When I was a teenager, I would write a poem in one sitting, always declaring it “done” after a few hours.
I enjoyed then and still enjoy having something concrete to show for my work. Since then, I gathered many more tools that help me to envision writing poetry as a process. I can spend a few hours mulling over line breaks and accept with grace that the poem is not yet “done.”
Writing my doctoral dissertation prospectus is different. Although I’ve been honing my academic writing skills for over a decade, the genre of the dissertation prospectus feels elusive—because it is new. I am learning about it as I compose it, which means I am not always aware if I’m checking off boxes that show my progression. That’s hard for me, because I like knowing how close I am to “done,” and I like even more knowing how close I am to “done well.”
I mentioned in my Habits 101 post that I wanted to develop habits to break down huge projects into small habits. In order to shift my habits, I first had to identify my struggle: accepting that I can’t finish the whole task in one go. I struggle to trust that I’m moving forward if I am unable to see a finish line or if I feel like I’m treading water or only taking baby steps on a huge project.
This week I focused on my habits to shift how I perceived the process of completing a big task like my prospectus, and my new perspective not only replaced stress with motivation, but also majorly upped the quality of my productivity!
Learning to Enjoy the Process: Use a Mantra
One of my new habit building exercises is to pull a mantra from Shannon Kaiser’s Find Your Happy Daily Mantras every morning and allow it to guide my day. Last Monday’s mantra was “I take responsibility for my happiness.” If I was responsible for my own joy, I wanted to find out how to make revising my prospectus fun. Since my goal was to break the huge project into pieces, I reflected on which tasks I enjoy doing even if I don’t “finish” them.
- I enjoy crocheting granny squares, but I rarely stitch them into a quilt.
- I enjoy cutting pictures out of magazines, although I rarely get around to arranging and collaging them.
- I enjoy picking up a crossword and filling in the words I know, but I don’t mind putting it down and moving on without finishing the puzzle.
Why is is that I’m so relaxed and happy even when I don’t “finish” these tasks?
I truly enjoy the process.
I then asked myself what I enjoyed about the process of research and writing. My answer was easy: synthesis. I get a ton of satisfaction from reading multiple sources and putting them in conversation by drawing them in a map. This is even more exciting when I can include primary sources, because I feel like I am in the conversation, too. I feel like this synthesis work is how I best learn new frameworks and theories. Learning is one of my key values, and this kind of learning feels like a game I am good at playing.
The problem is, I had been so focused on typing and revising my own words that I had seen reading and synthesizing as wasted time and energy, tasks that held me back from writing. I allowed Monday’s mantra to serve like bumpers on the side of a bowling lane: I would have fun by prioritizing reading and synthesizing as my work that day.
It should not come as a surprise that I had a blast. I saw connections that I previously had missed, because I was giving myself time to ponder and reflect on what I was reading. Instead of telling myself I did poorly because I didn’t revise my entire prospectus on Monday, I gave myself permission to re-see the situation. Instead of saying, “Ugh, I didn’t revise enough today,” I said, “I read four articles and took notes that will help me write my dissertation, and I also started incorporating these into my footnotes and citations. This is really helpful because it provides a foundational theory and language for my discussion of my methods.” I felt more prepared, and the results definitely showed in my revisions.
Habits Update: Pairing
As a reminder, pairing is the act of “coup[ing] two activities, one that I need or want to do, and one that I don’t particularly want to do, to get myself to accomplish them both” (Rubin 211). I wanted to pair cleaning the cats’ litter box while I ran my bath at night, and I’m happy to report that I did it six out of seven nights! It doesn’t feel like a chore, because I see the results right away and I get to pop in the bath soon after I finish the task. Interestingly, I didn’t run a bath on days six or seven, and while I still remembered to do the litter on day six, I had fallen out of the habit by day seven and completely forgot!
I noticed something else, too. Since cleaning the kitty litter every night is making the overall task easier, cleaner, and quicker, I realize that I’m really benefiting. I’ve been trying to guide Present Kate to do other tasks that will make things easier for Future Kate: washing my dishes after I use them, actually putting my empty seltzer cans in the recycling bin instead of leaving them in the sink, moving clothes from the bathroom floor to the hamper after my bath, writing notes in my little pink notebook so I will remember them.
Because I’ve been trying to pair these tasks with specific times or movements that make sense (I’m already moving from the bathroom to the closet; the recycling bin is six feet from the sink), I dedicate much less time and energy to them, which makes them easier to do. When I have a clean home, I work better and feel better. When Present Kate does small tasks, Future Kate benefits.
Pairing Begets Filling in the Pockets
Some tasks take such little time, but if I put them off they feel like a burden. These include: washing dishes, meditating, doing my stretches for physical therapy, tidying up, paying bills, etc. All of these tasks serve me, but I don’t like to schedule time to do them. Instead, last week I focused on doing them when I had some down time. Water was boiling for coffee? Wash dishes. Ready early before you have to leave the house for work? Stretch. Need a break from staring at the screen? Spend 5 minutes tidying the kitchen. I ended up really enjoying these small pockets of productivity, because I knew they would make things so much nicer for Future Kate.
What is Your Enjoyable Process?
You might be feeling that overwhelming, elusive feeling I mentioned at the top of this post. You might have a big project or a plan on your plate, and you’re wondering how to best accomplish it. My hope is that these questions will help you to feel grounded and will propel you to make productivity feel rewarding.
- What tasks do you enjoy the process of doing, regardless of the final result. Why do you think that is? Is there a pattern? (Remember, my examples were: cutting up magazines, crocheting, and crosswords.)
- Based on your answer to what you enjoy about the process, how can you apply those process moves to your current project? Intentionally allow yourself to practice one process step a day without worrying about finishing the project.
When Small Steps Feel Like Huge Obstacles
While the tips and tools I share in The Tending Year might sound easily applicable to some readers, this is not always the case for other readers. Not many people know this, but I was clinically depressed for around a year at the end of my MFA. I struggled to get out of bed, shower, and feed myself. I had to take an incomplete for a class I was enrolled in, and it took all I had to make it to campus to teach my own students. There was no way in hell that I could have kept on top of cleaning or organizing without the help of dear friends who kindly tended to me during my depression (in addition to antidepressants and a good therapist!). If this is something you also experience, try writing down some answers to this:
- Is there a friend you can ask to help you, even if it’s just to meet with you once a month to look at your bills with you or come over to help you do dishes?
- If you feel shy about asking, could you offer a trade of money or of your own services (now or at a later date when you are feeling up to it)? In my experience, it’s always so much more fun to clean out someone else’s closet or organize someone else’s filing cabinet!
If you feel unable to change your situation for whatever reason, please try not to shame yourself and do consider telling a friend or counselor that you’re having a hard time staying on top of everything. You deserve not to feel so alone. I think that a vast number of us graduate students have experienced or do experience depression, anxiety, PTSD, eating disorders, abuse, imposter syndrome, chronic pain, or other things that often leave us feeling alone in our struggles to keep afloat. But we are not alone.
If you’d like to learn about holding space for a friend who is having a hard time, I recommend reading “The Sweetness of Holding Space for Another.”
Recommendations for Podcasts on Enjoying the Process
I listened to a few podcasts last week that inspired me to make my work more enjoyable.
Sarah Prout’s “Sacred Productivity Tools to Spark Inspiration.“ This includes suggestions such as meditation, crystals, gratitude, decluttering, and setting powerful intentions.
Rachael Kable’s “Mindful Studying.“ This includes tips on tailoring our study habits to our natural energy ebbs and flows and our learning styles, taking mindful breaks, and adopting attitudes that serve our study goals.
Kate Snowise’s “3 Simple Tips to Help You Stress-Less Throughout the Day” (Episode 88). This includes suggestions on how to build habits into our daily schedules that prioritize connection with others and winding down at the end of the day.
Also, although it’s not exactly on productivity or self help, Krista Tippet’s interview with poet Michael Longley, “The Vitality of Ordinary Things,” is a beautiful reminder to be present and notice the natural beauty in our everyday interactions with nature and with one another.
*Please note that the original version of this blog post was published here.
If you want a little extra help with changing your habits, I’m currently accepting new one-on-one coaching clients. You can read more about my coaching practice here and email me to book a session. You can also download a FREE guide to habit formation and maintenance by subscribing to The Tending Letter in the pink box below this post.