“And one more thing: Don’t expect to do anything in the first few weeks after surgery.”
It was a Friday morning in late July, and I was staring at a monochromatic image on a computer screen. An orthopedic surgeon was sitting next to me explaining the image. My heart was racing; my mind was numb.
That morning, I had woken up at 5, done some exercises to strengthen my injured leg, gone for a swim, made coffee and breakfast, and edited the final draft of an article. It was only 9:30 in the morning, but it suddenly felt like the day had closed in on me.
“What do you think?”
“Oh. Um.” The surgeon had finished explaining. He was looking expectantly at me. I hadn’t heard his question. Whatever it was, his could wait. “What are some possible dates for surgery?”
My daily happiness is characterized by a feeling of productivity—the knowledge that I’ve used my brain in healthy and meaningful ways. Until this point, I’ve observed my most productive days are the ones that I have planned with intention. And for me, productivity manifests itself in various ways including cooking a new dish, challenging my athletic ability, writing a new piece, having a good conversation, reading a thought-provoking excerpt, discovering a tangible or abstract novelty, spending quality time with a friend, or making progress with my teammates at work. Whatever it is, I have always believed that I am the master of my productivity. My decisions get me where I want to go each day.
It was unsurprising that in this moment of shock, my brain could only think about how it would achieve this daily sense of productivity.
We set a surgery date a few weeks out, and from that moment forward, I started to think about how I would be strategically productive during those few weeks of “nothingness” post-surgery: Maintain a daily blog, finalize the draft of my children’s book, research new recipes, learn a new language, listen to a queue of podcasts, send cards to friends, read The Fountainhead (after completing the Harry Potter series), and watch all the series that were continually being recommended to me, a non-TV watcher.
I packed an entertainment suitcase to take with me to my parents’ house where I would be living for the few weeks after surgery. It included my laptop, books, notebooks, postcards, and pens.
Five days before surgery, two of my friends came over with a thoughtfully curated care package. One set of items was a coloring book and colored pencils. I smiled when I saw it. There is nothing like the thought of coloring to take you back to the comforts of childhood. I can’t imagine that I’ll actually use this, I thought. Still, it felt wrong not to pack it into my suitcase.
Minutes before my surgery, an anesthetics specialist came in to tell me what to expect.
“Essentially, we’re going to turn your brain off temporarily. We’ll do the surgery. And then we’ll turn your brain back on.”
I outwardly smiled at his nonchalance. Internally, I was freaking the f&#* out. Nothing productive in my life involves my brain shutting off.
The surgery went well.
After a good night’s rest, I woke up the next morning at 6 ready to start attacking my plan. I had the entire day, and several days following, to execute. Before I could make a decision as to where to start, excruciating pain started attacking my knee. I instinctively yelled out in pain. I couldn’t even intelligently process the pain, let alone anything else.
In letting out that scream, I let out something else: All my previous plans for productivity. Much like my anesthesiologist had turned off my brain, I needed to consciously do the same thing. What I hadn’t foreseen was that the most productive thing I could do was to recover.
And so, that day, I alternated between drinking smoothies, taking pain medication, and napping. This was my general routine for the first week after surgery, though my waking hours slowly extended. In those moments I was not asleep, I colored. In the lines. Outside the lines. Mindlessly. With no plan. It enabled me to do nothing by doing something. It allowed my brain to pour all its energy into something far more productive, without my interfering. Today, twenty-four days after surgery, I no longer spend entire days coloring. Still mostly immobile, however, I take little breaks through my day to turn my brain off . These moments jumpstart my otherwise monotonous days.
I’m still healing, but now with the brainpower to reflect on those initial post-op days. In those moments, I redefined my understanding of productivity. Being productive doesn’t always need to stem from a conscious, deliberate behavior. Sometimes, productivity comes from trusting your body or the world around you to take its natural course. Allowing my brain to effectively turn off was the most productive thing I could have done for myself. It empowered every cell in my body to rush to the needs of my healing knee. It gave me permission to wholly provide for my body’s productivity.
This notion of “turning off” doesn’t need to be back pocketed for traumatic life events or calendared vacations. Find little moments in your day to empty out and restart your brain. When you do, you’ll find that you reenter your previous thoughts with new perspective. And don’t feel guilty about it. The art of doing nothing is, perhaps, the key to productivity.