On slowing down

I've written previously about methods I've found for tricking myself into being productive when I was struggling with burnout. Those routines and reminders and apps to help me keep track of what I have to do were very helpful when my biggest problems seemed to be in the realm of maintaining productivity and focus. When I was recovering from surgery, on the other hand, I got to a point where trying so hard to maintain some amount of "productivity" started to feel... well, counter-productive.

It's true that having routines can be helpful, especially when dealing with things like depression, but recently I realized that I had been phoning it in pretty hard when it came to the routines I had set for myself. For example, my habit tracker app encouraged me to leave the apartment every day. Sometime around mid-May, however, I realized that instead of going for a real walk or running an errand, I'd instead been doing things like "walking out the front door of my building and immediately going right back inside". Sure, I was technically putting on real pants and leaving the apartment, but I was definitely fulfilling the letter of my self-imposed rules while ignoring the spirit.

But even though I realized that my to-do lists weren't actually providing me any of the benefits that were my reasons for doing them, the idea of stopping was really scary. It feels like it ties back to what I wrote previously about taking a break from public speaking and the idea of relevance - the worry that if I stop continuously pushing myself to always do more and make more and produce more, then I will stop being relevant or meaningful or even valuable. (Which, of course, is a ridiculous standard I hold myself to while encouraging people around me to absolutely take breaks when they need to because of course their health is more important than what they produce.)

Sometimes I feel like one of those sharks who can't stop swimming forwards or else they'll drown. Except I'm not actually a shark, I'm 7 bundles of anxiety stacked in a trench coat who is irrationally convinced they're a shark. It's true that there used to be times in my life where I had to fight tooth and nail every day to be taken seriously at work, where I had to worry about if my rent check would clear and if I'd be able to pay my bills that month, where I'd been putting up with so much abuse that closing myself off from everyone around me was a reasonable defense mechanism.

But I'm not in those places anymore. Maintaining this armor that I used to wear no longer makes sense when I'm no longer in battle. Instead of protecting me, many of my defense mechanisms are now weighing me down.

(These metaphors are mixing together in a weird way. Armor. Sharks. Like I'm some sort of magical armored battle shark. Whatever.)

What would happen if I let myself take a break, let myself rest, gave myself some time off from the checklists and the to-do lists and the need to publicly appear productive? Maybe I'll lose some followers, maybe I won't be first in people's minds when they're thinking of someone to speak at their conference, maybe I'll stop getting put into random lists of "Cool Thought Leaders To Follow On Twitter Dot Com". But I'm not going to lose my job or my apartment or stop being able to pay my bills if I give myself a break from "trying to be productive literally every single day". Realistically, I'm pretty sure I'll still be able to find things like speaking opportunities if I want them. I'm not going to disappear if I put down my armor and let myself relax for a little while.

So for the past week or so I've let my daily to-dos lapse. I'm still doing things like my physical therapy exercises because there are real negative consequences if I skip those, but I'm giving myself a break from trying to do some writing or art every single day, or going to the gym a certain number of times per week. Sure, some days I'll put together a slide deck and write a blog post and go see some friends and cook myself a nice dinner, but other days I won't leave the apartment or put on real pants or do anything "useful" all day, and I'm trying to let myself learn to be okay with those days as well. I've actually followed through on my less-public-speaking goal this year (finally!) and dialed back a lot on the monthly goals and weekly plans that I set for myself. Seeing notably shorter to-do lists feels weird, but those lists were supposed to be a tool to enhance my life, not something to control or overwhelm it.

I haven't drowned so far.