Recovering from Toxic Productivity
A leather notebook with an orange elastic and multiple charms and bookmarks with a demonstrator fountain pen on a paint-stained desk

Written by Natalie Luhrs

I'm a lifelong geek with a passion for books and social justice. Fuck around and find out.
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February 22, 2022

As many of you know, I’ve been a productivity nerd for many years, going back well before I got sick.

Before I got sick, I tried all sorts of systems, electronic and paper, and had settled on a weekly planner with the Jibun Techo and a few electronic systems, including Habitica. More on Habitica later.

I also listened to many productivity podcasts and read books and websites, all in an attempt to “optimize” my life as much as possible. What this did was lead me to ignore months of signs that there was something going wrong with my gut, culminating in my terrible decision to wait to call my doctor and make an appointment until after I got caught up at work after my return from Readercon in 2018.

I will be feeling the repercussions of that decision for the rest of my life.

One thing I noticed while immersed in productivity culture, though, was how very white and male it was. From the founders of the FranklinCovey system, Hyrum W. Smith and Stephen Covey, to David Allen of Getting Things Done, to Cal Newport who has made a career out of the concept of “deep work,” and finally, to Ryder Carroll of BulletJournal fame.

The other thing I noticed is how at least two of the men on that list have relieved heavily on women and their work to support their productivity endeavors.

In Deep Work, Newport talks extensively about how he is able to structure his days the way he does is because his wife takes care of their children and all the day-to-day tasks of running their household. I take this to mean that Newport does very little housework or home maintenance, and while he does make a point of spending time with his family when he is at home, I have to wonder how much of that is truly co-parenting as opposed to “dad time is fun time,” if that makes any sense.

Then there’s Ryder Carroll. I don’t know anything about his personal situation, but I do know that when the pretty planner women got their hands on the freedom inherent in using a dot grid journal for planning, they were then used by Carroll to build the BulletJournal brand: they were contributors to the BulletJournal blog (often with statements about how simply wonderful Carroll was to create such a system) and they used their positions of influence to get many other people using an explicitly BulletJournal-style journal. Heck, I used one for several years at work for my tasks.

Of course, there are women involved themselves in this space–the founder of the eponymous Erin Condren LifePlanner and Angelia Trinidad of Passion Planner come to mind. They both serve different markets: Erin Condren is very much for the stay at home mother and teacher markets, while Passion Planner is entrepreneurial in focus.

I’ve used both of these planners as well–I found that the Passion Planner worked a lot better for me than the Erin Condren, and I like that from their founding they’ve make their products free for download and their general mission does involve social awareness and giving back to the community.

It appears that in 2020, Erin Condren the person caused a bit of a shitstorm with a high school graduation march she helped organize and that many of the company’s current diversity goals and charitable contributions are a result of that, not something that’s been baked in since the beginning as with Passion Planner.

The level of life organization I was working at until January 2021 was basically what I found I needed to do in order to be successful in a high-pressure corporate setting. I think a lot of people in corporate settings find themselves on this particular hamster wheel–and it’s not a lot of fun. When your employability is being evaluated based on how much “value” you bring to organization, there is a drive to optimize your working hours so you continue to be employable.

In 2020, I was using a weekly Passion Planner. I was under a lot of pressure at work to work at the capacity I’d had before I got sick and this was how I did it. I kept track of every single thing I did during the workday and color-coded it. I kept meticulous to-do lists and put reminders on my work calendar. I was doing this in case my BadOldManager ever wanted to know specifically what I’d been working on and how many hours I was spending on work each day.

Between the pressure I was putting on myself and the pressure BadOldManager was putting on me, I was getting sicker and sicker–as my three hospitalizations for bacteremia/sepsis showed. My body was trying to tell me that enough was enough, but I couldn’t see a way out. So when I had no choice but to stop–it was hard to adjust.

The first thing I did was try to use the Hobonichi Cousin Daily planner I’d bought for work–and it didn’t work, because there was simply too much page. So I repurposed the case for my A5 journal, and it’s been a great journal case. I’d also bought a Hobonichi Weeks with the intent of it being my planner on the go and I ended up using it as my primary planner all of last year.

The Hobonichi Weeks has a layout that works really well for me: it has defined space on the left for each day of the week and a blank page of grid paper on the right; I’d prefer it be a dot grid, but nothing’s perfect. I could list all my medical appointments on the left side as well as anything else that had a definite deadline and I could use the right side for my to-do list and notes.

I’ve kept essentially the same format this year, but with a Traveler’s Notebook instead. I have a monthly book, the weekly book, and a dot grid notebook for notes and various want to dos.

I also use a lot of stickers and wash tape, because those things make me happy and why have a sticker subscription if you don’t use the stickers? (We won’t be discussing my sticker hoard at this time.)

Last year, I spent a lot of time drifting about, trying to figure out what I was going to do next. My therapist suggested that I set up a few points during the day where I do the same set of tasks each and every day and that’s been a lifesaver. For instance, this is my morning routine

  • weigh myself (for tracking fluid issues, not weight loss)
  • turn on hot water kettle
  • brush and floss teeth
  • get dressed
  • prepare tea
  • take medication
  • prepare breakfast
  • have tea and breakfast
  • figure out the rest of my day

But the most important thing I’ve done, to get myself out of this productivity at all costs mindset is to decouple my sense of self-worth from how much I do or don’t get done in a day or a week. Nothing is so critical that it’s worth ignoring my health–physical or mental.

I was a wreck last summer, as I was able to finally spend the time I needed to spend grieving for both my health and career. It was time I desperately needed to spend on myself and I’m glad that I had the space and the privilege to be able to take that time. I know not everyone who is laid off has the resources available to me that I did (primarily, severance pay).

I’ve also removed as many productivity “gurus” from my sphere of influence as possible. The only podcast I listen to is Kevin Sonney’s Productivity Alchemy because it’s descriptive and not prescriptive and if I called Kevin a productivity guru, he’d probably pull a muscle laughing.

And as for Habitica? That’s a funny story. My daily routines, habits, and things I want to do someday all live there so they don’t clutter up my paper planner. The routines aren’t super extensive and the habits aren’t that many, and it’s a good catch-all place for things like “buy new part for refrigerator” and “go through living room blankets” (two things actually on my to-do list). Also cute costumes and pets and mounts and pretty backgrounds. And I’m in a pretty great party.

…and I’m working for them as a junior web developer. The opportunity fell into my lap right as I started the application process for SSDI and as I’d rather be working, I chose to work. I’m working about 60% time and it’s the perfect amount of time for me to work and the team is truly disability-friendly, which means I don’t feel bad about doctor’s appointments or keeping up with other medical things I need to do.

And that’s where my work notebook comes in: I have a dot grid notebook where I keep to do lists and pages for each project I’m working on. It’s not super well organized and it’s not pretty. It doesn’t need to be.

And the very best part of it is that when I am done working, I close the notebook and don’t touch it again until the next workday.

Because I am not a widget that outputs productivity units. I am worth more than the tasks I get done on any given day. My labor has value, but you know what has more value? My life.

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