Re-thinking productivity

"For what is time? Who can easily and briefly explain it?" —Augustine of Hippo

Back when Wally was one-and-a-half, getting an hour to myself at the local YMCA felt decadent beyond imagination. I dropped him at the daycare they have on-site, included with a gym membership, and "ran" on the treadmill for maybe 25 minutes. Then I'd change in the locker room--even that felt luxurious, in the linoleum, bare bones Y locker room, no one pulling, no one whining, no one tugging, no one falling, no one running, no one engaging with me at all. 

Then, the pièce de résistance, if I had enough time before the hour was up, I'd take my notebook and plunk down at one of the tables in the big open space overlooking the pool, and write. Freewrite, or notes on a current project, mostly just wondering--can you do this? Can you have your kid in the daycare when you're not technically using the gym? No one ever questioned me. It was all of ten minutes maybe before I gathered my things together and picked up Wally when the hour was up.

Fast forward 5 years to 2014 when I was able to manage full-time grad school, an 18-hour/week job at Fordham, freelance work, and Petra only in daycare 21 hours a week. I'm writing that not to brag but to compare it, say, to the radical inefficiency of this past Wednesday. That day I really felt like all I was able to do in the time Wally and Petra were out was the bare minimum maintenance. Like, get the recycling down to the bins downstairs. Clear up the dishes from the night before. Not even the laundry! Make a phone call to the bank. Update my tutoring page. Coordinate with a few people about possible tutoring sessions. Answer an email from Harper about a possible book project. Then, before you know it, I was racing off to get Wally, wolfing down the most amazing lentil dish my neighbor Maybel handed me as I was practically on my way out the door. Racing off feeling utterly disheveled, having lowered my expectations for the morning from running and showering, to, as the hours crept on, just showering, to finally just putting on a hat. 

My partial excuse, justification, explanation, for the day that was not wasted but also not productive is that I was coming off of a string of days with Petra home sick. She wasn't particularly sick, but her presence did make it difficult to get things done. (As my friend wrote in an email when I said I was having trouble working with her home: "Why would ANYTHING be easy with a toddler?") 

I really enjoyed having her here. Enjoying singing together. Enjoyed the way she grabbed a yoga mat and pretended it was her guitar. Enjoyed the cozy, quiet of afternoon naps. Taking the time to put lullabies on in her room, rubbing her back until she started loud snoring because of her cold. 

There is something singularly cozy about daytime naps during the week, when the rest of the busy world is going on outside the windows. Something singularly quiet and peaceful about that in-between time. 

I felt mixed about her being in preschool now. Torn about whether or not I should keep her home and juggle the way I did with Wally those years when I worked furiously during his naps and ran out the door to the library the minute Alex got home. Maybe that's the difference now too. I wouldn't want to run out the door at that time and give up the afternoon and evening time with Wally. A different juggle now. In many ways an easier one. 

So that Wednesday, that middle "full" day of work, the only one this week, between sick days and half days, I feel like I got very little done. And I wonder if some of it was just that I needed to sort of recover from the days where I pushed. You go full-speed, you get kids off to school with hats and mittens you'd already put away for the season, in picture-day clothes, with nut-free lunches and permissions slips, and then your day begins, but you don't take a moment to recognize that it is beginning already in debt to yourself. You're not beginning with a shower, with a coffee, with a newspaper. You're beginning with attending to other people's needs. You're beginning with dozens of micro-demands; the paper cut, the spilled cup, the missing paper, the ripped page, the search for tape, the shirt now covered with peanut butter that must be changed. 

So the answer may be to take my own advice from Writer's Boot Camp to wake up earlier. 

To wake up early enough to do some yoga stretches at least.

Wake up early enough to fit in Julia Cameron's "Morning Pages" (three pages, longhand, written first thing every morning). It is, in her tutelage, a spiritual practice, as is routine in general. I always found the name itself a little over-the-top. Does that practice of writing first thing longhand need a name? I've written them on and off for the seventeen years since I was given the book by my friend Hein whose eyes are watching all of us

On another blog recently (I can't remember which one) a writer said she was frustrated that part-way into the Morning Pages practice she would get distracted with things she had to do that day. I wrote a comment saying that I include that as all part of the Morning Pages - To Do lists, reminders, recipes, shopping lists - whatever comes into my head, anything at all. Yet I also appreciated her perspective--she said the best insights tend to come about two pages into focused writing. I think it's probably true that my style is maybe too loose, including "Rent! Eliana's birthday! Call Angelin!" notes jotted in the margin. It doesn't always allow for that flow of thought, that turning point of insight, that a more focused and sustained practice often brings about. Who was it. Maybe it was Louise Tucker, a writing professor in the UK who said she has been using Writer's Boot Camp with her students? I was so thrilled when I heard that. Unfortunately, the students in the UK don't have access to the book. 

But wait, back to an attempt to reconcile the vastly divergent experience of time, just around this one micro topic of getting something done while someone else takes care of your kids.

My first thought, when, as I said, attempting to justify/rationalize/explain my non-productive Wednesday to myself was to think that it was partly a recovery day, picking up the literal loose ends, the puzzle pieces, the doll clothes, the play-doh mashed into the floor, that resulted from the days with Petra home and me half-working. But there was something more to it than that, there was a mental recovery for which I so often fail to account. One that exacts a toll from me, prevents total focus and productivity. There is a blurry-ness to half-work/half-childcare, an overwhelmed, pulled-from-all-sides exhaustion that undermines productively in the hours that follow. Like running too fast for too long (not a problem I need to worry about any time soon) that means you have trouble even walking the next day. 

It's something I feel has to be identified and ideally named. It goes along with the exhaustion of being always on call, always pulled because of cell phones and because of the expectations put on working moms or half-working moms or any moms - SAHM moms focused solely on the kids working the hardest job of all. I now can't remember where I saw the piece written about the kind of focus a CEO can have, where someone else remembers the phone calls, and sends reminders about meetings, a kind of laser focus a caretaker can never have. That's one variable. And another variable is this recovery period.

Yet even as I seek to identify that brief but necessary period of recovery, forgive myself, if you will, for the slow laps that followed the over-exertion, in fairness, I have to recognize that I am operating at a much lower level of productivity now, not just on that particular Wednesday, but in general. Part of it honestly is the staggering weight of the anxiety and fury over...oh, pick any of a 1000 things...taking away millions of people's health care, for one. Or this administrations infinite and unending ties to Russia. Or the taxes we still haven't seen. And part of it is a failure on my part to establish a routine, (despite Julia Cameron's best efforts). And I fear that the "answer" has to be that I am just not making good use of time. If I was able to once juggle grad school and work and kids, then my dashing frantically out of the house these days, which I will do exactly 10 minutes from now to pick up Petra, is a personal failure. I was at one point able to manage much more. Look how much an hour once meant! I have to acknowledge the hour of bliss at the Y, and use it as a yardstick against which to measure today's inadequacy. Right?

It is a question I'm posing. It makes me think about the quote, "If you want something done, give it to a busy man."

But what if I view the hour of bliss at the Y not as proof that I need to do much more now than I am currently able to manage, but proof that taking care of young children--even just one, even doing just that--is absolutely, unbelievably, mind-bogglingly exhausting. What if instead I begin there. Or end there, for today's post, with the recognition that of course that hour back then felt like the most luxurious expanse of time, because it was a break from an exercise that thoroughly depleted me. What if I start not with the premise that more should be squeezed out of every single minute, but with the invitation to consider a different kind of expansiveness, a more ragged and jagged sense of personhood, apart from motherhood, that can productively begin unravelling a bit at the seams. 


  1. I relate to this so much. I recently signed up for a gym membership so I could do the same thing, but the baby's separation anxiety has been making it impossible.

    There's something about Julia Cameron's insistence on routine that smacks of privilege to me, though I can't yet articulate why. I love the Artist's Way but its inflexibility has made it somewhat inaccessible to me as a mother. Even the Artist's Way for Parents is all about raising creative children. They're the last people who need help in that regard.

  2. Your memory of going to the gym and leaving Wally at the daycare and it feeling so luxurious captures that new mom feeling so well. Those brief moments alone during those first transformative years feel so indulgent. I love that you stole a bit of time to write too.

    I have no idea why some days are so productive and other days are like, phew, we got through it. (Though even your “less productive” days are impressive!) In many ways, I wish I wasn't always holding a measuring stick up to everything. I want to let the day be, let myself be. But there is always that internal itch toward striving (and anxiety when I’m not).

    I think my original copy of The Artist's Way is from my teens. I returned to about 10 years ago during a creative dry spell. My morning pages always felt like me babbling to myself. They piled up but never took shape, and it frustrated me. But the daily routine, that practice that keeps me tethered, is so vital. It keeps slipping from me lately and my productivity has been low. I think it’s officially time for Boot Camp. Thank you for this post, for the reminder that it ebbs and flows, and for the “invitation to consider a different kind of expansiveness, a more ragged and jagged sense of personhood, apart from motherhood, that can productively begin unravelling a bit at the seams.” Beautiful.

  3. Kelly - I'm so glad you raised these points. You're right kids are the last ones who need help with creativity. And there is absolutely something that smacks of privilege about her routine! In fact, even reading the post I linked to - much as I loved daydreaming about her walks with the dogs every afternoon, her leisurely phone calls - it does feel like that lifestyle could only be a fantasy for most people, not even limiting it to mothers of young children. There is just so much space in her day. I'm sorry you haven't been able to get that little time to yourself in the gym!

    Thanks for your ever-generous interpretations of my productivity or lack there-of. I too wish I wasn't always holding up a measuring stick, and I want to stop. Interesting that Kelly was just writing on her blog to about taking a break from tracking...just going with the flow...
    It's true the Morning Pages themselves never take shape, but I find they relieve me of a lot of the anxieties, frustrations and just mundanities that would otherwise crowd themselves into my "real" writing or just straight out block it from the start. I'm sorry I can't give away Boot Camp copies...I get hardly any myself. If you do end up proceeding through it, or part of it, and you're willing to share any feedback, I'd be so grateful.
    BTW, I wanted to ask how you found the daily blogging compared to the Morning Pages...I know the 365-blogging kept you tethered, and maybe it was in a more productive way?

  4. I wrote you a note where you left your pondering...before I came here and read this long introspection. me oh my much pressure. Perhaps you might think of your writing as your youngest child...and be patient with it and her mother.

  5. I'll check that note but first...thanks for your comment here. I like that idea...Thank you.

  6. I have my copy of Writer's Boot Camp! It arrived toward the end of my 365 project when I was reaching the burn-out stage, so I needed a break before plunging into the 30-day Boot Camp. But I'm ready now and more than happy to share feedback. I'm really excited to see where it takes me. Regarding Morning Pages vs daily blogging, I initially chose to blog for accountability--if I failed, I would have to fail publicly. But it quickly became more about connection and conversation. And I think those conversations helped shape some of the work, and in some cases, that work informed some essays. I absolutely agree with you that daily writing, whether Morning Pages or blogging, reduces anxiety and clears those "first thoughts" that might otherwise end up in our other work.

  7. Sarah - that certainly makes sense to me that you wanted a break before plunging into anything, let alone a Boot Camp of sorts! I keep thinking about your line..."if I failed, I would have to fail publicly..." - absolutely true in terms of daily accountability...what's also interesting to me is that it can apply more broadly to a blog...or most/all art forms - writing, music, painting...depending on how much one puts oneself out there..."If I failed, I would have to fail publicly..."

  8. Hi Rachel,

    Your title says it all. As our circumstances change, our daily routines become blurred, our demand and supply equation seems to have no result, well, it's time to re-think our productivity, and more specifically, define exactly what that is, or rather, has come to be. I have been on a personal mission the last 5 years or so, to SIMPLIFY my life and live in the present. I mean REALLY experience it with all my senses, for it is all the time we have; the past is unreachable and the future unclear. My productivity for each day is different, and that's okay, finally.

    Hope you come to an understanding between the premises of productivity and yourself, after giving it some thought.


  9. Hi Poppy,

    I thinks simplifying and living in the present is absolutely the way to go. I ove that about experiencing with all your senses. I've been trying to do that, too. Yes - I'm getting closer to that understanding and I thank you for your perspective and guidance.



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