This year, I stopped being productive. Why is it so hard to come to terms with that?

What have you achieved this year? Perhaps that question causes your chest to swell with pride – or perhaps you are now looking back at the vista of a somewhat disappointing year, good intentions fallen by the wayside, vowing to do better in 2022.

My year is a tale of two halves. I spent the first six months in a frenzy of activity – finishing off and then promoting a book, ticking off solid, bankable achievements, and then … well, not very much since.

That wasn’t the plan: I had imagined that after a long holiday after my book was published, I’d return to full productivity in the autumn, pre-emptively making to-do lists and outlining my goals – but the energy to do those things has yet to materialise. In fact, I have written barely anything in months.

It’s not burnout – I don’t think. I’ve experienced burnout before, but this feels different. It is more of a general (and wholly involuntary) slowing down, one that’s forced me to drastically rethink my desired goal of being 100% productive, 100% of the time, and the idea that that’s even humanly possible. It’s been a tough pill to swallow. I find myself ricocheting between frustration and shame about my recent lack of productivity, and feel intense guilt about doing only the bare minimum, which is all I can muster the energy for right now. I feel I am letting myself down, that I am wasting my time.

And yet I know that I have more to offer the world than just my labour. I don’t believe that my personal worth is defined by my productivity – but I am keenly aware that my material reality is. Especially being self-employed, my professional success and my finances are tied to how productive I am, and so the stress of not working is acute, because if I am not working, then I am not earning money, or even laying the groundwork to do so at a future date.

Where does the idea that we can achieve, or should even be aiming for, endless productivity come from? Arguably we’ve been barrelling towards this conclusion for as long as capitalism has existed, but the technological advances of the past few decades have further eroded the barriers around work that stop it seeping into every aspect of our lives. There is a widespread cultural fetishisation of productivity, with overwork framed as a virtue by employers desperate to find ways to motivate a workforce for whom the traditional rewards – a decent salary, pension, job security – often no longer apply.

There has been some pushback against this in recent years, specifically with the rise of the anti-work movement – the notion that we might begin to claw back our time from the crushing grind of overwork. But even as I vow to reframe my views on productivity, I have to confess that only half of me really wants to – the other half just wants to work.

The process of coming to terms with my reduced productivity has borne an uncanny resemblance to the five stages of grief: denial (pushing through); anger (at myself); bargaining (allowing myself a holiday in exchange for the increased productivity I assumed would subsequently follow); depression (I think that one’s pretty self-explanatory); and now I find myself tentatively, begrudgingly, edging towards acceptance.

Still, I’m prone to occasional pangs of envy. How does she do it? I whisper to one friend about another, who seems to juggle an unfathomable number of commitments without pause. I am half hoping to hear that said friend injects herself with a cocktail of miracle vitamins each morning, something I could emulate. It is not her achievements I covet, but rather her energy levels, and what I, too, could achieve were I able to apply them to my own life. Even though I know at an intellectual level that one cannot constantly operate at full force, I am still working on applying that logic to myself.

So that is my big realisation of 2021. That my brain’s natural limits are not something to be outmanoeuvred or somehow “hacked”. That work needs to be counterbalanced with periods of rest – probably more rest than we generally think necessary, given a working culture that typically only allows for 25 days of annual leave a year (if you’re lucky). That the need for rest is especially pressing when one is operating in a state of constant high alert – during, for example, a global pandemic – when the conditions of everyday life can change from moment to moment, and where the mere act of existing feels suspiciously like work.

So I’m allowing myself a little grace. If your year has been less fruitful than you’d planned, I hope you’ll allow yourself some, too.

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