Disclaimer: I am writing this blog to share my newfound way of thinking, in case it may be useful or inspiring to someone. I am not endorsing this as a lifestyle choice for everyone and not saying that this is how we should all view productivity – I welcome people to share and discuss their way of viewing each day, should they wish.
There is no doubt that the past year has changed all of our daily routines immeasurably. We’ve been forced to adjust to new ways of being and new emotions. We have had to find new ways to relax, to be with each other, and to support each other. Through all of this, a positive and unexpected change in my life has emerged: I have redefined what I view as a ‘Productive Day’. I have always been one for constantly working, producing something creative, doing things with my day – even as a child, I felt I had to be “doing something” each day. However, during 2020, my brain became accustomed to days focused around kindness and inspiration, as opposed to constantly churning out work, meeting goals and deadlines and “doing something” important.
Last March, when the country went into lockdown, I suddenly found myself without work – I was due to start back at my seasonal waitressing job in April and any freelance work I had planned all but dried up – and so, I had to find a new way to fill my days. I was extremely fortunate to spend my lockdown at home. We were blessed with endless sunshine in the spring, and though life during a pandemic threatened to have an over-arching ‘grey’ tinge to it, spending time in the sun and being with my family helped each day tick over. I spent time outside, taking photographs, writing and doing research for From Home: a project that was both accelerated and halted by our new living conditions.
Despite the weather and extremely good fortune of my living conditions, less than a month into lockdown I began to feel an overwhelming worry – worry that I would look back on this endless free time as a wasted opportunity. Such free time was something that I probably would not have again for a long, long time. The pressure to create and become world-class at making photographs, design and writing began to pile on. The search for some kind of job that I could work at from home was constant, tiring and unfruitful. My days were not productive, in my eyes, and I was punishing myself for it. During my time at University and beyond, I had raised my expectations of productivity so high that I ended up striving for constant production of creative work and settling for nothing less.
This all changed when one day in May, I took a walk up Glen Tilt: the place where I grew up, and somewhere that I will never tire of spending time in, talking about, or learning about. The sun had his hat firmly on, as I clambered over the hills and moors to take photographs for including in From Home. I spent the whole day up there almost, taking long winding routes, seeing sheep, mice, and all kinds of little wonders of wildlife. The River Tilt flowed steadily and swished over rocks under ancient bridges. My headphones were in, playing the new TOPS album on repeat. I had my cameras with me for company and plenty of colour film and memory cards: which were quickly filled. For the first time in a long time, it felt like a very Productive Day. I slept well afterwards, and felt refreshed and revitalised – not, however in the way that I had expected. Instead of feeling motivated to be producing work and completing tens of projects, I channeled my revitalisation into redefining what a Productive Day for me would be.
(Importantly, it did not matter how many or how few of the below questions I asked myself and achieved.)
- Instead of asking myself how many new work opportunities I had found, I asked myself how many positive interactions had I had with the people I care about. Had I checked in on my friends? Had I made someone in my family smile? Had I used my time to make someone’s day better in any way I could?
- Instead of comparing myself to others who were working and producing beautiful work, I asked myself if I had been inspired that day. Had I read something moving? Had I educated myself and empathised with someone else’s world through a podcast? Had I watched something that changed the way I look at my creative practice?
- Instead of asking myself why I hadn’t completed any work or bettered my craft, I asked myself how I would like to do this in future. How could I carry on with From Home? What new skills would I like to learn one day? How could I apply my current skills to new projects?
- Instead of wondering why I had not achieved greatness, I asked myself if had I been kind to myself. Had I spent some time in the sunshine and fresh air? Had I taken time to sit and refocus my thoughts? Had I been drinking plenty of water and eating well?
With my new outlook on what the phrase “Productive Day” could mean, I began to find making work easier. From Home continued to come together slowly but surely, and was a real creative focus and source of connection for not only me, but also for all of those locally who shared their stories with me. Letters exchanged had more than an ounce more significance than previously, and phone calls to check up on each other were all the more appreciated. These seemingly menial interactions that we take for granted suddenly had been heightened in my estimations, and could make for a feeling of being productive.
Of course, my newfound way of viewing each day could be seen as giving myself a lot of slack – it probably is. How was I going to push myself and achieve things, or adjust to working life when it returned, when I had an inner feeling of praise and achievement at even the slightest thing? For me, it was all about nurturing myself and others around me so that when life did become hectic with work and deadlines, I was ready to embrace it and keep a healthy outlook. I recognise that this way of thinking would not work for everyone – I myself am a control freak, and even now, don’t ever like a day to feel “wasted” or go by with nothing having been done. All that has changed is my definition of productivity, and the questions that I ask myself at the end of each day. I feel grateful for every single day and every menial achievement.
The Watermill café which I work at opened in mid July and I returned to working 9am-4pm for 5 days of the week, in arguably more challenging circumstances than before: workers across the country had to adjust to wearing masks all day, our skin had to become accustomed to constant washing and irritation from sanitisers, we had to do the un-human and physically keep away from anyone and everyone we met, and interactions between people had to be altered. There was a responsibility to keep everyone safe, and do the right thing. In this environment, I tried to carry on with my new way of viewing productivity – had I helped a customer out? Had I made their experience that little bit easier or enjoyable? Had I made the time to talk to someone who needed it? Alongside this, I also kept my new ethos of maintaining positive interactions with those I care about, spending time outside, consuming inspirational content and so on. The Watermill closed, as it does every year, at the end of October.
I went on to self-publish From Home in November. It slid into my hope of publishing in Autumn by the skin of its teeth, but it was completed, and looking back now, could not have come at a better time. Though I could not have a launch party of any kind, nor thank you party for those involved, I was lucky to able to distribute the local book orders at peoples’ doorsteps and in doing so, be a bit of distanced company for even just a moment, during days in which light disappeared almost as early as 4pm. The book and stories within it brought people together in excitement and reminiscence from the end of November right through until Christmas, in a village which was feeling considerably quieter than years before. In fact, From Home continues to bring people together even now – through letters which have been sent to me from those who read the book, to emails, to being a light-hearted topic of conversation when people pass in the street. The biggest joy about publishing From Home has been hearing that it makes people smile, or acts as a bit of company when they are alone.
In January 2021, a new lockdown was introduced. Admittedly, I have since had to retrain myself on finding productivity in everyday things. To find myself at the start of another year in another lockdown with no work to fill the time felt… difficult. I had not taken the time to reflect on what I had taught myself in 2020, and what I had achieved. Instead, I had started making vast to-do lists and setting goals for what I needed to do in this lockdown to ensure that I never found myself in this position again. Unsurprisingly, this did not work. Constant pushing of creative energy (which was draining fast, as it is for so many of us at the moment – don’t worry, we’ve got this. Be kind to yourself) and a sense of under-achievement came flooding in. This time round, there were no sunny days. The sun’s hat was firmly away in his cupboard. I would find, however, that you can find sunshine in other ways during the day.
By February I realised why I was feeling this way. I was asking myself all of the wrong questions at the end of the day: why are you no closer to achieving what you want? Why have you not created anything? Why are you not writing a second instalment of From Home by now? What are you going to do?
I needed to find my questions from last summer, and ask myself those instead. With this in mind, I spent my time consuming inspiring content – with a focus on film photography, and most importantly, film photography in Scotland. I also aimed to help out others each day, to bring a smile to someone, to support those whom I loved who needed it. I engaged in print swaps with people who inspired me. I had phone calls with friends and asked how they had been getting on. I spent my days being productive in the ways that I had discovered last year.
After focusing on the small things every day, at the beginning of February, I released a zine called Abstract Cities. The response was overwhelming, and the connections made through doing this piece of creative work have continued to bring me inspiration every day. I am being kind to myself, and most importantly, others around me.
Small though my daily achievements may seem, I feel productive.