Photo of a middle-aged man in a suit holding a cell phone and standing in front of a sign with the word productivity and graphics like arrows, hearts, pencils, and notes to illustrate toxic productivity.

How Toxic Productivity is Harming Your Writing Life: 3 Questions

The day before my fiftieth birthday, I talked with a dying man about chili.

We were in his room at Abode, a nonprofit in San Antonio that offers contemplative care for those in the last three months of their lives. My friend Natalie is one of their death doulas. Jeff is a resident preparing to transition from this life to the next. Natalie introduced me to Abode, and as a result Jeff, because I’ve considered serving as a death doula at some point in the future.

Everyone at Abode moves with slow, intentional reverence, whether spending time with a resident or washing the dishes. There’s only one house rule: Be present. 

To do this, you must leave your ego at the door along with the baggage you carry about what death should look like, how it should unfold, or what role you play in the dance between this world and the next.

On Wednesday, April 9th, the dance involved a West Texan man’s history lesson about chili. According to Jeff, the indigenous women in the area regularly traded with the cattle herders passing through and frequently made deals on the weak and sick animals that were unlikely to finish their journey.

Because the meat was tough and stringy, it had to be boiled. Spices were added to mask any unpleasant flavors.

After the history lesson, I asked Jeff which stories he liked to tell. He told me about the fighter pilot who taught him to fly and recommended I travel west of Kerrville to see the biggest bald cypress in West Texas—a tree so big you could drive a car through it.

We looked at photos of family members and the dog he loved. As we prepared to leave, Jeff said, “Wisdom comes from our stored memories.” Those memories are the stories we hold on to and the ones we share with others.

So much of my work as a writer and writing coach involves those memories and how we use them to quote my recent podcast guest, Lennie Echterling, “quite literally perform brain surgery on ourselves.”

Stories rewire us. 

According to Lisa Cron, author of Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence, “Story, as it turns out, was crucial to our evolution—more so than opposable thumbs. Opposable thumbs let us hang on; story told us what to hang on to.”

At one point, the prevailing belief was that neuroplasticity ended with childhood. Recent research has shown that each time we tell a story in a new way or revise it to include new insights, we create new neural pathways–or new things to hang on to. The same happens when we’re present for other people’s stories. We are changed by what we encounter.

That means we must pay attention to what we let in and where we place our focus. 

Oliver Burkeman’s book, 4,000 Weeks: Time Management for Mortals, reminds us that our time is finite, something Jeff knows all too well. While we can fight against this by packing in as much as we can or complaining about how unfair this is, we could choose to see each day as a miracle and a gift. One way to honor the gift is to decide what’s important. 

 In a recent Instagram reel, I talked about toxic productivity that plagues all of us, but especially women. So many of us believe we’re only good if we do things that make money, care for others, or engage in activities society approves of. 

The drive to be productive is so strong, that we’ll do time-wasting things that mimic productivity like spending hours scrolling through social media.

When we buy into the busyness trap, there’s no time to work on a story that makes us happy but might go nowhere, or stare into space or at a flower. We’re focused on outcomes, which means we’re not present. 

I’m just as vulnerable to these beliefs as anyone. When I fall into this trap, I spend way too much time on email and way too little on my writing projects—especially the ones that help me connect with my wisdom.

So how do we escape this trap of toxic productivity and become more present?

If you’re wondering whether writing deserves to be a priority, ask yourself the following questions:

  • How do you show up in your life when you’ve taken the time to write?
  • How do you show up in your life when you don’t?
  • Which version of yourself do you want to offer to the world?

If one version of you is better than another, what must you do (or give up) to claim the time needed to be the best you?

I don’t know if Jeff is still with us, or if he’s sharing his wisdom with those on the other side. But I’m grateful to have spent time with him and to be a container for a small portion of his wisdom. 

May your clarified priorities motivate you to always write on. 

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