While I know that I am the source of most of the pressure I feel to be productive and to do most of the stuff on my to-do list in a timely manner, I can’t help but feel like it is easier to find better ways to work than to address the monumental issue that is how much of my self-worth is derived by being productive. Nothing highlights this more than times like right now, as I’m working on catching up with everything I didn’t do for the full week I was feeling exhausted and out of it due to sleep deprivation and stress caught in a horrible feedback loop that is taking me multiple weekends to break out of. I have a simply massive task list since I wrote down everything as it came up last week (I’m pretty good at recognizing that my memory is going to be faulty once I reach a certain level of exhaustion), and it has been a struggle to ride the fine line between productivity and rest. After all, it won’t do me any good if I get a lot done in one day but wind up tiring myself out so that I’m useless again the day or two after that.
One skill I’ve been working on that is, theoretically, helpful to getting things done without exhausting myself is taking breaks. I call it a skill because my habit has always been to work relentlessly for hours, take an hours long break, and then either work for another few hours or decide I’ve hit my limit and simply be done for the day. It works well with certain types of work, like moving to a new home or similar amounts of mild to moderate exertion that don’t have good stopping points, but it would probably be just an across-the-board improvement to my life if I could work out taking short breaks more frequently. Which is where the practice comes in.
When I’m exhausted, mentally or physically, I’m frequently fighting the urge to sit down, to flop on my bed, or to collapse on my couch. Since I’ve been exhausted for the entire weekend despite my better sleep schedule, I’ve been allowing myself to give in to this urge but also telling myself that, the instant I start doing something other than what I began when I sat down, it is time for me to get up and get back to work. I’ve struggled, of course, because inertia is a difficult beast to overcome, but I’ve been largely successful. Most of my breaks are still just me changing the type of work I’m doing, from intellectual/emotional to physical and then back again, but I’ve actually started taking restful breaks on occasion.
These breaks aren’t the silver bullet solution to my exhaustion and burnout, but they definitely help me keep working longer before I eventually give up. They also sometimes result in me giving up early, though, so I’d say the results are fairly mixed. Sometimes, it is good to give up early because it becomes clear that rest is more important than recording poetry or sorting through my mail for the non-urgent things I should actually look at and the stuff that can definitely just be shredded immediately. I can always do those things later, after all, but not over-exerting myself is something I have to do right now if I’m gonna do it at all. And sure, maybe later as well, but if I don’t do it now, it will be impossible to do it later.
Honestly, most of the effort here is mental. It is difficult to allow myself to take a break without some amount of self-recrimination. I am my own worst critic and I have to admit that all of the progress I’ve made has only lessened this unnecessary self-criticism somewhat. Not even significantly. Which is why I always make a note of when I can take a break of an appropriate length without actually thinking poorly of myself for needing ten to twenty minutes before I’m ready to get back to work.
I know this stuff seems fairly basic, but it’s something I’ve struggled with for my entire life. My parents did not approve of being idle and, despite being avid readers themselves, did not see anything short of visibly productive labor as being worthy of praise or support. They did not generally recognize the importance of rest until well after I’d stopped thinking of their house as my home, and even then it was such a minor thing that it was only worth noticing because it proved they had the ability to change their minds. It takes a lifetime to unlearn these sort of ingrained lessons, so I feel like even this small amount of progress, encapsulated by the fifteen-minute, recrimination-free break I took before writing this blog post, is worth recognizing and celebrating.