by Karen DeBonis
In May 2023, I will become a published author for the first time. Learning as I go and with every new tidbit of knowledge, I realize how much more there is to learn—launch teams, media interviews, book readings, blurbs, Amazon and Facebook ads, trailers, preorders… I have to do it all, I think. I have only one shot. I must succeed. Every time I take a break, I think about all I could be doing, everything I should be doing.
Is this normal newbie jitters? Or have I succumbed to toxic productivity?
This term was first coined in the 1970s by New York Times best-selling author Dr. Wayne Dyer. He defined it as:
"a state of mind where people feel they have to be productive all the time, no matter what the cost, be it personal relationships or family life."
Of course, our Western culture was built on unhealthy expectations of work output. Then, when COVID sent many employees home to work, toxic productivity—also called "workaholism on steroids" began to bleed into our personal spaces as well.
But most writers wrote at home long before the pandemic, so how do we know if our drive to create prose or poetry has become problematic?
Some signs of toxic productivity are common to other stress-inducing habits or work environments: sleeping poorly, fatigue or exhaustion, eating too little or too much, foregoing exercise, neglecting relationships, relying on alcohol or other drugs to relax. But there are a few signs that are specific to toxic productivity. Below, I put them in the context of a writer’s life.
1. You feel guilty taking breaks. When your partner sees you in the kitchen getting a snack, you feel the need to defend yourself before you hurry back to your writing desk.
2. Downtime makes you anxious. You’re having coffee with friends, but you can’t concentrate on the conversation, you keep looking at the time, and finally invent an excuse to leave.
3. You resist doing things that are not goal-oriented. You stop journaling or writing for pleasure because those won’t get your WIP done.
4. Time spent doing anything other than writing feels like a waste. You lose interest in hobbies you used to enjoy.
5. You’re hooked on self-help books, webinars, and classes. Although self-improvement is a worthwhile pursuit, you’re never content with what you learn and end up feeling worse about yourself.
6. Achieving your goal is unsatisfying because it signals an end of your productivity. You don’t experience joy and satisfaction in a completed or published WIP, but instead feel anxious and purposeless. (Writers may experience this as post-publication depression.)
If these signs don’t help you make a clear assessment of your writing life, the key identifying characteristic of toxic productivity may clarify your tipping point:
And what if you conclude these signs do apply to you? What’s the big deal?
Like any lifestyle that encompasses chronic stress and an intense workload, we associate toxic productivity with a variety of health risks.
This has me wondering about one of the most common pieces of advice given to writers: write every day.
Could this recommendation fuel an unhealthy drive to produce?
Many creatives excel with this type of consistency. Memoirist Marion Roach — my first IRL writing mentor—insists that writing daily is the key to success:
Jerry Seinfeld’s productivity secret is to use a large wall calendar to mark off days when he writes jokes. "Don't break the chain,” is his motto, meaning don’t allow a day to go unmarked.
Bestselling author Jeff Goins says,
Curious to know more? James Clear, a NY Times bestselling author, investigated the daily routines of 12 Famous Writers, many of whom insist on daily writing.
I don’t write every day, unless you count tweets, emails, texts, and grocery lists. And even if I wanted to sit my behind in my chair and tap away for a set amount of time or a certain number of words, my chronic health issues sometimes make it impossible to concentrate. I know I’m not alone. Is there another model to follow? Is daily writing a must?
I dug a little deeper and was surprised to find many successful writers who do not write daily, like Cheryl Strayed, Carmen Maria Machado, and even Lin Manuel Miranda, creator of Hamilton, who said, "The moment my brain got a moment’s rest, ‘Hamilton' walked into it.”
And I love this by New York Times-bestselling author Daniel Jose Older:
Here’s what stops more people from writing than anything else: shame. That creeping, nagging sense of ‘should be,’ ‘should have been,’ and ‘if only I had…’ Shame lives in the body, it clenches our muscles when we sit at the keyboard, takes up valuable mental space with useless, repetitive conversations. Shame, and the resulting paralysis, are what happen when the whole world drills into you that you should be writing every day and you’re not.
As I look over the information here, I think about my own writing life. I’ve never considered myself a workaholic, but I do find it difficult to stop when I’m in flow with any kind of project. I’m currently finishing up my final manuscript revisions, and it’s been all-consuming. When I need to rest or take a break, I revise. I justify it because soon I’ll be handing my manuscript over to the publisher, and then I’ll establish some balance.
Of course, I’ll have marketing to do…
My writing habits aren’t ideal, but remember that the bottom line of toxic productivity is “producing for the sake of producing,” and I certainly don’t do that. But I’m glad to know the warning signs so I can keep myself from that slippery slope in the future.
As far as our writing routine, perhaps the most important tidbit of wisdom to add to your cache, newbie or veteran, is this: you do you and I’ll do me, as the saying goes. Or, in the much more eloquent words of Daniel Jose Older:
“Every writer has their rhythm. It seems basic, but clearly it must be said: There is no one way.”
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Are you on the slippery slope of toxic productivity? If not, what is “your way?”
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Karen DeBonis' memoir Growth: A Mother, Her Son, and the Brain Tumor They Survived, about the collision of motherhood, people-pleasing, and her son's medical crisis, is forthcoming from Apprentice House Press in May 2023. You can read more of her story at www.karendebonis.com.
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