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Of all my inner demons, the one that insists I’m only worthy if I produce is probably my favourite.
She’s invited to late breakfasts, where she seems like a pleasant enough guest, until she begins to tap her watch with a smug expression to remind me that the day is wasting away out there, slipping by if I don’t hurry up and make the most of it.
Of course, I didn’t create her. The productivity monster is easier to weather because she belongs to so many of us, to any of us caught up in the capitalistic hamster wheel.
I thought maybe I had escaped her when I resisted the mounting pressure to just grow up and get a real job. Thought I’d slipped past her there, but it turns out she’s a lot smarter than I gave her credit for. She’s there on Sunday nights, growing to twice the size and darkening in colour until she’s nothing but an abstract, dreadful shadow standing in the corner. She turns down the brightness on the sunset outside and lowers the volume on the laughter my friends and I share at a last-minute happy hour.
In case you were wondering, you can have the Sunday Scaries even if you don’t have a job, a schedule, or a boss.
In my quest to build out a life that feels good to me, first and foremost, I am always at odds with what’s expected of me. There’s a constant tension between what I feel like doing and what makes me happy to do and how other people perceive it. To make my bohemian lifestyle feel more digestible to this imaginary peanut gallery of critics, I am constantly boxing myself in. I divide my weeks into neat segments, like a pill box open and stuffed with thoughtfully placed capsules.
Mondays and Wednesdays are for the “real” work—the things that I do to pay rent and the things I do that may someday pay rent. Tuesdays and Thursdays are the days I’m allowed to do what I want to be doing always: I get to write and read and walk around in circles talking to myself about both things, or neither. Creativity can be scheduled, it would seem. Inspiration strikes on Tuesday mornings at 9 a.m. It’s conveniently out of the way on Wednesday evenings.
I wake up on Tuesdays and Thursdays and feel like I’m cheating the entire game. It’s kind of like those days at school when the jungle gym was out, or that giant parachute that we would all take outside and raise up over our heads and then sit on to create a multi-coloured igloo of fabric. It feels like I’m getting away with something because, at least for now, writing is just the thing I love. It doesn’t make me money, and therefore it’s not “real” work.
To make it more real, to give it the distinction of being Something Important that other people can take seriously (the productivity monster feasts on approval and validation like they’re water and air), I do all kinds of little things. I schedule the writing in. I do this weekly blog. I put “Author” in my LinkedIn headline. I come to a co-working space where I get my own desk and a little plant and a lamp and hallways to roam through when the words refuse to come. Sometimes, when my skin feels thick enough, I query the book I have already written and wonder how many nos I can take before I decide to put that particular project to rest forever.
God, wouldn’t that fix everything—having a book published.
I could stand in a room with lawyers and doctors and teachers and engineers and say, hey, I do stuff too. You can even hold it in your hands or put it on a shelf and it’s got my name on it. I did something that might not make as much sense as some of that other stuff, but it’s out here for everyone to see.
But I know, of course, that no number of books written or published will bring me a sense of legitimacy and shut up the productivity monster once and for all. That’s something I have to decide for myself right now, while I watch my credit card debt mount and wonder if I’m just a complete idiot for not doing what every sane person would suggest.
The productivity monster is a tricky one because as a writer, I do want to produce. I want to work. Despite my so-called laziness regarding every other job I’ve ever had, I enjoy doing things and I want to get better at them. I have no interest in sitting on my couch, drinking prosecco and eating figs all day while everything I need is brought to me.
The productivity monster can sometimes be my biggest cheerleader, reminding me that perfection is a pointless pursuit. Action is what matters. Get up and do something, not just because other people are watching, but because you only get to be 31, broke, and trying as a writer one time. It’s not glamourous, but it’s never boring.
(It’s often boring, often mind-bendingly boring. That’s okay, too.)
One of my favourite talks by Tara Brach, author and spiritual guide, opens with a memorable parable. In it, we’re advised to imagine going into a cave and inviting in all our demons. We welcome them, arms open. We should be on pretty familiar terms at this point. Look to the one who’s been the biggest problem—the most dreadful fear, the most shameful secret, the most certain, wormlike doubt—and put your head in its mouth. Lay your cheek on its tongue and breathe in the scent of everything possible going wrong. And relax.
Like I said, the productivity monster isn’t among my worst. It’s easy enough to have her on the couch next to me, in bed on the weekend. But on the days that I’m sure I’m worth nothing but a rusting Honda Civic, I can always ask her to please open her mouth so I can put my head inside. I can relish in the knowing that I will never get it all done, and that’s how it’s supposed to be.
I’m not sure what she will do then. Probably roll her eyes and tell me to get some sleep. We’ve got a big day tomorrow.