I was first acquainted with the idea of “being productive” in much the same way I became acquainted with the idea of deliberately increasing my social media following, or waxing the peach fuzz off my face: with a slowly dawning realization that it was something everyone around me was apparently doing, and maybe I was supposed to be doing it too.
This might surprise people who know me. I’m a textbook high-achiever with a pretty mean streak of perfectionism. I multitask like a crazy person, fretting the whole time about doing a good job. And I don’t limit myself to work hours. I have a long list of hobbies and an even longer one of hobbies I aspire to. I like to accomplish things in my free time. I’ve been accused of bustling.
But it wasn’t until I left my full-time job four years ago and started a solo freelancing business that I discovered the productivity industrial complex. Maybe my career change coincided with its rise, or maybe I’d just managed to miss the memo, but discovering it was the beginning of the identity crisis that has come to define my 30s.
Without the structure of a permanent job, my time was mine to control for the first time in my adult life, and I relished it. Then the unease set in. I missed the regular cadence of feedback I’d enjoyed in my previous jobs. I realized I’d never really had to trust myself at work before—to know whether I’d done a good job, met expectations, or made the right decision—because my bosses and colleagues would tell me. The proverbial buck had never stopped with me.
And there was something deeper, too. It was the growing sense, exacerbated by the world of online business success stories and entrepreneurs who worshipped at the altar of productivity, that my freedom mandated me to have something to show for it.
It wasn’t good enough to do my work and meet my clients’ expectations. I needed to be wringing every last drop out of my days, ticking off personal and professional goals, devising elegant formulas for automating my frequent tasks and carving out “flow state” time for more complex challenges. I needed core desired feelings and a morning ritual and a set of non-negotiables for my schedule: no meetings on M-W-F afternoons and neat blocks of time set aside each day for exercise.
I’d always been an A student, and I approached working for myself like an A student would. I bought a leather-bound day planner. I blocked out my daily schedule. I decided that now would be a good time to pile on Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, and I started waking up at 6am to write my morning pages and go for a run before the workday began. What all this was for, I’m not really sure. I never had a clear picture of what I was working toward—only that I should be maximizing, optimizing, and streamlining at all costs.
I’ve never been one to busy-brag—I take pride in that—but the lure of productivity hacks was the Captain Howdy to my Regan MacNeil. (Anyone?)
It took me several failures to come to grips with myself. I’d find myself exhausted, watching ASMR videos at 3pm (smack in the middle of my scheduled writing time). I’d catch myself shoehorning errands into my “business development/housekeeping” time slot. I wrote in that day planner maybe twice.
I got my paid work done and met my client obligations, just as I always had. But this whole productivity-as-gospel thing did not agree with me. I wanted to use my time wisely, but in a generic, that-sounds-nice sort of way. I wanted to miraculously generate some sort of gratifying success just by having the right routines, the right rituals, but I couldn’t seem to make it work, even with all the trappings of successful entrepreneurial habits. Why were what I supposedly wanted to do and what I actually did so completely at odds?
Then Dan Harmon told me to follow my laziness.
Of all the advice I’d read about finding my passion, ditching the idea of passion, coping with being multipassionate, wasting less time, making better use of my time, ignoring the idea of time in favor of mental energy, finding the right times to maximize my mental energy, setting goals, remembering goals, writing lists, writing better lists, throwing out my lists, creating better morning routines, creating better evening routines, and “practicing” things like gratitude and attention and focus, this is what finally stuck.
Follow your laziness.
It was the first productivity tip (or anti-productivity tip) that made sense to me. It’s not about maximizing your time. It’s about chilling out and trusting where that leads you.
“Everybody gets out of bed, even on a Saturday, and eventually you want to do something,” he says (on the FastCompany website, no less). “The only way I manage to stay productive is by finding ways to get paid to do the things I would rather do.”
I've never been good at embracing my laziness. It’s always taken the form of a guilt-laced, wasted hour here, a break that ran too long there, but never a conscious choice. And my best ideas, I realized, usually do arrive when I’m most relaxed: in the moments just after I wake up, lying in bed and letting my mind wander, or during a quiet, aimless walk around the neighborhood.
How can I expect those ideas to take root—much less for more of them to arrive—if those brief moments are the only times I really relax? How am I supposed to know where my laziness will lead me if I hustle it out the door, making hollow promises to hang out soon, every time it visits?
So this is my new mandate: not to maximize my time or optimize my work processes or stick to a schedule, but to be lazy when laziness happens.
I’m never not going to worry about doing good work or not stress about meeting others’ expectations—I know myself well enough to accept that. But maybe I can stop being one of the people whose expectations I’m stressed about. Maybe it’s time I gave myself the breathing room to figure out what I’d rather do.
And for a textbook high-achiever with a mean streak of perfectionism, that’s progress.