There’s a right way to pack the dishwasher. One right way. My way.
It’s quite specific too, right down to which particular mugs can go into individual mug spaces, which items of cutlery fit into each tiny slot in the basket, and which lids can go on the bottom shelf and which have to go on top. As my husband will tell you, with a sigh, there are quite a lot of rules. I’d draw you a diagram, but honestly, I’m much better at packing the dishwasher than I am at drawing.
There’s a right way to make the bed too. Our linen is old and mismatched, but still, the duvet must hang squarely and evenly over both sides of the bed, and the pillows have to be stacked neatly and in the correct order.
It’s not a sin to aim for perfection. For many of us there is immense satisfaction to be found in doing even the smallest things in the very best way.
The thing is, though, the duvet will still keep me warm even if it isn’t hanging completely straight. And there are any number of dishwasher-packing permutations that will still allow our dishes to get clean.
It turns out the socks don’t have to be hung on the washing line in pairs either (although I can’t shake the feeling that they’re happier when they are). And I can toss my accounts and work documents into any old Evernote notebook; I’ll still be able to find them when I need to. It’s apparently also okay if I make typos in my tweets and text messages, even though I was an English/Linguistics major and I’ve been an expert speller since I was 7. It’s even acceptable to work in my pyjamas sometimes.
And if I can’t get out of bed at 7:30am, I’ll get another chance to start my day at 7:31am, or 8am, or 9am, or even – like today – 12pm.
Over the last few years, my life has taken a turn. About five years ago I developed a chronic illness – one that comes with widespread pain, hypersensitivity to all kinds of sensory input, a giant dollop of fatigue, and for good measure, intermittent brain fog. (I initially typed that as “intermittent brain”, which, in hindsight, is infinitely more accurate.)
Things that used to be easy are now hard. Some mornings I struggle to get out of bed, because my feet and legs and arms and hips and back hurt too much. Some days I just cannot concentrate, because I'm suffering from intermittent brain. Everything takes me longer than it used to. I move more slowly, and I have to rest often.
These aren't things I can use willpower to overcome. It’s not like in the good old days, when I could put in a few extra hours of work at night to meet a deadline, knowing that I’d bounce back by lunchtime tomorrow.
I have no reserves. When my energy is depleted, it’s depleted. I can’t push myself any further. When the brain fog gets thick, no amount of coffee helps me to clear it.
I can’t talk myself into ignoring the pain; I can’t persuade myself that I have enough energy to make dinner; I can’t bargain with myself to get up early tomorrow morning and finish that client deliverable.
I'm realising, slowly, that if I continue to define productivity as “doing 6 to 8 solid hours of work each day”, I will continue to hate myself more and more as I fail to reach what is now an impossible target.
So I'm now choosing to define productivity as “doing the right thing at every moment”. Sometimes the right thing is sitting down to work. Sometimes it’s answering an important email. Sometimes it’s chatting with a friend on the other side of the world. Sometimes it’s putting the laundry in the drier. Sometimes it’s reading a book on the couch. Sometimes it’s staring adoringly at my cats while they sleep.
I'm still learning to listen to my instincts about exactly what the right thing is at any given moment. The important thing to remember is this: when I'm overwhelmed because it feels like I need to be doing every single thing on my list right now, right at this very moment, because it's all incredibly urgent and important, the actual right thing to do is to stop.
Stop, take a step back, and sort out my priorities before I do another thing. Am I hungry? Eat! Am I thirsty? Drink water! Am I stressed because I just remembered an email from two months ago that I haven’t answered yet? Answer it! I've never yet encountered a situation where stopping and thinking and even mind-mapping all my urgencies for a few minutes didn’t help me figure out what I should be doing.
So I'm learning to prioritise. And I'm learning to let go of perfection. Even the stuff with the dishwasher and the bed. Especially the stuff with the dishwasher and the bed.
While all this has been going on, I’ve become aware of how incredibly alienating the language of productivity can be.
One of the things I’ve grown to hate most is when someone says, in a misguided attempt to motivate the ambitious, “We all have the same 24 hours every day! You get to choose how you use them!”
No. No, we don’t. Perhaps you’re the primary caregiver for a sick parent or partner, or you have a child with special needs, or you have an impairing mental health condition, or like me, you have a chronic illness that eats into your 24-hour allotment. None of these are choices.
We say, “I have to work on my side project this weekend,” when what we really mean is “I want to work on my side project this weekend.” When you say that you have to do something that you are in fact choosing to do, you contribute to our collective sense that we should be industrious at all times, that we should be always busy, always striving to do more, to produce more output, to create, create, create.
I’ve stopped telling myself that I'm “cutting myself some slack” when I’ve exerted myself and need some rest. “Cutting myself some slack” implies that I have an obligation to be busy and I need to give myself permission to stop being busy.
We heap shame upon shame upon shame with our words. We push each other to lie about our output, and to say, “Great, just really busy!” every time someone asks how we are. We endanger our health and our relationships.
I want to be as well as possible. I want to make meaning in the world. I want to keep my life in good order so that I can grab opportunities for joy when they present themselves.
So I will not hustle, and I will probably not crush it.
I'll simply try to do the right thing at every moment.