Help! I'm Addicted To Being Productive
By Laura Taylor
I got my first ever speeding ticket. I was on my way back from surfing out west, salty and stupidly happy after watching the sunset for a couple of hours. When pulled over and kinda-patronisingly addressed as ‘young-lady’, I was told that I was twenty (!!) kilometers over the limit and handed a hefty fine. Which look, I’ll admit sounds bad, but I thought I was on the highway when I had actually just passed into a 60km zone.
I was going 80 in a 60. I was overdoing it. And contextually it seemed fine, but it was actually dangerous. And there were consequences (sense where I’m going with this?).
During the first few years of my twenties, while cramming my full-time publicity job into four days so I could complete my degree in the remaining three, I went through a deeply shaping experience of someone close to me becoming unwell. Nothing about it was glamorous (sorry Me Before You fans) but one of the many things it gave me was a very clear purpose to throw myself into. I memorised physio exercises, cooked organic meals to counter the awful hospital food, and fell asleep reading up on innovative treatments before waking up and doing it all over again.
What it also gave me was a big old capacity to do, that hasn’t really settled down.
In some ways this has served me so well - I genuinely do quite well (and am my most creative) under pressure and have a high tolerance to cope, adapt and figure things out all over again. However it has also meant I became climatized to a base temperature of creating a lot, while running on nothing, and an inability to sit still.
In January, Ann Peterson wrote about how millennials became the burnout generation and that no holiday in Bali or one-off silent retreat will fix it. She poses that the issue is systemic - that in this post Global Financial Crisis world we have optimised ourselves to be the best workers possible, in an attempt to succeed within a unequitable system, winnable only for a small few.
“We’re deeply in debt, working more hours and more jobs for less pay and less security, struggling to achieve the same standards of living as our parents, operating in psychological and physical precariousness, all while being told that if we just work harder, meritocracy will prevail, and we’ll begin thriving. The carrot dangling in front of us is the dream that the to-do list will end, or at least become far more manageable”.
That dangling carrot makes it very easy to continue producing. As Henri Nouwen writes, “we would prefer to distract and fill every little space… but our business becomes a curse, even while we think it provides us with the relief from pain inside. Our overpacked lives serve only to keep us from facing the inevitable difficulties we all at some time or another must face”.
This was realised for me in February when I got concussed and was forced to take several weeks off work. I say forced because that really was my mindset. I stepped out of the emergency dept after being told in no uncertain terms could I return to work as I had hoped, and burst into tears. Unable to work, read, write, watch Netflix or most agonisingly, talk to anyone for more than 20 minutes, I wasn’t too sure what I was left with.
“Finally you’re stopping!” “Treat it like a vacation!” “Seems like someone wants you to slow down, maybe they threw the surfboard at your head!” people cooed from the sidelines in an attempt to comfort me, to which I responded with a pathetic string of crying emojis. Found with no purpose aside from caring for myself, I was left entirely despondent.
Prior to this, my summer reading had included The Body Keeps the Score, a (heavy) book that ties links between trauma and physical manifestations. Whether it be chronic back pain or more than your fair share of tonsillitis, Van der Kolk suggests that somatic symptoms with no clear physical basis are most likely suppressed emotion or trauma presenting itself. Our bodies hold a whole lot, and as much as we try to deny it, if we ignore them long enough they will start screaming. In the past couple of years I have had numerous episodes of my body telling me to stop running but kept pushing through, going 80 in a 60, quite literally missing the signs of my body telling me to slow down.
What the concussion actually forced me to do was stop, and realise it was much more than an enneagram 3 wing that rendered me unable to sit still. When you took the dangling carrot - the ability to produce - away, I was forced to face the reality of who I am when all I have is the moment I am in. That maybe I was still running from a few demons, and using objectively good things (books, people, work) as a crutch. And removing them was pretty crushing to say the least. But then, slowly, for probably the first time in my life I became okay sitting with myself. And it was kind of amazing. I swam every day and walked for hours. I made fresh pasta and just sat with my thoughts. I wrote my first song in five years. For the first time, I was able to create not under pressure.
Now back in the real world where I can’t spend every day walking the beach, there are definitely days and weeks where I get caught up and run full-steam ahead towards some intangible end-goal. It’s a conscious journey of feeling good about myself when I have nothing to offer, but a new thing has started in me. I regularly find myself at points in my day in disbelief at how lucky I am to be experiencing this life, that is so vast and loving and diverse it sometimes takes my breath away. I recently finished Jared Noel’s beautiful book ‘Message to my Girl’ and will end on this;
“If we try to find our purpose in the ending, we only end up losing ourselves in the process of getting there. What I have discovered is the purpose is in the journey, no matter where it leads us. The path we are on, no matter how successful or unsuccessful, is littered with stories of meaning, of relationships and purpose”.