Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about productivity and reevaluating how I work. In the past few months I’ve been feeling burnt out. A lot of that, I’ve realized, has to do with trying to be someone I’m not.
(How fascinating that how we do one thing often mirrors how we do everything else. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve tried to be someone I’m not in so many areas, in so many ways.)
That someone has endless energy and ideas at the ready, without needing hours to brainstorm. She pens a piece in under an hour, writes four articles a day, every day, and doesn’t need many breaks. She can work at any time, any place. She rarely gets distracted and doesn’t need much sleep.
But this person is not me.
Writing often takes a lot out of me. Some days, I write several pieces, each of which take hours. Other days, I stare at the computer screen. I don’t do very well when there are 800 things to do. My mind just gets too scattered, and I can’t find my way back.
I prefer to take my time with most things (writing, email, getting ready, cleaning, cooking). I prefer to hang on every word. I like to savor books, to listen to the words echoing in my mind, to really learn what I’m reading.
I get hungry every few hours, so I have to take breaks. On most days, I can’t sit in front of the computer from 9 to 5, writing and responding to email. Some days, I need a 20-minute nap. I need time to sit with my words, to digest them and understand them. At the beginning of every month, I need several days to come up with topics and ideas.
So lately, I’ve been thinking about how to respect my natural tendencies, instead of fighting them or wishing I was someone else. Instead of trying to twist and contort myself to fit something I just don’t. This reminds me of the days I used to try to fit myself into ill-fitting clothes and relationships. When I tried to be a woman I clearly wasn’t.
Fighting my natural tendencies and needs only leads to overwhelm, exhaustion and anger. It is a place without self-acceptance or self-care. It is a place without much joy. It might be productive in the short term, but in the long term it’s costly and unkind.
So lately, I’m trying to figure out how to go from the inside out. That is, I’m trying to work from my personal preferences, energy levels and capabilities. I’m trying to respect my rhythms. (Esmé Wang wrote a great post about respecting hers, which I highly suggest reading.)
If you’re finding that you’re forcing yourself to fit into something itchy and uncomfortable — a routine that just doesn’t serve you, reflecting on these questions might help:
- Realistically, how much can you accomplish in one day?
- What’s your sweet spot, where you feel energized and interested versus bored and burnt out? Of course, sometimes, things come up. Sometimes, we have to do things when we’re exhausted. But we can still carve out bare minimum routines that respect our rhythms and needs.
- What does your ideal day look like, from the time you wake up to the time you go to bed? How can you create days that resemble this (as closely as you can)?
- How often do you need to take breaks?
- What do these breaks look like? They might include meditating, stretching, walking around, listening to music, journaling, chatting with colleagues, reading jokes.
- When do you feel like you’re forcing yourself to be someone you’re not?
It also might help to make a list of your rhythms and preferences (e.g., I work best during these hours; I feel most energized when…; I need X number of breaks; I like to work in 20-minute bursts with a break at the end; I like to take my time). Then figure out how to honor and incorporate these rhythms and preferences into your days.
It’s hard to look at our lives in this way. It feels selfish. It feels like we’re indulging ourselves. It brings up a slew of shoulds. I should work really hard. Work should be really hard. Work should take a lot out of me. That’s why it’s called “work.” I should push myself. Life is meant to be uncomfortable. I should just deal with it.
But this is your life. And if your life feels better and is more enjoyable, fulfilling, fascinating when you’re living it a certain way, then it’s certainly worth exploring. Give yourself the opportunity and space to see.