On Dealing With Productivity Anxiety

There’s this specific brand of impostor syndrome (you know, the plague of academia) that affects super productive people, especially women. Of course, we’re all “productive”—yes, even procrastinators—but I’m talking here about the specific anxiety that targets even the superstar in your cohort. The person who already had two articles published by the end of their second semester. The person who’s been awarded, to no one’s surprise, all of the awards. The person who, on top of their ridiculous accomplishments, has two kids, or goes to the gym every day. You know that person.

I know that person. And even though I’m definitely not that superstar, I am generally considered to be hyper productive. I know I am, in a theoretical way.

Yet, I am very often plagued with the idea that I am not productive enough. Like a lot of graduate students, I make lists of tasks every day, and often cross each of them out every day. It is not uncommon for me to write 10 pages in a day. I practice roller derby some 8 hours every week, I am in a polyamorous relationship, I have two pets. My life is very busy.

So why do I see myself as a slacker?

Part of the answer is that our capitalist culture has conditioned us to see intellectual work as leisurely—which, of course, it is, being a middle-class, ultra-privileged job. But it makes it difficult to negotiate a healthy work/life balance. Academia is also an extremely competitive world, no matter how supportive your colleagues are (and mine are very, luckily). None of this is new—scholars have written about this at length; it is part of why graduate students are particularly prone to depression.

But I want to address here the specific problem of productivity, and how to know, and reassure yourself, that indeed you are being productive enough.

My friend and I have started to record, half hour by half hour, all that we do every day, like some insanely dystopian version of a productivity timesheet. Hers are typed in a .doc file, very precise and detailed. She starts her day often before the sunrise, and works continuously, even while she prepares her breakfast (yes, this is a person who is constantly chastising herself for being unproductive). Mine are scrambled on scraps of papers, short and vague (some entries just state “read”). I also start working as soon as I wake up.

The point of the experience is to make ourselves believe that indeed, we do fill up our days with work. To have concrete data that we do employ all of our time toward work. This could be a dangerous game, especially if you’re showing it to someone: you might end up becoming even more anxious, if it turns out that your accountability buddy is more productive than you.

But here’s where it helps. Firstly, it shows you moments where you are not, cannot be productive, because you’re tired or distracted or hangry. I teach very early and I have a hard time starting to work right after. But I also get distracted very easily, and often waste a lot of time getting back on track. Secondly, it staves off anxiety in a more efficient way than your daily list of accomplishments—even if you’ve crossed them all out. I often have really long lists of things to do that I happily cross out, but the feeling of accomplishment doesn’t last. What does last, however, is the contentment that comes from looking back on how you’ve employed your day. Which brings me to the third benefit—this method makes you understand that all of your non-productive periods are absolutely needed, because they happen periodically, happily, whenever your body/mind needs a rest. And understanding that also makes you realize how much time you waste feeling guilty about not “doing” something.

Now, I’m aware that this sounds very anal and particularly capitalistic. However, I have found this method to be more effective than mere positive thinking—“treat yo self” is cool and all, but what I need is a long-term solution. It’s also a way to deal with your own stuff yourself. Having a strong network of (women) students around you, people you can talk to about any problem, is absolutely essential to surviving grad school. But this is an easy way to take yourself by the hand and say “you’re fine.”

Because you are. You’re doing great.


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