The second-to-last time I got laid off (from a tech job, just pre-9/11), I was very worried. I had given up a nice steady IBM gig because all my friends were leaving to make their internet fortunes, and I felt I was getting left behind. So I followed a few of them to a dubious (it’s easy to see that now) startup, which lasted, oh, gosh, four months after I arrived? Something like that.
The day we were all informed the place was being shut down by the investors was a typical start-up meltdown writ small. Chaos, gallows humor, exchange of personal contact information. (Remember how in the early 2000s we still had something of that public/private split?)
In the weird atmosphere of festivity/school’s out/the mice will play, another project manager gave me her email and said, “Boy, I don’t know what I’m going to do. I just can’t stand not to be productive! After three days, I’m gonna be running through the woods.”
In an unhinged way, she meant. Not in a super I’ll-take-this-opportunity-to-become-an-ultramarathoner way.
I didn’t really relate. I was panicked, and was going to be very productive looking for another job. Starting that afternoon. Not because I was afraid I’d lose my mind. I was afraid I’d lose my housing. So just like every other time I’d been laid off, I was re-employed within days.
But it was only to be laid off again quickly. This time I took a look around–it was now 2001–and realized: one does not simply get multiple job offers in this environment.
So I did what I’d never done before, and accepted a government handout supplemented with a few hours checking groceries at Trader Joe’s. Then I got myself a boyfriend, and spent a lot of time with him doing things like playing boardgames and watching television. (Another thing I’d never really done before.)
And I did that for months.
People, I was not productive. Aside from persuading a few shoppers to try some new cheese or pasta sauce, I contributed little. But I learned a lot.
The Lessons of Unproductivity
Here are the lessons I came away with:
First, as a society, we have not sufficiently examined the goodness of “productivity” as a goal.
Every day, people continue to give themselves gold stars for being “productive,” even if that means doing things that make no real difference, or only advance someone else’s goals.
Productivity can look an awful lot like mere production, which is a good achievement in a factory but a lousy top priority for an animal. We cannot run our bodies like a dark satanic mill.
Self-care means recognizing the the limits of machine metaphors, and responding to needs–desires, even–that are unruly, sometimes unpredictable, and do not punch in and out on time.
Thus, balance might be a better priority. If anything, maybe the farm metaphor works better, with its need for fallow times.
When we’ve been in a period of great productivity, achieving balance might look like idleness. Many of us have heard that “the devil makes work for idle hands,” an attitude that contributed mightily to our chosen craft of knitting, so I can’t condemn it 100 percent, but still! Idleness can be the antidote.
Or not. If you’ve been following the wider conversation on self-care, you’ve probably seen the recent New York Times piece by Anna North, for whom nourishing work is self-care. People vary.
Gracy Obuchowicz, a self-care coach and Ayurveda expert, says that all of us have our ways of coping. Some of us get idle, and some of us get active. Under stress, we don’t get moderate and return to the center. We get extreme, we do more of what is our tendency, and that’s how we get more and more out of balance. (We’ll hear more from Gracy on staying in balance next time.)
Meanwhile, I like to think my near-year of unemployed lounging will pay off in multi-years added to my life expectancy.
I have no science to offer here. Just a powerful before-and-after experience of how it felt when I stopped driving myself, and how good it felt to return to work–not as a relief from all that louche non-productiveness, but because I was ready to produce something again.
In the comments, I would love to know what you have learned about your own cycles of rest and productivity, and what you do to stay in balance.
Work Is My Self-Care, Anna North, The New York Times
image: Tenuta/Ferme/Bauernhof/Farm/Boerderij, firma Jos. Scholz, 1829 – 1880, Rijksmuseum.