Graphic by Tara Steinmetz

Graphic by Tara Steinmetz

Is Productivity Really the Key to Success? 

By Anna Tingley

2 · 10 · 2019


I haven’t had an alarm set on my phone for the past month. And after an entire lifetime of routine schedules that have begun as early as 7 am – since my early school days, to work and college balance after high school graduation, to demanding jobs and internships in the summers in between – I’ve never not had a to-do list to follow with urgency. My responsibilities aren’t always stress-inducing. Sometimes it looks like me scheduling in a breakfast with a friend I haven’t seen in forever or a workout class that I’m dreading but know will feel worth it in the end. And of course, sometimes my to-do lists look more like a horror scene, with due dates for school papers and articles daunting me from overpacked Google Calendar.

But, for the first time in forever, my day-to-day life isn’t dictated by prior plans. After moving to London to study abroad as part of a college program, I’ve found myself with no job to report to, barely-existent academic duties, and less friends than usual in the huge metropolitan city with which to make exciting plans. And while swiping away my early-morning wake-up times felt liberating the first few days, my lack of routine felt so foreign that it scared me shitless. It no longer felt like I was following life’s roadmaps but rather I was the one being asked to draw the map. And dude, I’m terrible at directions!

I was scared, and admittedly still am, because my lack of early-morning alarms, and in turn, a stable routine, meant to me that my life was stagnant. If I wasn’t creating some form of output, whether it be papers to be graded or bylines to add to my portfolio, my life was making no progress. I was under the impression that those phases in life, the ones where you’re not as “productive,” but are essential in avoiding emotional and creative burn-out, were time-outs from life. They were the little gaps of time where I was waiting for the exciting stuff to happen and for the progress to kick in.

But really, I found that that those slower days were only ones in which I had the time to self-reflect and make any real progress at all.

It seems counterintuitive but when I’m in a blind routine following my detailed to-do lists and getting shit done (and yes, feeling fucking great because despite some added stress, this is the part of life that fuels purpose and fulfillment for me), I don’t come out on the end much different. Yes, I have tangible things to show for myself: an added line to my resume or noticeable progress on personal projects.

But me, my meat and bones and soul and identity? That seems to come out essentially unscathed. Which is fine. While we’re all constantly changing and evolving yadda yadda yadda, I wouldn’t say that we are, or should be, constantly redefining our identities. That sounds exhausting. But those rare moments of self-reflection, that are only able to be genuinely embraced in moments of rest or even longer transitional life phases, are essential in understanding what parts of your life deserve your continued energy, what parts are holding you back and need to be cut out, and to appreciate the parts of your life you’ve worked so hard for. Because otherwise, what’s the point?

So, really it seem that those seemingly stagnant phases of life, the one where your alarm isn’t perpetually turned on and you’re unapologetically binge-watching Netflix, and you aren’t a slave to your planner, those actually seem to be the moments of intense growth. It’s during these “time-out” moments of life that offers you the clarity to live a fulfilling life in the future when you’re too busy attending class and meetings and pursuing your dreams to even think about what you’re actually doing, and why.

So the next time you complain about being in a rut, simply because you have less tangible evidence of your hard work to show for yourself at the given moment, know that you need these times of nothingness to appreciate the everything of life later on.