“Each morning we are born again. What we do today is what matters most.” – Buddha
I used to believe that productivity was the antidote to my anxiety. On days when I woke up feeling anxious or depressed, I would pull my legs over the edge of the bed and place my feet directly into my running shoes. I would go for long runs through our neighborhood. I’d arrive home, the fresh hit of endorphins racing through my body, and I’d eat a healthy breakfast–a fruit smoothie or a bowl of oatmeal–and take a hot shower.
I would drive to work or run up the stairs to my work-from-home office and force my fingers to do some dancing. Just write one email, I would tell myself, and it would take every bit of determination I had. Just one. And now another. Now work on that marketing plan for five minutes. Ten minutes. And with every passing hour, I would feel new waves of peace. With each task accomplished, I’d find increasing motivation to work on the next. As the day progressed and my productivity remained high, my anxiety dissipated.
There was some type of magic in productivity.
We brought Genevieve home from the hospital a little over eleven weeks ago. It’s hard to explain the feelings that occupy your body as a new parent. It’s a concoction of joy and anticipation, fear and adrenaline, hope and dread. What does the future hold for you? For us? I remember feeling the same rush of emotions when Luca was born three years earlier. I remember the anxiety, waking in the night to his every grunt, hiccup, and snort, jolting upright in bed to check that his skin was still pink and that his sleep sack hadn’t crept up over his face.
When Luca was a baby, I longed to be a chill dad. Em and I joked that we were both the least chill, but we were trying. She would leave some dirty dishes in the sink for a few hours and ask me if I noticed how chill she was being. I would lounge on the couch with a book in my hand, the baby on my chest, occasionally shouting into the other room, “Hon, check me out. Chill dad.”
With Genevieve, I planned to be really chill, like extra chill. I didn’t even think about her, not really, until she had all her limbs and organs and was ready to join us on the outside. You can’t panic if you never confront your fears, right? (I’ve written about how bad an idea this was). I even saw my doctor about getting some anxiety meds just to add another layer of chill. Look out world. I was prepared.
It turns out avoidance is not the best coping strategy, and the onslaught of my anxiety landed me in the hospital a few weeks before Genevieve was born, when my anxiety finally showed up and became overwhelming.
So that’s what put me on this journey. For the past couple of months, I’ve been learning about myself and how I’ve coped with my anxiety for the past twenty-nine years, and I’m realizing that I’ve never objectively gotten to know myself. Most of my coping happened naturally, subconsciously, and without an understanding of what was going on in my body and mind. Naturally, I’ve lived with a lot of unhealthy assumptions about myself, the world I occupy, and what I believe about it all.
My relationship with productivity was one of those things. Was productivity really what led me to the calm waters of relief?
In today’s world of attention economics, we’re so accustomed to distraction, to endless scrolling and Slack messages and watches that vibrate when someone wants our attention. These interruptions are addicting. They remind us that we’re needed, that we’re important, that we’re worthy of attention. And they constantly pull us out of the present moment.
The 13th-century Persian poet Rumi once said, “Look past your thoughts, so you may drink the pure nectar of This Moment.”
Pure nectar? Is This Moment really that sweet? I just cleaned some milky baby vomit off the couch, and if I could have scrolled through Instagram for a little distraction while I did it, I would have. Eckhart Tolle said it this way: “Whatever the present moment contains, accept it as if you had chosen it. Always work with it, not against it.” In other words, stop avoiding the now.
Was it my productivity that brought me peace? Or are Rumi and Tolle onto something? When I was fully focused on my work, on the present moment, was it actually the lack of distraction that brought me peace? Maybe I was practicing mindfulness. Maybe my mind was begging for an opportunity to think about one thing and one thing only—the here and now—and I was finally letting it. Was “being productive” my mind’s opportunity to settle in and get comfortable?
Did you know that multitasking is a myth? It’s actually impossible for our minds to focus on two things at once. What happens instead is we rapidly bounce back and forth between different tasks, giving us the illusion that we are working on multiple things.
If our conscious mind is only capable of focusing on one thing at a time, what do you think happens when we constantly pull it in a hundred different directions? It gets overwhelmed. The Canadian-American poet Mark Strand once said, “The future is always beginning now,” and I wonder how often we let ourselves occupy the space that is now. How often do we let our minds settle into cozy leather chairs and just exist for a while?
What kind of difference might that make?
The problem with believing that my productivity was tied to my peace of mind is that I also began believing that something was wrong with an unproductive day, that my anxiety was a result of my laziness. When I didn’t have a productive day at the office (i.e. I spent the day distracted), I could feel my anxiety rising, which made it harder to focus and be present, which made it hard to accomplish what I needed to accomplish. A vicious cycle.
It makes sense that when I spend large chunks of time being distracted, letting my mind bounce around from one thing to another while I repeatedly beat myself up for not being responsible or productive, that I would finish the day feeling anxious. It also makes sense that a day spent with my head down, intently focused on one thing at a time, would lead to feelings of calm.
Tomorrow will take care of itself. Tonight will take care of itself. The same goes for ten minutes from now. Refreshing Instagram won’t change the number of likes you get on that photo you just posted.
So give your brain a break. Let yourself experience the now. Occupy the space you’re in, and see if your suffering doesn’t diminish.
What coping strategies have helped you with your mental health? Let me know in the comments below.