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Self-worth tied to productivity? 3 ways to reorient yourself

Three things to know and think about as you try and gravitate away from hustle culture and expand your understanding of rest

It certainly doesn’t help that for a lot of us, our self-worth is deeply intertwined with our productivity.
It certainly doesn’t help that for a lot of us, our self-worth is deeply intertwined with our productivity. (Photo by Tim Goedhart on Unsplash)

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“You don’t always have to be creating, doing and contributing to the world. Your birth grants you rest and leisure as well.”

This is one the posts on the Instagram page of The Nap Ministry, a US-based organisation formed in 2016 that is among the flag bearers of the ‘Rest is Resistance’ movement in the West. Started by artist-activist Tricia Hersey, the organisation promotes the reclaiming of rest as a fundamental right and the most powerful means of resisting systemic exploitation. While its original intention was to liberate people of African origin who carry in their bodies the trauma of slavery and racial oppression, the core ideals of the movement seem to appeal to people of all kinds who find their worth entangled with their productivity.

This is especially relevant in the current Indian context. Since the third wave of the pandemic ended earlier this year, and despite a cases in some cities spiking again, most things appear to have gone back to the pre-pandemic ‘normal’. Offices, schools and colleges have reopened and there is a general rush to ‘make up for lost time’.

But forget hustling, as our bodies and minds scream for rest and recuperation, most of us are finding it hard to maintain what used to be a doable level of productivity in the past.

Empathise with yourself with the help of The Spoons Theory

Bengaluru-based Ayesha Susan Thomas (30) rallied in the face of incredible odds for months. While holding down a full-time job as a drama teacher, Thomas has had to cope with multiple personal issues including a diabetes diagnosis and chronic menstrual irregularities, as well as family emergencies. “I have needed to stay in bed for days…I have needed more rest than ever,” she says. “My employers were quite understanding and helpful in the early months of the pandemic, but lately…their priority is now to redouble efforts to go back to how things were pre-pandemic,” she notes.

While Thomas is grateful that she has had an income through this difficult time while so many people lost jobs, she is aware of how limited her energy is on most days. She refers to the Spoons Theory, as she says, “In the beginning of the pandemic, I felt like I had 20 spoons per day, but now I only have three. There are days when I only have energy for one big activity…(and) that’s it, I am too tired for anything else.”

Our bodies are our truest allies in this world and our need for rest and recuperation is not negotiable.

The Spoons Theory was devised by Christine Miserandino in 2003 — the spoons represent units of energy that a person has to expend on their daily activities. While generally healthy, able-bodied people have an infinite number of spoons for their daily tasks and activities, those living with disabilities, chronic illnesses, mental health conditions, or marginalisation, often have a limited number of spoons that need to be distributed judiciously throughout the day. The theory effectively explains how difficult it is for atypical people to survive in an ableist culture.

Understand the concept of crip time

Which is why when the pandemic first set in and everything went remote, life became a lot easier for many of us, especially those with disabilities. For example, Nu Misra, a 24-year-old masters student who lives with a physical disability, says that not having to exhaust herself getting from one place to another actually helped her find the time and energy to found Revival Disability India, a collective for disabled rights activism.

“Typically, disabled people function on crip time, which is different from how able-bodied people perceive time,” Misra says. “Crip time gives a lot of priority to rest because it takes a lot of effort for us to move and to function. Through our activism and dissent, we’re trying to create a culture of rest, moving our bodies in whichever way we desire and simply taking up space in the able-bodied world,” she says.

Also Read: Why you need to take some sensory rest

With Covid permanently altering the health and social status of countless people, causing a rise in chronic illnesses, mental health diagnoses and poverty, it is said that the line between able-bodiedness and disability has blurred during this time.

Nearly everyone is feeling a drastic drop in energy levels and an inability to cope with the demands of the world. This being the case, the idea of returning to 10-hour workdays, long commutes and a non-existent work-life balance is more daunting than ever.

Shalini Rao, a Bengaluru-based psychotherapist, says, “A vast majority of the general public is hustling on autopilot because the truth about burnout and how the pandemic has traumatised us is not being spoken about in larger spaces,” she says. “Even mental health services assigned for corporate, medical workers only focus on how to sustain your productivity. Breaks are meant for you to rest…(only) so you can come back to your desk and work harder.” It’s like when hamsters on a wheel are fed cheese, just so they can keep running, Rao adds.

Revise your notions of ‘leisure’ and ‘laziness’

It certainly doesn’t help that for a lot of us, our self-worth is deeply intertwined with our productivity. Culturally as well, overfunctioning and running on fumes is widely praised, while any form of rest or leisure needs to be earned. Spells of unproductivity then are deemed unforgivable, not only by society at large but even by our own thinking.

Among the many advocates for the importance of rest at this time is Chicago-based Devon Price, a social psychologist, activist and professor. In his book Laziness Does Not Exist (Atria Books, 2021), he writes: “The laziness we’ve all been taught to fear does not exist. There is no morally corrupt, slothful force inside of us, driving us to be unproductive for no reason. It’s not evil to have limitations and to need breaks. Feeling tired or unmotivated is not a threat to our self-worth. In fact, the feelings we write off as laziness are some of humanity’s most important instincts, a core part of how we stay alive and thrive in the long term,” writes Price.

Also Read: So, what's fuelling the anti-hustle movement?

The Rest as Resistance movement aims at awakening people to the fact that rest is a fundamental right and at the same time, the most powerful form of protest against the oppressive machineries that profit from our own disconnection from our bodies. “Civil rights activist Audre Lorde once said self-care is an act of political warfare,” notes Rao. “You are at war with your oppressor when you say, ‘I’m just going to nap the whole day today and see how that supports me’.”

This may still be a radical thought for a vast majority of us, but it is one worth considering. Our bodies are our truest allies in this world and our need for rest and recuperation is not negotiable.

“When you’re exhausted and sleep-deprived, you’re in survival mode. You do whatever is essential…you do things that feel nice in the moment,” says Rashi Vidyasagar, Director, TheAltStory — you end up buying things you don’t need, or engaging in unhealthy practices like doomscrolling.

But each of us deserves to do more than just be in survival mode. We deserve to thrive. And to thrive, we must learn to rest deeply.


Indumathy Sukanya is an artist and independent journalist based in Bengaluru

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