I’ve been a productivity nut my entire life. I think that got compounded when I studied the principles of engineering and then went on to work at one of the largest consulting companies in the world. The idea behind “productivity” is the value of “efficiency." The need to maximize your time. The need to optimize your time. The inherent principle is that your time is the one currency you can’t replenish when you run out.
Prior to being a cancer patient, for me, being productive meant doing activities that produced value for others. When I say others, I essentially mean my “job." I’ve had the honor and privilege of working in healthcare. This has meant that all my “jobs” have had missions.
Dedicating time to a mission is both a privilege and an honor. How could I not give it everything I have? All my time.
I didn’t consider any items in the following list to be “productive."
• Taking a break
• Binge watching Netflix
• Reading a novel (that wasn’t work-related or would improve my professional capabilities)
• Staring at a blank wall
• Working out
• Drinking a cup of coffee in silence (and not multitasking)
• Standing in lines (at a store, or a restaurant)
• Writing poetry
• Painting (albeit badly)
• Making creative things that don’t serve a purpose
• Cooking (if it took more than 10 minutes, it was too much time)
• Doing laundry (I bought enough underwear to last me a LONG time)
Over the last 2 years, the meaning of productivity has drastically changed. I think hitting rock bottom can do that to people. For me rock bottom came during chemo. For a period of 6 months, and then for a period of another 9 months, I received infusions. My first few rounds of infusions were time to get work done. I was that awful patient who would take work calls from the lobby outside the waiting room. I would be on my laptop slacking away from the chemo chair until the benadryl pumped into my veins and put me to sleep.
It was only after my second cycle of chemotherapy that it dawned on me my body was being beaten up.
The first round of chemo was similar to being punched in the gut. It knocks the wind out of you, but you give it a bit of time, and you recover. The second round of chemo was akin to being punched multiple times until you are knocked unconscious. Yet, I felt I could work. Some part of me needed to work. It distracted me from all the suffering. It helped focus my mind on work — I was doing my part during the covid pandemic. I was leading the efforts to build a rapid PCR test for covid-19. That was more important than battling cancer.
The transformation happened slowly, almost without me noticing. When you are physically debilitated and emotionally exhausted, sometimes the only “productive'' thing you can do is sit on the couch and binge watch Netflix. Sometimes when you are so drained, the only words that come out are sentence fragments. I later learned that these fragments, when strung together, could form a poem. My framework of productivity began to shake. With infusions every 3 weeks, I’d get about 80% of myself back before the next cycle. My old self would creep back in. But cycle after cycle, the concept of productivity completely transformed.
Today, productivity takes on a very different meaning for me. I still work with and at mission-driven companies. I am still that person who values every minute of every day. I am still that person who gets impatient standing in lines. I still can’t stay still.
However, today, I can…
• Spend time staring at a blank wall. I’ve come to realize that emptying my mind is what calms me, and ironically, leads me to new ideas.
• Take a break. I’ve come to realize that taking a break means pausing for a 30-minute window in the day and just sitting.
• Breathe. I’ve tried (and continue) to meditate.
• Cook. I’ve gone from being a hopeless cook to making edible meals. I find joy in creating my own recipes (even if I’m the only one that can eat it)
• Paint. I take time every other week to spend 30 minutes with watercolors.
• Write poetry. I now have books and books of poetry. Some day, when I am courageous enough, maybe I’ll share a few lines.
• Making creative things that don’t have a purpose. I bought a kit to make a toy wooden boat to sail in the pond at Golden Gate Park.
• Work out. I love it. It gives me strength and fortitude.
• Read a novel. I try to read daily. For pleasure and work.
• Binge watch Netflix, without guilt.
• Rest. I can sleep in.
I still can’t get myself to do laundry.
The notion of productivity has evolved. It’s no longer about being productive for others. It’s about living life to my fullest.
For me, it now includes doing the seemingly mundane and useless. It includes doing things that are pointless and without explicit purpose. These things are now imbued with a meaning they didn’t before. My new definition of productivity is living the time I have to its fullest.