If you haven’t noticed, I’ve been away from Medium and from writing in general — for 116 days to be exact, or a third of a year. That is a long time to be away from any endeavor, much less from something that a person has committed to doing on a regular basis.
Fortunately, I do not rely on writing as my primary means of income. Unfortunately, I let that exact thought lull me into a prolonged absence away from the keyboard. Coupled with a general lack of motivation, I found myself devoid of both inspiration and reason to write.
One of my goals last year was to write an article each week, a reasonable amount for a casual writer starting out. For a while, I kept to the schedule. It felt good. It felt purposeful. Until life, as it so often does, threw a couple of spanners in the works.
The very real prospect of a marital breakdown. A series of altercations with the head honcho of the company I work for, which was followed jarringly by a baseless accusation of epic proportions.
These events left me feeling bent and slightly broken. I got into a funk that even Bruno Mars could not uptown funk his way out of.
Naturally, I stopped writing. Heck, I pretty much stopped doing anything productive. I Netflix-ed, NBA 2K-ed, and consumed social media and endless YouTube videos to drown out the way I was feeling inside.
Here are the 5 critical lessons I learned while being unproductive for 4 whole months
1. Modern entertainment is a ‘lethal’ drug
Forget recreational marijuana, the drug in vogue. The biggest ‘drug’ that clouds our minds and prevents any of us reaching our full potential could be the modern entertainment that has pervaded every nook and cranny of our lives.
It’s more available than on the streets or your local pharmacy. It’s in our hands, on our desks and in our living rooms. It’s the perfect distraction from our high-paced, highly stressful modern lives. It’s an endless intravenous drip of dopamine highs.
In my state of self-pity, it was easy to succumb to the effortlessness of partaking in social media stalking, consuming BuzzFeed episodes on YouTube, watching Netflix productions and trying to attain level 99 on NBA 2K19 (I stopped at level 91).
The more I got absorbed into various forms of entertainment, the more it got harder for me to crawl out of a state of self-pity and back on track with my goals. The second I decided to turn on my Medium app, another part of my brain was telling me to take the easy route and click over to YouTube instead. The path between the two was only a thumb-click away.
What’s ‘lethal’ about entertainment is that it robs you of progress. A lack of progress leads to unfulfilled potential and lost time. Those lead to regret and self-blame. A slippery and steep slope to irrelevance indeed.
An over-indulgence in all forms of entertainment also robs people of meaningful relationships and interactions.
It is increasingly the reason why personalities like Gary Vaynerchuk, Srinivas Rao and Cal Newport are calling for people to stop consuming social media and other veritable media distractions.
2. The importance of self-care and reflection
Generally, it is difficult to churn out good writing when you’re in a slump. Uninspired writing is soulless, and obvious.
Granted, there are occasions where troubled times can lead to writing that is deeply descriptive and powerful especially if the stuff being written is based on such troubled times. If you’re writing to inspire others though, that’s a different gig.
Many of us are afraid to take a break from ‘productivity’ for fear that we may be letting others down (their regular readers for example), or to keep up impressions and personas that we have created online over time.
A greater, more valid fear is that a writing habit, once broken, will be difficult to start again. Case in point.
Sure, readers will come to expect articles from you upon getting used to your publishing schedule, but the greater disservice to both yourself and your audience is if you don’t take a break and end up with weak content anyway. Your readers can sniff out writing having been written for the sake of it.
How can you take care of your readers if you don’t even take care of yourself?
Breaks are a useful time for healing the spirit, deep introspection and reflection.
On a personal level, this time away from writing gave me new insights into my own psychological makeup with the help of a coach. I gained fresh perspectives on why I often felt various emotion(s) when placed in certain situations. I learned how to deal with these difficult emotions in a non-destructive way.
At a professional level, I managed to sieve out and prioritize the career goals that mattered to me and gained clarity on who I wanted to work for and with.
On a relational level, I learned to tune in to the emotions of others at a deeper level instead of filtering them through my own. It helped tremendously, especially in my marriage.
What I’m trying to say is — it’s perfectly alright to take a prolonged break if you come out of it stronger. I certainly did, and I’m ready to move on.
3. Distinguishing between needing a break and plain laziness
So you’ve determined that you need a break and decide to take one. Well and good. Trouble is, a short break tends to bleed into a series of longer and longer breaks if one is not careful. The line between a well-warranted break and a superfluous one is after all, a thin one.
I certainly found myself slipping into pure laziness, well beyond the point of a decent break. The availability of entertainment surely did not help matters. What’s worse, I justified my laziness by telling myself that I was not ready, that I had not truly healed. If I’m being honest, I was less than truthful to myself.
The dangers are that laziness can very easily turn into a habit given time. If you’re like me and find yourself slipping into laziness from time to time, ask yourself this simple question the next time you find yourself taking longer than justified breaks from your writing schedule:
Am I taking this break because I still feel lousy and have yet to get right with myself, or am I taking a break because I don’t feel like putting in effort?
Your answer will make it plain obvious which is which.
4. Not to be productive for productivity’s sake
When I was being unproductive over the last 4 months, I often felt sharp pangs of guilty for not writing or doing more. After all, why should I be let off the hook so easily when so many self-help experts are touting productivity as a tool that promises to transform the lives of those that practice it religiously?
Our modern world is obsessed with productivity. Articles like this flood our inboxes and pop up on our feeds on a regular basis. Governments call for their citizens to be more productive in the face of global competition and rising labor costs (I’m looking at you, Singapore).
In fact, you’re now not only expected to be productive at work, but in your spare time as well.
What time you wake up; what you do before you get to work; how you spend your time while commuting; what you do between 8 to 10 pm — nothing is free from productivity’s scrutiny.
Just the other day, I read a post written by someone who had, over the course of many years, been so obsessed about being actively productive that she eventually had a mental breakdown and became depressed.
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I recently also came across the article above that changed my perspective on productivity.
“Aiming to be productive is the wrong way of going about it. If you follow your heart and align yourself with what you hold most dear, productivity becomes irrelevant. You’ll achieve, but you’re not wrapped up in it. Your identity isn’t caught up in whether or not you cross everything off your To-Do list.
Your happiness is based on how much you enjoy what you’re doing, rather than completing X number of tasks.”
The lesson is plain to see — do something because it’s what you want to do, not because some experts say it’s the right thing to do.
5. It’s just as easy as it is hard to remain a spectator
We have all been spectators at one point or another in this game called life. At different stages in life, we spectate at different ‘leagues’. We also spectate at different ‘venues’, the biggest of all venues being social media and entertainment.
A spectator watches the game being played out without any real or meaningful participation outside of vocal support. They do not participate in the monetary or socioeconomic rewards that await players that play and thrive in the game.
I found it extremely easy to be a spectator on social media over the last 4 months. Scrolling down on my Facebook, Instagram or Medium feed required next to no effort. I could participate in the joys of others on social media by looking at their beautifully captured photographs — of marriage, a newborn, newfound love and well-plated food.
On the flip-side, it was also incredibly hard to be a spectator when I saw friends moving up the ranks in their careers while mine stagnated, or Medium peers like Luke Rowley bust it out of the park with a constant stream of posts while my account laid barren. There weren’t so much feelings of envy as there were feelings of despair or hopelessness in my own actions and efforts.
You cannot get anywhere meaningful in life by remaining a spectator. Just as spectators don’t get paid the millions of dollars that professional athletes do, anyone who stands on the sidelines cheering others on will never find themselves participating in the full richness that life has to offer, and we’re not just talking money here.
It was terribly difficult to get started on this piece after a long lay-off, but I’m glad I did. I hope the points I covered above resonated with some of you. I’d love to hear what you think in the comments below, especially if like me, you’ve been through a slump.
Thanks for reading.