Portions of this post originally appeared in March of 2020, when so many things were unknown and scary. Just as I mused back then, I’ve struggled a little with what to write this week. But looking back over some old notes and connecting them to where I am now – I was inspired to write this update. Join us in the conversation!
Recently I’ve been thinking about the first years after my undergrad experience, when I was a middle and high school band director. Yeah, that was a thing that happened. Last week I had a dream about that time period, and recently my almost-grown daughter has been dipping her toe into teaching (interesting to watch). So I’ve become aware of some connections between then and now that give me pause. I was quite the workaholic in those days, which is an ever-present danger no matter what career I’ve dived into. I like to throw myself into things, wholeheartedly, which can be a strength and a curse.
The final weeks of each school year, as any teacher knows, were a stress-filled blur of tension between our need to put an impressive stamp on all the students’ hard work, and their increasingly waning interest in anything we had to say or offer. In my case, the push actually started in January with intense preparation for various competitions and events. It progressed to at least two overnight trips (always, always with an exhausting theme park involved), solo & ensemble preparation, spring concerts, awards, final grades, and preparing for summer. I was on what was called a 10+2 – essentially a 12-month contract – so I taught summer band as well.
Not that any of this was a bad thing. I was quite lucky to have a 10+2 – it was one example of the tremendous support that the school system had for the arts. But what it meant was I had exactly two weeks between the year of 12-hour workdays and the humid mornings I had to show up with a smile, and teach bright-eyed kiddos how to produce their first squeaky sounds and empty their spit valves. Whip out the show tunes and pop songs for the older ones. Start looking at marching drills, and stand in the Tennessee heat shouting counts through a megaphone with the high schoolers.
Intensity in the school music world rarely lets up. So the first week, as soon as I locked the bandroom door, I would shut down and blissfully engage in what I would describe as complete and total unproductivity. I slept until I woke up. I ate leftover Chinese food, or maybe pizza, for breakfast. I read when I wanted to, napped when I wanted to, sometimes 3x’s a day. I went to Blockbuster and rented 3 movies (just like you see people do on Stranger Things, kids!), two of which I usually didn’t even watch.
I did not work out, or make a list, or shop, or clean anything, or call anyone, or learn anything. Sometimes I went to antique stores or to the library and just wandered around. Mostly, I did nothing.
Once, I went with another teacher friend to Florida the minute school let out and we did this unproductivity thing in tandem, near the beach. I recall eating a lot of turkey sandwiches, as we had little motivation to fix anything else, and trying out meditation (a transformative experience). I read one of my all-time favorite books, A Prayer for Owen Meany, for the first time. We placed zero expectations on each other, barely even engaged in conversation, because we both “got it.” That is a rare friend.
Logic is relative. – John Irving, A Prayer for Owen Meany
I never would have called it a vacation. Vacations require planning and execution and doing things. For my Eisenhower Matrix-knowledgeable friends, I guess what I engaged in was all Quadrant IV stuff (or was it?). The unproductivity was way before husband, children, dogs, business, mortgage, IRAs and 529s, etc. so it’s been a hot second since I’ve thought about it. Perhaps I am only just now appreciating the luxury of it.
The first year my Unproductive Week happened, it was unintentional and reflexive. Thereafter, I made it into a ritual, because oh my gosh the after-effects. Once the week was over, and I slowly started to morph back into “Ms. Smith,” wow, did I have ideas. I was able to think with this amazing clarity and feel enormous hope and motivation. I was excited to see the kids and hear those squeaks as joyful noise and come up with creative lesson plans. New ways of teaching a rhythm or technique would materialize for me, seemingly out of nowhere.
Back in the dark days of 2020, when I’d see all the posts and articles inviting everyone to clear out closets and exercise and register for webinars and pet their dogs and update their websites and play board games and paint the kitchen cabinets, I had to pause. All of those cheerful posts inquiring, “What will you DO with your gift of time??” – I wondered about them.
I guess it’s all cool if you have open time, and it feels good for you to get more stuff done. And if you have young children, I understand it’s impossible to just let everything go (although why not let them eat pizza for breakfast if it makes life a little easier?). I have lots of conversations with clients about unstructured time – like interim times between jobs or school semesters. It can be unsettling, and so we work on how to put a few guard rails in so that the hours don’t just go flying off a cliff.
But also, my weird automated response to stress tends to be “Ah, a free afternoon! How can I make the best use of my open time!? Quick…let me get Google calendar open!” And then, if I’m mindful, I remember sometimes there’s value to being bored. I don’t think you have to have a whole week to get some benefit from planned Unproductivity – mini-retreats of even an hour or two can make a huge difference, as I’ve written before.
It’s been a blissfully crazy-busy 2022, but in a few days, I’ll be taking the first Unproductivity Week I’ve purposefully taken in many years. I can’t wait. I have zero plans (well, ok, I have a dentist appointment), and I’ve put everyone in my circle on notice. All social media is coming off of my phone, and I’m going to lock it down on my computer. I have plenty of books, and trees to stare at.
And when I come back, I’m pretty sure I’ll have some ideas.