Does Productivity Always Have To Mean Work?

by Katherine McLaughlin

I used to think productivity was everything, that working was the most important thing I could do. I would put everything in my lifefamily, friends, romantic interests, even myself—second in pursuit of being “productive”. Deadlines, to-do lists, and projects became the closest and most important relationships I had in my life. 

I could chalk up this intense work ethic to passion and drive, but I know that’s an unfair and untrue statement. It’s so easy to admire the hustle and give it a name that our society feels good about when speaking in conversations. But I know my constant need to work, create, and do is rooted in a much darker and less celebrated place—fear. 

I probably worry more than I work. I worry that I’m not good enough, that my life won’t amount to enough, that I will leave this earth unremembered. I’m paralyzed by the idea that someone might not like me, that someone might not love me, that someone might not truly know me. So I bury all of that in the early mornings, long nights, and scheduled days in hopes of producing something that quells my fears for just a little bit. 

I feel worthy when I put my name on an essay that gets published and I know—if at least through the web of online interactions—my name will be remembered. When I turn in a project that a supervisor likes I feel good enough and like I’m contributing to the world in a way that makes a difference. The pursuit of productivity has always seemed to give me a purpose and answer to many of my biggest concerns. 

This doesn’t mean that I don’t love my work, or I’m not passionate about what I do, but I also know those statements can be true without my profession consuming my entire life. I recently started thinking about what it really means for me, and everyone else, to be productive. 

The definition is quite literally “the state or quality of producing something, especially crops” and “the effectiveness of productive efforts”. Our mainstream dialogue has created an interpretation that loosely combines the previous two into a state of being that consists of effort, output, and monetary gain. 

But when I look to productivity to soothe my most compelling inner panics and I equate that feeling to value, I wonder if other things can be “productive” too. Can creating happy memories or deeper connections with family be productive? Can meeting new people that make me feel loved and supported be productive? Can taking time by myself to sit with what makes me uncomfortable instead of burying it away be productive? 

Productivity originally had to do with crops, stemming from historical usage of the word, but I think it has a deeper truth hidden there as well. We have to eat literally—our bodies need nutrients—but we also have to feed our souls. 

Productivity should consist of everything that keeps us full—everything I neglected for so long. The relationships that make us better individuals, the rest that lets us create, and the experiences that define our actions. We have to grow the moments that fuel and feed us. 

I always forget until I’m in the moment how good it feels to sit outside on a restaurant patio on a cool summer night, drinking a glass of wine with friends as I pull on a sweatshirt to curb the shiver of a soft wind. In moments like those I remember how important it is to be around people, to talk and laugh. I go home feeling refreshed and calm. I never regret an evening where I feel safe, it’s always time well spent. Times like those alone seem to encompass what it means to do something valuable.

I’m working through the fear that has pushed me to believe the only way to calm myself is through work. I’m finding other ways to feel important and loved that have nothing to do with a title or a salary. Some days I fail, but every day I try. The only thing that hasn’t changed is my productive personality—I will always be productive— but I’m slowly reframing what that really means.

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