Reasons to be unproductive

Do less. Rest more.

Image from my series ‘Eight Limbs’, a glimpse into life in a Muay Thai gym.

I stumbled on the phrase “hyper productivity” for the first time this week. An apt phrase to describe what I’ve been seeing all over our collective feeds, snaking into our minds and constricting our already tightly-wound anxieties, stresses and worries.

At some point in the last couple of weeks (what even is time anymore?), I read the brilliant article That Discomfort You’re Feeling Is Grief. It talks about identifying a perhaps unfamiliar-to-some feeling we are collectively experiencing right now in the midst of this global pandemic; grief. Along with grief comes its fun mates - anxiety, stress, worry and other terrible friends - affecting everything from our motivation to do anything - work, taking care of ourselves - to our bodies themselves, with physical pain and health problems.

It prompted a slow realisation; that I don’t need to and really shouldn’t be trying to force myself to be productive and do absolutely everything I’ve put on my to-do list and more. This isn’t me taking a year out to have a great time chilling out and working on new projects, where I can finally teach myself to play the guitar or take up a new sport. We’re in the midst of something horrific. It’s affecting us both mentally and physically, and in huge ways.

Though this has come to a clearer light during lockdown, it’s something that’s been on-going since I went freelance last year. There’s been a constant undercurrent of worry - not quite overwhelming that it stops me, but strong enough that I always have a slight knot in my chest - that I’m just not doing enough or being productive enough.

There are so many talented photographers and freelancers making a killing, often so much younger, and it makes me feel like I missed the boat. Which is absolutely ridiculous - I know that in the logical side of my mind, but the illogical side loves getting worked up about all sorts.

I recently clocked that this is partly because I’m “starting again”. I have to work my way up again, and I have very little savings - not unexpectedly so, I worked and saved up to travel which I then spent exactly as planned - but having hardly any money again, and still living at home makes me feel exactly as I did after graduating with no job or money of my own and having to move back home. No independence. It constantly makes me question my choices. “If I’d done this instead, budgeted better, should I have focused on saving for a home?” 

I crave independence, a home to call my own that I can fill with my own habits and rituals and experiences…  and my own things of course, I am unashamedly materialistic.

In the first couple of weeks of quarantine, the feeling multiplied ten-fold. 

The amount of Stuff that has suddenly become available to do online, never even having to leave your room: things to look at, listen to, be involved with, workshops, tutorials, courses, talks, exhibitions, games, pub quizzes... It’s been incredible to see previously physical systems that have had to migrate to the remote world out of necessity.

I’ve been signing up to a lot. And I mean. A. Lot. I tell myself that I shouldn’t sign up to too much, that it’s impossible to manage/consume everything I would like to, despite how good some of the courses are.. I try to keep in mind that I would never have signed up to so much offline, and yet it’s something I’m struggling with anyway, fearful of missing out. Productivity FOMO.

I’ve also found myself worrying about the end of lockdown, having turned it into some sort of deadline in my head and worried about “running out of time” to get everything on my to-do lists finished - I find myself almost addicted to adding things into my calendar, feeling so great and accomplished when I tick something off.

All this forced hyper productivity has seen me spend much of my day and evening at my desk working, struggling with a lack of motivation and worried; worried about not being motivated, about not having enough time, about not Doing enough. 

I didn’t take proper care of my body or mental wellbeing: I had stomach issues; my right eye became twitchy and stayed that way for more than a week; I’ve had the most horrible back ache, and I catch myself unconsciously clenching my teeth often throughout the day, and waking up with vice-like jaw and fisted hands.

I easily recognise these symptoms. When I was working in an office full-time, during the most stressful and anxious times, I would have all these same physical manifestations of my stress (the twitchy eye is the worst!). But this time I didn’t clock how stressed I was making myself until much later. I’ve been working from home - no commute, no office, not the familiar stressors - I didn’t even realise I was stressed at all. But my body has made it exceedingly clear that I’m doing too much.

I always thought it would be easy for me to avoid this kind of productivity overwhelm, that I knew better and knew when to slow down. But it happened anyway, and perhaps there’s some addiction to working there - especially when sometimes it’s necessary to be hyper productive as a self-employed creative.

I’m always trying to multitask, to get the most out of my downtime and trying to be Productive. Otherwise I feel like I’m wasting time.

Another eye-opening moment recently happened when I very serendipitously came across this article about “waking rest” just after I’d started drafting this post. Waking rest is the time when you allow yourself time and space to just do nothing and think, allowing your brain to process, formulate, create. 

“Ever have a breakthrough in the shower? This is why.”

This one simple, small sentence really made me stop and go “OH.”

It made me realise that I’ve been filling up my days with trying to constantly do or consume (and by multi-tasking, both at the same time). And anytime I feel like I’m not Doing, not Being Productive or Not Using My Time Meaningfully, I automatically go to consuming endlessly on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, my email inbox.

This morning I set my phone aside and allowed myself only five minutes on Instagram. Anytime I had to stop what I was I doing, had to wait for something to load (anyone else having the worst fucking internet of their life?), I caught myself automatically going for my phone at least five or six times.

I often have trouble sleeping at a “normal” time and for many years I thought this was because I’m just more active in the night - I’ve always struggled to wake up early and go to sleep early, and I accepted that my natural sleep pattern is just later than normal (and there’s an official term for this, though apparently it’s a “disorder” - delayed sleep-wake phase disorder).

I find that more often than not, when I finally come to lie down and go to sleep (likely after a good half-an-hour to an hour on my phone), my mind starts racing and suddenly I’m going through ideas, solutions, problems, worries, and sometimes it can last for a couple of hours. 

It’s not just work either, it’s everything; what I want to eat for breakfast the next morning, boys I’m crushing on (I promise you I am a sophisticated adult), people who’ve annoyed me, sick burns I should’ve dropped but didn’t think of them until right this moment… 

I still think there’s some truth to the fact that my sleep pattern is later than normal (and I’ve been stuck on a strict 1am to 10am cycle since the clocks changed) but it’s clear to me now that a lot of this is likely because I’m not giving myself the time and space to get through these thoughts in the daytime.

When I finally let go of the screens and try to sleep, my mind finally has a moment to digest. It feels so obvious now.

I’m curious to know how many of you feel the same, or have experienced something similar?

To end, here are some things I’m trying in an attempt to lessen the need to constantly Do:

  • A mantra I’ll be repeating to myself for a while: “your worth is not measured by your productivity.”

  • I’ve been doing yoga pretty much every evening before bed. I let myself do what I feel I can, whether that’s a 30 minute intense session or 10 minutes of stretching and relaxing, but I try to always do something. (The app I was using is no longer free, so I’ve just started one of Yoga with Adriene’s free courses.)

  • I’m still finding it difficult to not be on my phone before going to sleep and also first thing in the morning. I tried turning my phone wifi off when I got into bed and picked up a book instead, but the urge is still there. Feels similar to my chocolate addiction tbh.

  • I’ve reorganised my phone screen, moving all social media from my home screen and to a folder so it’s less accessible.

  • I’m going to try a detox screen day, and do half a day with no screens at all.

  • On Monday I spent 15 minutes doing nothing to allow myself some waking rest time, and it was lovely. I took a break from the laptop, left my phone far away and sat outside in the sunshine with a cup of tea. When I went to sleep that night, my thoughts were a lot calmer.

  • I’ve been more forgiving with my to-do list, spreading things more realistically and even making some work days much shorter.

  • Going off a friend’s example, I’ve set a limit on Instagram to 30 minutes a day.

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End Notes
That Discomfort You’re Feeling Is Grief
'Allostatic Load' Is the Psychological Reason for Our Pandemic Brain Fog
The Science of FOMO and What We’re Really Missing Out On
Why Doing Nothing Is As Healthy For You As Working Out

Today’s soundtrack


The Pied Piper is a victim of the gig economy
“Dear Mayor of Hamlin. Hope you’re well. Please find attached my invoice for the recent extermination of 251,025 rats from your town. Those last 25 were tricky, but we got there in the end!”

For introverts, lockdown is a chance to play to our strengths
“I downloaded the Houseparty app, opened it up and immediately a friend’s face popped up to say hi, entirely unannounced. The horror has stayed with me.”

These beautiful compositions are an ode to the female body
“Lotte van Raalte spent more than a year photographing 46 women, aged 13 to 94, and bundled the impressive result in her new book ‘BODY’.”


A note from Sirius…

Meet Sirius, this newsletter’s plump twelve year old mascot who has chronic resting bitch face and loves spanks. In each newsletter, Sirius will share some of his feline wisdom with us.

Sirius says: “Mrrow. Take time to get some fresh air. I like to go out for a little wander after each nap.”

Hey! I’m a freelance portraiture, documentary and adventure photographer working in London. Community and culture are the cornerstones of my work, and I also run of the land & us, an online journal for photographers exploring our relationship with the natural world.

‘Notes on Freelancing’ is my attempt to make becoming a freelance creative a bit less scary.

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