“So, a lot of the need to be productive is the terror of things falling apart.” — Judd Apatow, Sick in the Head

Being productive falls in the same category as being perfect. We often have a sense that if we are productive and/or perfect, we are safe. Safe from poverty, abandonment, failure, disgrace, etc.

It is true that working hard has a better chance of job placement and retainment overall, but I have seen people close to me and total strangers work very hard at something they love or for someone they love, and still end up struggling to make ends meet.

Uncertainty drives us

As a child of divorce and a lower income household, I understand Judd Apatow’s above quote. The instability of divorce and the threat of poverty, drove me, as it did Judd. I studied hard in school. I worked multiple jobs to get me through college. Working hard kept me out of trouble, increased my chances for employment and relieved my parents of worry.

If my parents did not have to worry about me, I did my part to keep our home from sliding into chaos or stress.

I kept my nose to the grindstone and learned to take care of myself. The less I had to rely on others, the less likely I would be let down.

If I am perfect, I am safe

As a young mother of three, productivity was required and efficiency was its tag a long little sister. I thought if I could keep the house photo-shoot perfect, my husband properly cared for and the children clean, well dressed and well educated, everything would flow as it should. If I could not manage all of that productivity and efficiency, things would  fall apart and I would be the target of criticism. I would be the one who let everyone down.

Of course, the truth is, no amount of productivity or perfection keeps us safe. Things fall apart. People let us down. We let others down.

Perfect productivity is a very hard habit to break. Sometimes it feels as if our survival and vital success depend on it, as if we have all of the control to keep the course running smoothly.

Productivity linked to anxiety

I know as well as anyone how hard it is to loosen that grip on accomplishing and efficiency. To be honest, I still can not stop pushing and working. The only difference now is I know it is not infallible protection. I still believe productivity is better than idleness, but I also know there is a price to pay for constant productivity. The price is anxiety.

As I age, I develop a greater understanding of the difference between productivity and action taking. Productivity reigned at home and at work ten years ago. I was pulled by others’ needs. I spent more time putting out fires than driving my own initiatives. This set up is inherently anxiety provoking.

One thing at a time

Now, when I start to feel my stress levels creeping up, I take note of how in control I feel. Am I bouncing from one demand to another? This lack of control drives my blood pressure up and robs me of restful sleep.

I know I need to take charge and spearhead my next steps. My first action step that requires no permission and very little time; get a workout in. Exercising is THE best anti-anxiety medicine. It immediately gives me perspective and positive energy. It dilutes the cortisol in my body. It is singular.overlapping

Much stress comes from the productivity chase because so often it requires overlapping work. Spend time with the family AND at the same time, prepare for the next week at work. Help one student stay focused in chemistry class but also find time during that period to correct an error in my payroll deductions. The most difficult overlapping tasks? Those that involve caring for two different people at the same time. It’s impossible and therefore highly stressful.

My advice? Choose one action and move forward. Sometimes that action is for others, but the choice empowers us and removes the shackles, a little.

Real life example

Here’s an example of choosing action over productivity. This last week, I had a lot of schedule changes and new responsibilities develop at work. I came home on Wednesday with a tension headache and slept poorly that night. My attention and care were required in different classrooms and I had my mid-year review with my supervisor.

The changes at work meant I would be saying goodbye to some students and starting new relationships with others. As Judd Apatow mentions in his book, children of divorce always want everyone to stay together. I am no exception. My new schedule is packed full of students needing my attention during the same class period.

After the headache and sleepless night, I made a list of tasks to complete the next day. I started with a cardio workout in the morning at home. Immediately after the workout, I felt 90% lighter. I found myself dancing and singing along with the music on my phone. I moved through the checklist one at a time. Some of it I could do on my laptop in the kitchen. Family members wandered in and out. I chatted with them and felt connected.

Lead and take action

I am still dreading the overloaded new schedule, which officially starts on Monday. My review went well, ending with my supervisor telling me I can offer suggestions and new ideas. I intend to take her up on it.

Leading and action-taking relieve stress. They foster productivity but also reduce stress. Putting out fires seems productive but truly just drains us.

Are you spearheading your life? Do you find yourself with overlapping work? Can you change it to singular tasks, one at a time? Things will not fall apart.

Photo by Andreas Klassen on Unsplash

Photo by Liam Seskis on Unsplash