Over the past decade I’ve developed several rituals and routines to create a structure and schedule for my deep work: the writing and creating that allows me to put my ideas into the world.
I set high standards for myself. As much as possible I try to keep myself to strict routines, in part because I fear that without those structures I’ll go off the rails.
Some days, I do my workout, practice meditation, sit down to write, and words follow. I’m like a well-oiled machine, getting it all done in the time frame that I’ve determined to be ideal.
But I’m not a robot.
Some days, even when I have a plan, the plan doesn’t happen in the structure or within the time frame I’ve set for it.
I fall “off-track.”
Inevitably when I fall off-track I enter a cycle of self-blame, self-shame, and punishment.
I get angry at myself and beat myself up for failing to uphold “my” ideals.
Where “My” Ideals Originated
The Original Source
It’s taken a lot of work around this to recognize that these ideals are, in fact, not mine.
An important point to note here is that this behavior is deeply-entrenched conditioning.
The schedule and expectations that I strive to adhere to did not originate with me. I internalized them based on what I learned from parents, teachers, and caregivers, who learned it from their parents and teachers.
The Recurring Source
Deeply-entrenched beliefs and expectations that we’ve internalized as our own are among the most difficult to eradicate.
The task here is made more difficult because beliefs about what “productivity” looks like is also baked into the “productivity culture” that dominates in much of the west.
Even in an era of digital nomads and remote work, and with the knowledge that people have different chronotypes and rhythms, we still talk about work as being “9 to 5.”
And even among “lifestyle entrepreneurs” and people who left the 9-5 because of burnout or to create a better balance in their lives, there’s a prevailing myth that to be successful requires waking up at 5 am and adhering to a specific and rigid schedule — even though that doesn’t work for many people.
The Neurodivergent Shame
To fall outside of the normative mainstream can feel like an invitation to self-shaming and punishment.
I can trace my shame around work to my elementary school years, when I first realized I struggled to sit at a normal desk to do my work. Like many girls, my challenges often went unnoticed because I was good at compliance. I can sit at desk and give the appearance of being studious and doing my work, even if nothing is happening.
I’ve walked a long road of trial and error to find systems and structures that work for me. But sometimes that isn’t enough to stem the shame.
Despite knowing what my needs are, the luxury of setting my own schedule, and the freedom to design a way of working that works for my neurodivergent needs, I often find myself feeling guilty and “bad” when I fail to answer to the inner time keeper that always seems to be hovering over me.
The Biggest Interference With My Work
That process of self-berating throws me off track further.
The hurtful words I speak to myself damage my self-esteem and cause me to buy into a whole bucket of limiting beliefs.
I’m a fraud.
I’m not worthy.
I’m not good enough.
I don’t deserve success.
I want to be most effective and efficient. To fall short feels like failure. And failure, I’ve been trained to believe, is unacceptable.
Cue the spirals of guilt and shame.
One way out of the guilt is to step back and question the whole premise of the framework.
Here are two insights I gained from this questioning.
My Insights From Questioning the Dominant Narrative
(1) Everything is an Experiment
You don’t know what’s most efficient or most effective without testing
You must be willing to experiment. You must be willing to be inefficient and/or ineffective in order to see what works.
Also, what works best can vary depending on the day or the season or the environment you’re in.
Knowing this, it seems clear to me that getting mad at myself about it doesn’t serve any purpose.
On any given day, I am better served by treating the whole process as information., and then looking at the patterns in that information.
(2) Efficiency and Effectiveness Are Poor Goals
I have taken for granted that efficiency and effectiveness are worthy aims.
But are they?
Being efficient and effective are not the ultimate goal.
Efficient at what? Effective at what?
Creative work and work that is in service to others is not a production line in a widget factory.
The real goal for my work and my time is that the end result of my work be effective in serving others.
The work is not the writing or the creating. The work is the impact the writing has. The work is in showing up with presence.
My work can’t be effective in making an impact if I create it from an energy of feeling not good enough to offer it.
The same is true with the service I offer in person. When I’m in a cycle of shame, punishing myself for failure, making myself wrong, I’m not present.
The energy we hold when we create is more relevant than the time it takes to create.
The Task of Rewiring Productivity Beliefs
Rewiring these deeply embedded beliefs is not a one-time exercise. They are deeply embodied in both my physical body and our culture as a whole.
Awareness of how and when they show up is the first step in the process. Each time these negative thoughts arise, they offer the opportunity to unravel them and loosen the their grip.
This is work we each must do personally and also collectively.
There’s not just one way work.
Ultimately, the way to produce our best work — to work in a way that will have the greatest impact — is to accept how we work best.
And also to accept that this way is not static: it can and will change depending on the day, the season, and a host of other factors.