≠ Wasting Time
Taking time to rest doesn’t make you lazy. It makes you smart. Smart enough to realize that you’re not and never will be a robot capable of churning out hour after endless hour of good work. Smart enough to know that, often, your best work is produced when you’re well-rested and happy. Smart enough to prioritize yourself first. Smart enough to realize that your worth is not measured by your accomplishments. That in order to learn more about and become the person you want to be, you have to experience more than one way of living, more than just constant hustle.
Sometimes you run, sometimes you walk, and sometimes you crawl, but trust that you are always moving forwards. So don’t force yourself to sprint full speed all the time- it’s neither necessary nor healthy. Remember: time is money when you’re working, but there are things in life that no amount of money can buy. And while dreams don’t work unless you do, you can’t work if you don’t take time to rest.