An Underlying Request for Affirmation

Reflections on our obsession with productivity

Jan 23, 2024

Human Condition New Year Reflections Self-Care Soul
vintage analog alarm clocks

Photo by Ahmad Ossayli

Only three weeks into the new year and I’m already exhausted. Could it be the dreary weather, the lack of sunshine and daylight? Or could it be the all-too-familiar “new year’s rush”? That sense of jumping on the bandwagon of creating goals and resolutions and intentions and then trying to stick to them without fail. Wanting to do all the things. Eat healthier, exercise more, make all the necessary appointments, read the books, declutter the house, reorganize every nook and cranny. It all sounds great in theory and in your planner, but is it realistic? Or even healthy?

All I know is that it’s mentally and physically draining. What is our culture’s obsession with productivity? Why can’t we rest, be at ease? We have to take classes, go on retreats, or use apps just to learn to be mindful and present. And these become just more things to add to our never-ending to-do list.

I get it. It feels great to be productive; it gives us an endorphin high. But it’s almost as if we have collectively built a tolerance for productivity and need more “hits” to feel anything. No longer does cleaning our entire house in one weekend feel like we did enough. We must also wash the car, bake cookies, volunteer at our church, reply to every email, and stock up the refrigerator too. Crossing things off our list is the modern-day drug of choice.

It doesn’t help that everywhere we turn, we receive messaging along the lines of “you’re not doing enough.”

Someone somewhere is always doing more, accomplishing more, and social media has made it simpler than ever for us to find out about it. And the pace at which our society functions is another culprit. If we want to rest or slow down, we are going against the grain, fighting an uphill battle meant to keep us moving.

There is nothing inherently wrong with goal-setting or trying to accomplish things. In fact, I am envious of those who do, the ones who are ambitious and able to keep their eyes on the target and make their dreams a reality. What a wonderful trait to have—self-discipline. But at what cost? If it’s affecting our mental health, is it worth it? I’m left to wonder if perhaps a small part of them, too, is influenced by the messaging.

Aren’t we all, at the root, chasing the same things at the end of the day?

Belonging, acceptance, validation, a sense of worth. It seems behind every attempt at achievement lies an underlying request for affirmation. Whether in trying to finish housework, find the cure for a disease, or build the next space station, we desire recognition of some form. Even if it’s a simple “thank you,” it helps us feel valuable. And who doesn’t desire that?

So we keep trying, we keep pushing papers, crossing things off our list. Even if it feels like everything we do is not enough, we continue with the hustle. Hoping our productivity will save us from having to face ourselves. If we keep busy, we avoid dealing with all the debris that has built up in our soul. Who has time for that? Sitting with our stuff is a nuisance, it seems.

Humans have devised many a clever way to evade the painful parts of the human condition.

Busyness and hustling are just a few of them. Often masked as productivity, our avoidance can persist, unquestioned. We are seemingly accomplished, and our strategy is effective. But is it? It may appear like we have our ducks in a row, but our mental and emotional well is dry; our tank, running on empty.

We may be able to fool everyone else, and even ourselves for a while, but eventually the debris pile becomes so high, we’re forced to call in the clean-up crew. The soul peeks its humble head and beckons us to stop by. It invites us to put down our lists and sit with it for a while, ask it how it’s doing. It knows we’re tired and drained. Maybe tomorrow we can get back to saving the world, but today… we rest.

If you are weary, this is your permission and invitation to slow down, to take your eyes off the prize for a second and breathe.

This is your reminder and mine that it’s ok to not do all the things. Do a few things well and let go of the rest that is weighing you down. Let there be blank spaces in the planner, it’s ok. If you still feel the urge to fill them, do it instead with activities that will replenish your well and nourish your spirit. Take time to heal. If there are wounds that need tending, tend to them. Be brave enough to face what you have used the busy card to avoid.

Maybe if we all did this consistently, we wouldn’t be looking to excessive productivity for validation. Maybe we would instead take responsibility for changing what we tie our self-worth to. This is soul work, my dear, and it’s lifelong. Something we can never cross off any list.