Last week I shared part 1 of unhooking from toxic productivity loops. It hit a nerve! Many of you replied, resonating, called out, wanting to shift how you’re working and living.
If you’re going at a pace that isn’t sustainable, you’re not alone. It’s not a personal failure but a cultural phenomenon. Growing our capacities to engage our lives at varying paces gives us greater power and influence over how we live and lead. Knowing when and having the skills to kick it into high gear when needed, being able to hold steady for stretches, and unfurl into incubative, restful and receptive paces allows us to stay in alignment with our truest priorities, instead of the priorities handed down through the dominant cultural spell.
When we opt-out of chasing shadow priorities, when we choose values and pursuits that align with our Calling, it’s important to consider not just where we want to get, but how we want to approach getting there. Our habits and patterns come with us. If we’ve learned to grind, it might seem like grinding for sustainability is the only way. If we want a regenerative experience of living, we need to practice it.
A client shared with me that what breaks her heart so fiercely is that she’s not even trying to go for some wild ceiling smashing success, she’s simply trying to support her family while doing fulfilling work. But she’s always at the edge– financially, energetically, emotionally. Along the way, she learned how to give things everything she’s got. Now she’s caught in patterns that are extractive instead of regenerative. For her, gearing down is only going to be possible once she has some breathing room. But the continuous hustling creates no breathing room at all. She’s looking for new markers of when to gear down, to practice creating breathing room even when things feel urgent and crammed.
Signs it’s time to gear down
So, how do you know when a different pace is called for? Let’s explore some possible signs.
You’ve just finished something big.
This might be one of the toughest ones to recognize if you’re flying high on an accomplishment. If you’ve just hit a goal, finished a thing, or ended something, it’s a really good time to pause. But sometimes it can feel like it’s time to leverage the crap out of this thing and keep climbing. Which may be partially true. I’ve witnessed so many powerhouses power through this time to the next goalpost and miss the opportunity to integrate and relish.
Your Capacity is Waning (energy, brain fog, ability to focus, executive functioning, emotional bandwidth, willpower.)
I used to be able to turn on my energy like a generator. Gosh, I miss those days. Friends, I wouldn’t have learned how to CTFO (chill the f*ck out) if I didn’t have to. Relying on energy while tip-toeing into perimenopause is like waiting for texts when dating someone with an avoidant attachment style. Like…you comin’ back or…???
Can you feel when you shift from a place of flow to a place of grind? When capacity wanes and you have to dig deep to keep going, you’ve entered the self-extractive territory.
You start saying things like “I just want to burn it all down.”
Dreaming of destruction to bring relief is wildly common. I’ve worked with creators who’ve joyfully built massive bodies of work. When they’re run ragged they want to burn it, destroy it, walk away. I truly love my work. The creativity, the humans, the depth and intimacy of working with people toward their wildest dreams. But the second I feel “UGH” rise in my chest in anticipation of something on my calendar, I know I’ve been pushing too hard.
I can’t even count the number of people who’ve told me they fantasize about getting in a car accident that puts them in the hospital. Just bad enough to sleep there for two weeks guilt-free. I’ve watched people laugh about this fantasy together in solidarity, before pausing and saying…wait…that’s messed up. When you’re praying for circumstances out of your control to grant you reprieve, it’s a sign to take control of your time and circumstances.
You cannot settle into chill vibes
Also known as you don’t enjoy enjoyable things. You can’t just be here. Your mind is chockablock, the resounding pounding of doing overwhelms your mind and disconnects you from your sensory experience. Things like leisure and rest create anxiety instead of relieving it. Everything feels tight and you’re probably not much fun to be around. I say this as someone who knows this vibe. I start to feel like a crunchy shell. There’s a whole world of sweetness but we can’t taste it because our attention is hijacked by urgencies.
You’re pushing and a quiet voice is wondering how long you can sustain it
I relate to my burnouts like initiations, events of deep reckoning. I’ve had 3 big ones. I like to talk about them because there was a time when I felt so much shame about having limits, but was moving so fast, I didn’t know it. I recall collecting other’s anecdotes like newspaper clippings. They’d say things like “Cortisol addiction” or “High functioning anxiety” and a quiet voice would wonder is that me? No, I’m okay, I’ve got this, I can keep going. And I would, one part of me rallying and rising to whatever I thought was needed, while another part of me watched on, wondering when the train would go off the rails. I don’t have those quiet voices anymore, because I’ve learned to let them be loud and lead, learning to honour my limits.
You have a running list of things you need to accomplish before you can rest
This could be a to-do list. More insidious is an accomplishment or a security list. Meaning, you believe you need to hit certain markers or metrics that keep you racing for years. Using the lens of seasonality, I’ve learned to map my ambitions and dreams to build in periods of imagination, incubation, rest and exploration. But that to-do list trap had its tentacles in me at the beginning of summer. Some items were legit. Commitments and responsibilities that deeply mattered. I had to scrutinize others to realize there was no urgency and that they would best be tackled after some deep rest. A “definition of done list” can be a helpful tool to ease out of a productivity loop. But if you start adding kinda psycho stuff to it like “get to inbox zero” or “re-organize all the documents on my computer dating back to 2005”, you’re looping.
You resent others or feel beholden to them
You feel unsupported. You’re the one holding all the things. Others aren’t rising to the occasion the way you need them to. And people are relying on you. You feel trapped by your responsibilities and no one can do it like you can do it. I’ve worked with so many people with this lived experience. I’ve felt this myself. When you’re a world-holder, it can feel like everything will fall apart if you put things down. We’ll get into ways you can work with this in part three. But for now, I want to validate how exhausting this is. It’s not all in your head, you’re really holding too much. And it’s not the full truth of things, there are ways to unhook from always being the one.
You’re checking out hard
Scrolling. Binging media. Consuming (food, alcohol, drugs). You’re spent and just don’t have the energy to engage with self-care that will fill you up. You find yourself in cycles of numbing or checking out. It makes you feel worse, but the energy it takes to do the things that are truly good for you don’t feel accessible.
You get sick or injured (or weird shizz keeps happening to stop you or trip you up.)
This is my brand of “knowing when it’s time”. We’re the bestest frenemies.
This one got me supersized last month. Let us call what happened a tragicomedy, because I managed to keep my spirits high while being like“Yo! Universe, I KNOW I need to gear down and I’m trying to and don’t need your little cosmic interventions or metaphysical prompts right now k,thanks,bye!”
First I leapt (I LEAPT! THROUGH THE AIR!) and landed full (LEAPING) weight onto a rusty nail. Through the sole of my shoe. Deep in my foot. Between the tissue damage and the tetanus shot, I was out of it for a week.
Just when I’m thinking how grateful I am that my foot is healing well, I catch my kiddo furiously scratching his head. I DO NOT WANT TO LOOK. I had ONE day of childcare that week to do all the things and please god do not let my child have lice. I cannot deal with lice. I dealt with lice.
These are not tragedies, which is why I call them tragicomedies. They’re wake-up calls that will intensify if I don’t pay attention. They’re inconveniences that slow me down, while not enabling the rest I need. I’ve learned that if I don’t build in some space for myself, I’ll usually end up sick in bed to get the rest I need, which is not ideal rest!
If you feel like you keep getting knocked down, it may be time to stand still for a moment and be curious about what you deeply truly want and need and see how aligned your current life is with it.
How to break free
When you’re in a toxic productivity loop, it can be hard to imagine what you’d spend your time and attention on if not getting things done. But as soon as the timescape changes, poetry writes itself across your interior.
How about those signs it’s time to gear down? Can you see any of these in yourself? Hit reply and let me know if you’re seeing any of these signs in your life! What do you feel like you need to help you break free?
If you sense it’s time to gear down, or you simply know that the pace and crank of your life are not sustainable, look out for Part 3 where I dish a variety of interventions and practices to find reprieve.