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Forget Being Productive- 6 Things I learned About Productivity

Being still is also ok.

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The Full Moon in Capricorn had me seriously fucked up this past week. I was achy, tired and wholly unmotivated (which is how I’ve been feeling a lot lately) and feeling those things brought back a very specific memory of me sitting in the car with my grandmother, listening to Earth, Wind and Fire’s “September” play on the car radio. She was giving me advice as I sulked about my latest breakup in the passenger seat.

“I’m trying to stay productive,” I told her, unconsciously wringing my hands. “I feel…restless.”

My grandmother nodded her head before responding, “Try writing down the little things you do each day. That is productivity- those little things are the things that matter.”

I didn’t listen then. But as I’ve grown and entered different spaces within the past year, I’ve noticed the theme of productivity resurface time and time again. No matter what industry you’re in, productivity is something you’re going to hear about because, in our capitalistic society, productivity is inherently connected with worth. We are expected, at the very least to be “productive” members of society and to contribute to the “greater good”.

As a creative, I experience the idea of “productivity” at different axis points. My labor doesn’t always equate with monetary gain because I don’t always get paid for my work- I don’t always see the benefits of being “productive” right away. Like many creatives, my productivity is epitomized by my art. Social media doesn’t make the process any easier. We have to constantly create new and engaging content in order to just be seen. On top of that, if we aren’t creating new content, we oftentimes get people asking us “When are you going to drop something new?”

Without creating art that’s consumable, we are essentially, as artists, penniless.

My Bipolar Disorder means that I have waves of manic and depressive episodes that can often knock my entire existence off balance. During my manic episodes, I’m Yemaya, a force of nature that’ll have outlines and grant proposals and new graphic art done in a matter of days. During my depressive episodes, I’m sleeping i.e. not creating at all. Even if you don’t live with a condition that directly affects your productivity, most people experience depression and anxiety at some point in their lives. Chances are you’ve had times when you haven’t felt like doing anything at all when you’d rather be wasting your time doing absolutely nothing.

In the weeks when I’m not creating anything, I experience these deep feelings of inadequacy and a loss of self-worth. I find myself questioning my identity as an artist and writer because I’m not creating new content. If I want to be legitimate, I have to be productive right? And what’s worse, there’s a paralyzing fear that washes over me as I have these conversations with myself- what if, one day, I can’t create new content? What if my creativity runs out? Does my identity die with it? How do we ensure that we don’t live a life wasted away in the Sunken Place?

If I want to be legitimate, I have to be productive right?…What if my creativity runs out? Does my identity die with it?

My latest creative block had me feeling like I was living life through a haze of cotton, watching the world hustle on around me. I felt horribly inadequate, I felt like an impostor and a liar. How can I call myself a graphic artist when I haven’t been able to dream something new in months? How can I call myself a writer when I haven’t finished anything I’ve been working on?

We have entire genres of content specifically dedicated to helping people become more productive in their lives. We have drinks and pills geared towards increasing productivity. Hollywood dreams of drugs that can increase our productivity by increasing our access to untapped parts of our brain. There are journals, blogs, podcasts, and articles on being more “productive”. We consume these societal epithets on a daily basis.

I can’t remember when the eagerness to always be productive began. Sometimes, I use productivity to express or channel the pain inside I’d rather not directly touch. But, other times, I use productivity as a mask, as something to shield me from internal turmoil in lieu of having to face it head on.

What I didn’t realize is how problematic this idea of “productivity” is. Whose standards am I living by? And why do I have the standards I have? How do I balance being both productive and happy? And how do I separate this idea of fulfillment from our creative productivity?

I began listening to my grandmother for starters. And I began to listen to myself. These are the 6 things I really learned about being “productive”:

Remember that being happy is still being productive

We live in a society where our happiness and growth as black artists is a direct threat to the status quo. I have to remind myself that if I’m happy, I’m already being productive. That’s the purest form- it’s unconscious and it’s solely mine. My happiness is a revolution in itself. Every day that I get up and try to move forward? That’s productivity.

But…

Don’t base your happiness on your productivity

My happiness shouldn’t be based on anything but my love for myself and for life. Our friends, our family, and our accomplishments contribute to our feelings of happiness and fulfillment- but basing any large part of that fulfillment solely on your ability to be productive is the first step towards a downfall.

Look at your periods of being unproductive as intake periods

If you’re a workaholic like me, getting sh*t done can give you such a high. It’s important to realize that periods of stillness are essential to take in the things around you, things you may have missed while you were being “productive”.

Similarly, remember that:

You need periods of being unproductive

To an artist, this may seem counter intuitive but it’s one of the truest things I’ve learned in the past few months. We all go through waves, we all ride through ebbs and flows of creation and destruction. Some of our creative processes are different but all artists experience a blockage at some point in time. I realized that I have to embrace the periods when I’m not creating anything. Once I began to let go of my idea of “productivity”, I realized that my unproductive periods actually yield the most experiences for inspiration down the line.

The little things count as being productive too

I took my grandmother’s advice and began writing down ALL of the things I was getting done each day. Simple things that I should already be doing as an adult but I don’t- things like making myself dinner or getting out of bed. Don’t take any of these small things for granted though. Importance lies in everything.

So the next time someone asks you if you’ve created something new, tell ’em “No b*tch, I haven’t”. And be happy about it!

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Arielle Gray is a freelance writer, poet and graphic artist. You can catch her stalking live music shows and eating exorbitant amounts of Ethiopian food.