You don’t have to be productive right now. Give yourself a f*ing break.
This is issue #4 of my newsletter, Stuff I’ve Learned about Running a Business. You can view all issues here.
TL;DR–Fallow periods are an essential part of building a business. If you’re in the midst of one now, don’t beat yourself up. Instead, respect the dance of rest, replenishment and interconnection that’s happening beneath the surface. You need it just as much as you need those visible bursts of productivity.
A couple of years ago, I wrote a short piece about the wisdom of fallow fields.
First, a short history lesson: In the Middle Ages, it was common for villages to have three fields of farmland. At any given time, two of these fields would grow crops while the third lay fallow. Farmers rotated the fallow fields every year, the idea being that after two cycles of farming, the soil needed time to replenish and restore lost nutrients.
This idea seems especially relevant now, when so many of us are sitting home, feeling depleted and beating ourselves up for how terribly unproductive we are. But there is no need for guilt and shame around our perceived failure to produce. Humans need fallow periods, too.
We all need fallow periods. Yes, even you.
When a field lies fallow, it doesn’t look like much is happening. All the other fields are producing bright and colorful crops; we can watch them change from day to day. But the fallow field is just a pile of dirt. It was a pile of dirt yesterday. It will be a pile of dirt tomorrow.
But within that pile of dirt, a flurry of activity is happening. Worms burrow tunnels that nourish and aerate the soil. Organic matter decomposes into life-giving nutrients. Rainfall gathers into underground water. The health of next year’s harvest depends upon this rich, invisible dance beneath the surface.
Humans need fallow periods, too.
This same dance happens for us, too. Just like fields, humans go through times of tremendous output and productivity and times where we require rest and replenishment. Right now, for so, so many of us, it is time to embrace the latter.
There’s a pandemic going on. Give yourself a break.
I don’t think we’re very good at recognizing this. I think we would rather pretend that we can (and therefore should) always perform at our peaks, that being tired or burned out or undernourished or, you know, living through the worst pandemic in a century ought to have no bearing on our ability to be creative or do good work.
Just like fields, humans go through times of tremendous output and productivity and times where we require rest and replenishment. Right now, for so, so many of us, it is time to embrace the latter.
It isn’t your fault if you feel this way. It is the fault of our culture’s toxic relationship to work and productivity, one that tells us we are not valuable unless we are producing, and in particular, producing something that earns a monetary profit.
So let’s name it. Let’s recognize these wildly unreasonable expectations we have, and where they come from. Let’s call bullshit on the entire notion that we should be our best, most productive selves right now.
Let’s all give ourselves a collective fucking break.
What to do in a fallow period
So, what does one do in a fallow period? If these fallow times are, indeed, essential to our long-term growth and creativity, how can we make the most of them?
Wrong question. That’s exactly the sort of question that the productivity/self-help industrial complex wants you to ask!
Let’s all give ourselves a collective fucking break.
Here are a few better questions to try: What do you need right now? What will nourish and replenish you? What do you feel like doing? What might bring you joy?
If it helps, here’s what I’m doing. I’m exercising daily, without any judgment or preconceived fitness goals, because it makes my body and brain feel good. When I feel like it, I make time for writing, art and other creative pursuits, for these are things that bring me joy, but I’m engaging in them languidly and without end goals. I’m dallying in my garden and admiring my house plants. I’m texting my friends and hopping on Zoom calls with them when we’re both feeling up to it. I’m drinking wine and eating dark chocolate and reading cozy feminist romance novels. When I get caught up in anxiety, I try to remember to savor the moment in front of me (again, without judging or berating myself for feeling anxious), because anxiety usually means I’m missing out on something beautiful in the present.
What do you need right now? What will nourish and replenish you? What do you feel like doing? What might bring you joy?
And yes, I’m working, too. I still hold my future goals in mind. I haven’t abandoned my long-term projects and ideas, though I’ve given myself permission to put them on the back burner.
Most of all, I’m doing my best to remember that things won’t always be as they are now. One day, we will be past this, and we will run into each other’s arms and dive headlong into our most passionate projects and bloom with all the joyful vibrance of a new spring. And we will know that the bright flowers of our creativity are not a judgment on the fallow period that came before. We will know that they do, in fact, depend upon this time of lying fallow.