Some Myths and Realities of Burnout

Nothing scares me quite like burnout. For someone with so much general anxiety, I have few specific fears these days. Needles? Sign me up. Literally, I’m a plasma donor. Heights? I’m free to go ziplining again tomorrow. Snakes? They’re my buddies. Public speaking? I do it for a living. 

But burnout strikes fear into my heart. “I got burnt out once,” I’d say, with the thousand yard stare. 

The real problem is that I wrap burnout up in a lot of other things. The time I got “burnt out” was actually a psychotic break/the onset of paranoid schizophrenia. I basically dropped out of tenth grade, losing my life plan at the time and most of my then friends. Around the same time, my parents got a divorce; I cut off contact with my dad, and I moved out of my childhood home, soon having to rehome my beloved cat. A lot happened at once. 

The next several years were rough: frequent, severe panic attacks and general anxiety, developing an addiction to self harm, culminating in a suicide attempt, navigating my social and sensory issues with new awareness, plenty of hallucinations, delusions, and other psychotic symptoms, frequent, severe dissociation, seeing an ever changing cast of mental health professionals, with several near hospitalizations, trying what sure seemed like most of the psychiatric meds known to mankind, having various physical health issues, failing to accomplish much of anything, so on.  

But that’s not really burnout. That’s a lot more than burnout. Still, that’s what I think of burnout as, and the idea I was just straight up burnt out from the intensive magnet program I’d been in (plus extracurriculars) was thrown around a lot for a time, especially before the schizophrenia diagnosis. 

And going through that again is what strikes fear into me like nothing else. 

In a way, I can’t go through most of that again, logistically. And you can only develop schizophrenia once. Yes, I’ll have symptoms every day for the rest of my life, but you only have your first unexpected, confusing, world shattering psychotic break once. 

So there’s still, really, nothing to be afraid of. 

Actual burnout is unpleasant, but (typically) less world shattering. Still something to be avoided, but maybe not something to be feared. And pretty much every kid I went to that magnet school with had that. 

Burnt out isn’t exactly a healthy personality trait, yet it’s one that many former gifted kids add on to the label long term. And why do these things so often go together? 

Gifted kids are a bit of a cultural phenomenon. As a society, we hold an intense fascination with these kids that just seem to have something we don’t—a gift, if you will. Almost everyone loves the precocious child on a talk show who’s a prodigy at this or that, but that love is, frequently, tinted with something dark. There’s an element of jealousy—why didn’t I get this precious gift—combined with the denial of how much of this gift is frequently just the capacity to be obsessed, and very hard work. (I talk in another post about how privilege plays into, and doesn’t play into, productivity.) 

But the other factor, I think, is that when something is an extreme, we want to see just how far it can go. Gifted kids of all levels and types are frequently told how much potential they have, that they can do anything if they set their mind to it, and are often pushed to their limits. 

In explaining to these kids how much they can and “should” do (with not living up to your potential often framed as the worst thing one can do, despite the fact that not using every ounce of your energy is actually very healthy), we fail to show them where their limits are, teach them how to set boundaries, teach them that they are an asset they need to protect, teach them how to take care of themselves. We teach them that they need to be challenged, often in any way the adults feel like, often regardless of their actual skills or passions. 

So of course many of them become burnt out (and therefore unproductive) adults. They were never shown how to do anything but run at 101% capacity. 

And I do still actively try to avoid burnout. I subscribe to the philosophy of self care isn’t escaping, it’s creating a life you don’t need to escape from. Now, everyone just needs a break or to mix it up sometimes—and scheduling that in advance may be a part of preventative self care—but the point is, creating something sustainable. Not running at 101% all the time. 

I think one of the most important things is boundaries. Many productivity guides talk about what is the minimum I will do but not what is the maximum I will do (though, that’s starting to pick up, as we talk about work life balance in a world with more remote work). That is something we must all also think about in advance to avoid burnout. 

For example, I have limits on the events I’ll run. How many events I’ll teach or organize in a given week or month. 

I also schedule physical and mental self care as part of my minimums, including the basics, and things like various forms of meditation, tarot reading, hiking, digital detoxes (and having general digital boundaries), journaling, spending time with loved ones, traveling, reading, and other things that help my mental health, help me look inwards, unwind, connect and disconnect with the right things, and learn new things. 

I need to be realistic about my goals, and focus on only the essential: hence my belief in values based productivity. 

I know what’s important to me, and that’s what I put my energy into—and that’s what I take time to recharge my energy for. 

And that’s what matters. 

What Tarot Reading Taught Me About Minimalism and Self Care

Recently, I got into tarot reading.

It all started with the DMV. After multiple drive tests, after multiple days in line where I didn’t get to test at all, nerves and patience fried, I sought Answers. Would I pass? Would I even get to test? What was the secret? 

So, having exhausted my usual resources, I printed a tarot deck, laminated the pages and cut the cards out dutifully, and sought the Answers. 

After passing the drive test, I put it down for a while, then picked it up again to do some inspirational writing spreads. Tell me about my book’s beginning, middle, and end. About this character’s past, present, and future. One card pulls for a character’s arc in a specific book. 

And, while I was at it, I did readings for myself, started doing daily one card pulls, journaling the results. 

I wasn’t sure I believed in the magic of the cards, but I one-hundred percent bought into the basic psychology of what I read into the cards meaning something. They were good daily thought prompts. 

But I had issues with my physical deck. Printed at home on plain printer paper—and I hadn’t printed back sides and aligned them correctly—the cards were a little see through. Certain cards always stuck out because I’d cut them with human error. So on. 

Really on a roll with using it, though, I figured it was worth it to buy a real deck. Far from a major investment. So I added one to my online cart and sat on it for a day. 

The next day, I was glad I waited. I kept thinking about the other deck—the one of the final two I’d narrowed it down to that I hadn’t picked. The one I’d picked was nice, had diverse, feminist artwork. But the one that I kept thinking about had the more classic art, but it was holographic, a rainbow shimmer. It held a sense of real, mysterious old magic to me. 

I traded out the decks, and waited another day before placing the order, still satisfied with my new choice. 

I’ve used them a lot since they arrived. One night, I dropped the cards, startled mid shuffle by someone ringing the doorbell. Later, I counted the cards to make sure none had slipped under the couch or something. I realized it was the first time I had certainly touched every card, one by one. So, even though the count was as to be expected, I did it again, wanting to imbue some of me onto the deck, even though I hadn’t had a hand in making this one. I thought of crocheting it a carrying case, instead of the box it came in, like I did for some other things I own. (I later did this, but the box proved superior logistically for the cards.) 

I liked the idea of the cards becoming more mine with time. Not all at once, when I hit place order, but slowly, as I used them, learned them, touched them. Getting a little morbid, I thought of the possessions of deceased family members and what really felt like it had been theirs. Things they loved and used, again and again, not bought once and possibly never touched. 

I liked the idea of my things really being mine, in that way.

Notebooks that weigh twice as much as when I bought them, seams strained by the weight of ink. Well loved, well appreciated, carefully indexed, only a few in progress at a time, only a few at most ready to take their place—all the same kind.

Well worn clothes, soft and faded, washed and mended over and over. I only wear one outfit, only own a few copies of it. I own one pair of shoes, that tolerates me stepping on them all day, and I reward them with leather soap and conditioner and polish, new insoles and new laces, as the leather molds to the shape of my feet.

Books that I’ve read, handled, lended, loved, over and over. Notes in margins, sticky tabs, inscriptions, long lost impromptu bookmarks, popping open to favorite pages. All recorded dutifully in a spreadsheet. 

My things absorb more of me the fewer of them I have. Otherwise, I spread myself so thin, I’ve barely touched any one of them. 

But my minimalism goes beyond possessions. My values, my roles, my projects—are well chosen, well loved, well maintained and tracked, few in number, imbued with my effort and energy. Things I have done much more than touched. 

And when I’m gone, I want to leave behind things and projects that were distinctly mine, not fingerprints everywhere. So I can’t spread my energy too thin.

I stumbled across the concept of charging certain objects—like tarot cards—via an altar. Altars are a part of many belief systems. Some emphasize ancestors, some nature, some religious tokens, some whatever has meaning to you. 

I already had something like an altar—a display shelf, the top of a bookcase in my office with some prized possessions on it. The books I’ve published. Finished and current notebooks and pens. My wedding sword (our wedding vows/exchange—daggers so we may always have strength, cloaks so we may always have shelter, and rings so the world may know of our love as we already do). A Wizard of Oz (near to my heart—we had a Wizard of Oz themed living room in my childhood home) block calendar—a representation of time—from dear family friends. A small, now empty milk jug I got at a gas station on a roadtrip that my mom took and painted white inside, then placed faux flowers in based on my favorites. A mother’s love, a touch of nature, of travel, of found objects, of art. A lamp I’ve had for a long time that kind of looks like a plant—a symbol of light, another nod to nature. The shelf is mostly lit by string lights above it; the lights are clips, and they hold Polaroids of favorite memories, people and places and things I love. 

Okay. So I try placing the cards there when not in use—though they frequently end up by me at night, since I usually do my reading for tomorrow last thing before bed, and recommit to returning other frequently used/moved items there, like the current notebooks. I’m not sure it does anything, but it brings me back to admire the shelf, which makes me happy. I recommit to making my office a space that makes me happy, and spending time in it to, well, recharge. We call it the Hannah Habitat for a reason. 

I replace the (mostly broken) string lights with new ones that have more room for beloved pictures and exciting new lighting options that I like. I mix up the pictures that I hang on them, focusing on the ones that make me happy. I update the blocks on the calendar more often, and give my sword’s scabbard some leather conditioner. I make small tweaks to the rest of my office, and try to return there instead of to random corners of the house. 

Well, a focus on charging me seemed to boost my mood a little, at least. I needed energy to put into things, after all; you can’t pour from an empty cup, as they say.

So I’ve learned a few things from the cards. The future in detail, maybe not. But they’ve given me some things to think on from the actual readings, and reminded me that I need a full cup to pour from, that I need to pour more out into fewer cups for anyone to notice that I poured into them at all. 

And those are some good reminders on their own. And, I’m looking forward to seeing what else I have to learn from them. 

Wish you’d seen this a week ago? Get access to all of my posts one week early here.

Privilege in Productivity

There’s this thing about accomplishing things (especially when you’re young): people love to tell you about how you got lucky

Really, though, this isn’t about how you got lucky, this is almost always subtly about how they got unlucky. They could have accomplished X, too, you know, if they had better luck. 

And don’t get me wrong: I’m very lucky, in a lot of ways. But there’s more to it than that—like work—and in other ways, I got unlucky. (And, a lot of people do recognize that—I’m just trying to address a specific point here, not complain.) 

So, privilege in productivity: let’s unpack my case.

Ways in which I am frequently told I got lucky (and the reality): 

  • Told: I have rich parents. Reality: largely untrue. My father died with a negative net worth, and my mom is a now retired public school teacher. My mother seriously helped financially support me until I was twenty-one, though, yes. People really like pulling this one out when you accomplish things young: it’s not really you, it’s your parents (and their money). There’s another way they do this, too: 
  • Told: I had good parents, throughout childhood and to guide me in young adulthood. Reality: largely true. My parents took an interest in my education, nurtured my talents, gave me rides to a million extracurriculars, paid for those activities and a few years of private school, plus school supplies and gas, helped me with my homework, met with my teachers, volunteered, gave me a nice space to do homework in, all of that. But things weren’t straight up idyllic: my parents divorced when I was sixteen, my father probably also had some kind of psychotic disorder, I didn’t speak to him for several years before we reconnected—and he passed on when I was twenty-one. Parenting is a lot, but it isn’t everything. Say, my sister and I are very different people, who were (largely) raised by the same parents. 
  • Told: I got lucky with my inheritance. Reality: largely true… though it’s hard to call my father suddenly and traumatically dying young lucky. Still, I did financially benefit from this, inheriting a house (though, in need of some major repairs/still with a hefty mortgage) and his life insurance policy. There was some skill involved in handling things to get the best of the options with that, though (and I had advice from my mom, my wife, and friends). 
  • Told: I married rich/my wife takes care of me. Reality: somewhat true. Granted, my wife doesn’t come from money, either; she’s self made. She’s also not a millionaire or anything. She also quit her job earlier this year, and right now, our primary source of income is my projects. I also contributed to buying our house with the life insurance money, and all of the rent from (and money from eventual sale of) my father’s house went into our shared budget. I’m also the housewife who handles basically one-hundred percent of the domestic side, on a full time level schedule; she actively doesn’t want me to work outside the home (and I don’t either). So it’s not like I’m a total freeloader here. Still, there’s some truth in this one. But money—whatever it’s source—doesn’t inherently make you productive. It might give you more resources and control over your time, but money alone can’t do all the work for you. Money can give me time to write, but money can’t publish six books if I don’t use that time wisely. My wife had supported previous partners, too, and found the results to vary wildly. 
  • Told: it was easy for me to find such a spouse because I was young, female, conventionally attractive, etc. Reality: I’m not so sure. I was honestly less conventionally attractive when I met my wife (and I’m still not a model or anything)—I was overweight, had blue hair, wore sparkly blue glasses, and overall had an interesting fashion sense—and I’d been actively seeking a partner via the group we met through for over a year; I had to put myself out there repeatedly. Age was actually more of a barrier than anything, given our age gap: she got a lot of skepticism over my age. (We also met through a group specifically for eighteen to thirty-five year olds, so everyone was within a certain range). As far as female: I think being queer might balance this out (plus, we’re both on the down side of the wage gap). I also came with some hefty health issues (like being recently out of an involuntary psych hold across the country, then dropping out of college and coming home), and she was in a long term, open relationship with someone else at the time (which ended soon after). It wasn’t just that the stars aligned for us. 
  • Told: I am young, and therefore healthy and abled. Reality: untrue. I have chronic pain and fatigue, I required surgery to finally be able to breathe vaguely like a normal person (at twenty-one), I have paranoid schizophrenia among other mental illnesses (anxiety, autism, PTSD, anorexia?), I likely nearly died of toxic black mold poisoning when I was twenty, and my spine goes in multiple directions on multiple axes. Could it be worse? Sure. But did I get seriously lucky in this category? Eh. 
  • Told: I’m White, I’m cis, (so on). Reality: true. I do have a few definite positions of privilege that affect my life, if they are not responsible in themselves for everything I’ve done. 

As far as using privilege and productivity for good: I try to keep my works accessible, I run many free events and classes, I donate regularly, I volunteer regularly, I write and teach on topics I think need more awareness. A few specifics:

  • All of my writing is available online for free. I publish paperback and ebook versions people can purchase if they choose, and offer early access via paid subscription, but all of my primarily written content is available for free. I write nonfiction on mental health (particularly psychosis), productivity for those outside the typical mold, alternative sexuality educational content, and fiction in which I commit to exploring important themes and representing diverse characters. 
  • While my classes and class content is currently paid, I ran all of my self hosted webinars for free for the first year (over twenty of them on eight different subjects). I still frequently teach for venues and conferences for free. I also pledge half of all income from my schizophrenia related classes to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. I still don’t turn anyone away for lack of funds. I teach on productivity, mental health, and alternative sexuality topics. 
  • I run a local group for young adults interested in alternative sexuality. All events (usually three per month) and online participation are completely free/donation based. I’ve also hosted/run such events/groups in the past. 
  • I volunteered once a week for the local library district for most of a year before the pandemic (and have a long volunteer history before that). Volunteers were then laid off. (They’re welcome back again, but due to taking up the above, I have not gone back—yet, at least.) 
  • Upcoming plans: starting/being a steward for a Little Free Library, becoming a regular plasma donor.

Privilege doesn’t equal productivity. But it’s a factor we should all examine for ourselves—how we got lucky and unlucky, unpacking our privilege and educating ourselves. We should all examine how we can use our position to accomplish good things and help others. 

Trying to throw away our privilege, claiming we don’t have it, or sitting around just feeling guilty about it doesn’t help anyone. 

We should also be open minded when evaluating the privilege of others, considering how they use it as part of the picture, and realizing that we may not have the full picture—not jumping to conclusions.

Privilege is something, but not everything. 

We have to do the rest and close the gaps ourselves. 

Schizophrenia in Creativity and Productivity

I honestly don’t remember much around the origins of one of my other blogs, The Schizophrenia Diaries. It was summer 2020 (and let’s face it—who has a great memory of summer 2020?). I wasn’t yet back on antipsychotics (by weeks to months), I was facing a pandemic, a world on fire, the recent death of my grandmother, and the one year anniversary of discovering my father’s death (leading to PTSD). I was mostly lost in a creative haze, spending hours every day on the swingset at the nearest park in heat over 110*F—dissociatively daydreaming up new plotlines with a song on repeat—or curled up in the fetal position on the floor in my office, near catatonic and hallucinating. It was A Time. 

However, it was one of the most prolific periods of my life. After spending most of a year after my father’s death pouring emotions into Contrivance, my primary fiction project of almost a decade, instead of sleeping at night, I was (mostly) taking a break from Contrivance’s dystopian doom and gloom that now seemed all too realistic, focusing on what I thought would be a quick, simple side project to perk me up, which eventually became the I’ll Give You series, my first real foray into erotica, which now has four books published and more in the works (spoiler alert: not a quick, simple, or always cheery side project after all).

And, I started The Schizophrenia Diaries, after having casually maintained a different blog for about a year. My first post wasn’t about writing or creativity at all. It was about Farrah, my so called schizophrenia tamagotchi, my recurring golden retriever puppy hallucination, who had recently come about. From there, I wrote about all manner of mental health related things for about six months, essays as ideas came up, then floundered a little on what to do with the blog. I was back on meds, and out of therapy. Vaccines were on the horizon. The election was over. I’d recently gotten married and published my first book. Things were good, and while I was grateful, I wasn’t sure what to write about now; without acute symptoms to reflect on, I got a little lost. Things on the blog slowed down, and I didn’t make a post in 2021 until mid April.

I had thought about it in the meantime. I didn’t really want to abandon the blog. Schizophrenia is highly stigmatized and misunderstood. Stories of schizophrenics are rarely told at all, and even more rarely do we get to tell our stories ourselves. I felt it was important—part of something bigger than me—to write on it. But, the blog was neglected when I was doing well, which gave me mixed feelings on it, and I wasn’t sure what I had left to say. I thought that maybe I needed more of a theme, an angle, something to ground the project besides processing symptoms as they arose.

I reread some early posts on the blog. What grabbed me was my last post before things really slowed down, a September post before two more that December and then silence for four months. It was about psychosis as a part of my writing process, how my schizophrenia and my colloquial tortured artist syndrome intertwined, about how my psychotic daydreams fueled my writing, how the darkness of the things I tended to write about both contradicted my triggers and calmed me down, and so on. 

That. That was my angle. Because even when my symptoms improved, they were still there—and the most cohesive way I could talk about them was through how they impacted my creative processes. No matter what, I was always writing. I always had that to talk about. 

With reframing and revising, things picked up on the blog again, even as my mental health has largely been okay. 

That said, The Schizophrenia Diaries is my home base for talking about psychosis and creativity, art, writing. 

But what about psychosis and productivity? 

I mentioned that one of the worst time periods in my life as far as symptoms was also one of my most prolific—how does that work? 

There’s definitely a balance.

After having made it without meds for about two years, when I started again, the first night I took Seroquel—well, firstly, it knocked me out so unexpectedly hard and fast I fell out of my chair at my desk—the change was immediate. For a few days, I was basically symptom free. It was almost like I didn’t have schizophrenia, overnight. I realized how bad my sleep had been—which didn’t help anything. It had been so bad, I realized, as Seroquel knocked me out at night, I wondered if I could chalk almost everything that year up to sleep deprivation, the miracle of Seroquel to the miracle of sleep, more than its use as an antipsychotic. 

But during those few days, I felt… conflicted. 

When Farrah—the dog who’s not real, mind you—found out—when I decided—that I was likely going back on meds, she worked those puppy dog eyes real hard. Why would you want to get rid of me, Mom? I tried to telepathically communicate to her that as far as I was concerned, I was happy to keep her, if I could get rid of the corpse and the blaring music and the black blobs and the flashes of light and the white noise and the maggots and all of the other issues. Later, I came to realize that Farrah—this is my current working theory, at least—represents the part of my mind that wants to be psychotic, freely creative without the limits of pesky reality.

During those first few days after Seroquel, I felt… a little empty. Numbed. Better than I had in months, maybe a year, in certain ways, but… something was missing. My daydreams were missing, my fiction fuel—they were back in the normal human range. It was like watching a movie on a decades old television versus watching it in IMAX 3D. I couldn’t get reality to go away entirely even when I tried—and normally, I didn’t have to try; in fact, normally, I had to fight to get back when my alarm went off telling me it was time to make dinner or something, nudging me out of daydreams. 

Despite how well I seemed to be doing, I wondered if I might lower the dosage. 

But, my body quickly adjusted. A few days later, I could sink into my daydreams that deeply again, but I had some more control over starting, and I didn’t have to fight quite as hard to stop. Other symptoms stayed improved but didn’t vanish. And, not lost in the daydream stage forever, it was easier to get out when I wanted, to grab a pen, and start putting daydreams on paper. But things can get pretty bad—lots and lots of time lost in fantasy on the verge of hallucination, not quite in my control—before I stop getting to the part where I write them down. After meds, I was overall less prolific, except for a few really, really bad parts of that prior year or so. 

However, that was just about writing. I thrived in other areas like I never had before, where psychosis was mostly a burden. It’s not much of an advantage as far as being a housewife, a landlord, a butler school student, an alternative sexuality educator, a group organizer, or even a nonfiction writer (overall, my blogging writing has picked up since). In fact, those last three non writing areas were all things I seriously picked up within a year after meds for the first time. I found more balance. I wrote a little less (we’re still talking frequently upwards of 25,000 words per month), but I did everything else that was productive a little more, more than enough to fill the gap. 

I see this psychosis equals creativity but lack of balance thing in my past, too. My schizophrenia was early onset. My symptoms first appeared around my fifteenth birthday, mid ninth grade. I was producing writing like crazy—even winning multiple rounds of National Novel Writing Month per year (this means writing upwards of 50,000 words in a month—many times, I got closer to 100k). However, school wasn’t going so well. I dropped out before the end of tenth grade. Now, I see why I was writing fiction like crazy while failing to turn in five-hundred word essays that weren’t word salad gibberish, or be non catatonic long enough to show up to class, or finish taking a test without yelling at demons only I could see.

So are there pros to schizophrenia for productivity, for me, as a fiction author? Yes. In other areas? Less so that I see right now, though I frequently joke that my general, various anxious neuroses are the edge that keeps me moving so quickly, lest I die tomorrow. Are there cons? Of course. Many. Still, I wouldn’t quite hit the cure button, for myself. 

It’s just, as many other things are, about balance.

Age Dysphoria

It’s hard to summarize what I do. 

“It’s even harder for me,” my mom informed me.

When my wife and I bought our house, she told an inquiring new neighbor that I “go to the library sometimes”. (At the time, I was volunteering there weekly.) 

A family friend once offered that I “really like to write in my journal” and, despite being about to publish my then secret third book at the time, I smiled, nodded, and agreed.

I do a lot of different things, don’t have a nine to five, and a lot of what I do is tied up in adult subjects that, even with adults, isn’t always polite small talk material. Even one of my more PG13 projects is still essay blogging about the deep dark corners of my mental illness.

Besides that, though, step one is convincing people I’m not in high school. 

I was lamenting this recently to two friends. “Yeah, you don’t look twenty-two,” one said. 

“I’m twenty-four,” I groaned. And, a few moments later, “How old do I look?” 

“Seventeen,” they said in unison.

Baby face. It’s a real thing. A blessing and a curse.

Besides my love of SPF and good skin genetics, I’m very aware of minor behavioral quirks. I glance around the coworking space I’m a member of, wondering if anyone’s noticing the Harry Potter decals on my Moleskine (filled with future class content, blog posts, and fiction—mostly erotica), which feel suddenly childish. From the same vantage point, though, I overhear a young man in an expensive suit tell his matching companion, “Remember, it’s just like on SpongeBob. You’re the manager now.” 

Or, I have to note the look on a mother’s face as I hop off the swingset at the park, hit the ground, say, “Sir, I asked you to schedule with the tenants,” into the phone, pacing away from the playground. 

I squint at my hanging lanyard of Disney pins and a few stuffed animals placed in nooks before someone new sees my home office for the first time, then turn around and see my collection shelf of filled notebooks, emptied pens, and copies of the six books I’ve published, along with my wedding dagger (just rings seemed a little blasé). 

But is any of that important? 

I don’t know what age I feel. My wife and I have nicknamed the confusion my age dysphoria. Everyone experiences it to some extent in their early twenties, I think, and the fact it’s somehow been 2020 for like two and a half years now doesn’t help anyone. We also live in a time when the majority of young adults live with their parents again, when the average age for major milestones is shifting later. I struggle to see which age group I should, on average, seek out as peers.

In a way, I feel like I’ve accomplished a lot of the big things. I should be thrilled. I’m happily married to the love of my life. I own a nice home, drive a nice car. I’m opting out of the having kids thing, and have two healthy, adorable cats. I’m self employed, love what I do, feel accomplished, feel like I’m making a difference that will outlive me, and am financially comfortable. My affairs are in order. Bring it on, twenty-five. 

And yet I debate a lot of things with myself. Ask if it’s all just luck (the matter of privilege in productivity is a future post in the works—inheritance, the housewife versus primary breadwinner thing—but while I’m very lucky, luck is far from everything), or if there’s some milestone I need to be hitting that I’m missing (does none of it count if I don’t have kids or if the home I live in isn’t the one that’s paid off? I’m going with no.) Or I set arbitrary milestones. I tell myself I’ll feel like a real adult after I publish a book. Okay, two, because, y’know, the first one could be a fluke, and a recent first makes me a beginner, right? Okay, two books down. Well, y’know, third time’s the charm, maybe sixth time’s the charm—

Sometimes I suspect it’s all some kind of delusion about to come crashing down—a fun mix of rather common imposter syndrome and somewhat rare paranoid schizophrenia.

Or, I think it’s just all happened so fast I’m in a form of shock, that I can’t let it all sink in yet, and that it will sink in slowly with time—or, at least, acceptance that it will never completely sink in will come with age.

Only time will tell. 

And what now? Do I hit pause, sit back and enjoy it, take a break, seek out novelty and fun? Basic milestones covered, do I rush to accomplish more and more? Do I sit and review and accept the past, improve on what I’ve already done?

Relatively recently, having hit a major milestone (one that actually came to me late, due to health issues: getting my driver’s license), my mom asked me, “What’s next?” She said that I always had something big I was working towards. So now that I finally had my license in hand—whats next? We discussed that at this point, even publishing another book doesn’t seem like what’s next. What’s six books or seven, or seven books versus eight?

I’m not sure if there is something imminently next on that scale. I’m trying to let myself enjoy what I’ve already built. I’m trying to seek out a bit of novelty, even if it’s not a major milestone, taking up new hobbies from hiking to soap making. I’m doing a major sweep of editing past content (including this very post, right now). Still, I overall want to keep moving forwards. Teaching more classes, writing more books, graduating butler school, improving as a housewife, hosting more events.

Time is going to keep moving forwards—confusing as it feels—and so should I.

Balancing Nihilism and Obsession

There are a million productivity pitfalls I see discussed regularly, but I believe there are only two. Yes, I think there are only two things to avoid if you want to be productive. They are both about mindset, not lifehacks, not apps, not anything else. Two. And here they are:

One: caring too little.

Two: caring too much. 

I have an internal battle between nihilism and obsession. If you’ve ever laughed at the joke that anxiety tells you everyone is thinking bad things about you and depression tells you that no one thinks about you at all, you understand the concept. When I’m stressed about the things I have to do—too stressed to do them—I care too much. Then I start telling myself that they don’t matter that much, that I shouldn’t be so stressed. But if they don’t matter, why do them? Why do anything? Then, I care too little. 

My thought process in trying to find a middle ground goes like this:

First, we must start with the idea that nothing we do really, really matters. On a grand scale, one day the sun will swallow the earth, and, very likely, eventually wherever we’ve fled to, if we get there; doomsday will come one way or another, and all mortal human matters will be for not, and all that will be left is the cosmos or the heavens or whatever you believe is Beyond. Right?  

Okay, but then why do anything here on this mortal plane, on this mortal time scale? 

Because the sun will swallow the earth so far in the future that I cannot truly fathom it. No one I have ever met or will ever meet can truly fathom that kind of time scale. We are all not even a true blip on the geologic time scale. The human who lived the very longest is not a blip on that scale. (And maybe we’ll all get wiped out by a freak asteroid tomorrow, but that’s such a big if, it’s not a great concept to live by. If you believe the end is that close, eh, adjust the lifetime thing I’m about to discuss accordingly.) So why, exactly, are we thinking on this scale? 

Okay. So let’s think about time on a human level. My life expectancy is close to ninety years. My grandmother lived to be eighty-eight. I have a family friend who is notably over one-hundred. So let’s stop talking about billions of years. Nothing I can do will matter at that point in the future when the earth becomes star food, or doomsday comes however it does. Honestly, anything I can do will probably stop mattering an unfathomably long time before that, anyway. 

But can I do something that will matter eighty years from now? Ninety? A hundred? Sure. How many things have you read that were published eighty years ago? Ninety? A hundred? 

Perhaps you’ve read The Hunchback of Notre-Dame. It was published in 1831. Or maybe you pretend you have, but you’ve only seen the Disney movie. Still, that goes back to something Victor Hugo did almost two hundred years ago. (And that movie? It’s older than I am.) 

So I can do things that matter for a pretty long time. Like, a few times my lifetime. Things that will last a long time on the time scale that I or anyone I’ve ever met can fathom. So the things I do matter.

But they’re also not world ending. The odds the human race survives that long on the geologic time scale, that anything I can directly do will possibly matter that long, are so slim, it’s worse than planning on winning the lottery tomorrow. 

And which things should I do? Ultimately, that seems up to me. If nothing really, really matters, but we have the ability to make things that matter for quite a long time, then we should pick things that we think we can make matter for a long time. Things we love enough to want to make matter that long, things that might matter to many other people one day, things we are good enough at to make a difference with, things that will outlive us. 

And there’s no big scale harm in doing something that just makes us happy or fulfilled, in taking breaks, in making a mistake now and then. 

This is what I tell myself to balance out between caring too little (why do anything, ever, if the world will end one day?) and too much (I have to do everything, now, or the world will end). 

Being productive is about that balance. It’s about caring the right amount, about the right things. Some things still matter more than others. Some things are still more urgent than others. Creating works that will outlive me is more important than if my office is always spotless, and putting out a fire that might kill me is more urgent than outlining my next book. (See also: the Eisenhower Matrix.)

If you don’t know what you care about, if your priorities are in the wrong place, if you care too much or too little: productivity flounders. And there is no app, no lifehack, no list that will save you from that. That’s all mental work. That is why I believe in values based productivity.

After balancing nihilism and obsession, after choosing what you value and therefore what to do, getting your priorities in line, after sorting your way through why and the big whats that serve your why, then, and only then, can we really start productively worrying about how and details. 

Sometimes, on bad days, especially as someone with anxiety that sometimes acts like depression, I need to rethink my way through all of what I said above, to stop caring too little or too much or about the wrong things. But, eventually, I always do. And having thought my way down this same path over and over, I thought I’d write it all out and share it with you as a shortcut.  

Because it’s at the end of that path that we can start talking about the typical productivity things. SMART goals and habit tracking and and project planning and calendar apps and filing systems and self reviews and all of that good stuff. And I love those things, but I like to emphasize that they do not come first, that part of why they vary greatly person to person is based on the whys and whats that come first.  

After that, we can have the typical productivity nerd fun. 

On Conflating Skinny and Productive

It’s a long story, and, while crucial background, it’s not the main point of this post, so to give a quick summary: I’m schizophrenic, I’m a fiction writer, my line between character and self is a fine one, I kind of absorb my characters’ traits with time, I accidentally absorbed one of my characters’ anorexia.

(That was a lot. I know. Bear with me.) 

Seeking support, I joined a few online communities for people with eating disorders. One discussion topic I saw posted really got my mental gears spinning: 

Why do you really want to be skinny?

Because eating disorders aren’t really about food. 

The answers held all kinds of insights. To be desirable, or even lovable. To feel in control. To make their struggle visible. To be special, or good at something, or have an identity as the skinny friend. To prevent aging. To fit in with their gender identity. To self harm via starvation. To cope with prior food insecurity. To take up less space in the world. 

And what does skinny really represent to me? 

Productive.   

I wasn’t the only one, either. It’s not too hard to see where the idea comes from. 

My romanticized toxic ideal was the workaholic who’s too busy for meals, who happily gets wrapped up in work and forgets to eat, who’s a little nauseous with stress and excitement and caffeine, who turns to long walks or runs as moving meditation and to burn off nervous or excited energy, the tortured artist who self neglects. That image is common in media. Even I’d written that before.  

And I fell into that somewhat organically. But when the organic level only took me so far, forgetting to eat in a fit of inspiration became “forgetting” to eat as I stared at the wall, thinking only of food. I chased the external look anyway. Fake it till you make it mentality. I wanted to be that. I knew it wasn’t entirely healthy, but most tropes come with both pros and cons, and the pros were things I’m a sucker for: extreme productivity, psychosis influenced creativity, passion on the verge of obsession. 

But the cons were big Catch-22s. It’s hard to be productive when you’re hungry, when all your energy is going to re-counting calories and exercising, when you’re scrolling eating disorder memes to cope. 

And if what skinny meant to me was productive, could I lose the obsession with skinny by focusing on productive itself? By telling myself I needed to eat in order to be productive, that productive was the important part of skinny? 

Kind of. That’s been my most convincing thought process when I need to reconnect with why I’m recovering. I’m not sure if recovering is the word, but at least mostly trying to turn down the urges for disordered eating. But eating disorders—especially ones born of psychosis—aren’t quite that simple. 

And the skinny equals productive image is still out there. I recently threw myself back into productive—not just being productive on my actual projects, but reconnecting with my passion for productivity itself. I drafted and taught a webinar on the subject with great results, and got some fresh reading material on productivity, as I started this blog.

But something keeps catching my eye in the productivity books I’m reading. When talking about goals, weight loss keeps coming up as an example. Creating a habit of eating healthier, or less. Exercising more. Even routine weigh ins seem to come up constantly in morning routine lists, food logging in information system ideas. The idea of eating sweets only as a self reward (and not as a reward for weight loss).

All things I’m mostly trying to do the opposite of now, because I’d gone too far. 

And why do those things need to keep coming up? Why is there the assumption that someone reading a book on productivity wants to lose weight, eat less, exercise more, weigh themselves more, think about food more, treat food as a reward? There are so many other ways to be productive. Can people who are already in a healthy place—or too far down the other end of the spectrum—not be interested in this book on productivity?

I’m using the techniques these books teach to do the opposite of their examples, and eat. To stop losing weight at a rapid pace and stay in a healthy range, to stop exercising before I pass out, to not hop back on the scale every thirty minutes, to not count calories, to not think of food as a reward for starvation. 

Why can’t the go-to example be anything else that’s actually tied to productivity for people in a normal, healthy place?  

Then again, normal and healthy aren’t necessarily the same in this case. Just look at the stats of the average American’s weight and how they feel about it, versus the ideals. I get that, and the books may be targeted at normal. And, given that many of these books are also classified as self help, they may assume that there’s some kind of problem. Still, there are other examples like that out there. Why must we continue subtly conflating skinny and productive? Why must I?

Things to think about.