Thursday, August 5, 2021

Go with the Flow: Thoughts on Productivity Culture


The natural flow of the tides, Salem, MA.

I remember my first planner. I was a Sophomore in college and bought a small, portable calendar from the school's bookstore. I was a full-time student and working 20-25 hours a week at a retail job in the mall. I was good at remembering when my schoolwork was due and when my classes were; however, since my weekly work schedule changed, I was having a hard time juggling everything. Plotting due dates and my school and work schedules in the calendar allowed me to get an idea of when I could study, research and write papers, do homework, and see my friends. It was a very simple system: whenever I wasn't in class or work, I did everything else. I used my commuting time and work breaks to read or work on homework. I got really good at scheduling all of my classes into 2-3 days so that I could work and see my friends. And let's face it, my younger self had tremendous amounts of energy! I was literally non-stop and I loved every minute of it because it never felt like work.

A big part of why I loved how I lived my life then is that I was able to effortless focus on a task. If I only had a hour or two to read or study, that's all I did. I made art all the time. I went to museums. I saw the people I loved and spent meaningful time with them. I was able to "get into the zone," or as Ed calls it, I "grooved," without much thought or effort. Everything I did felt natural and it fulfilled me to no end. I got pure joy out of sitting in class or researching for a paper. I loved writing those papers! I often wrote papers in longhand before I edited and typed everything using Word Perfect or Word. I never "digitally" wrote anything because I enjoyed the slowness of the writing process. I always used pencil and a yellow legal pad. I loved the sound of the pencil scratching on the page and the smell of the eraser rubbing out my mistakes. 

Studying always consisted of lots of writing. I wrote reading notes and flashcards. I copied my class notes, adding information from my reading. I diagrammed everything. My study methods and notes were legendary. My meticulous methodology is what made me an A student. It's what earned me Summa Cum Laude. I continued these methods in graduate school with the same results. Again, it never felt like work. It was an utterly pleasurable task -- like a puzzle.

Slow living means learning how to live slowly.

Then something changed. I always kept a "to do" list with due dates. In grad school, that "to do" list grew as I started teaching, presenting at conferences, and juggling adulthood. When my Mom got sick and stopped working, I became her sole caretaker, adding an extra household to manage and another person to shop for. My simple calendar turned into a timed planner and my working methods became more and more compartmentalized. I scheduled time to write, time to take breaks, time to spend with my Mom, time to commute. This was the only way I could survive. 

After grad school, I became obsessed with productivity methods -- the Eisenhower Matrix, daily habit building, goal planning, task scheduling. I read books on productivity, experimented with Kanban boards, Agile planning, and the Pomodoro method. I spent hours planning my year, month, weeks, and days. I was convinced that the only way to achieve my goals was to carefully plan out my days in order to maximize my time and energy. I forced myself to stick to a writing, reading, and research schedule. I blocked out time to shower, commute, and workout. I even attempted to reset my internal clock so that I could wake up before 5:00 AM like every other "successful person." 

Bijou is Flow.

I bought into the whole toxic productivity culture ... and I was miserable. I hated what I was doing. I hated who I became. I hated everything I researched and studied. And I hated the people who pushed this kind of mentality. Colleagues, "influencers," and productivity coaches all said the same thing: I need discipline. I need to set out a schedule. I need to define my goals. Some "influencers" like Lavendaire, added a veneer of "mindfulness" and "holistic" living to all of this as they pushed their ever growing number of followers to make time for meditation and self-care. As if we needed something else to schedule and feel guilty about if we didn't do it!

I bought into it much in the same way I bought into Intermittent Fasting and Hello Fresh -- I honestly thought the process would be a magic fix for a life that constantly feels out of control. Boy, was I wrong! These processes, much like a fad diet, left me hungry and angry. I resented the processes and my over-scheduled life to the point of quitting everything. 

And this is where I am now. I left academia because I couldn't tolerate the high-level of toxic productivity and competition. I stopped teaching because I couldn't deal with my students' needs and an uncompromising administration taking over my entire life. I put away St. Nicholas and my research because I've grown to hate it. I over-thought, over-scheduled, and over-goaled it to death! I simply stopped and walked away. 

I spent this summer reading about Ganesh, chakras, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Taoism. I've spent hours meditating, doing yoga, and reciting mantras. Most importantly, I picked up my pencils and drew ... and drew ... and drew. 

Something magical happened ... I remembered what it felt like to enter a state of "flow." Flow is when you are completely and utterly absorbed in a task that time doesn't exist. It's more than just sustained focus. Flow is when you do something that you enjoy and that uses your skills, but is still somewhat challenging yet attainable. It's that moment when you lose track of your physical needs like eating because you are absorbed in what you are doing. It's that moment when you are completely serene in what you are doing because it's a natural part of your being.

Flow is associated with Taoist teachings. It is the path between action and non-action, between anxiety and boredom. In Tao this path is like that of a river -- when you are in flow, you quite literally "go with the flow." You navigate the river as it leads you along. You do not go against the river or try to control the river. Western productivity methods try to control the river. They go against the flow because they are concerned with the end result -- that of achieving a goal. Western methods focus on hard work and discipline, compartmentalized tasks and goal-setting. Flow focuses on the series of actions that lead you to those goals. It's flexible. It understands that we don't have control of the outside world, which inevitably destroys a well-planned day. Flow just is.

I recently realized that my "lack of productivity" and focus have nothing to do with social media, or a lack of will-power, or some fault. I realized that productivity in itself is the problem. I never needed help "getting things done." I always knew The Way. I have always worked best when I stopped trying to control everything. I always created best when I just created. No planner or productivity method can teach you this; matter-of-fact, all they can do is inhibit flow. Flow is natural and organic, it's the state that you strive to be in because it's enjoyable and fulfilling. The act of doing is its own reward.


  1. Hello! (You may remember me... My first name's Amy and I used to blog at the Ultimate Goth Guide... back in the day ๐Ÿ˜‚ I have a little semi-anonymous personal blog these days) I've just found this blog by random coincidence (I was clicking through some follower links on a blog called Living Liminally, looking for something new to read, when I recognised Lou Valcourt's photo, who also follows you here...!)

    And by coincidence, this post was everything I needed to read right now. I'm not an academic, but I have a two year old, a publishing contract and a house renovation ongoing, and I feel like I need to push, push, push all the time. To forever be ticking things off my to-do lists and completing more tasks, keeping a perfect house... I can't relax until I've cleaned everything and finished digging the garden... And there's always something else. I'm not leaving myself time for creativity or spontaneity, I'm frustrated and short-tempered. I spend a lot of my downtime staring at screens trying to decompress, but more stimulation outside my own head is exactly what I don't need!

    I admire so much the ethos you express in this post, and I wish you the absolute best of luck finding and maintaining your Flow. It's lovely to be reading your words once again!

    1. Hello Amy!!! Of course I remember you! Holy smokes -- you are one busy person! Congrats on the baby, the contract, and the house. Deep breaths, my friend. I'm not going to be one of those people who will give you advice. All I'll say is that you will find the one thing that works for you and only you, whatever that may be. Good luck!

  2. We taught both concepts of organizing your time and flow in a freshman success course last year ... how funny is that?! I guess we were hoping for the best of both worlds. So many of my students are juggling families and careers and higher ed. It is super challenging and most probably way too much for a healthy life. Sigh.

    1. I hear you, BIG TIME! I think there's a difference between organizing your time and getting things done in an efficient manner, and over-scheduling and toxic productivity culture. I most definitely still have systems in place, but these systems are built for efficiency and flow. I'm getting too old to buy into this productivity trap. I just want to enjoy the work and have fun doing it!

  3. Wise, important and deeply meaningful words, my sweet friend. I am an ardent believer that doing is its own reward - just as I am, that not everything we strive for or accomplish needs to be front page worthy. So much of life is comprised of seemingly ordinary acts that are vital and meaningful, but unlikely to make it into the history books and this, IMO, is precisely how things should be.

    The more content we are with our existence, the easier the life flows and the less we're apt to worry about those elements we cannot - and arguably, in some instances at least, should not - try to control in the first place.

    Autumn Zenith ๐Ÿงก Witchcrafted Life

    1. I think this all falls into the concept of the routines that make up an everyday, lived life. Work needs to be done. But it can be done efficiently and enjoyably ... well, at least with as little stress as possible!

  4. This is so lovely and important - I'm in the same kind of place right now of dismantling the toxic productivity and a horrendously overstructured, overscheduled daily planner system. So happy to see you still sharing online; I've loved you (anonymously) for years.

    1. Thank you for this. I'm rebooting my blog in celebration of my 50th birthday ... my "Second Act." :) I'll be here a lot more often.