4 things I have learnt about Productivity, Mental Health and my Relationship to Work

As you all know, mental health is a subject quite dear to my heart. Over time, I have learnt to challenge my  long held beliefs about productivity and work.  It took quite some time, and there are a few things I have come to realise along the way,  which I think are worth sharing.

1. The way you were praised as a child and the environment you grew up in can affect your current relationship with work / productivity

Childhood matters. This is the formative  period of time when you start constructing your inner beliefs, simply by absorbing everything that’s around you, your whole environment. As a child, you are basically a sponge. A lot of the praise I received as a young person were around my grades and how well I was doing at school.  I wasn’t the most sociable teenager at school, secondary/high school was a bit of a hard time for me. So I held on even more so onto how well I was doing in terms of my grades.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with that, with a parent or carer being proud of how well their child is doing with education or for a child to care about school and their grades . But there are other things to be proud of, other things a child should be reminded of through praise. Creativity and imagination, honesty in the face of difficult situations, trying new things and the bravery that comes with it, resilience after failures, efforts over results … Education is important, but Education, in the sense of schooling, is just one, amongst the myriad of other things that’s going to help shape well rounded  individuals. So let’s not forget about this myriad of other things. Remind your children of them.

2. You are so much more that the stuff you get done.

If you have grown up  in an environment that overfixated on success in schooling/education whilst overlooking the rest, as you grow up, you are more likely to base a lot of your self esteem on how much work you produce, how productive you are. Needless to say, that’s quite a damaging belief. You are bound to have down days. You are bound to not maintain the same level of productivity all the time. And you should not beat yourself up for that. Newsflash, you are a human being. Not a robot. And it’s okay! Your productivity and how much you get done, isn’t the only thing that defines you.  You are so much richer that a to-do list.

My advice is that if you think, even just a tiny bit, that your relationship with with work/productivity is somewhat not right or damaging, just dig in, have a think about all the things that might have shaped those beliefs in you in the first place. Question and challenge them. Write. Dig in. Whatever works.

3. Reactivity isn’t always the most productive.. Undivided attention is key.

So we’ve established above that productivity and how much you get done should not define your entire self, your identity. But.. Well, you still need to get shit done. That does not mean you should wait for stuff to fall from the sky in the name of your mental health. So, how to go about it?

I have learnt in the past few years that reactivity is sometimes what can kill productivity. Sure, there will always be urgent stuff that needs to get done right away on the spot, plus that also depends on your job, I’m not denying that. I always try to quickly assess the level of urgency with which I need to reply to stuff. I think about the impact of me not replying straight away on the different stakeholders or project. If it is null or very minimal and I am swamped then it can wait for the afternoon or the next day. If it truly cannot wait, I’ll get onto it. This is part of setting healthy boundaries. We live in a world that expects us to reply and  be available within minutes, even when there’s no urgency and it is  not warranted. You sometimes got to slow the world down.. And realise that nothing is going to fall apart if you do so.

This is when undivided attention comes into play. When you realise you don’t need to reply to every single thing right away and you know how to assess urgency, you can give the stuff you really need to get done some well deserved undivided attention.

4. You can have boundaries, not worry 24/7 and work ridiculous hours… and still do a pretty good job!

For a long time, in my life, I used to hold onto the belief, somewhat irrational, that my worry about work was what kept things together and going. Like my worry was some kind of super glue and that if I let go, this would mean I was careless and things were going to fall apart. How wrong I was. It took me quite some time to unravel this deeply seated belief, and don’t get me wrong, I sometimes have to remind myself of this, I am only human. But at least I am aware now. So I can stop, think and stop myself going down the worry pit. I also used to think, weirdly, if I didn’t feel exhausted, or tired from work, this probably meant that maybe I was not working hard enough and that inevitably things were going to go wrong, or that I was lazy. I used to believe that things like ‘I don’t really have capacity right now because I am already doing X, Y, Z, can we think about this later please or can my deadline be extended for X,Y, Z?’ should not be said.

In hindsight, I believe a lot these harmful beliefs I was holding onto were rooted in a need to feel externally validated, to feel seen. I felt I had to go to these extremes to please people and get this validation from them. What I did not realise is the damage this was slowly causing to my mental health, because the desire to feel validated was so strong. I did not realise I could do a pretty good job whilst letting go of these harmful behaviours. It took me a while to realise this, step by step, I tried to do things differently, in ways which were not damaging to my mental health, I just saw that the output was the same. I was doing a pretty good job, and I was also happier.

To conclude on a personal note…

It took me a while to realise all of these things. It basically took me a mental break down at work to realise that my identity stretched way beyond what I did as a job and how productive I was. I still enjoy being productive and organising my time, but I always make sure to remind myself that I am so much more than that and I try to do it in ways which I know won’t harm my mental health.

Caring about your mental health does not take away the passion you have about your job.. It does not mean you are not doing good work. Quite the opposite. Caring about your mental health does makes you better at your job.

It is not because you care about your mental health, that you are dull, rigid and inflexible. Our society just glorifies the wrong things.

And sometimes, I need to remind myself, still. Because things take time, and that even if I know those things in principles, It does not mean I will automatically apply all of them to my work life at all times. Because I am human, and not a robot. But at least I am aware now. I can stop, think and correct my ways. I also know I will have down days. Nothing is worth sacrificing your mental health. It’s going to sound so CRINGE (Soz!) – but I am so proud of myself for realising all of those things and embedding them into my life.

Life isn’t a to do list. It’s so much more than that.

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