My mom mentioned yesterday how she wishes she could be more productive during this pandemic period. She is not alone in her wish. I know many people struggle to accomplish what they once did before the current crisis disrupted their lives. My mom was active as a Holocaust lecturer before the coronavirus hit. Right now she tries to be productive by walking seven miles a day. I also expect myself to walk a lot of miles and will sometimes march in place in our bedroom if I need a few more steps to reach my daily goal.
I am on the fence about whether the person who designed the step-counter app should be congratulated or punished. I sometimes remind some of my sport psychology clients that you can’t punish yourself into becoming a better athlete. I also remind myself that you can’t punish yourself into becoming a better person. One way people punish themselves is through productivity guilt. I once thought that productivity guilt is something you eventually outgrew, but my eighty-something mother reminds me that she is as motivated to improve herself now as she was decades ago.
It is a challenge to balance the need for self-improvement with the need for self-acceptance. Without acceptance, self-improvement becomes a slippery slope where you’re constantly feeling behind and inadequate. Ironically, there are plenty of highly successful people who feel lazy and inadequate no matter how much they accomplish. From my experience, the people who worry the most about being lazy never seem at risk for it—just as the people who worry about leaving the stove on never seem at risk for that.
I think what driven people are most at risk for is unhappiness—which is what anyone is at risk for who doesn’t make happiness a priority. One of the keys to happiness is to not come up with a formula for it that makes other people miserable. Often the job of a therapist is to point out how individual formulas for happiness might be negatively impacting a marriage and a family. I remember my dad was so consumed by the need to be productive that he declared television his enemy and insisted it be our enemy too. Whenever he saw us watching it, he accused us of wasting our time with “that idiot box.” I sometimes hear the word idiot box in my head when I feel if I’ve been watching TV for too long. As adults, we have the freedom to decide what is good and bad for us. We don’t have to listen to any authoritative voices from the past. We can become our own authority and live by our own rules. We can decide to give ourselves a break.