Productivity is a trap

How I learned to live like no one’s watching

A white ceramic mug holding a liquid inside. A book is besided the mug, all resting on textiles.
PHOTO: Toa Heftibe / Unsplash

By: Olivia Visser, Copy Editor

Content warning: mentions of car accidents and brain injuries.

The other day, I made a post on my Instagram story saying that your productivity isn’t defined by how many activities you do each summer. The amount of friends who replied telling me they needed to hear this was equal parts disheartening and uplifting. Most of us are aware that social media is often a curation of the best moments from everyone else’s lives. Despite how many people have highlighted the impact this has on our self-image, we still find ourselves wrapped up in feelings of inadequacy. I know this because my own Instagram account is a snapshot into some of my favourite days — summit shots from mountain climbs, homely staycations, and progress photos from my work-outs. I’m well aware this isn’t an accurate reflection of my day-to-day life, and I hope my followers are, too. Yet, it wasn’t until I lost all these things that I realized I needed to do some serious self-reflection. 

Earlier this year, I was in a car accident that resulted in a sizable brain injury. Since I’ve navigated my entire adult life with chronic illness, I naïvely figured healing from a concussion would be inconveniencing yet manageable. I didn’t expect my final undergraduate semester to be one of my hardest endeavours, even though the content was relatively easy. For the first few weeks following my accident, I was too dizzy and out of it to do anything besides melt into my bed and watch the days pass. I didn’t feel like myself at all. Once I was capable of getting out of the house, I began attending multiple rehabilitation sessions a week. It was difficult to accept that a mere physiotherapy session was all I could handle in a day, and would leave me feeling sick for the rest of the evening. Every time I tried to push myself in hopes of feeling better, I got worse. 

I’ve always been a relatively active and passionate person, and others have pointed out my idea of fun is very “type 2” according to the “fun scale” developed in the ‘80s by geologist and mountaineer Rainer Newberry. Type 2 falls into the category of high effort, high reward outings. Outdoor adventures (and particularly type 2 excursions) make for very Instagram-worthy photos, which can paint an unrealistic picture of what someone’s life is like. Realistically, these moments make up such a small percentage of my daily activities. Between work, school, and caring for myself in general, I’m not out hiking every other day like my social media profiles may suggest. Don’t get me wrong: I think it’s great to collect memories in the form of photographs, and exhilarating moments are great ones to immortalize. There’s nothing inherently wrong with sharing our best moments on social media, but we also can’t ignore the ways in which we may contribute to a culture of Fear of Missing Out (FOMO). Or worse, trap ourselves in a shame-driven cycle of perpetual “productivity.”

Social media leads us to believe that productivity is defined by how many activities you can squeeze into your schedule, rather than your personal progress — whatever that may look like. This year, I was quite literally hit in the face with the fact that I was conflating my personal goals with my expectations. I had an entire summer of exciting plans ahead of me, and was hoping to progress in my alpine climbing skills. Beyond that, I wanted to give my all and finish strong in my last semester. These weren’t just goals — they were things I expected of myself, which led me to believe that failing to achieve these things constituted personal failure. Who was I without the ability to pursue my dreams and hobbies? 

It’s not just adventure photos that lead people to feel like they’re doing nothing with their lives, either — it can be discouraging to see friends go out for drinks every weekend or lounge at the beach, all while you’re stuck at home or work. I desperately wanted to catch up with old and new friends, but found myself barely capable of even responding to messages over the summer. And you don’t need to go through a life-changing injury to feel inadequate — capitalism, disability, personal stressors, and the general business of life make it difficult for many to find time for themselves. My solution? Separate your goals from your expectations, and give yourself the grace you deserve. Because of my brain fog, I still struggle to keep up with conversations like I used to, but I’ve learned to let go of my old expectations. There are always going to be things in life you can’t easily change, so why hold yourself to unrealistic standards that overlook your individual situation?

It’s great to have big dreams, but it’s also important to leave room for the mundane. Over the last few months, I regained my ability to take joy in simplicity. I reveled in the progress I made walking to the end of my block and back, to gentle forest walks. I spent more time with my family than I had over the last year altogether, and made peace with the whole “C’s get degrees” mantra. My morning coffee and book are now a highlight of my day. I haven’t given up on my goals, but I’ve given myself permission to slow down and enjoy the ride — and you should, too. 

The best decision I’ve made this year was to disengage from my phone during memorable moments; going for hikes, climbs, and coffee dates without posting to my story. There is liberation in knowing that it doesn’t matter one bit if people don’t know what you’re up to. Now and then I’ll send my friends something neat that reminds me of them, an intentional gesture that’s much more personable than an Instagram story. And if I snap a particularly nice photo that I’d like to share with the world, that’s cool, too. Engage with social media in a way that works for you, but remember — pictures aren’t alive, you are. 

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