Wellness Didn’t Save Us. Neither Will Productivity

Dr. Pooja Lakshmin explains why "life hacks" are actually part of the problem.

Wellness Didn’t Save Us. Neither Will Productivity
Dr. Pooja Lakshmin, MD speaking about her new book, Real Self-Care. 

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This summer I'm building in some breathers into my newsletter schedule while also sharing with you all some of my personal fave newsletters. If you are not familiar with Dr. Pooja Lakshmin's work, you are in for a real treat. I loved her book, Real Self-Care: A Transformative Program for Redefining Wellness (Crystals, Cleanses, and Bubble Baths Not Included) which combines her expertise as a perinatal psychiatrist with deep and practical understanding of the systemic forces that makes life so difficult, especially for moms. Today I'm sharing, with her permission, an edition of her wonderful newsletter, Therapy Takeaway, which you definitely should subscribe to. This piece touches on a number of themes I've written about in the past, like what our devotion to wellness cures costs us, and breaking the spell of capitalism, but with her own fresh insights and very practical takeaways. I hoping you find yourself nodding along as much as I did when I read this. Enjoy! - xox Katherine

Wellness Didn’t Save Us. Neither Will Productivity

By Dr. Pooja Lakshmin

As a psychiatrist, I’m here to deliver some unfortunate news: productivity will not save us.

I have a patient, let’s call her Neena, who came to me because she felt disconnected from her work and her relationships. A busy healthcare worker, Neena approached living her life the same way she approached her career, with an emphasis on hyper-competence, productivity, and control. If a time hack or short-cut existed, Neena had tried it. In one of our first sessions Neena lamented “I feel like I’m managing my life instead of living my life.”

It didn’t occur to me to think of “life hacks” or time optimization strategies as a problem until I started compiling patient stories for my book Real Self-Care, in which I differentiate between the consumer oriented, buy off the shelf methods of faux self-care versus the principle focused, inner decision-making work of real self-care. I previously thought of productivity hacks as an annoying trend to be swatted away. But, while working on my book, I came to understand that “productivity porn” was just as insidious as Big Wellness.

What’s productivity porn? It’s the Getting Things Done, the Bullet Journals, the meticulously color-coded google docs and excel files. It’s self-help for people who turn their nose up at self-help.

While some turn to cleanses and crystals to temporarily escape or self-soothe from the chaos of modern life, others turn to the planners (with tabs!) and meal delivery kits for the illusion of control. If only we can get an hour back into our day, then we will be saved. I see this in my clinical practice where I work with women who are burnt out, depressed and anxious. My patients rarely acknowledge that their to-do-lists are, to be frank, delusional. Instead they say, “I need more hours in the day” or “after this push, things will calm down” (spoiler: things never calm down).

For the record, I will oust myself as part of this crew. I’ve had my own chaotic journey with toxic wellness in my 20s. And, even when writing a book called Real Self-Care, there were moments where I was on the edge of burnout, going through IVF treatments, yet desperate to cling to my pre-determined writing schedule.

But who would I be if I burned out writing a book called Real Self-Care? I spoke at length with my own psychoanalyst, who helped me pull back, miss deadlines, and understand that my desire to produce was a stand for an existential anxiety – one that no amount of penciling in and white-boarding could touch. And, I still find myself gripping my multiple to-do-lists, especially in moments of uncertainty.

Productivity is a social justice issue, really. We operate in a system in which one caste of people extract productivity from another caste of people. Yes, the culprit is capitalism run amok, and it’s also white supremacy and America’s legacy of slavery, which hold the clues to why our collective understanding of work and production operates like this in 2023. Only people who have access to resources like reliable childcare, suitable health insurance, and a social safety net have the means to be productive (or, to pay someone else to be productive for them) without enslaving themselves to the larger system. The work of Tricia Hersey, Founder of The Nap Ministry, makes clear how deeply connected our addiction to productivity, white supremacy and capitalism really are.

Just like the wellness industry, the productivity industry is silent on fixing structural problems, and puts the burden on the individual to do more, be more, and achieve more – without questioning the premise of the game in the first place.

And this is why, as we’re nearly halfway through 2023 and are asked to forget that a virus has taken more than a million lives and that there are nearly 2 million fewer women in the workforce, I worry that we will try to productivity-hack our way through the collective trauma.

For Neena, for myself, and for all of us, the question is not Evernote or Trello. The question is: where did I learn that my worth lies in what I produce? And, who gains when I give every last morsel of myself away? And, even still, who would I be if my worth was not constantly being litigated? The answers that come back may challenge your thinking — that’s the point.

Your Therapy Takeaway:

Here are three ways to reframe your relationship with productivity.

1. Call out your delusional to-do-lists: Sometimes I sit down at my desk and realize I have named four “priorities” for the day. Four things cannot be a priority! You have to choose. And, choosing is not a failure on your part – it’s actually the marker of living in reality. When you choose, you’re acknowledging systemic constraints, and taking control of what you do have control over — your attention.

2. Focus on How — Not What:  Yes, we all have to-do-lists that are miles long, and most of us can’t afford to stay in bed all day. But, ask yourself – is what you are doing really earth-shattering or life saving? Who will die if it takes you 2 hours to answer an email instead of 20 minutes? Usually, the thing that will suffer is your ego. But, understand that an entire portion of the US economy is built on the guilt and shame of American workers. When you say to yourself, the way I feel when I’m completing this task is just as important as getting the task done, you’re exerting agency and power against a system that is constructed to diminish your humanity.

3. Integrate “the Pause”: Boundaries are Principle 1 of Real Self-Care. My conceptualization of boundaries is a little different — I define boundaries as The Pause. Your boundary is in the space between when someone asks you to do something, and when you respond. You have 3 choices: yes, no, or negotiate. The boundary is The Pause, not the No. Depending on your social determinants of health, your life circumstances, and your identity, No might not always be an option, but The Pause is. Depending on your place in the caste system, no is not always available. But, the pause – your ability to stop, think, reflect on what’s in front of you, and how you come to it, is available. And it's the first step in giving yourself permission to step away from productivity as savior.

Dr. Pooja Lakshmin MD is a perinatal psychiatrist, the author of the new book Real Self-Care (Crystals, Cleanses, and Bubble Baths Not Included), and the Founder & CEO of Gemma the women's mental health platform centering impact & equity. She writes the Substack newsletter Therapy Takeaway.

For this week's members-only thread, I want to hear your thoughts on productivity culture outlined by Dr. Lakshmin, particularly around delusional to-do lists and boundaries. If you want in on the fun of this discussion and more, Become a member. You get members-only threads, audio newsletters, hangouts and more. It starts at $7/mo.

Cool virtual events alert! I got two for you on Thursday, June 29th.

LUMO and MH Worklife are teaming up at 2 pm EST for The Parental Leave Advantage, building support and establishing a winning model for the modern workplace, featuring friends of The Double Shift Sarah Olin and Blessing Adesiyan. The focus of this panel is to provide support to both employers and employees around leave management, parental leave coaching and talent management during leave. Sign up here.

The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act and the Future of the Care Movement: also at 2PM EST, my colleagues at the Better Life Lab at New America are teaming up with A Better Balance to discuss how the power of story and broad coalitions were key to passing the federal PWFA and what we can learn from this success to move family-sustaining public policy forward. RSVP here.


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