When Being “Unproductive” Can Be the Most Productive Thing You Can Do
Equip Team
A black woman sits in a chair in a room full of paintings holding a red mug

We live in a society that measures worth by productivity. Whether that productivity is measured in grades, accomplishments, or goals achieved often doesn’t seem to matter. What matters is doing something — anything, even.

For those in recovery from eating disorders, this constant quest for productivity can become even more complicated due to the fact that eating disorders often feel like an accomplishment in and of themselves. Achieving the goals your eating disorder sets for you and following its self-imposed rules can often feel like progress, too, even though the goalposts are forever moving and shifting.

In recovery, it is common to struggle with the feeling that in order to be worthy, you must still be productive. However, if you can’t do all the things your eating disorder used to order you to do, what is productivity then? How can you still feel worthy if your carers and treatment team are constantly telling you to rest and recover?

Often, the things you’re supposed to do in recovery (rest, relax, distract yourself, etc.) seem like the direct opposite of what you used to think of as productive tasks.

Many patients have identified some of the following activities as feeling “unproductive”:

  • Self-care (such as resting, calling a friend, or making art)
  • Necessary elements of recovery (including time off from movement, exercise, or sports)
  • Resting (getting enough sleep)
  • Having fun! (watching a movie or playing a board game)
  • Taking time away from schoolwork or a job when necessary

While it may seem like engaging in any of the above actions is unproductive (that is, you are not doing them to achieve a goal and aren’t graded on them), doing these things actually is productive. They do have a purpose, too — a very important one.

Self-care, rest, and having fun are important to our lives in another way: they fill up our cup when we have depleted it with stress or exhaustion. They give us energy, recharge us, and bring us joy. They also promote recovery.

Why might you feel this way?

Human beings aren’t made to be constantly moving — physically or emotionally. Constantly working and achieving can lead to exhaustion and burnout, which can negatively affect you in various ways. This is why it’s important to rest, especially when you need to maintain forward momentum in your recovery goals.

One thing that many overachievers have in common is this tendency to always be productive. And despite the previous paragraphs, this actually is a positive temperament trait in life. It’s great to be highly motivated and to have a strong work ethic. But the pendulum can swing too far in the other direction — this shift can lead to immense pressure to always be “busy” or “working,” lest you feel unworthy.

The answer to this predicament, as in the case with so many things, is balance and moderation. It’s okay to try to achieve things. But you also need to rest, especially in recovery, where learning to rest is part of your journey.

Can you learn to love rest?

Depending on your personality, you may not always love rest, but you can learn to appreciate it and enjoy it. You can learn to fight back against the urge to always be productive. It can be helpful to use affirmations when you brush up against these feelings, such as:

  • I am caring for myself and my needs.
  • Self-care isn’t selfish.
  • I can’t pour from an empty cup.
  • I deserve rest.

Productivity and unproductivity can live in balance, as long as unproductivity is acknowledged as a crucial part of both recovery and life itself.

Equip Team
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