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Coming down off of a week of mindful consumption, I was aware that I did have focus and energy to spare on the things I wanted to do.
But, it turns out I wasn’t quite sure how to put those into practice in a way that would boost my productivity without kicking up too much perfectionism AKA negative self talk.
The truth is, while I know my self worth isn’t measured by my productivity, I still struggle with letting go of perfectionist ideals around what, how, and how much I should produce. When I really thought about why I feel such a need to always be productive, I found an overlap with another behavior that didn’t serve me.
Back in the day when I used to drink alcohol, I would always drink to excess. It felt like the switch in my brain that should register “you’ve had enough”—the switch that allowed others around me to be satisfied with one or two drinks—just didn’t work right. I never hit the point of feeling satiated because my brain never told me when to stop. I realized that I feel like that about productivity. Case in point: a few weekends ago my sweetie kindly reminded me, “Hey, it’s 9PM. It’s okay to stop working today.” I didn’t have any deadlines to submit reports or drafts, no one was even answering business emails on the weekend, but still I felt an inner desire to keep working. I think was motivated by two things:
- A trauma and scarcity-based domino effect fear that if I don’t work hard enough I won’t succeed, and then my bosses will think I’m lazy and won’t rehire me, and then I won’t be able to afford food/rent/stability.
- I have normalized working myself past points of exhaustion and comfort, which mean I know I have the ability to work nonstop (note the previously mentioned broken gauge for knowing when I had had enough).
I realized that my partner’s outside permission to say “Good job, Kate. Time to call it a day!” was super effective, whereas if I had said the same thing to myself I would likely have responded, “just one more hour.” When one of my bosses says, “Wow! You did a great job finishing the project!” I know I can take a breather and feel good about what I produced. When the elliptical says it’s time for the 5-minute cool down period, I know I earned it because I just did a full 45-minute workout. But, I obviously don’t expect anyone else (or a gym machine) to follow me around and say “that’s good enough!” Also, I’d like to learn how to flex that “productivity achieved for the day” muscle on my own. For those reasons, I focused last week on mindful production. I tried three things: Todoist, 90-minute working sessions, and building foundation, and I found out some really helpful ways to re-tend to my productivity.
How Do I Tend to Produce?
I tend to set HUGE, abstract goals for myself. For example: I’m much more likely to write “finish dissertation prospectus” on a to do list instead of breaking it down into manageable chunks. The effect of this is a terrifying pressure to complete the full project, and I respond by spinning my wheels until I burn out, stress out, or freak out–or I might feel too overwhelmed to even begin a task so I will cycle between multiple tasks without ever finishing one. When these responses happen, I often tell myself, “I’m not smart/talented/focused enough to do this project. I will never finish, simply because I am not good enough.”
If I use the exercise I wrote about in Week 1’s Welcome post and apply my negative self-talk statement to my loved ones, I am blown away! I would never tell a friend or even an acquaintance that they inherently aren’t good enough because they didn’t immediately complete a HUGE task! But, I know traditional to do lists don’t work for me. I needed to learn how to break down my goals and be mindful about my production.
I was telling my friend Liz the other day that I don’t feel like I have that switch in my brain to tell me I’ve worked enough in a day, and she told me about this phone/laptop app called Todoist that she’s been using for a couple years. The gist is simple: the app helps you to categorize tasks, assign tasks to particular days, let’s you build up “karma” points for checking off a particular number of tasks per day (you can turn off karma on the weekend if you want), and shows you a report of what you’ve finished. I know this sounds like just crossing off a to do list, but it works differently (and better!) for me. I think there’s four reasons why this is working for me:
- I put things on here that I normally wouldn’t count as “tasks”: teaching, working, going to the doctor, meeting with my bosses, going to the gym, running errands. Regardless of how routinely I do those things, and regardless of how much I enjoy them, they all drain some of my energy, focus, and time, so I started to count them as tasks.
- I set my daily task goal for 5 tasks. As you can see in the picture below this list, I went over that number some days, and I let myself go under on weekends. This means once I hit my 5 tasks I know I’ve worked “enough” that day, and anything I accomplish beyond that is just a super awesome stretch goal. Also, if I’m feeling stuck in a lull or feeling paralyzed by not knowing what to do next, I can easily choose from just a handful of options if I know I want to do them all that day anyways.
- I see which tasks I’m prioritizing or ignoring. For example, yellow is “blog” and bright orange is “dissertation,” while red is “personal” and dark orange is “mind/body/spirit.” When I feel like I haven’t accomplished enough tasks in one day, I remember that doing an orange task means I made progress on my dissertation prospectus. If I see that I have “dissertation” and “mind body spirit” (e.g., gym, meditation, bath) on the list, I prioritize dissertation and work and then let a nice bath be my final task for the day.
- Perhaps most important, this gives me an external affirmation that I have been productive enough and shows me if I’m pushing too hard. It functions like that that switch I mentioned. I’ll be thrilled if I keep using the app and it starts to awaken a natural productivity satisfaction switch in my brain.
Here’s what Todoist says about my productivity for last week (remember that each color signifies the project I assigned to a task):
Working in 90-Minute Sessions
Gretchen Rubin writes in The Happiness Project that she started to dedicate 90 minutes to a task as a tool to help her feel like she could accomplish things in a relatively short amount of time. When I read that, I thought of multiple reasons why this could help me: I won’t bounce between tasks, I am giving myself permission to focus on only one thing at once and put up blinders to any other tasks, and, most importantly, I’ll be able to say “you did a good job, now it’s time to put that task away until tomorrow.” I think this combined with Todoist is helping me to train myself to recognize that sometimes a day’s worth of work is good even if it doesn’t produce a finalized project.
The first day of doing 90-minute sessions I set myself up somewhere I knew I wouldn’t mind sitting and working for 90 minutes straight—a cafe overlooking a river where I could get a lunch I really liked. When I looked at my progress on Todoist, I noticed that “Personal” and ”Job 3” had been my priority, and “Blog” and “Dissertation” had been lacking. I knew that I had to do some lesson planning and prep for the R&R workshop later that day, but I chose to prioritize dissertation and blog. In line with my three keys focus on “time,” I didn’t want to do too many sessions in one day and overwhelm myself, so I planned to give dissertation and blog 90 minutes each. This left me about a half hour to lesson plan, an hour to prep for R&R, whatever time it took for dinner and the gym before R&R (and a bath, if I could sneak it in). This sounded like a pretty productive and fun day.
I did dissertation first, and quickly learned that I had to set a rule: don’t check your email while you are doing a 90-minute session. Students were emailing with questions about homework, but they could wait an hour and a half. I found a new scholar whose research was similar to mine and I wanted to email and introduce myself, but instead of taking away from dissertation time I added a task in Todoist to email her another time. I spent about an hour of the 90 minutes typing up notes and research questions and I spent the last 30 minutes working through the first chapter of Writing Your Dissertation in 15 Minutes a Day. As I expected, once the 90 minutes were done I wanted to keep working, but I had been sitting for around 2 hours at that point and I knew I had to relocate home to my standing desk.
Once I got home, I walked the dog around the block, set up a phone date with one of my best friends to talk through a question I had about my dissertation, and started on my 90-minute session for the blog. At this point I was working backwards in time, so I knew I’d finish the blog in time to hit the gym when I wanted to. Also, while 90 minutes may seem like a long time, it went by fast! I was very impressed and kept up the 90-Minute Session tool for the rest of the week.
Building Foundations First
I actually got this idea during a session last week with the brilliant Hadassah Damien, who I see for one-on-one financial coaching. I can’t say enough good things about Hadassah, and I want to credit her for inspiring me to build foundations first.
Even though I already have student loan debt from undergrad and two Masters degrees before this PhD, it makes more sense for me to take a lower interest student loan and apply that money to my higher interest credit card debt. One of my 2018 goals is to pay off one of my credit cards, but I also am in the process of saving money to support myself during the summer, (summer is notoriously hard for graduate students who are trying to balance research with finding temporary work, because our teaching paychecks usually run from late September through early June). Luckily, I was able to negotiate one of my contacts this year to receive some of my salary during the summer, but I’m still going to have to save many thousands of dollars. I set up an appointment with Hadassah to get some guidance on where to put the loan, and she suggested that I put a bulk of the loan into my summer savings now. That loan money + the money I will make from my negotiated contract + extra money I’ll save each month until then will equal about what I’ll need to pay rent/bills this summer.
I honestly had never thought of that as an option, but in retrospect it was the best option for me. I’m so used to a scarcity mindset that when Hadassah suggested it I almost started crying with relief on our video call. The mere idea that I would have enough money to get through the summer without maxing (or even using) my credit cards caused me immediate peace and grounding. Also, I would still be putting a chunk of the loan money on one of my credit cards, which would motivate me to keep paying it off. So, that’s what I did, and immediately my fears about summer savings lessened.
That feeling of relief was so huge that I wondered if I could apply this skill to other stressful decisions. Building the foundation of summer savings first would allow me to feel stable and grounded, which would allow me to focus my energy on other things. If I were to transfer this to the other things in my life that often feel huge and overwhelming, I might feel more motivated to tackle tasks that would provide me with comfort when they were done.
For example, if I’m feeling terrified that I’ll never finish my dissertation, I remember that finishing this prospectus will provide me with a foundation to then do the actual fun part of dissertating: reading tons of old materials in archives, coding, analyzing, developing methodologies and theories, etc. The problem I’m in right now is that I’ve been thinking about my dissertation project so abstractly and I feel like I can’t grasp the right path to finishing it. But, instead of freaking out, I set a foundation goal: write two pages a day, stand my ass at that desk for 90 minutes at a time, and eke out the prospectus as my main focus–because once I finish it I know I will feel so much freer and better.
Honestly, I would recommend all of these tools. The 90-minute session method is helpful especially for making myself write anything for my dissertation, and then giving me permission to put it away for the day. The colors in Todoist are helping me to prioritize and balance my productivity with self care practices (and you could color-code an analog to do list if you don’t want to try the app). Working towards a foundation feels humbling, because it reminds me that even confusing or hard work will pay off.
If you have similar issues with productivity as the ones I mentioned here, I’d say try out the three tools I mentioned. If you’re itching for more, I recommend:
- Taking Gretchen Rubin’s “Four Tendencies” quiz. It came as NO surprise to me that I’m an Obliger, which means I am more likely to met an outer expectation and to resist an inner expectation. You might also be an Upholder, Questioner, or Rebel.
- If you’re interested in timing your work but you aren’t sure if you’re ready for the 90-Minute Session method, I can also vouch for the Pomodoro method (a free timer that reminds you to work 25 mins, break 5 mins, repeat) and the Freedom and Anti-Social apps, which shut off particular websites or the disconnect you from the internet for a time you’ve set (I bought these years ago for $10 for the package and have had them since then).
*Please note that the original version of this blog post was published here.