On productivity: one piece of the exhaustion puzzle

-the state or quality of producing something, especially crops.“the long-term productivity of land”
-The effectiveness of productive effort, especially in industry, as measured in terms of the rate of output per unit of input.
-The fertility or capacity of a given habitat or area.


I. More.

I have this image in my head of us as a society, as this gaping maw of hunger that chants its war-cry into the night as it devours its way forwards. ‘More. More. More.’ it says as it chews its way through forest and ocean and pristine wilderness. ‘More!’ it chants as it gnaws through black rhino and ice cap. ‘MORE!’ it cries as it gnashes at spirit and joy and free will, leaving a wake of emptiness in its shadow. We beat our resources into submission, be it the planet, our employees, our own bodies, demanding more: productivity, energy, youth, attention. And rarely, if ever, do we stop to ask if what we are and what we have is actually enough.

During classes about crofts and the Highland clearances (a good Scottish education for you) when I was young, we learned about crop rotation. It was all perfectly logical: nutrients are being sucked up from the land into the plants and if you don’t rotate the crops and leave one field fallow each cycle then the land has nothing to give and eventually the crops fail. At some point, this changed. People discovered that you could keep pouring chemical nutrients onto the soil and spray chemicals to kill the insects that have taken advantage of the plants’ weakness. On the surface the crop still looks the same: big and plump and ripe for the picking. But underneath the surface, the crop is a sad replica of what it could have been. 

Here in Los Angeles, I am surrounded by people trying to stay young. Not just young, but sexy and young. Fertile and young. Ripe and blushing and innocent and young. In the desire to make it appear as though we are crops that keep producing, we pump ourselves full of plastic, toxins, anything to make us appear as though we are the same on the surface as we were, even though we haven’t had a fallow period in years, even though we’re starved for nutrients and exhausted and depleted, we pump ourselves full of stimulants and tonics and antioxidants. I think here in LA, to some degrees its exaggerated (there is so much plastic surgery, so much botox, so many designer tonic drinks and adaptogens and fountains of youth), but that doesn’t mean its not happening everywhere else to lesser degrees too. Western society is built on this: industry, and the need to keep producing, be it crops, or good work.

Look up ‘how to be more productive’ and you’ll be bombarded with tips and tricks from people who look like they’re on top of their game: don’t check your email first thing in the morning! Tackle the biggest thing first! Work in 45 minute batches! Productivity! We cry to each other as we try to eke another five minutes of work out of ourselves, another five minutes of focus, as if somehow the amount of work that we produce can measure up to the sum total of what is inside us, and increase our value to each other and to ourselves.


II. Time and space

Long before productivity became the god that we all worship, time as we know it came in cycles: the sun moving across the sky; the phases of the moon; the leaves falling from trees; new growth emerging from the fallow earth. The gods of this time were not gods that lorded over us in the sky, but gods that inhabited everything around us. Time had two faces*: Chronos, who gave rise to the image we have of ‘father time’ standing over us with a scythe in his hand, is at our backs; and Kairos, the god of chance, synchronicity, and cycles. Chronos’ sound is the tick-tock of your day passing, of your life streaming through an hourglass. Kairos’ sound is that of the earth giving way as green shoots break through its crust, and the rustle of leaves falling onto the cold earth in Autumn. If Chronos has a place in your body, it is on your wrist, and in your head, giving a running tally of how much is getting done and how much more there is to do. If Kairos has a place it is in the gut or deep in the pelvis with the slow rivers of blood and lymph that connect us through their waters to the world around us. If Chronos has an aspect of the nervous system, it is the sympathetic that drives us forwards, expresses nutrients in the form of action; and information in the form of production. And Kairos is the misunderstood** parasympathetic that absorbs nutrients, takes in the world around it, feeds your very being. As a society, we have stopped taking in the world around us: that fallow parasympathetic state is a place of nourishment.

In the microcosm of the alchemical process, we as humans take in information and put out information. This applies across all systems, be it digestive, or work, or financial, or emotional. Like an inhale and an exhale, we take in, we give out, and this is an exchange that happens constantly, from the levels of our cells to our souls. But it gets even bigger than that: humanity as a whole has people who absorb more and people who put out more— let’s call it a constitutional thing. Some people are more content to observe and take in and absorb as much of the beauty of life as they can, whereas others tip more towards needing to produce, to give, to express. As a giant organism, humanity balances itself out in terms of inspiration and expiration, like this giant glorious undulating bellowing mass, taking in, passing on information, inspiring each other, interacting with each other, and then creating new things.

Creation cannot come from a void. We have this idea that we can pump ourselves full of nutrients and chemicals and silicone to make ourselves appear as if we are as fertile and productive as we can be. But under the surface, individually and collectively we are running on fumes. The products themselves aren’t at fault here— be it coffee or adaptogens (both of which are heavily abused)— at fault is the mentality behind this pattern: the idea that bolstering ourselves is a substitute for a good regenerative season. Or that we can continue to take without stopping to restore what we’ve taken from.

The answer, as with everything, is frustratingly simple.

productivity3III. Ones and zeroes.

Years ago I read a book on somatic therapy that discussed muscle tension patterns: our nervous systems fire when we tense a muscle, but since so many of us stay in a state of near-constant tension, the nervous system becomes acclimated to our being at that level of tension, and it becomes impossible for us to willingly relax these tense areas. They become stuck in a state of uselessness, burning up energy for no good reason, causing us pain. Its a loop they’re stuck in because our nervous systems have stopped notifying the control centre that the muscles are still firing. No amount of sitting and staring at the muscle will cause it to relax. Counter-intuitively, in order to relax the muscle, you have to tense it first.

Its not surprising, since everything is connected, that we are like our own muscles, locked in a state of tension, and unaware of it because we’ve been that way for so long. Stuck in place, unable to relax, unable to move forwards, frittering energy away on staying in place. Like a person trying to ride a bike in two different directions. Unlike muscles, however, I’ve found that the best way to get back to a place of being able to expend energy efficiently, we need to do start with the relaxation. Because as much as we want to keep pushing on further and faster, life doesn’t work like that: our world is constructed on ones and zeroes, on nights and days, sun and moon. On crop cycles and fallow periods: that’s what creates balance in the world, and allows things to be healthy, to rejuvenate, to grow again the next year. Keep the wheel jammed in one position and the system will swiftly run out of resources. We, too, need fallow periods, times to rest, ruminate, regrow. In order to regrow, we need to be not driving forwards or being productive, to let go of the ‘should’s and the ‘must’s and the driving force at our backs, regardless of whether it comes from ourselves or from someone else. In some ways, we need to be ANTI-productive. For some people that involves sleeping more, or sitting around, for others its something like gardening, or baking, or knitting, or playing basketball, or jumping out of planes. The point of the anti-productive is that it be something that feeds you on a deep level, leaves you feeling awake and alive again.

hiking2 hiking
Last week, tired from days of relentless work, I decided to ignore my to-do list, check out one of my favourite hiking spots. It was a hot day, as Octobers here tend to run hot, but the breeze coming off the ocean was cool, and I pushed myself until my lungs burned and I had a good sweat going. Feet devouring cracked ground, I ran up the oat-husk covered hill until I emerged into the woodlands where the bays and oaks create a cool canopy and the ground evens out, and from there, I walked slowly, taking in the world around me. It was dry. Dryer than usual. We’re going on years of drought here and you can really see it when you look at the same places over the years. Tree skeletons toppled. Evergreen oak canopies patched with brown. Hard, cracked, dusty ground. As I walked, I thought about how nourishment takes different forms: for some its dry heat, for others its cool moisture; for some its stillness, for others its movement. I thought about how this applies to both ecosystem and human, and how the drought in the land reflects the ongoing drive in people: our roots, starving for a break in the relentless lack of nourishment. I emerged from the canopy onto a rocky outcropping, and lay on my belly, looking out over a canyon, stream bed far below completely dry. I lay there drifting, as the feeling that I had nothing left to give started to be replaced with that hum of inspiration that drives me forward. And I thought about how I very nearly stayed home to work because I had so much to do, and remembered a conversation I had with a woman years ago when I was in TCM school.

IV. Disconnect

We were working together in the pharmacy, and I mentioned that I’d made a kava kava bath the night before. She remarked, somewhat sanctimoniously, that she doesn’t have time to take baths because she works so hard. At the time, I felt a little outraged, but now when I look back on it, it makes me a little sad: that being too busy to take a twenty minute bath is seen as a badge of honour in our society indicates that something is seriously out of balance. I can’t help but think that some of this is the result of our disconnect from nature, and from our own bodies. Here in Southern California, I’ve heard people say plenty of time that there are ‘no seasons’. It’s not true, not in the slightest, but in a place where the sun shines most of the year, and temperature variability is pretty low, if you don’t actually spend time in nature, I can see why you’d assume that everything looks the same year-round. Air conditioners for the summer, artificial lighting for at night, its as if we’re no longer subject to the laws of nature that govern the rest of the world, and as a result maybe assume that we, too, can escape the cycles that govern the universe. If we don’t expose ourselves to the cycles of nature then our bodies don’t pick up the messages: now you rest, now you release melatonin, now you work hard, now you eat. We ignore the messages of nature, and assume that it’s ok, too, to ignore the messages of our own bodies.

Chronos and Kairos each have a place, but it is Kairos who rules our bodies (unless there is an emergency; that’s what reserves are for). When our bodies and brains indicate that they are done for the day, the answer isn’t to feed ourselves more adaptogens, stimulants, and chemicals to get through, but to listen, and stop. The wildness of the universe is vast, uncontrollable, cyclical, and old. Older then humanity, older than our constructs of time. Trying to fit the body into the constructs of chronological time makes no sense: our bodies are wild, primal, ruled by their own innate chemistry, emotions, hormones, and urges. Wild body doesn’t recognise that it’s not lunch time yet, only that it wants lunch. Wild body doesn’t recognise that there is a long list of things to do***, only that it wants to replenish itself. It is as simple as re-learning to trust our own bodies. The answer then, is simple: like a breathing, undulating organism, let yourself switch back and forth, on and off, to express and impress your being with information, nutrients, and stimuli. Work in the chronos with its emergencies and tick-tock breathing down the back of your neck, but when your body screams for reprieve, switch back to universal, wild, Kairos time: to that place of wondrous openness to the world around us, where time is but a moment, where the cycles of life are ever-present and we are a part of a vast ecosystem, moving in unison as the world around us breathes a giant exhale of relief, able to finally, even if just for a second, let go.

Off-switch activities**: 

Reading a book that simply brings you pleasure.
Playing music.
Spending time outdoors.
Chopping wood.

The key here is that it be something that’s not a part of a to-do list, or anything you feel pressure to do. For a nice list of suggestions, check out this conversation we had on Facebook:

Some nice tea blends to help you switch off: 


Relax and expand like mycelium across a wet forest floor:
Equal parts of…

Douglas fir

And a few pieces of
Oplopanax root bark

(steeped as tea to keep the flavour of the Douglas fir light)
(something similar HERE)

Calm, centered and grounded in a mug:

Equal parts of…


(decocted on the stove for 20 minutes until sweet, tart, bitter)

Inspiration in a mug:
Equal parts of…

Black or red reishi

(decocted on the stove for 20 minutes with a dollop of cream added at the end)

A mental switch-off followed by blissful reverie:
Equal parts of…

Rose petals

(Steeped as tea for 15 minutes)

A way to make your morning coffee calming and energizing at the same time:
Decoct, for 20 minutes, equal parts of…


Then use this to make your morning coffee. For extra nurturing, calming, immune and sustained energy support, add a spoonful of Reishi-Cordyceps hot chocolate.

kava bathTwo nice bath blends to help you switch off:

Two parts of:
Kava kava

One part of:

Or two parts of
Kava kava

One part of

(Decoct on the stove in a big pot for 20 minutes then strain into your bath)

(I have something similar available here)

*Read Jay Griffiths’ Pip Pip
** People use words like ‘lazy’ and ‘fat’.
***I get it, some people have really demanding jobs, or need to work two jobs to support their families. But the vast majority of us aren’t running fortune 500 companies, we’re prioritizing too many things, and making too many things on that list important.
****Many thanks to the people on Facebook who helped me out with some ideas:

  • Jon Keyes

    Beautiful…Nourishment is a key word in my practice…and my way of shutting down and off is to take a bath- a long luxurious bath in my extra long claw foot bath that I found in a junk shop. And now- when I find I am in the need- I will have two baths in a day. A “Two bath day” is a day to look forward to….

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  • Katherine Weber-Turcotte

    Absolutely true. It is like we punish ourselves for needing rest.
    Thank you for this!

  • Laura

    Lovely! You fretted whether it was too long? NOT too long (or maybe if that’s too long, then one is overly busy, as you talk about).

  • JeniferAaron Hansen

    I agree with you it is aggravating/sad that taking time for oneself is looked at negatively. Everyone needs time to disconnect and enjoy the simple pleasure in life. Without this we have less energy/focus to use productively.

  • Lisa Marie Sipe

    Disconnecting is so good and healthy! Thanks for reminding us we need to do more of it. When we camp we make Douglas Fir tea. It’s like getting a warm delicious hug from the forest.

  • Vida Bucknavage

    Your blogs are always so real and so valuable. Thank you, thank you for these reminders. I find it easy to slip into the “pushing” mindset. I am going to slow down a bit this weekend, have some more hawthorn and schizandra and a little less black tea.

  • Natasha Anna Gonzalez

    Maybe this is crazy long but I loved it. It’s one of the few I’ve read all the way through because I resonated with it.

  • Cristina Rose

    this was so necessary to read, especially after being sick, which was probably in part due to overstudying, working and planning… strangely in autumn it seems much needed to cut the deadened stems and recoup and grow…into something new…true to ones self

  • Thara

    Yes yes yes. This is wonderful. Thank you for sharing this beautiful perspective. I want to inhale it and keep it close.

  • Sophia Rose

    Ah, yes. Yes! Yuuusssss. Thank you Rebecca for sharing your amazing story-telling capabilities and for bringing these issues to life with your words. Your comparison of the nervous system states to Kairos and Chronos make such visceral sense to me. Thank you so much.

  • Lauren | The Soaked Bean

    What a gorgeously evocative post! You’re such a beautiful writer, thank you for this gift. <3