Progress and Productivity in Stillness


A day at home, I wake up and I’m already in pain. It’s 7am, but I know that I have two hours to kill. I can’t help but refresh the mail app on my phone. I only get notifications for my personal email accounts, but my curiosity always gets the best of me and I look at how many emails await in my work inbox. My eyes just getting accustomed to the sunlight also squint to accommodate the small text on my screen. I feel my shoulders rise, though I choose to put my phone down or scroll through twitter instead. The shoulder tension moves up to my neck. The minutes pass, it’s 7:45 and I tell myself I have until 8 before I can get up, but I get up anyway. I putter about my house, make breakfast and just wait until it’s an appropriate time to open my work laptop and stare at a screen all day. But I can’t wait until 9am to work. I open my laptop (my non-work one that I also do work on) and start reading my emails and writing my social plan for the week. I convince myself it’s not work since it’s not for my salaried job. That somehow makes it better.

All the while, I see the babbling miniatures of a devil and an angel perched on my shoulders. Both of them look like me, and are dressed in pretty rad outfits because duh. One is telling me that I should do my work, continue to hold myself to my standards and ride it out while the other is telling me to sit back, relax and take care of myself. Take a wild guess at which is which. Of course, the devil on my shoulder eggs me to sit on my couch and watch movies. Why though? Why does my desire to pause coincide with devilish temptation? What harm is my inactivity really causing?

I think modern corporate labor has put too much of a value on professional productivity. Since high school it’s been ingrained that I need to be busy all the time – taking college classes, engaging in extra curricular activities, volunteering, studying – in order to beef up my resume and make myself look appealing on paper. Essentially, busy equals important, and if I can’t fill a page listing my accomplishments, achievements by age 18 then I am not somehow unworthy of a promising future making other people’s money. And I know this because I filled those pages and took those classes, and all that it’s given me was an inability to take care of myself because if I’m not advancing my professional career, I’m lazy. Right now, I resent my inability to separate my personal worth from an arbitrary value deciding my professional worth – a vanity metric in professionalism, a quantified value on my productivity and therefore goodness.

If it’s not clear, I’m a workaholic and compulsive people pleaser. It feels good to get that off my chest. While I do my best to be unapologetically myself, I have inherent guilt when I disappoint people. Even people I’ve never met before, people I hardly interact with. (“That’s crazy, Marcella.” Right?) I derive my individual value based on how many lines bisect tasks on a list, or how many Facebook users share posts and images I create. While I feel this way about myself, I preach and preach the importance of self care, of rest, because truly I can’t find myself worthy of that sanctity and peace, but others should do it for themselves. I’ve got to work. I’ll sleep when I’m dead.

These tendencies have brought me some success but have mostly set me up for emotional failures, especially right now. Now’s not the time for sealing deals and expanding your audience. I’m hearing the phrase “business as usual” to describe operations right now and that couldn’t be farther from the truth. “Business as usual” is simply a guise for “we aren’t interested in hearing about your hardship.” The very “get back to work” mindset that will cause a mental health deficit once we crawl out of the collective darkness and resume a more lively, interactive “normal.”

It’s already hitting me: constant anxiety and tension from work-related stress coupled with the ambiguity of the future as we know it. I’ve taken my fair share of easy days, but it brings me more stress to try and justify the outcomes of my “laziness.” Who will have to assume my responsibilities? Will my boss notice? Will clients say something? It’s almost not worth that extra stress.

Oh, but it is. It’s worth it once you understand the incredible power and poise in stillness. Like I’ve always said (and “I’ve always said” because it’s been said to me so often), you can’t pour from an empty cup. You have to refill before you can pour again. But also you have to drink from the cup too. You can’t keep filling up your own cup to continue dumping it. You can’t let your own well go dry without taking a drink. Because simply you need water to survive. And we’re all just trying to survive this one day at a time.

And while rest looks like physical inactivity, it’s just a different form of progress. There’s growth in rest. Humans, organisms do their most profound growth while resting. And it took a jar of sauerkraut and a walk in the woods for me to understand how my own stillness could transform me.

I’m no stranger to shoving vegetables in jars and turning my countertops into small-scale science experiments. I took an inexcusable amount of AP science classes in high school, and I would be remiss to not apply some of my “useless” knowledge to my kitchen antics. And when I made a big jar of sauerkraut I saw the possibilities in seeming inactivity. In a jar on my kitchen table, microscopic bacteria were engaging in fermentation. Though the jar didn’t move for days, invisible processes were at work. Upon each day’s burp (not me burping, but me cracking the jar’s lid to prevent too much gas buildup) I could see bubbles rise from the shredded cabbage and smell what could only be described as early stage sauerkraut. Beneath a seemingly unchanging exterior, a transformation occurred.

Human perception is also not the only measure of development. The existential “if a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it” scenario is extremely human-centric and highlights validation, not only as a marker of activity, but as a necessity for improvement or change. On a walk in the woods only a few weeks ago, I encountered fallen trees, cracked in the middle with the trunk and roots secured in the ground; the fallen limbs interrupting a trail. I couldn’t tell when it happened and I didn’t know if anyone could watch the top swing down and land on the ground. The fact is, yes, the tree still falls and still makes a noise. Because nature does not continue happening for the sake of human applause and validation. On my walk I saw dandelions both with shaggy yellow flowers and seeded white orbs, maturing at different rates but maturing regardless of my ability to notice. While we all watch the seasons change from inside our homes, the tides don’t stop because a boat is not gliding towards the shore. Instead the tides continue the ebb and flow, boat or no boat, surfer or no surfer, because that’s how the ocean moves forward.

But do you know how much the human body does daily outside of sending emails, holding conference calls and eating snacks? With each inhale your lungs fill with air, delivering oxygen throughout your body. Your hair and nails are growing. White blood cells are fighting like hell to protect your immune system from bad shit. The average human experiences cell turnover of 50-70 billion cells per day. I’m not a doctor, or a scientist, but that’s a lot of work for someone who might be eating Cheetos and watching Seinfeld on the couch. If I were the devil upon my shoulder, I’d use these facts to bolster my position, convincing all other parties that this inactivity is paramount for growth.

I know that this entire essay is entirely part of my problem, but I’m done I swear. You don’t have to be ripping your hair out and crying daily from stress to find self-worth and growth. I’m using “you” as a hypothetical as if I’m talking to myself. I haven’t gotten so far as to start talking to myself, but we’re starting new things here so why not. There’s an opportunity to disconnect and progress through rest, through stillness. It’s a difficult lesson I’m learning while adjusting to the ‘new normal.’ Resting to repair an immune system counts as progress. Reading because it quells your anxiety counts as growth. Don’t let anyone else define your growth in arbitrary metrics. To humans a cocoon hangs stagnant, if not for the wind, but inside a creature becomes a winged beauty.