How one freelancer let go of hustle culture on the journey to motherhood and found a more mindful way to work
Like so many others, 2020 was an absolutely insane year for me. I got pregnant, dealt with the global pandemic, kept my freelance career afloat, and brought a beautiful baby boy into the world.
My ideas of productivity and self-care fluctuated more than ever before. It was tough, but I took many valuable lessons and insights away from it, leading me into a balanced place of mindful productivity.
The foundations of productivity
The meaning of productivity is highly subjective. One person’s conception of productive might be worlds away from someone else’s depending on their life circumstances. This is completely normal. However, productivity is generally regarded as being linked to efficiency. Most people relate it to how much they’re able to accomplish in a day, week, or month.
At face value, there’s nothing wrong with this. Nevertheless, it causes significant stress and anxiety for many people. Busy culture or hustle culture instills a high degree of social pressure to consistently accomplish as much as possible without showing any sign of weakness. Even more, it actually suggests that people should be happy about and even proud of how busy they are.
Professional pressure is a big driving force behind this busy culture. In fact, a 2020 report showed that difficulty in establishing a good work-life balance and working too many hours were some of the leading causes of workplace stress.
These pain points were certainly exacerbated in 2020. In the face of a global pandemic, the majority of adults found themselves working from home (and not doing much else) with no end in sight. With the removal of the regular outside-the-house life distractions that we normally rely on, stress surrounding being productive felt more intense than ever.
The prioritization of mental health and self-care has been on the rise over the past few years, but a few months into 2020’s global pandemic, it really came to a head. All of a sudden, people realized the paradox of busy culture. That is, we think that being busy will make us more productive, but really, we need to make time to take care of ourselves to truly be productive.
I found it extremely difficult to put my work aside at the end of the day – without an office or any kind of structured environment, it was difficult to ever stop working. I’d often find myself in bed past midnight writing one last paragraph or sending one last email.
Productivity and me
I’ve always been a hard worker. I’m lucky to work in an industry that I’m passionate about, and I have absolutely no problem spending long hours on my laptop if I’m investing my time into something I care about. However, I’ve always had a weird relationship with productivity.
That is, I like being productive and getting things done, but I also like taking my time. I’ve worked as a freelancer for the past 5 years, so I’m the master of my own schedule. During that time, I relished my long workdays. They weren’t long in the typical sense though. I would always get a lot done by the end of the day, but I took lots of breaks throughout to go to the gym, walk my dog, meet with friends, and take a nap.
I suppose this was the way I liked to take care of myself. My personal expression of self-care. My pre-pandemic, pre-pregnancy self didn’t mind beginning work at 10 am and easily working until 10 pm as long as I could take breaks whenever I pleased. In fact, I was extremely happy with that arrangement. It’s one of the main reasons I never actually followed through with looking for a 9-to-5 job, even though my freelance career was initially meant to be temporary.
It doesn’t hurt that I live in Barcelona and that the weather is perfect for going for a walk or having a coffee on a terrace pretty much year-round.
That isn’t to say everything was butterflies and rainbows. I was absolutely affected by hustle culture. I always found it extremely difficult to put my work aside at the end of the day, and because I never worked in an office or any kind of structured environment, it was difficult to ever stop working. Spanish people often work late, and I also had clients in different timezones to consider. I’d often find myself in bed past midnight writing one last paragraph or sending one last email.
My state of productive harmony came to a crashing halt when it met the global pandemic.
Initially, I felt annoyed with people complaining about being confined in their homes for what I thought would only be a month or two. It’s not that bad, I thought. Plus, we can’t do anything about it, so we should try and make the most of it. I put a lot of pressure on myself at the outset to take advantage of the extra time at hand and accomplish as much as humanly possible. Now is the time for all those things you never have time to do! I told myself.
That didn’t last long. I faced extreme emotional and mental burnout after the first month and started to feel increasingly down. The initial novelty of the lockdown we were facing began to wear off. My work started fluctuating weekly between too much and not enough. I became acutely aware of the huge distance between Barcelona and my home in Canada. It also didn’t help that I was in my first trimester of pregnancy, making me feel constantly ill and giving me trouble even getting out of bed until midday (not that I knew I was pregnant at the time!).
I realized that I’d taken my normal mental health boosts for granted. That is, going for an evening walk with my husband and dog or even meeting with a friendly client face-to-face to break up the workday.
My real turning point when it came to prioritizing self-care and mental health came when I found out I was pregnant. I was overjoyed but quickly realized that I had to take better care of myself, both mentally and physically. My body was going through the insane process of growing a little human, and I needed to equip myself as best I could!
I stopped putting as much pressure on myself (trust me, this was difficult for a type-A overachiever) and started prioritizing balance. I still relished being able to get work done from home as it kept me busy and my mind occupied, but I didn’t go over the top. I made sure to schedule activities like phone calls with friends and family, at-home workouts, cooking new recipes, and watching silly TV shows into the slots that normally would have been filled by other outside-the-house plans.
This balanced kind of productivity kept me feeling good right up until I gave birth. When I hit the last few weeks of my pregnancy and my belly’s size was out of control, many people told me ‘Why are you still working? You should be relaxing at home!’ My response was always that my balanced work schedule was helping me take care of myself and keeping me sane, which was absolutely the truth.
Productivity as a new mom
Of course, for the first couple of months after my son was born, I tried not to place too many expectations on myself professionally. I wanted to soak in the sweet first moments with him as a little guy, and I was lucky that he was born in the holiday season, which is always quieter workwise.
Nevertheless, I was still feeling nervous about how I would manage my career while being a first-time mom. Being a freelancer is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, I have a flexible schedule where I can set my own hours and I have the right to 4 months of full-time maternity leave in Spain. However, I don’t have the luxury of real maternity leave, as I wear many hats while running my business. There’s no one who can really replace me, at least not in the long-term.
I made a concerted effort to be present with my son whenever I was spending time with him. I stopped thinking about that last email or social media post and focused on what I could accomplish in the time that I had.
After the first couple of months, I started working part-time again. My hours were largely set by the baby’s schedule, i.e., when he was sleeping, which luckily he seemed to like doing a lot! It felt good to start taking in some assignments from long-term clients again, allowing me to regain a little bit of balance in my day-to-day life.
My relationship with productivity also changed. Rather than having my pending tasks running through the back of my mind at all times, I made a concerted effort to be present with my son whenever I was spending time with him. I stopped thinking about that last email or social media post and focused on what I could accomplish in the time that I had.
Weirdly enough, I feel like I became even more productive as a new mom, just in a different way. I felt a lot more focused on my work when I had the chance to fit it in, and I got a lot done in small time windows. I set the pressure to fit into busy culture aside 100% and didn’t feel guilty about shutting everything off for quality personal time like I might have pre-motherhood.
I strongly believe that mothers should do whatever feels right to them. However, I’ve always admired women who are able to maintain a strong sense of identity and purpose in relation to their careers while still prioritizing their family lives. It’s a tricky balance to strike, but I feel confident that I’m getting there little by little.
The lessons I’ve learned
Overall, the past year has been a rollercoaster. Fortunately, I’ve taken away many meaningful lessons about my relationship with productivity.
I’ve come to realize that true, mindful productivity is all about personal balance. It’s not about accomplishing as much as you can in a tiny amount of time, but rather, feeling like you’re getting meaningful things done in a timeframe that’s comfortable for you. It’s about taking care of yourself and your loved ones so you can truly invest energy into working on the things that you’re passionate about outside your home life.
In order to find time for all of the above, one of the biggest things I’m working on is how I interact with technology. Technology brings us tons of professional and personal benefits, but it’s also a huge time waster. I’m as guilty as anyone of scrolling the night away on Instagram when I should be sleeping or wasting time during the workday doing nothing in particular on the internet.
Being mindful about how I use technology has helped me free up a lot of time in my days. Rather than navigating aimlessly, I schedule weekly Zoom calls with close friends at home, check my social media pages at breaks throughout the day (and then log off!), and use the internet in meaningful professional and personal ways.
If you have trouble setting boundaries to help with your technology use, there are plenty of tools out there that can help you do so. Freedom is one solution that you can use to block distracting websites and apps for specific time periods, allowing you to focus on what matters most.
How can you be more mindfully productive?
Based on my experiences, I’ve compiled a list of tips for other new and expectant mothers that are going through their own transitions on what productivity might mean to them with a new baby in their life. This list is by no means exhaustive, but these have been some of the key realizations that have helped me:
- Be present with what you’re doing
Whether I’m cuddling with my son, walking my dog, or working on a new article, I make a concerted effort to be present with whatever I’m doing. I’m a born multitasker, so this isn’t easy for me. However, it helps me feel happier and more fulfilled, as well as being able to get things done more efficiently when I need to. I also know the infancy stage of childhood doesn’t last long, so it’s especially important to me that I enjoy these moments while they’re here.
- Reflect on how you want your life to look like as a new mom
It’s key to meaningfully reflect on what you want your life to look like as a new mom. This will be a little bit different for everyone. However, it’s an important exercise that will help you manifest the reality that you’ve always imagined. Of course, plans don’t always work out and our lives often go in different directions than we initially predicted. Nevertheless, it’s inspiring to develop a strong sense of the life you want to make a reality and work towards getting there.
One of my biggest fears around motherhood was losing my personal sense of identity. I didn’t want to be so consumed with family life that I didn’t have time for anything else. Early on, I knew that striking the right balance would be key for my mental health, and I’m getting there step by step.
- Keep a schedule
Before motherhood, I was never really one for scheduling. I made sure to keep key dates and deadlines in mind for work purposes, but I was more of a last-minute kind of girl. Keeping a schedule has been absolutely essential to maintaining mindful productivity and balance in my life. It reassures me that I have enough time in the day to get everything done and instills a sense of calm into my weeks.
There are lots of web apps you can use to help you out, but I love using Google Calendar because it’s connected straight to my email.
- Be realistic
Whatever you do, do not overschedule yourself. This is where the mindful part of productivity comes in. It’s absolutely key.
As a new mom, it’s very easy to suffer from emotional and physical burnout. You’re busy in a different way than you’ve ever been before, and it’s all-consuming. You might feel like you want to get back to normal as soon as you can, but don’t sacrifice your mental health to get there. It’s important to take care of yourself and honor your personal boundaries. If you don’t want to do something, or can’t, just say no. This brings me to my final point…
- Prioritize what matters
When you have a baby, your life changes. No matter what you do, you will simply have less time than you did before. Because of this, you’ll need to think about what really matters to you. You won’t have time for any excess, so don’t stress yourself out with tasks, people, and activities that aren’t important.
You might have less going on than you did pre-baby, but what’s left will be more meaningful. Interesting work projects, time with your little one, rewarding relationships with close friends, partners, and family members, and leisure time that truly fills your cup.
True, mindful productivity isn’t about accomplishing as much as you can in a tiny amount of time. It’s about taking care of yourself and your loved ones so you can invest energy into working on the things that you’re passionate about outside your home life.
Productivity means putting yourself first
My definition of productive went through multiple shifts in 2020 alone. From long, flexible workdays, to doing as much as possible during confinement, to trying to be productive while taking care of my pregnant self, I certainly didn’t know what to expect with a baby thrown into the mix.
Now that I’ve experienced a few months of proud motherhood, I can safely say that the key to building a mindfully productive lifestyle that’s right for you is balance. Determine the most meaningful things in your life that you need to find time for, and prioritize them accordingly.
Without a doubt, one of those meaningful things in your life should be yourself.
No matter what productivity means to you, honoring your personal needs is key in getting there mindfully.
Sydney Triggs is a writer, editor, translator & educator from Vancouver, Canada currently settled in Barcelona, Spain.
Having worked in the content world for 5 years now, she is passionate about working with words in various capacities. Whether she is acting as a language coach, translating texts, generating meaningful SEO-driven content, editing fiction, or writing articles and blogs, the power of words is fundamental to her craft.
She has worked with individual entrepreneurs and creatives, as well as start-ups, small businesses, and large organizations in a variety of industries, in Canada, the United States, the UK, France, Spain, and around the world.
She’s written hundreds of articles about marketing, travel & leisure, fashion, sustainability, technology, finance & investment, remote work, and human resources, as well as more personal fiction and thought pieces.