This post is a special treat for productivity lovers. 

To write this post, I compiled a special series I wrote for PhD Balance (formerly known as Ph_D_epression), a “collaborative community talking about mental health in graduate school.” They invited me to write a series of posts that could help graduate students during the summer months, when many of us lack a predetermined schedule and are craving intentional structure without quite knowing how to manifest it.

Each post in my series speaks to a particular productivity tool that means a lot to me, personally: intention, awareness, and personalizing your practice. I wanted to share them all here, for those who missed them on Instagram, and also because I think these how-tos will also help those who are not grad students. Please note that instead of saving the takeaway prompts for the end of the blog post, I’m weaving them into each of the three how-tos. Enjoy, tenderhearts!

Intention

The word intention evokes two phrases in my mind: to DO something with intention & to SET an intention. Both phrases use intention as a vehicle to move from point A to point B. This focus on getting to point B might lead us to mistake intentions for goals, although the two differ in fundamental ways:⁣

A GOAL IS THE END RESULT YOU HOPE TO ACHIEVE, WHILE AN INTENTION IS HOW YOU PLAN TO GET THERE.⁣

Dr. Deepak Chopra describes intention beautifully as “a directed impulse of consciousness that contains the seed form of that which you aim to create.“ So, if you aim to create a calmer life, then you can set an intention to “embrace mindfulness,” which you might practice through meditation.⁣

Approaching productivity with intention is empowering. When I find myself struggling, my first step is to check in with my intention to see what is off kilter by asking myself these questions:⁣

  • Does this activity line up with my personal values? Which ones? How?
  • Where does this activity sit in my list of priorities?⁣
  • By saying “yes” to this activity, what other things am I saying “no” to?⁣
  • Will saying “yes” to completing this task enable me to progress on my path towards my own definition of personal growth/success?⁣

Once I answer these, I gain more clarity about whether or not my current approach lines up with my personal intentions. My next step is to reflect on my answers, shift my perspective, and redefine an approach that lines up with my intentions.⁣

Remember, a focused intention can help us to achieve our goals, but the point of an intention is not to check off a To Do list. It’s to line our actions up with the consciousness we would like to inhabit, be that practicing self love, living a slow and steady life, and approaching challenges with curiosity (PS: those are 3 of MY intentions!).

Awareness

Some people mistake “accomplishing literally as many things as possible” for “being productive.” But this is not the true definition of productivity (or if it is, it’s not the kind of productivity I want to encourage or participate in, because it enables toxic workaholism).

I invite you to join me in adopting a new definition: we achieve productivity when we complete the SPECIFIC goals we aimed to accomplish. To shift our mindset from “do all the things” to “do only the specific things,” we need to bring awareness to our productivity practices.

 

  • Before you dive into your tasks, predetermine exactly what you hope to accomplish in your day. Many productivity experts suggest limiting this to three personal or work goals (a manageable # to remember).
  • When it comes to work, use “pulse and pause” methods such as Pomodoro to alternate between working on a specific task (which is connected to one of your three goals for your day, right?) and taking breaks where you move your body, look away from screens, and breathe.
  • Using “Do X number of pulse and pause sessions” as a daily goal will also help you track your progress on large tasks that you can’t complete in total in one day (like a dissertation!).
  • Monotask. I’m currently reading and enjoying Jenny Odell’s book How To Do Nothing. Odell is a bird watcher, although she suggests in the book that we should use the phrase “bird noticer” because of the ways we engage multiple senses in the action of observing the birds in our life. I’ve been taken with this practice of awareness, choosing to go on more walks myself and not to listen to podcasts or music while I do. When I focus on my surroundings, I have a more meaningful experience. This works for productivity, too: when you focus on one task at a time versus task switching, you will have a more intentional and thus productive experience.

Personalize Your Practice

Personalizing a practice might not seem like a productivity tool on the surface, because gurus often pitch “the ONE way to be successful.” In my opinion as a productivity researcher, it’s a myth that we all thrive with the same “ideal” methods.

So, instead of telling you to wake at 6 AM or meditate for a half hour a day or drink a green juice in order to reach apex productivity levels, I encourage you to develop a personalized list of best practices that is rooted in your individual preferences, strengths, and goals.

Here are some tips on how to do that:

 

  • Be real about what works for YOU and don’t force yourself to meet some ideal productivity standard. Habit researcher Gretchen Rubin calls this knowing your “distinctions”: Are you a morning person or a night person? Do you like starting or ending projects? Do you like marathoning your work or sprinting?
  • Think about what tasks get you in a state of “flow” AKA fully engaged and focused on a task so that you don’t even notice time passing. Once you identify a few of your flow moments, consider what causes you to immerse yourself fully in the activity (examples might include feeling challenged or fulfilling your values). Intentionally incorporate your flow triggers in your personal practice.
  • Review your successes. This could include work or personal achievements, such as awards, publications, setting healthy boundaries, or learning a new hobby. Ask yourself how you accomplished your goals: What small steps did I take along the way? How did I deal with setbacks? What skills did I need to learn or hone? Identify which parts were easy or difficult for you, and use your hindsight knowledge to develop a game plan for approaching future challenges.