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Productivity vs. Chaos: How to Hit a Balance

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Photo by Tom Burke.

There seems to be two prevailing attitudes when it comes to the pandemic.

First, there is the productivity school of thought.

This generally means plans to finally finish that novel (hell, maybe write several novels) while simultaneously organizing your cellar, planting a garden, homeschooling your children, and participating enthusiastically during Zoom meetings with amusing background filters.

Next, there is the chaos approach. 

This usually involves a lot of home-baked carbohydrates, a distinct lack of pants, and (if you’re Ina Garten) a martini glass full of Cosmopolitans the size of your head that you’re hitting like a sledgehammer well before noon.

Please keep in mind: I am not judging either stance.

The funny thing is, I have seen both of these mindsets (albeit in far less extreme forms) for years. Some writers wildly overestimate their capacity, for writing and for other things, and then beat themselves up when they fall short of the mark.  Others may drag their feet, despondent over the state of their writing (or lack thereof) to the point of indulgent hopelessness.

What I’d like to do is offer a few tips for both sides of the spectrum, in the hopes of alleviating some related stressors and soothing the rough patches that you might be experiencing in “these uncertain times.”

You are probably going to accomplish less than you think.

How many of you have seen the tweet going around that says: “Just a reminder that when Shakespeare was quarantined for the plague, he wrote King Lear?”

To quote my 13-year-old son: “Five bucks and a box of Froot Loops says you’re not going to write King Lear.

In fact, it’s not only unrealistic, it’s detrimental to hold yourself to those kind of standards. You don’t need to be Shakespeare. You just need to be the best writer you can be (and “can be” encompasses the current circumstances), and trust me, that will be more than good enough.

You also don’t need to complete a masterwork while under lockdown. That kind of pressure can be distressing when we aren’t facing a global pandemic. Do you really need to add those expectations on top of things?

You especially don’t need to think in terms of completing a novel if you have other concerns. For example, you’re homeschooling kids now unexpectedly, you’re trying to negotiate a work-from-home job due to quarantine, and people you love are high risk or immunocompromised. These are valid concerns and should not be dismissed in the name of Hustle Culture.  Just because you can, theoretically, be productive, doesn’t mean you have to “do all the things!”

Some might argue that keeping busy helps keep their mind off the more dismal realities, and I am all for that… if you’re cognizant and careful. What can appear to be optimism and an almost aggressive positivity can turn into mania if you don’t shore up your foundation and take care of yourself. The consequence of mania is usually a subsequent messy crash. And you certainly don’t need to berate yourself if you slip and fall on the perilous path to productivity.

But you can probably do a bit more than you think.

It is also easy to freeze in the face of overwhelming anxiety.  If you can’t manage to get out of pajamas (again, no judgment) the idea of writing a chapter might seem insurmountable. Easier to dive head-first into that tube of cookie dough and binge watch Tiger King.

The thing is, it may seem to be helping you, but if you’re still feeling anxious (and then a bit nauseous, by both the dough and the show) at the end of the day… it’s not actually self-care. It may be escapism, and it may feel like the best you can do at the time. But ultimately, it’s not doing you any favors.

Writing may feel like the last thing you want to do, and that’s understandable. You might want to start with other self-care elements first.

I can’t emphasize this enough: start small. Like “I am going to drink a glass of water right now” small. Or “I am going to take a ten-minute walk, while practicing social distancing” small. Or even “I am going to put on a clean pair of pajama pants.”

When you do get to writing, don’t think in terms of your usual word count, either. Cut it in half (or quarters) if you’ve found yourself unable to write. Be gentle. You can work your way up from there.

The key is to do things that makes you mildly uncomfortable. It’s like rehabbing an injury. You don’t want to go from major sprain to running a marathon, but you don’t want to just sit on the couch, either. Push just to the point of discomfort, then give it a rest. Then go again.

Don’t compare, don’t despair.

In an Instagram age, it’s easy to see “what everybody else is doing” and feel like a failure. Looking at people crafting, or doing elaborate puzzles and games with their kids, or plunging through their latest work in progress, can be demoralizing if all you’ve managed is to get through Season 1 of The Wire on Amazon Prime while devouring Cheetos. But even when we aren’t in a medical crisis, remember: don’t compare someone else’s carefully curated highlight reel with your own blooper reel. Everybody has Cheeto days.

On the other hand, take advantage of technology. Now is not the time to cut yourself off from people (well, yes, physically, but not socially.)  It’s also easy to fall into the echo chamber of negativity and fear. Getting support from others, and providing support for others, can be a huge help. Get yourself connected. (For example: Writer Unboxed has a Facebook page [1]. Reach out if you’re feeling swamped!)

Hang in there.

No matter where you land on the productivity/chaos spectrum, this will not last forever. And we’ll always be there for each other.  Have faith, or connect with someone who can believe enough for the two of you for a little while, and we’ll come out on the other side.

How are you holding up? What would you say to a member of our writing community, to offer support?

About Cathy Yardley [2]

Cathy Yardley is the author of eighteen novels, published with houses such as St. Martin's and Avon, as well as her self-published Rock Your Writing series. She's also a developmental editor and writing coach, helping authors complete, revise, and get their stories published. Sign up here [3] for her newsletter to receive the free course Jumpstart Your Writing Career. [3]

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