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The second-to-last time I got laid off (from a tech job, just pre-9/11), I was very worried. I had given up a nice steady IBM gig because all my friends were leaving to make their internet fortunes, and I felt I was getting left behind. So I followed a few of them to a dubious (it’s easy to see that now) startup, which lasted, oh, gosh, four months after I arrived? Something like that.

The day we were all informed the place was being shut down by the investors was a typical start-up meltdown writ small. Chaos, gallows humor, exchange of personal contact information. (Remember how in the early 2000s we still had something of that public/private split?)

In the weird atmosphere of festivity/school’s out/the mice will play, another project manager gave me her email and said, “Boy, I don’t know what I’m going to do. I just can’t stand not to be productive! After three days, I’m gonna be running through the woods.”

In an unhinged way, she meant. Not in a super I’ll-take-this-opportunity-to-become-an-ultramarathoner way.

I didn’t really relate. I was panicked, and was going to be very productive looking for another job. Starting that afternoon. Not because I was afraid I’d lose my mind. I was afraid I’d lose my housing. So just like every other time I’d been laid off, I was re-employed within days.

But it was only to be laid off again quickly. This time I took a look around–it was now 2001–and realized: one does not simply get multiple job offers in this environment.

So I did what I’d never done before, and accepted a government handout supplemented with a few hours checking groceries at Trader Joe’s. Then I got myself a boyfriend, and spent a lot of time with him doing things like playing boardgames and watching television. (Another thing I’d never really done before.)

And I did that for months.

People, I was not productive. Aside from persuading a few shoppers to try some new cheese or pasta sauce, I contributed little. But I learned a lot.

The Lessons of Unproductivity

Here are the lessons I came away with:

First, as a society, we have not sufficiently examined the goodness of “productivity” as a goal.

Every day, people continue to give themselves gold stars for being “productive,” even if that means doing things that make no real difference, or only advance someone else’s goals.

Productivity can look an awful lot like mere production, which is a good achievement in a factory but a lousy top priority for an animal. We cannot run our bodies like a dark satanic mill.

Self-care means recognizing the the limits of machine metaphors, and responding to needs–desires, even–that are unruly, sometimes unpredictable, and do not punch in and out on time.

Thus, balance might be a better priority. If anything, maybe the farm metaphor works better, with its need for fallow times.

When we’ve been in a period of great productivity, achieving balance might look like idleness. Many of us have heard that “the devil makes work for idle hands,” an attitude that contributed mightily to our chosen craft of knitting, so I can’t condemn it 100 percent, but still! Idleness can be the antidote.

Or not. If you’ve been following the wider conversation on self-care, you’ve probably seen the recent New York Times piece by Anna North, for whom nourishing work is self-care. People vary.

Gracy Obuchowicz, a self-care coach and Ayurveda expert, says that all of us have our ways of coping. Some of us get idle, and some of us get active. Under stress, we don’t get moderate and return to the center. We get extreme, we do more of what is our tendency, and that’s how we get more and more out of balance. (We’ll hear more from Gracy on staying in balance next time.)

Meanwhile, I like to think my near-year of unemployed lounging will pay off in multi-years added to my life expectancy.

I have no science to offer here. Just a powerful before-and-after experience of how it felt when I stopped driving myself, and how good it felt to return to work–not as a relief from all that louche non-productiveness, but because I was ready to produce something again.

In the comments, I would love to know what you have learned about your own cycles of rest and productivity, and what you do to stay in balance.

More reading:
Work Is My Self-Care, Anna North, The New York Times
image: Tenuta/Ferme/Bauernhof/Farm/Boerderij, firma Jos. Scholz, 1829 – 1880, Rijksmuseum.




About The Author

Max Daniels is a research-based life coach whose weekly emails make us laugh with recognition and rethink everything we thought we knew. Her new book is Meals at Mealtimes. What a concept!


  • I, too, have been through the employed/ then unemployed and needing to find another job to help keep the roof over our heads and educate children. The added degree of difficulty is living in a rural area where jobs are few, so I followed the logic that education is the key and ended up with two university degrees and not too many times with no work. I retired two weeks ago, and on reflection of my life after reading your article, feel the lessons learnt were unintended. Firstly, my education helped but it was not what got the job; it was my readiness and enthusiasm to work. (So be ready to work.)Secondly, my self care in down times was to knit or quilt. These things released my mind from worrying endlessly in a downward spiral, but I thought I was not being productive. ( Any self care is a productive way to bolster your spirit.) Thirdly, looking back, I failed to acknowledge many times that there are things beyond my control that I should have let go of and didn’t, neglecting my self care. ( Don’t sweat the small stuff.) These three lessons have me ready to embark on the phase of life.

  • I had two summers of unemployment and discovered that my best self-care is doing what needs doing (there’s always something) in the yard or the garden. I actually did some gardening-for-hire during that unemployment time. Now that summer might be here (Vermont, you never know) it’s hard to find the right balance because the garden is always calling. But I have a bad knee, which enforces another level of self-care, which is RICE (rest, ice, compression,elevation) every couple of hours. In bad weather, self-care = reading or knitting. Or sometimes a 15-minute nap.

    And all the things that Sandra said are right on the money.

    • Elizabeth, I was in such a bad mood a few weeks ago that I went into my completely dilapidated little garden and yanked out every single goddang weed. It felt AMAZING. I loved it so much, it reminded me of how powerful it can be to spend time with growing things. You are so right about the value of tending to the yard—it is self-care, truly.

  • My oldest child is ten, and while I’ve been good at self-care triage, my life has been pretty frenetic, with homeschooling, church involvement, part-time work, and just generally running after three kids. All three went to school this year for the first time, and after the holidays I entered what I’ve called my “dormancy”. Lots of living things go dormant for periods of time, and require it in order to grow productively at other times. No one knows how to handle my dormancy (except my husband, who is a rock star), so they think I’m depressed or stuck or something. Nope. Just resting. I don’t know when my dormant phase will end, but I don’t really care, either. I’ll know when it’s time to get moving again, just like plants and bugs and hibernators.

    • Really beautiful, Heidi. This is wonderful to hear.

    • I like the word Dormancy, it implies a positive rest, which is absolutely necessary at times!

    • I love how you frame this! I think a lot of us have (and/or need) a dormancy period through our year and framing it in a positive light is so much better than as a bout of the blues.

  • After years of not listening to my body and allowing IT tell me what it needs/wants, so is my New Deal now. I retreat, emerge, create, eat, drink, rest, hibernate, burst with energy, rest, repeat according to what my body needs. I still (that weirdo crazy judge-y voice) have very quiet pangs of guilt during my little pockets of rest time, but I’ve gotten really good at getting it to settle down, reassure it that I am doing something beneficial by not doing anything, and to go sit in the corner and keep the criticism to itself. That was not always the case. But in the approaching summer of my turning-48th year, and my only child/daughter leaving for college the month after that (!), I am all about making me, myself, and I happy. Content. Satisfied. And doing what my heart and body pleases.

    Now, if you don’t mind, I’m going to go back to laying in this hammock counting cloud bunnies….

  • I ‘retired’ the first time at 55. And immediately got a part-time job. Four years later, I have ‘retired’ again, as I am nearing my 60th year, having worked at least 45 of those years (I won’t think about the early teens and babysitting). It’s taking me a bit to relax and realize I can enjoy the grand daughter (who is 4 and we all live together), knit, gardening, and yes, piddle. But every now and then the old ‘you-need-to-be-doing-something-productive’ raises it’s ugly head.

  • I have a propensity to over work. I’ve always worked but once my sons were out on their own I took a much more challenging position. In the ensuing 16 years I’ve changed jobs 6 times, each time with little or no down/decompression time. I see now that that was a mistake. I haven’t been laid off but had contracts come to an end. Each time I was fortunate to be offered another contract that started the next week but in another town or state or country. It’s been an interesting ride but I wish I had opted for more fun, less stress and more nice people.

  • I learned a lot about productivity when I had breast cancer some years ago. I was a stay-at-home mom then, but like many SAHMs I was very busy and never home.

    I pretty much dropped out of all volunteering and even housework except for laundry (weirdly, there’s always laundry, and it’s an easy chore to do in whatever spurts of energy or lack thereof that come along). I just focused on my kids (they were young teens) and husband and taking care of my body. I learned if I wore a scarf on my bald head, instead of a wig, I didn’t have to explain why I wasn’t volunteering for whatever it was that volunteers were needed for.

    This is what I learned: our culture BRAGS about busyness. It’s sort of brag-complaining (related to the humble-brag), but it’s what we pride ourselves on. I wasn’t busy. I was doing a lot of reading, TV watching, and sleeping (well, and being sick). And I got well. I went for walks. I took care of myself, and let myself be cared for.

    I’m well now, with a full life. And I try to catch myself when I’m tempted to answer “how are you?” with “busy.”

    • Love this observation on SAHM life: always busy, never home. Ha!

    • At the tender age of 60, I feel I am beginning to learn and accept the value of self care. Somehow, I have grown up with that work/productivity ethic which goes with feeling guilty when one isn’t either of those things. Mainly for reasons of where I live, I’ve not had more than part time work outside the home. My husband was self employed and I helped in his work as well as taking responsibility for keeping our family running in order to allow him to bring in the money. It worked well, allowed me time to do my own creative thing too. I often felt guilty though, put the family’s needs before my own in order to assuage the guilt. Looking back, I guess that wasn’t the best idea: I should have remembered the first responder mantra of assessing danger to oneself before attempting to help anyone else. But early on I discovered that doing something every day that didn’t need doing again tomorrow kept me reasonably balanced. A couple of rows of knitting, some sewing, almost invariably it needed to be creative to work for me. Now I am embarking on a new phase of life, alone, with the need to earn my keep which I plan to do using my creative skills. But for now I am trying to focus on self care and remembering to be gentle and kind to myself and ride the grief of my husband’s recent loss. I still feel better if I make progress every day, a bit of knitting or some mending maybe, sometimes it is an achievement to do the laundry or the dishes, get some little plants in the ground or weeds out. I doubt I’m very balanced just now but it’ll come, eventually.

      • I’m so sorry to hear of your loss, Nat. Thank you for telling us about what you’re experiencing. Sending you love.

  • Here I am in my 68 year and still hear that phrase from my youth, “idle hands, idle mind”, but not in the sense of getting into the “devil’s work”. It is my upbringing that says, you should be doing something productive and helping, do not be lazy.
    Now in retirement from nursing, I do have more slow time to do my daily jobs, and I try to think this every time I rush around. In an odd way, my arthritis has helped me tone down and take pause to think about myself and what I can and can not do for myself and others.
    I find knitting comforting while listening to an audio book or watching PBS, but proving that “idle hands, idle mind” is still there and gives me a tug back to my childhood.

  • The guilt plagues me. This week I had a bump on the head, which led to a mild concussion: a killer headache, spaciness, and light sensitivity. I was, and still am, to an extent, easily overwhelmed by sensory input. As a middle school teacher, pretty much my job is a full onslaught of sensory stimulation- it’s loud, bright and busy.
    Even with my clear need for rest, I felt guilty leaving school and skipping meetings so I could rest.
    So my question is, how does one overcome the feeling that taking care of yourself is lazy? That by missing a meeting, I’m letting others down?
    My husband thinks I’m nuts because I push myself, but I look around me, and the women I see are all doing the same thing. Some of the men too, but not all of them.
    I’m starting to wonder if this is a gender issue, as well as a self- care issue. Where on earth did we get the idea that our needs come last?
    Of course, logically I know that self-care is important, and working while incapacitated isn’t getting me anywhere, as I’m less effective. But the feelings remain, and it’s always a struggle to give myself permission to rest.
    I’m 45 years old, and one of my resolutions this year is to practice saying no. I’m hoping that I’ll get the hang of it and the guilt will abate.
    Thank you for having this important conversation.

    • Meredith, I salute your resolution to say No! I should write just about that sometime. It is a courageous and sometimes delightful practice. Of course, as a middle-school teacher, you are already an expert at saying No in at least that realm :). Speedy healing to you!

    • I think at least part of the way we overcome it is simply by doing it and discovering that our fears are unfounded. Then it gets easier – “I’ve said no before and nothing bad happened.” Maybe the feelings never go away, but there’s a lot to be said for learning how to gauge which self-talk is valid (“My actions affect other people.”) or less valid (“I am less worthy of love/respect if I decline to do what everyone else tells me I should.”), and how to treat ourselves with the same kindness and compassion we offer to all the other people we love.

    • I’m so glad that the end of the school year is near, Meredith! My sister is a second grade teacher, and summer is always a time for rest and recharging. Hope your noggin heals up fast.

  • Thank you! SO easy to get caught up in the expectations and grind even when you know it is not healthy… but so frightening to think of doing otherwise… Thank you for reminding that it’s all is perspective and how one learns to cope.

  • I’ve found myself very suddenly being much more attentive to what my body is telling me – I’m pregnant. In the first trimester, I would completely crash on the weekends. I’d spend all of Saturday curled up in a chair, reading or knitting. It was so unlike me – I’m normally rushing around trying to do everything. I’m 18 weeks now, and still very tired. It’s so liberating to tell people that no, I can’t do X, I’m tired and want to go to bed. (It’s also a handy get-out-of-jail-free card for things I don’t want to do, so taking care of my spirit as well as my physical self.) Everyone accepts this and tells me I’m doing exactly the right thing. It’s really wonderful.

    The only down side is that most people I’m around won’t let me lift a finger. Luckily my husband trusts me to know my physical limits, so he isn’t always telling me not to lift this or move that. He’s always there when I ask for help, but he respects me enough to wait for me to ask.

    • My daughter’s OB-GYN called this “playing the Princess card.” They had just moved into their first house, which needed A LOT of work, when she discovered that she was pregnant. By way of suggesting that she NOT get involved with toxic agents like scraping crud off the kitchen floors or washing the walls, this doctor suggested that she play the Princess card, but left it up to my daughter to know when to play it and when to pitch in. It worked beautifully! May it work as well for you, and congratulations on that baby! You’ll be busy enough soon… enjoy this lull while it lasts. And besides, making another person inside your body is work enough!

    • Congratulations, Kate! So excited for you. And it sounds like you’re taking good care of yourself–enjoy this amazing moment in your life.

  • Balance means different things at different times in one’s life. Before retiring, I balanced stressful work with a certain amount of obsessiveness about my hobbies. I *needed* the hobbies to offset my soul-sucking job. After I retired, initially I slept a lot. Since then, finding a new balance has been an ongoing process. I thought I would disappear into my garden, but that didn’t happen. I thought I would knit, knit, knit, but my approach to fiber hobbies has become more measured and thoughtful. I still need a lot of solitude but I also make a point of getting out and about on a regular basis. I realize just because I do something for a year or two, I don’t need to do it forever. Or if I stop participating in something, that doesn’t mean I never will again. Balance needs to be flexible.

  • Hi Max,
    Thank you so much for these tips – hope some of the people will incorporate them as healthy habits and start having more free time!
    Happy to inform that this article has been included in our recent Productivity Articles Roundup! Please find the entire list here:
    Aleksandra at TimeCamp

    • Thank you Aleksandra 🙂

  • Self-care? Give me a break. You try raising children AND taking care of sick parents. That is a job in and of itself, and it is 24/7. There are no days off. No family vacation. No monetary remuneration. Every day has a curve ball. I got so very very tired of social workers and people asking me “how do you do it? How do you feel?” You put one foot in front of the other. You get out of bed in the morning. If you cry, you do it in the shower. Your (supportive) husband puts your occupation down as “caregiver.” Yes, when that part of your life is over, there is a huge hole. You realize at your age you have spent the “better years of your life” caring for your family. But you do not regret it, nor do you philosophize it. Life does not always give us choices. And to the people who told me how I was “modeling it so well for my children?” – I wouldn’t be surprised if my kids ran the other way, though I know they will not.

    However, you did get a lot of knitting done.

    • Yes, indeed – that is a job, full stop. And, as I notice people increasingly pointing out, a good argument for universal basic income. I’m thinking a lot about this lately – the “best years of our lives” part and the “no monetary remuneration” part…

      • It will be reflected in my dismal social security check, when I get there. And truth be told, this problem is only going to increase … when it does – and will – impact a family emotionally and financially. Medicare, much to people’s surprise – does not cover a skilled nursing facility or long term care, and it is so very very easy to eat through a parents’ life-long savings as well as the value of their house. And with proposed cuts to Medicaid … I can, unfortunately, begin to imagine.

        The only thing augmented was my Ravelry queue.

  • When I was unemployed in my 20’s, I stayed happy by making things- painted tiles at one of those pottery painting places. Came with built-in comraderie midday when my boyfriend and roommates were all at work. I still love the gifts I made that year- in my sister’s and mom’s kitchens. Thanks, this is a great reminder of the seasonality of things. So true that many are busy but not productive…

  • For those still employed: I worked harder than necessary, got great reviews, and made money for the company. I got paid the same as those who met minimum expectations. FWIW, if I had it to do over I would have prioritized my garden over General Ledger.

    • Augh! That stings. And thank you for that reminder – I’m self-employed, but I still need to hear it.

  • With a fulltime job that often feels mostly soul-sucking, I love – need – my creative outlets: knitting, crocheting, sewing, gardening – but sometimes I feel I get obsessive about them too. I mostly craft to shrug off the daily grind. And the creative outlets are a joy most of the time – but there are times when I also feel I overdo them, due to the ingrained message about idle hands. “I want to knit” is really “I should knit” sometimes. I can’t watch TV without knitting, I can’t read a book but must do audiobooks so I can continue knitting or gardening, etc – or I feel ‘lazy’. Last month, I went away with a group of friends and I had ‘a typical college weekend’ – we stayed up late laughing, we slept late and then I even napped for a couple hours on a gorgeous Saturday afternoon. I woke from my nap feeling so good, knowing that if I had been home, I would have felt too guilty about all the undone things – yardwork! housework! laundry! groceries! knitting project! It was an interesting reminder of how good it felt to do absolutely nothing for an afternoon. Obviously, we have to do work regularly to get things done. But I found myself really thinking about balancing my life more with some ‘do absolutely nothing’ time. That means not even crafting, if the desire to craft is coming from thoughts of ‘well, I HAVE to get that project done’ rather than ‘it would be nice to do a little knitting right now’.

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