I Feel Like I Always Have to Be Productive. Why?

As a lawyer and later as an academic, I burned upwards of 3000 calories a day without ever leaving my desk.  The first thousand, as always, go to basic metabolic functions; the next 2000 go to thinking.

Thinking is work.  I’m reminded of this every time I have to do substantive thinking: when I’m parsing contract clauses, when I’m researching, or as now, when I’m trying to write an academic article but instead productively procrastinating by updating this blog.  Updating this blog or my more focused one, Autistic Academic, are my favorite forms of productive procrastination.  You get posts when there’s something more pressing I should be doing instead.

Partly, this is because I often process one thing by doing another.  Staring at my blinking cursor is worthless; typing something else, anything else, allows the other “stuff” to percolate at the back of my head.

And partly, this is because, despite ten years of doing sit-and-think work, I’m still piquantly anxious about appearing to be busy.  Staring out a window does not “appear” to be busy, even if I’m working through the implications of a new piece of case law or lining up deconstruction of a complex phrase in my head.  Leafing through the pages of a book does not “appear” to be busy, even if I’m looking for a specific quote that I need to continue writing.

I tend to hold very still when I’m thinking deeply.  This is in stark contrast to the frenzy of rhythmic movement that typically consumes my days, that helps me regulate sensory inputs and process spoken communication (coming and going).  As a kid, I was lambasted regularly by parents and teachers for “doing nothing” when really what I was doing was thinking through the problem.  Explaining this did not help.  “I’m thinking!” was most often met with “Well, think while you [do the thing].”  How I was supposed to do Thing without having worked out how to do Thing was of course never explained.

That anxiety was compounded when I hit the work world.  I was in my thirties before I learned (and I mean learned, as in “discovered totally new information to me,” as in “had the revelation that”) that people typically do not get fired for pausing in the middle of their work day.  I genuinely had no idea.  I had worked more or less continuously since I was fifteen, and it still took me over fifteen years to realize that standing still would not get me fired.

As the response to this blog post suggests, I’m not the only one who suffers from anxieties of productivity, though I hope the extent to which I have suffered them is rare.  But even that I doubt to be the case.  We are a culture obsessed with both productivity and behavior; the inevitable result of those twin obsessions is an obsession with “looking busy,” regardless of the actual “busy-ness” being pursued.  Consequently, the hardest part about my job isn’t the thinking, the analysis, the argument, or even the getting published.  It’s managing the anxiety.