Let Yourself Be Unproductive, at Least for a Little While
Listen to the nudge that says, "do less."
Posted Jul 05, 2020
Recently, my father died of lymphoma he could no longer fight.
“There are few people in this world who leave an indelible mark,” a friend wrote to me, “such that when you reflect upon their essence you can actually see their smile, hear their voice, and feel their presence as though they are there with you in the moment. Your father is among those few.” Every single encounter with him always left you feeling better about yourself.
The world has changed; It’s a lesser place without him.
I find myself a little lost. I’m scattered. Unfocused. Struggling to be productive. To move forward on anything in a meaningful way.
I’m experiencing a very personal loss and sadness right now. But I’m hearing other people describe similar struggles as we all experience this pandemic, this economic collapse, this awakening to the depth of racial injustice. That’s personal too.
I really don’t like feeling all this. It makes me anxious.
My instinctive drive to push past it kicks in. To plan and to-do list and schedule my way to productivity and achievement and forward progress. That, I know how to do. It’s my comfort during uncertainty.
But I also have an opposing impulse, a quieter voice, one that feels deeper, more profound, and even scarier: Stay unproductive.
At least for a little while. Feel the sadness, the loss, the change. Sink into the discomfort of not moving forward, not getting things done. In a strange way, not progressing may be its own form of productivity. Something fruitful is happening; we’re just not controlling it.
In this moment, being unproductive seems important. I think it’s what I must feel — maybe what we must feel — to allow for growth. To allow ourselves to pause in the liminal space, to linger with a question that this moment begs us to ask:
How can I allow myself to be changed?
Not, how should I change. Or how must I change to keep up with a changing world. And certainly not, how can I not change and preserve the way things have always been.
Those questions come from a habit of relentless productivity and achievement. But they miss what can be magical and transformational about this moment — our real opportunity.
Can you allow this change in your world — deeply personal and vastly global — to wash over you, shift your worldview, change you? Not with your discipline or drive, not from a self-directed, strategic, goal-oriented place, but from a place of openness and vulnerability. Not from willfulness but from willingness.
And in that pause and openness and vulnerability, can you listen — without defense — to the voices you hear and the nudges you feel? Can you find the emotional courage to follow your inklings, step by step, toward what, even just maybe, feels right?
For me, I long to be willing, to be molded by the loss I feel from my father’s death and the grace with which he lived his life. I feel sadness that I will never see his smile again or feel his strong, tender hands on my back. And I also feel excited that when I miss him, I feel him even more, and I can begin — in small ways — to feel my own smile, my own hands, showing up in new ways, more generously, more tenderly, more strongly.
We all need emotional courage because being willing to be changed means we must accept and admit that we are not in control and we don’t know. Two things many of us spend our lives scrambling and acquiring and competing and succeeding and workaholic-ing to avoid admitting. It’s disorienting to let go. To realize — to admit — that our control is really only a sense of control.
Which is why to slow down rather than speed up, to pause and feel, to approach this moment, with an openness and willingness to be changed, is really, really hard.
So what can we do to support ourselves through this moment?
That’s actually the wrong question. I have read — and followed — lots of advice about things we can do to slow down and leave space for change: meditation, poetry, walks, journaling, dream-work, and more. But these things can also get in the way because they reflect more doing. It’s trying to solve the problem with the same thinking that created it.
Here’s an alternative that has been working for me: Not doing. Or at least, less-doing. There are a few ways I’ve been entering not-doing space that you may want to try. Consider relaxing pressure on:
Walk away from your calendar. Leave that space for, literally, nothing. Not a thing. It’s not your writing time or even focused work time. Don’t fill those moments with the busy work of email and to-do lists. Allow yourself time out of time. Allow yourself to dawdle. I went food shopping with one of my daughters and she asked to take a certain road home. “But it will take twice as long!” I protested. “Who cares?” She answered, “It’s a beautiful drive.” And, in every way, it was.
Let your mind wander. When you go for a run, don’t listen to a podcast or even music, just run. When you fold the laundry, just fold the laundry. I’m not suggesting “mindfulness,” focusing on each fold as you fold. The opposite, actually. Don’t be mindful — that’s just more control, more pressure, more demand. Instead, let your mind go wherever it goes and, maybe, notice where it goes.
If you need a break from seeing people, allow for that. I have lovely, caring friends who have offered runs and conversations and I tell them the truth: I love them but, right now, I want to go running by myself. They understand. And if you do want to be with people, try doing it with curiosity and vulnerability, without wasting effort performing. If you’re listening, don’t judge or solve or offer advice. Just trust that your presence is enough. And if you’re speaking, ask only for an ear. “I don’t want advice,” you can tell them, “I just want to share what’s going on for me.” You’ll be doing them a favor too because you’re releasing them from having to know anything or perform.
When you relax the demand on your time, your thinking, and your relationships, you’re slowing down, reducing the load, and leaving space for feelings to come up. Maybe tears, maybe laughter, maybe boredom or annoyance. Maybe you’ll feel the stress of not getting things done, or the fear of missing out as people around you produce and network and market. Maybe you’ll feel joy and that might be scary too.
Courageously feel everything without running or repressing or denying or distracting yourself by doing. Give room for your body, your mind, your spirit, to reorganize. Trust that something important is happening — that there is something good on the other side — even if you don’t know what. You can’t force it.
But you can sabotage it. It’s hard to trust not-doing when we’re all suffering loss right now. It feels risky. Our doing habits are so strong.
I feel the instinct to cling to what I have known and what has kept me safe in the past. But I can also feel myself gingerly loosen my grip on the security of what has been, leaving my hands free, open, reaching for what’s to come.
I hope you can be here, with me, in this space for a little while, as we allow ourselves the time and grace to discover who we are and who we are becoming.