If you’re anything like me, then every moment not doing something can feel like a moment wasted. I don’t know if it’s a result of trauma brain, anxiety, perfectionism, ADHD or some sort of combination, but I have never been good at sitting still. I’ve always felt the need to be productive.
I have always wanted to be more.
Ever since I was little, I have strived to be perfect, despite knowing that it isn’t possible. I wanted to be able to do anything and everything, and boy did I try. If there was a team or group, I wanted to be on it. My grades had to be perfect and I really wanted everyone to like me. Mostly, I wanted to be seen as successful. I used to think it was my ticket out of the life I had known and hated.
The biggest misconception of my youth was that if I got really good grades and packed my resume with extracurricular activities, then I would get into a good college which would get me a good job. That would lead to money, dream home, and happiness. Turns out that even straight A’s can only get you so far and college means loans which actually means owing a crazy amount of money rather than making it. Rather than falling into a cushy job like I thought I would, I ended up working harder than ever.
I always thought it would be worth it.
When I was younger, I babysat for extra money. As soon as I turned 16, I started working in restaurants and retail. Even in college, when taking 7 classes and working on my submissions for my first big independent art opening, I was also working 35 hours a week. I kept thinking, this is only for right now. It will be worth it when I hit that point where everything comes together. The thing is, it never did come together.
Rather than going to parties and having fun in college, I spent most of my time working or studying. I would stress about every detail, trying to make sure every moment was spent ‘bettering’ myself. But then I graduated with a perfect GPA and it didn’t seem to matter. I still only managed to find an entry level office job that made me miserable and paid way less than I felt I deserved. That was followed by four more jobs, all just as miserable and just as underpaid. I’d go in with such high hopes, thinking, this one is going to be different. I’ll work hard, be super productive and prove myself. They’ll see what I’m worth and I’ll start to get somewhere. This is going to be the one that changes everything.
What would actually happen is they would realize my need to feel productive as well as my aim to please, and they’d give me more tasks and responsibilities without any pay raise or promotion. I’d bust my ass for pennies until I started to resent the company. I realized that I was never going to feel valued working for someone else, and so I decided to start trying to find ways to work for myself.
I’d spend all day at work, then come home and work some more.
I started multiple businesses in my twenties. I’d go to my 8-5 job, sometimes working overtime, and then come home and immediately start on another project. Whether it was commissioned artwork, crafts I could sell, freelance writing or working on a photography business, I was always busy. Sitting still made me anxious. It made me feel like I was going to fail. I convinced myself that if I kept working hard, kept pushing forward, then I’d be able to have a life worth being proud of, and then I’d finally be able to relax. Whenever I wasn’t sure of something, the answer was to be more productive.
Maternity leave and motherhood forced me to slow down (temporarily).
My daughter was a C-section, so I literally had no choice but to slow down in the beginning as I healed from surgery. Even once I was up and moving again, everything was still so new and overwhelming as I learned what being a mom meant. There were days where I felt like I could hardly catch my breath, and others where I felt like all that I had done for the entire day was breastfeed. Looking back now, I realize that that was enough and nothing to be ashamed of. But at the time, I felt like I needed to be able to do it all right away. And so if my husband came home from work and I was sitting on the couch with my baby, with spit-up on my shirt and unwashed hair, I’d cry. I wanted to be the picture of elegance with every hair in place and dinner on the table.
I thought that taking a break or slowing down meant that you were lazy.
It was so hard to accept my limitations and to accept that I couldn’t do it all. But after a while, I was able to figure out that I didn’t need to be perfect in order to be a good mom. That sitting on the couch with my baby- feeding her, holding her and keeping her safe- was being productive. I finally started to feel some relief from the pressure to do more. After all, I only had a few months of this and needed to soak it all up.
I used to think that it meant doing something every moment in order to move your career or home or relationship forward. That you had to always be improving, because if you took a break, everyone else would get ahead and you’d have to start all over. Having my daughter gave me a little relief from this pressure, but then it came rushing back when I decided not to go back to work when my maternity leave ended. My husband and I worked on a plan together to make it possible for me to be a stay at home mom, spending every minute with my mini-me.
It had always been my dream to be a full time mom, but once I had it, the feelings of not doing enough started creeping back in. I felt strange relying on my husband to bring in enough money to pay our bills. I’d listen to my friends or family talk about their jobs and all of the things they were accomplishing and start feeling like I wasn’t doing enough.
The pressure to be productive came back in full force.
I ended up starting EmilyEverAfterCo on etsy and spent my nights and daughter’s naps working on the new venture. I taught myself to sew and spent every free minute learning, researching, and testing out my new skills. Then I taught myself to bake and learned a ton of new recipes. I started renovating my house. Then I got into wood burning. And then I got a heat press… I eventually started this blog and started joining all a bunch of conferences and summits. If there was a class related to something I could possibly get into, I took it.
I was exhausted.
There were so many new things that I was doing and I was making so many new connections, but I still felt like I needed to do more. It seemed like no matter what I had done all week, taking a night off to relax made me feel lazy. Going away for a weekend without bringing my laptop made me anxious. But no matter what I did, I didn’t feel like I was getting anywhere. I saw all of these people around me bragging about their latest achievements and successes, but I still felt stuck. This made me think that I just wasn’t being productive enough. So I stopped sleeping.
It was important to me that while I was with my daughter, I was focused on her. This meant I could only work while she was sleeping which meant I had to kick it into overdrive. I had to make sure that I was productive every moment to make up for the time that I couldn’t work on my business. But I was tired and sore and it started showing in my work. There were so many projects that I had to restart because I would make stupid mistakes.
I started to lose my motivation, not wanting to finish anything. But I pushed through to get things done because I didn’t want to be a failure. Because I wasn’t taking care of myself, even the things that turned out right weren’t enough to make me happy. When I got pregnant again, I started thinking about those new born months when it would be hard to get any work done and tried to push myself even harder to get ahead of it.
The result: burnout.
During this pregnancy, I finally learned how to take a break. It hasn’t been easy. I still have a hard time settling my mind and letting myself relax. But my body physically would not let me continue on the path that I had been on for most of my life. I have taken so many naps, had so many nights with my husband filled with cuddling and movies, spent weekends relaxing with friends and family instead of being on my phone or computer or locked in my studio. And you know what? My business didn’t fall apart like I thought it would. I started to feel better and more excited about everything that I was doing.
I realized that it’s all about how you define the word ‘productive’.
The same way we get to define what success means to us, we get to define productive. At the end of the day, I think over everything that I did and ask myself if I’m happy. Some days, I’m less satisfied and others, I’m really proud of how productive I was. In the end, I’ve realized that as long as I put my daughter to bed with her knowing that she is loved and safe, I’m content. If I did the laundry or the dishes or cleaned up, I’m proud. If I got a sale or created something new, I’m ecstatic. But I don’t need to do it all every day in order to survive. My shop, my website, my house- they’re all still going to be there tomorrow. I can take a night off to take care of myself and the world isn’t going to fall apart.
Doing everything for everyone everyday isn’t productive and doesn’t actually set you up for success. Sometimes, taking the time to meditate or journal is productive. Some days, going for a walk outside is being productive. Self-care and allowing yourself to enjoy your life is more important than most of the career or business related tasks that many of us are so concerned with.
I’m not saying neglect your responsibilities. I am saying don’t neglect yourself for the sake of feeling productive. Instead, take a look at your life, your responsibilities and your priorities, and redefine what a productive day should look like for you.
Also remember that your worth and value are not linked to how much you get done in a day. Sometimes all you can do is get out of bed and that is okay.