Last Tuesday, I made a pact with myself. No social media, election news, or election talk for twenty-four hours. I was taking a much-needed vacation and wanted one more day of serenity before returning to the world.
Holy Schnikes was that difficult!
My only solution to the election chatter swirling through my head was to stay active. Meditate. Go for walks. Listen to podcasts. Count ocean waves. Read. Write. Cook. Eat too many cookies.
I kept my pact until 8:00 a.m. on Wednesday morning.
The exercise gave me an opportunity to connect with my personal kryptonite: being productive.
As a kid, staying busy made me feel safe. With a packed schedule, I didn’t have time to grieve my parents’ divorce, worry about the bully next door, or wonder if anyone liked me. A constant stream of activity—school, projects, play—smothered my anxiety and masked my depression.
And, I was handsomely rewarded for my efforts.
At school, I received gold stars, A-pluses, and compliments. At work, people said things like, “She’s such a great multitasker,” and “Look at all she’s accomplished.”
Swamped and overbooked, my ego beamed with what felt like my inner goodness.
Over time, busyness became a drug I mainlined to keep from feeling anything uncomfortable.
Staying occupied during times of uncertainty is a healthy way to manage stress and anxiety.
Problems occur when we overschedule and overinvest in productivity as a way to avoid painful feelings. Addicted to gold stars and compliments, we begin to value ourselves as human doings rather than human beings. This can lead us to minimize life-enhancing activities like writing.
If becoming a human doing is your go-to when the world amps up its chatter, don’t beat yourself up.
According to Celeste Headlee, author of Do Nothing: How to Break Away from Overworking, Overdoing, and Underliving, we’ve been indoctrinated to believe productivity makes us good.
“Idle hands are the devil’s workshop.”
“If you want something done, ask a busy person.”
“Just do it.”
As writers, an overreliance on productivity can create three creativity-derailing traps.
The “Being Needed” Trap
We only feel valuable when we’re busy, and preferably doing things for others.
Writers who fall into this trap trade writing time for work projects or caring for others, believing these activities are more valuable than our heart’s desires.
These choices are largely unconscious. Writers just know they can’t find time for their writing lives and nothing creative seems to get done.
We get stuck in this pattern when we don’t feel good about ourselves. Busyness becomes a way to not just keep negative feelings at bay, but to justify our very existence.
Here’s the truth.
You don’t need to do anything to be good enough.
You’re already amazing just as you are.
Failing to set healthy boundaries or practice self-care teaches others they don’t deserve to do these things. This can perpetuate feelings of low self-worth in everyone.
Here’s the solution: Do less all the time, and sometimes do nothing at all.
- Take a few moments to complete my bandwidth check.
- Once you understand your bandwidth, write your to-do list. Include everything from eating breakfast, sleeping, and work to watching Netflix, and helping kids with homework. Rate every item as “need to do” or “nice to do.” Make sure meals, exercise, rest, and writing are on your “need to do” list. Schedule all of your “need to do” items on your calendar. Add in a few “nice to dos” if you have extra time. At least once per week, eliminate one “need to do” item from your calendar.
- Spend fifteen minutes per day doing an unproductive activity like staring at a wall or watching the clouds go by. Once you’ve done this for several days, notice how you feel.
On Election Day, I listened to Brené Brown’s interview Glennon Doyle about her new book Untamed. Glennon had this to say about setting boundaries: “Good boundaries are a drawbridge to self-respect.”
Create your drawbridge, <<First Name>>, by understanding your bandwidth and then taking care of yourself.
The Closed Heart Trap
To write well, you have to channel your characters’ thoughts and feelings. To do this, you need full access to your own thoughts and feelings.
Busyness is an effective anxiety buster because it keeps you from feeling too much.
While this isn’t always a bad thing, it creates distance between you and your emotions.
Writers stuck in this trap might show up to their writing desks, but they can’t connect with their characters. The writing loses its passion. Projects get shelved.
Here’s the solution: Slow the eff down and feel your feels.
- When you wake up, delay checking your phone for at least fifteen minutes. Spend that time doing a mini bandwidth check and consider your self-care needs.
- Schedule time for gratitude.
- Allow yourself a certain amount of time each day to feel something uncomfortable.
- Develop a mindfulness practice.
In the same podcast, Glennon Doyle said, “All feelings are for feeling. Feeling is hard, but what’s worse is missing it all.”
Life is precious. Don’t miss a thing—including your writing life.
The Productivity Versus Process Trap
I see this happen all the time. A writer finally makes time to write. Their mind laser focuses on getting IT done. IT might be a poem, short story, essay, or book-length manuscript. But not only must IT get done, the most kickass version of IT must get published.
These writers only see themselves as “official” writers when they’re making lightning-fast progress. Feedback becomes not just a hassle, but a sign of failure. The goal is to get IT done and then get THE NEXT IT done, because real writers are prolific, well paid, and published.
When you value productivity over the process, here’s what happens:
- Perfectionism, that asshole part of your inner critic, shouts in your ear.
- You feel every tick of the clock because unless you’re zipping through this project, you’re wasting your time.
- All that pressure jams up your ideas and closes down your heart. Hello, writer’s block.
There’s nothing wrong with trying to finish a project or wanting to do it well. But art has its own timetable. Completing a successful project might take months, years, or even decades.
Do you want to spend all that time rushing around or feeling miserable?
A constant focus on productivity will kill your creativity. You’re more likely to scrap worthwhile projects, see yourself as a failure, or force subpar work into the world just to satisfy your ego.
Ironically, all that pressure can make your projects taken even longer.
Here’s your solution: Find joy in the process
- Set up a writing date with a group of fellow writers. After some writing time, share what you’ve created. If you want to offer feedback, just say what’s going well.
- Create a gratitude journal just for your writing process. In your gratitude journal, record your creative wins and how you feel after completing a writing session.
- Write pieces that are just for fun then let them go.
Here’s a final bit of advice from Glennon’s interview. “There is no such thing as one-way liberation. When we liberate ourselves, we give others permission to liberate themselves.”
We might have been conditioned to believe that busyness is synonymous with goodness, or that boundaries make us selfish, but we don’t have to remain caged.
Liberate yourself from the traps of busyness, so that you can show others the way out.