Expanding Definitions of Productivity & Accomplishment

Ever since I received a diary for my birthday when I was about 8 years old, I’ve had a journal in my possession. I like the idea of having a record to look back on— to see what the struggles and triumphs were of a certain age. It’s like reading a book whose ending I already know— I get a sense of perspective. The writing itself helps me in the moment, too.

At the end of 2016, I realized that my current journal was about to be finished, and that it contained just over a year’s worth of writing.  I was about to leave on a long trip for the holidays, and I decided to read through my journal— my year recorded. As I read, I took notes at the beginning of my new journal to synthesize (I am, at heart, someone who would like to be in school their whole life— hence, the assigned reading and notetaking!).

I noted what I learned over the year or actually, what I am still learning. One of the things I began to learn in 2016 is this:

Expand Definitions of Productivity & Accomplishment

I am drawn to (driven to?) productivity, as so many of us are. It comes through our culture, this emphasis on doing, doing, doing. It feels good then, to be productive and to accomplish a lot in a day. It feels gratifying, as if all of this doing means something. If I dig way down deep, achieving seems to mean that I am enough— good enough, hardworking enough.

The Tyranny of Getting it All Done

At the same time, this can feel like a kind of tyranny— that I MUST accomplish a lot, and if not, it could mean that I failed in some way— ethically or morally by being lazy. (Usually, these feelings are really vague and fuzzy, just under the surface and unconscious, yet permeating everything. When I really start spelling out this if/then logic, it doesn’t hold up. But so it goes.)

But what if I’m tired? What if I’m not feeling well? Well, I already made the list of what needs to be done today, so time to get cracking! And if it turns out that I am not able to do all of those things on this list? Perhaps the list for the day wasn’t even realistic? Now it’s time for me to feel guilty about what I didn’t accomplish. Add those tasks to the long list for tomorrow. Writing this out, it seems so sad. What an inescapable, unsustainable rat race.

I spoke about this with my therapist, and we kept coming to somewhat of a barrier. It felt like she was saying (in a really oversimplified way), “Stop doing all those things. Relax. Just rest and be happy.” I responded to this sentiment with disbelief and maybe a little scorn. Sure... I’ll just not get things done then. (Getting things done is part of my identity!) It just didn’t seem possible, desirable, or wise to take this approach. I can’t change on a dime to think that accomplishments are NOT important, and I know that getting things done is part of what makes me successful in my work.

And yet... my default way of doing things doesn’t feel so wise either. That feeling of never being able to get quite enough done (because you can never get it ALL done) puts a bit of a dark cloud over life. It robs some of the joy. It’s unsustainable, and because it’s unsustainable, I eventually turn to food or excessive phone use— something to distract me and numb me from the painful fact that I can’t get the whole list done at once, and that I need to rest.

Making a Shift

So clearly a different approach is needed. What my therapist and I eventually came to was this: yes, accomplishments are good, and yes, I value accomplishing things. It will do no good to try deny the value of accomplishment. But (and this felt revolutionary!) what if I expand the idea of what accomplishment means?

What if what I got done today was to grieve?

What if what I achieved was making art?

What if my accomplishment was feeding myself well and taking a walk?

All of these things have their benefits, of course:

Taking time to grieve releases the pressure that builds imperceptibly when we’re holding sadness at bay.

Making art feeds the soul. It is play and wonder and beauty... all of these things that we need so crucially, and yet which are not so concrete.

My physical health is the building block on which everything else rests...and yet, why does taking care of the body often feel like the last priority?

Living as a Whole Person

Allowing these areas of life (and others) to “count” as areas of accomplishment lets my life have a sense of balance where all is included, nourished, and valued— body, mind, and spirit… or work, play, and rest.

Too often, mind and work take the top spots in what is valued, and this is reflected in how time is spent. When only work is seen as a desirable and necessary accomplishment, any time spent in play, or in maintaining the body and nourishing the spirit is seen as “stolen” time, a guilty pleasure. When the amount of work done is the only measure that counts, any time spent resting is seen as weakness.

Conversely, this new learning is a more complex understanding of myself and how I function— that body, mind, and spirit are all part of me, and that wellness and “accomplishment” in only one area is incomplete. Body, mind, and spirit each have their mysterious role to play in the functioning as ME— a healthy and flourishing human.

This shift in perspective is huge. It’s still something that I’m learning and working with, and it has already made a difference for me. I’ll give a couple of examples of how this  shift shows up in my life:

I prioritized going to a physical therapist for my chronic neck/back/shoulder pain. For years, I let it fester, suffering and working hard, approaching my life with tension and trying to ignore the pain that resulted. Now I’m making time for this— two hours a week at appointments, plus exercises to do at home regularly. This can feel, every once in awhile, like a waste of time. But each moment that I spend on this is an investment in the health of my body— which I will need my whole life! And just like it was worthwhile for me to spend time and money sending my brain to college, it is worthwhile for me to spend time and money sending my body to physical therapy.

Another example is in how I've been spending my mornings. Rather than get up and get straight to work on emails, I now start with yoga, meditation, and breakfast every day. (I used to do this in theory... but mostly work took over.)  It doesn’t have to be long, but what it reinforces every day is that I can prioritize the care of my body, mind, and spirit— that the rest of the world can wait until I am charged up and nourished. Guess what? The world can wait.

So my learning is that life with only one kind of accomplishments is an unbalanced life. By expanding my definitions of productivity and accomplishment, there is a sense of more freedom and wellness— I feel better, period.