Keeping Our Productivity in Check

Keeping Our Productivity in Check September 3, 2023

to-do list with computer keyboard
Can we shift our focus on productivity and find depth in our connection to spiritual groundedness through the ordinary moments in our lives? (image: Canva)

From Rosh Hashanah to Lunar New Year, we honor the turning over to a new year with fresh perspective and new intentions. Despite my connection to different faith traditions and their threshold rituals, Labor Day weekend will perhaps always mark the beginning of the new year for me. Welcome-back activities for students are outlined. Classroom decor holds the message of belonging. Opening meditation for Alignment’s new season is ready. Retreats and programs are on the website. I feel the lurch from a sabbath sensibility into the pressure of productivity impending. I am the sprinter crouching into starting position, muscles taught, eyes locked, ready to run the September to June race that defines the academic and clerical lives. But once the pistol fires, what would it look like to amble along the track? People would surely stare, wonder why I’m not in it to win it. Scold or encourage to pick up the pace, join the race. Or might they pause to look back and see that I am noticing the tiny yellow flowers that line the gravel path? Might they join me in breathing in the moment? Might we keep our productivity in check and notice the path that lies ahead is lined with encounters that are crying out to be savored.

Choose Joy over Perfection

Sabbath rest this summer held time for some readings and re-readings of pieces that highlight the image of the slow-motion run that I hold as I begin this new year. Bronwen Mayer Henry in her beautiful book, Radioactive Painting: How a Cancer Treatment Lit Up My Creative Practice, speaks of the space that she allows herself, the space not to be the best. She chooses joy over perfection  – which is also her Instagram handle. She writes:

I’m reminded of the notion that one reason children are such good learners is that they have a higher tolerance for not being good at something. As adults we expect ourselves to be proficient out of the gate, and this expectation paralyzes us. 

Bronwen engages in the spiritual practice of painting “big”, allowing herself not to feel unworthy of the large canvases and bold strokes that bring the trees and flowers that she cherishes into new life. Space: temporal and physical. Mental and spiritual. Slowing. Noticing. Breathing. And yes, producing. But with a depth of connection and peace that feeds instead of depletes.

As an educator and lifelong learner, I often focus on being better, learning more, honing my skills, setting new goals. All good practices. But my 23-year-old daughter recently sat me down and said, look, you don’t need to take any more classes or earn any more degrees. Start just enjoying. She was calling me on the carpet to practice what I preach.

Bronwen Mayer Henry painting aspen trees
Bronwen Mayer Henry: Choosing Joy Over Perfection and centering her creativity on the connectedness it brings. (image: BMH)

Rest as Essential to Productivity

Tricia Hersey founded the Nap Ministry in 2016 with this powerful message, that our focus on the race of productivity is a product of our oppressive society and grind culture. She preaches that we must feel worthy of rest. That it is one of our most basic needs. That moving forward is not possible without our focus on the spaces that allow for our spiritual well being. In her book Rest Is Resistance: A Manifesto she writes:

Productivity should not look like exhaustion. The concept of laziness is a tool of the oppressor. A large part of your unraveling from capitalism will include becoming less attached to the idea of productivity and more committed to the idea of rest as a portal to just be.

Even as she promotes this powerful book, she is very clear that she will not take on more engagements to speak about this work if it interferes with her own need to rest. She is a strong witness to us that she can allow her creative work the space to live and breathe on its own. And in the process she is refueled with the focus and strength to write more and to minister more effectively. 

Practice Wisdom

Heidi Barr in her new book, Collisions of Earth and Sky: Connecting with Nature for Nourishment, Reflection, and Transformation reminds us that our connection with the simple things and “the ordinary actions of our days” are the fuel for moving us forward. Stopping to notice, to be in nature, to create space and time are essential to our wellbeing. The simplicity of the message itself is so easy to acknowledge, but so challenging even in that simplicity. These three women write with a depth of understanding of the human experience that feels so basic. And so deeply critical. Can we shift our perspective on what productivity looks like? Can the moments spent gazing and day-dreaming and napping and watching the bird fly overhead and putting paint to canvas and stopping to listen to a song without it being in the background be the most essential work we do today?

Heidi Barr’s poem Seeking Wisdom in her collection of poetry, Slouching toward Radiance, has been a guiding point for me as I being this new year.

Give silence
enough room to expand
so those old temptresses of
growth, productivity, and worthiness

don’t run away
with your peace.
Seek out practice wisdom
in all its messy,

uncomfortable nuances.
Sometimes voices in old,
tired stories need to fade
so new chapters have room to bloom.


Instead of making a to-do list that awaits your waking eyes in the morning, made an I-did list at the end of the day. Perhaps it is already your practice to journal or keep a gratitude diary. Very simply list the things you did that day, instead of what you need to do. Surprise yourself that perhaps the simplest acts of choosing joy over perfection were the most important moments of the day.

n.b. Alignment offers sessions of contemplative practices from a variety of traditions on Sunday evenings from 7:00-7:30 pm ET online. Free and open to all. A time to give yourself the space to slow down and notice. To breathe and fuel yourself for the week that lies ahead. Please join us. Find info about upcoming sessions and retreats at
The new season begins September 3. 2023.

About Margaret Somerville
Rev. Dr. Margaret Somerville is a Quaker educator and a Presbyterian minister. The focus of her work in education is the way language shapes how we see ourselves in the world. The focus of her ministry is embracing the practices of a variety of traditions to deepen our connection to the divine. Director of Alignment: Interfaith Contemplative Practices, retreat leader, and associate member of the Iona Community. Find out more about Margaret's work at You can read more about the author here.

Browse Our Archives