On Productivity Anxiety

by Rachel Vorona Cote

When I get into bed, one verse from The National’s “Terrible Love” swells from the middle of my skull, rolling across the expanse until it laps against its walls.

“And I can’t fall asleep without a little help; it takes awhile to settle down.”

It’s matter-of-fact perfection. It’s also, for me, a dumb joke, devoid of any lovelorn root. I have a tendency to seek out scraps of text and song that neatly encapsulate a set of circumstances, no matter how mundane. But these days the song foretells a weary predicament: I no longer tacitly accept sleep as a biological imperative. It has become an earned indulgence, something I only deserve when I have labored according to cartoonish standards of diligence. And because I am neither Bob the Builder nor Leslie Knope, I crawl under my quilt awash in defeat, a cacophony of self-reproach jangling inside my head.

My husband Paul, a night-dweller, nevertheless follows for the express purpose of tucking me in. He comes armed with podcasts and ritualistic assurances. Such has become our tradition.

“Did I work enough today? Did I seem productive?” I do not ask so much as beg.

“Yes,” he soothes, and turns on a podcast — measured voices to compete with my nagging brain. I ask variations on the same questions — So, you really do think I was productive? I wrote for hours, right? — until the weighty bulk of my fretting pulls me beneath consciousness.

Professionally, I am three things: freelance writer, teacher, and doctoral student in literature. You can find me wringing my hands at their junction, pained by the macabre joke of my adjunct paycheck and apprehensive that, by pursuing a writing career, I hereby condemn Paul, also a graduate student, and myself to years of financial uncertainty.

This financial uncertainty, I want to clarify, is buffered by the privilege that comes of being two white people steadied by their generous, white middle class parents. The rare predicaments that induce us to seek their help are guilty, shame-riddled events, but whatever unease I experience is swaddled in the promise of a financially sturdy family.

Still I want to make it, in every sense of the word, and I want to do it bootstraps, big-girl-pants style. I want so much that my desires contort into anxieties about the scope of my limits, about the contours of control. I’m seduced by the elusive concept of “enough,” and I grapple with unshakeable suspicions that I have never achieved it.

In my first year as a doctoral student, I tried to kill myself and failed. As I lay in the emergency room, aswoon with Tylenol and ambivalently aware of a heartbeat I recognized as my own, I remembered that I was supposed to submit a term paper the next day. Turning to my landlady who, bless, was sitting at my feet, I asked if she would email my professor and, obscuring the details, explain that my paper would unfortunately be late. Three days later, hours after I was discharged, I emailed him myself to assure him that my essay would be completed within the week. It was.

These circumstances are, of course, rare, but they exist on a continuum where I measure my control over the world according to a metric of productivity. The professor in question is a kind man who, if uncertain as to what had happened, must have guessed at its severity. He thus expressed no concern whatsoever regarding my late paper on Charlotte Brontë’s Villette. But I interpreted the unfinished paper as a promise, a token awaiting its magical purpose. If I could fulfill this one obligation — one that, as a funded graduate student, doubled as my “employment” — then perhaps the life I thought I’d give another go ‘round had not plummeted into a bottomless canyon. Perhaps I was still peeking over its edge, but my heels would eventually grind me into place.

Four years, one divorce, one marriage, heaps of therapy, and a fledgling freelance career later, I’m relieved to have stuck around. But I have not yet learned to work without shame and desperation at my back. Cobbling together a life from writing and teaching gigs, I’ve succumbed to a value metric determined by words written and read, papers graded and student emails answered.

This mindset does not allow for pauses; it does not honor the silent energy of thought. Despite my best efforts to recalibrate, productivity remains, for me, inextricable from the tangible evidence of production itself. Even as I type, I am frustrated that my word count for this essay has not yet exceeded 1,000, although I know that arbitrary number offers little indication as to the composition’s cumulative quality. I forget that I do not want to be further than I am, not yet, because writing is a barbed pleasure all its own.

But more often than I care to admit, I’m dazzled by fantasies of an automaton’s singular focus. Anxiety, my ever-present houseguest, rattles me at times both expected and unforeseen, leaving me with no alternative but to cease work, take a Klonapin, and retreat to bed, Paul and podcasts in tow. When my mother underwent rigorous chemotherapy this past fall, my anxiety attacks wreaked walloping havoc. Often, they were coupled with nightmares so chilling that I began to live them in wakefulness.

These, too, are extenuating circumstances. And yet, what consolation is that when I return to open Word documents, a cursor winking — teasingly, the fucker — midsentence, and scattered ungraded papers? I either achieve my publishing goals, or I do not. My students receive their papers back in a timely manner, or my teaching evaluations run the risk of suffering. I cannot offer myself to the working world with an asterisk and accompanying footnote detailing the ways I have lately suffered.

We all have our asterisks, and as they go, mine is far from uncommon. For this reason, I struggle to interpret my limits without fears of professional calamity. I wrestle with self-forgiveness, straining to see it as something life giving, rather than enfeebling.

These are things that I must learn, and on my own: to set my own pace, and turn away from the fray. Because the Internet’s gaping maw will be there, hungry for content. So too, will social media, with its invitations for unfavorable self-comparison. These must be firmly declined, lest I wallow (and wallowing, of course, is not writing).

Work: this is something I know how to do, at length and well. And in the traditional, labor-based sense of the word, I also know how to be productive. But I long for it to mean something else. I want a productivity unfastened from the concept of unremitting production, production we, I, interpret as meaningful only when it is voluminous and publicly sanctioned. I want a productivity that refers, instead, to humane creation according to one’s own terms and rhythms. How to achieve this? That’s something I’m still learning.

Rachel Vorona Cote is a writer living in Washington, D.C. She is the creator of the “Fake Friends” essay series on Jezebel and has also written for The Rumpus and The Hairpin. Come hang out with her on Twitter here.

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