Toxicity in Productivity Culture

There’s a lot of toxicity in productivity culture, really.

I might be particularly susceptible to it. But I notice that when people talk about staying up particularly late to finish something or waking up particularly early when they’re eager to get back to it—generally speaking, skipping out on sleep—I am jealous. It’s not really a possibility for me. I am not a functional person without my psychiatric meds. I have to take them every night—even one skipped or reduced dose can wreak psychotic havoc—and they knock me out. I will not be doing anything once I take them (you should see what happens if I need the bathroom) for a minimum of eight hours. Sleeping less than eight hours a night is not an option. And… boo hoo, right? I must sleep a normal human amount, consistently, and I have a lifestyle easily built around this fact! So why am I so jealous of the occasional all nighter? 

Meanwhile, I’m recovering from an eating disorder. Not only is that another great reason to take my meds and get my sleep, but, right now at least, I’m logging three meals and three snacks at set times, to share with my team, per day, among other tasks. Yes, this element is more forgiving, but if I want to recover, I ultimately have to stick with the program. No skipping lunch because I’m in the zone, which I miss terribly. Boo hoo. I must eat enough to fuel my mortal body, consistently, and I have a lifestyle easily built around this fact! So why am I so jealous of people skipping a meal for the sake of flow?

Toxicity in productivity culture. 

There’s romanticization of self neglect in almost every story of success—how a business was built on all nighters and more caffeine than food. There’s competitiveness—especially in demanding environments—the, “Oh, you slept for four hours last night? I only slept three.” There’s endless advice to be found on how to reduce your need for sleep, or “research” on why you really only need six hours. There’s an assumption that productive people are cutting corners on self care to squeeze out more work. You’re supposed to be both an early riser and a night owl. To skip breakfast on your way out the door and give up your lunch break. 

Sure, plenty of productivity books will say you should prioritize self care—in the name of productivity, forget your happiness and health—but if you read between the lines, there’s the assumption of work first, you later, and that you are here because you are interested in being a productive person, so you’ve obviously at least dabbled in skimping on your needs. It’s like purposefully missing the memo about self neglect makes you self absorbed. 

But that’s not going to keep you healthy or happy. And productivity wise, it’s not sustainable. It’s better to sleep and eat enough now than to spend months too burnt out (and miserable) to work worth mentioning later. I ran myself into the ground trying to craft the perfect college application, only to burn out and drop out in tenth grade (psychotic break aside). My wife tried to launch a business in an impossible amount of time, only to take an ambulance ride to the emergency room (which is, by the way, expensive). The risks are real. 

Plus, those demanding environments are social nightmares. It can feel close knit (dare I say cultish), but whom do you turn to for real support when everyone laughs at you for getting more than half of the sleep you need? (And how are you going to develop boundaries?) 

I don’t want to get into healthism or condemn the occasional, voluntary skipped lunch or late night—but the underlying idea that it’s required, constantly? That’s something worth examining. I’m certainly still fighting it. 

And let’s take a little detour into creativity. There are endless articles and more on the link between creativity and mental illness. You’ll find ones that say that mentally ill people make better art or more art. That most artists are mentally ill, or that most mentally ill people are artists. Then you’ll find an article that debunks the one you just read. And then— 

The idea of this link between mental illness and creativity is everywhere. There’s some subtle, toxic incentivization for artists to become and stay mentally ill. And messages that good art is created via trauma and disorder, rather than by putting in the work of practice.

Don’t get me wrong. I write on this subject myself—but I speak anecdotally about my own experience. The idea is worth examining. But we still should consider health, happiness, and sustainability as well as creativity and productivity. I want to consider these concepts and links for myself as someone who is, incurably, a schizophrenic, and is, incurably, a writer, not make people want to live with a disability or view trauma as a shortcut to great art. And I still generally focus on prioritizing my wellbeing and putting in the work. 

Ultimately, we should remember that we are our own best asset, and take care of ourselves the way we take care of our favorite calendars and pens. Yes, it may make us more creative and productive, too, but also, we should just do it for ourselves. 

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 plain 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. 

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