I’m fairly busy nowadays. I freelance and teach. I’m working on my YouTube and Facebook web series Black History for Everyone. I’m about to attach myself to a couple of full-length documentaries this year. I am known in my professional circles to be a hustler and all-around “get shit done”-er. And I’m still recovering from a major car accident. So why do I still feel guilty when I decide to spend the day binge-watching Law & Order: SVU while wearing sweatpants and no bra?
I feel guilty because I don’t consider it a money-making activity. I feel guilty because somehow, I’m attempting to convince myself I should spend my free time skill-building at least. I even have it marked down in my schedule and on my project management software. I feel guilty because I have been conditioned like most of us today to work until I physically can’t.
I’ve always been a person who is happier when busy. I don’t like it when I have nothing to do. My anxiety kicks in and I start looking for things to do. Anything. Those books on my shelf look like they need organizing.
But I also work in the arts and media fields where everyone is always looking to their next project. And if you are not, that can kill your career faster than if you were actually caught doing something illegal (cough-Bryan Singer-cough!). So when someone asks you what you have going for you next, you are usually taught to have some answer or elevator pitch ready in case someone has money to throw at you. Even if it’s just a half-baked idea you came up with while sitting in your car.
I do have several projects of varying stages of readiness to concentrate on, but I also feel overwhelmed at times. Some days I feel so overwhelmed, I struggle to get out of bed. Then I would feel guilty about wasting an entire day, especially if I have a deadline. Then the anxiety happens all over again. So, I had to learn a valuable lesson: It is okay to work on nothing.
It’s okay for me to sit on my fat ass and eat sour gummy worms while binging on Netflix. It’s okay to spend the day reading. It’s okay to zone out while listening to music. Like that old McDonald’s slogan: you deserve a break today.
Working nonstop was not part of my upbringing or cultural background. While everyone else in the country calls New Orleans “The Big Easy,” most non-NewOrleanian Gulf Coasters consider NOLA to be “moving too fast.” Culturally speaking, Gulf Coasters work to live. We take long lunches and we clock out early. Lundi Gras (Fat Monday) and Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) are a bonafide holidays in most formally-French Gulf cities and towns, meaning many offices and workplaces close completely. And for a long time, I was critical of this type of work ethic, because I felt that a laissez-faire attitude towards work was for people who had no ambition in life. It took me living in Los Angeles, then moving back home to realize my folks and culture were right about work all along.
My grandfather doesn’t understand why I always appear to be working. Part of it is that the concept of remote work is beyond his understanding of what work is. For my grandfather, work was something you went to, spent 8–10 hours at, and then go home to your family who expected you to spend time with them. And before he worked at companies, my grandfather worked in a field. Once the sun went down, work was over. And working on a Sunday was out of the question. Also, to my grandfather, work was a physical task. So when my grandfather turned 65, he was forever done with work. And initially, he did struggle with feeling useless.
My grandfather is anything but useless. After retirement, he was able to spend quality time with his favorite people, his grandchildren. While I was already a teenager when my grandfather retired, he was able to watch my younger cousins during the day. But even when my grandfather was working, the only work thing I ever saw him bring home was the orange tractor unit he drove. And we got to pull the horn cord when he got home!
Depending on your completely arbitrary splitting of generations, my mother is either a young Baby Boomer or an old Gen X. Momma is a nurse so she believes in bleach, hand-washing, vaccines, and productive poops. But also for most of her career, she worked 12-hour shifts. An ideal nursing schedule allows that nurse to rest throughly between shifts in order to eliminate hospital errors. So you are forced to rest, because if you don’t, you can possibly kill someone. It was rare for my mother to work several 12-hour shifts in a row, unlike the film industry, where working 12-hour days, 6 days a week is the norm. When my mother retires 10–15 years from now, she will have a different take than my grandfather. Maybe she will feel useless, but I would imagine my mom being one of those “I’m going to Italy tomorrow” retirees. My mother will view retirement as a way of doing all the things she couldn’t do when she was younger because she had a family to raise. But her children are grown and she still looks young and she’s already gotten a head start on “finally enjoying life.” She’s been going to social events more often and scheduling cruises. She’s working to live.
Fast forward to me: a millennial or “Xennial” (meh…) with several gigs. I will probably work until I die, which given the nature of my work, I’m okay with. At any given moment, I’m writing something here, editing something there, shooting over there, and teaching over there. And I’m always meeting someone for coffee and a chat session. Even right now, I have several balls in the air that I am desperate to keep in the air. Unless I’m working on a set or actively shooting, my work is far less physically demanding than either my mother’s or my grandfather’s. So if I’m not working at least 50 hours a week, I feel useless.
Part of it is the amount of work I’m expected to do for free. Arts and media fields are notorious for the meager or sporadic pay for most individuals. The notion being that they are so attractive as fields that many people just feel lucky to be working. So many of us creative professionals have to work even harder to make any money. But part of it is also of a sentiment that “fun” careers aren’t actually work. But ask any painter, photographer, actor, or graphic designer: this is definitely work. And burnout is a reality.
My mom and my grandfather are right. We need to stop working so much. The hustle is killing us. I need to live my life and so do you.
Give yourself a break. Schedule it. Stop answering calls, texts, and emails. Take a mental health day. You deserve it.