Productivity and Goofing Off

Lately I’ve found myself in one of those periods — perhaps we might refer to it as “my forties” — in which I’m so overwhelmed with the details involved in just keeping up with the most immediate and pressing tasks ahead of me that not only have I not gotten to do any writing, I’ve barely even found the space to contemplate the possibility of what might write if I had the time.

This makes me profoundly sad.

It’s not just about feeling too busy — it’s about the busy making me feel unfocused and unproductive. As though the big picture is slipping away in the masses of tasks that take up the work day and bleed over into evenings and weekends. And days off: not too many weeks ago, I’d made a pact with a friend to observe the oddity of the Presidents’ Day holiday by really making it a day off, celebrating by lying around reading a novel. Instead, I spent the day catching up on the many work and para-work tasks that just cannot be gotten through in the office. I got a lot done. I couldn’t tell you what, but it was a lot. It was kinda great, and kinda awful.

Another friend recently noted that I’ve come to refer to my plans to take a genuine day off by saying “I’m going to lie around and read a novel.” And as a professor of literature, at least in my not-too-distant past, I’ve got to marvel a bit at the association I’ve managed to build between novel-reading and leisure. Sloth, even: it’s not just reading, it’s lying around reading.

At some point, probably right about when I stopped teaching literature classes, the prior association I’d had between reading fiction and work began to fade. Reading fiction became play again, the way it had been when I was a kid. In part, the sense of fun in reading came back because I let it — I gave myself permission to read whatever I wanted, without any pressure to make use of what I was reading by either teaching it or writing about it. Without any pressure for the reading itself to be important. It was just about pleasure.

What happened shouldn’t come as much of a shock: I started reading more.

I’m looking now for a way to return that sense of play to my writing, to lessen the pressures that my preconceived notions of productivity have placed on it. I want writing to become a retreat from work again, rather than being all about work. I want it to be the thing I can’t wait to escape back into.

In order for that to happen, I think I’ve got to give myself a similar permission not to take it quite so seriously. What might be possible if I didn’t feel the pressure for my writing to be of use — if I didn’t need for it to be important? What if I could let my writing be just about pleasure?

Can I build an association between writing and goofing off?

Can a day spent sitting around writing come to feel like a holiday?


  1. Your blog – or at least my discovery of it – has come at just the right moment for me. 40’s and overwhelmed, busy all the time – and at nothing but “administrivia”

  2. I hear ya, sister. When I was forced onto disability leave a year ago, what did I say to myself? “Well, at least I can read now.” Like, what had I done for my past 17 years as a publisher and a librarian? I too have been trying to rediscover the joy in writing. What’s working? End of the day, instead of (ok, sometimes with) a cocktail, 10 nonstop minutes, only accountability that I MUST send product to someone (friend, colleague, family member) to read. For me, it’s fun and it Works. Give it a try and promise you’ll grind through the first week when applying butt to set is hard. Gets easier, i promise. Good luck and have fun.

  3. Yes – I feel the resonance here too. Before going to grad school I had an office job in Boston. Each day, I would pop out the subway and look longingly into the cafes I passed, where students would be spending hours reading and writing. I REALLY want to spend my day in there too.

    For several years of grad school I could always think about that to remind me what a privilege the academic lifestyle was. But obviously it’s too easy to take things for granted. Now, as a faculty member, I’m trying to find some way to bring that magic back whenever I can set some chunks of time aside for writing.


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