This is my last blog post of 2019!
To celebrate the occasion, I decided to do a Q&A. I invited questions around all things productivity, personal development, and slow living, and I got some wonderfully insightful submissions. Below, I share my personal thoughts on seven questions.
Question 1: How do you give yourself permission not to finish all that is on your to-do list, because you can’t, but still feel good about yourself?
I wholeheartedly support the collective action of giving ourselves permission to be kinder to ourselves when it comes to our to-do lists. The first thing we need to acknowledge about to-do lists is that by function they will never actually end, because there’s always another thing we could do. There will always be more tasks on the horizons that we could accomplish.
In an ideal world, we would disconnect our worth from our productivity. I don’t mean just knowing that we should do it, but actually trusting that we ourselves deserve to feel great regardless of our output. This takes practice, and I’ve found that using tools that set boundaries around my productivity help me to shift my perspective around what it means to “accomplish” to-dos.
My relationship with the never-ending to-do list shifted once I started using the Must-do Method. I broke down this alternative approach to the to-do list in this blog post. I use the Must-do Method to schedule my to-do tasks by priority and deadline, which limits the number of literal tasks on my list for each day. Because I schedule my must-do list ahead of time, I can preemptively plan my to-do tasks around days when I know I may need to reserve time, energy, or focus for other things.
Finally, if I’m feeling down on myself about not accomplishing “enough” in a day, I choose to write a “ta-da list” of all the things I did that day that I’m proud of, which helps me shift my sense of worth and joy from productivity to personal development and relationships. You can read more about ta-da lists here.
Question 2: How do you balance ambition and contentment?
What a beautiful and complex question!
I’m a recovering workaholic with her Mars in Capricorn, and what that looks like for me is a desire to consistently be driving towards success. Sometimes, my obsession with accomplishing goals makes stopping to admire not just the fruit of my labor, but my life in general, feel superfluous.
Because I tend to dash on to the next task as soon as I’ve checked off the last, I thrive with rules and boundaries that enable me be mindful and present with my contentment. I’ve got three specific examples to share with you.
- Gratitude. Sometimes my gratitude practice does look like writing three things I’m grateful for in my journal, and sometimes it looks like choosing to put my phone away when I’m with friends so I can truly enjoy their company. When I can be present with the things I enjoy in my life, I feel very content. Something this requires intentionally giving myself permission to do so, and I achieve that with habits like no phone at the dinner table and telling my Sweetie I love her before bed every night.
- Take intentional breaks. Literally schedule time to get up from your desk and walk around the block or go make a cup of tea. If possible, schedule in whole days or parts of days when you don’t work (and that includes sneaky work like reading books about business!). I’m more likely to feel content and mindful when I know I’m not “allowed” to work.
- Don’t compare yourself to others. It’s too easy to turn other people’s successes into a fire under our own ass that is stoked with negative self talk. We compare ourselves to peers, celebrities, and to people who’ve been honing their practices for much longer than us, and we often do so without a true view of what’s happening behind the scenes. When I catch myself feeling jealous of someone else’s success, instead of asking myself why I’m not fill-in-the-blank enough like them, I try to feel excited for them instead. By shifting from a feeling of scarcity to abundance, I’m more able to differentiate my experience from theirs and to feel content with where I’m at on my own path.
Question 3: What do you see as the link between capitalism and work culture? How can we counter attitudes in ourselves and others that may cause us to work more than is beneficial?
Most productivity researchers open their books by establishing the discrepancy between the production economy and the knowledge economy. The production economy is rooted in an exchange of labor and resulting products for pay (i.e., people building car parts in a factory), whereas the knowledge economy is based in an exchange of knowledge work (i.e., consulting, researching, writing, etc.) for pay. The reason productivity researchers differentiate these two economies is because the production economy is based on a 40-hour workweek, whereas the knowledge economy can be much less (or more) than a standard workweek.
I pointed this out because I think many knowledge workers (writers, graduate students, creatives, professors, etc.) feel as if we must be working X number of hours a week to be seen as “productive.” This feeling is especially poignant for those of us who have worked hourly shifts before or now in service or production-based jobs.
I think the productivity world is onto something with their “work less, achieve more” mantra, but to do this requires unlearning standard ideas about what a “good worker” (often seen as a respectful, hard-working, “good” person) does in a day or a week. Here are a few ways that I attempt to unlearn my own connection of my worth to my work:
- I count my invisible and background labor, even if other people might ignore it. I have a post about that here.
- I don’t do extra labor out of guilt that I “should” be working. Because of my well-honed productivity skills, I often can finish a day’s to-do list of knowledge work by midday. I have to remind myself that I don’t have to do more work beyond that unless I truly choose to.
- I set boundaries around my labor output. I no longer compulsively work in the evenings and weekends. When I do, it’s because I have intentionally chosen to do so. I also no longer take on every work opportunity presented to me, because preserving off time is essential to my wellbeing.
- I prioritize doing a “good job” over perfection. Instead of spending extraneous personal resources (time, energy, focus, money, emotional labor) on work, I identify what “good enough” will look like at the beginning of my work and I aim for that. This approach has yet to steer me wrong. You can read more about doing a good job here.
Question 4: How can I find the motivation to actually keep up with my new 2020 planner?
I am in the same boat! I usually rely on just my Todoist app and my Google calendar, but this year I’m expanding to include a physical phanner. Here’s how I’m planning to approach actually keeping up with mine:
Make it habit. Once we develop a habit, we function on autopiliot and no longer need to rely on willpower to accomplish the task. Habits are based in three things: a cue, a routine, and a reward (read more about habit formation here). Your cue could be a location (leave your planner on your desk or by your coffee pot) or a time (check your planner before you start working in the morning or before you go to bed at night), and you can use phone reminders or sticky notes to help trigger your cue. I encourage you to literally schedule in time to review your planner daily.
In addition to the reward of treating yourself with coffee or tea when you review your planner, a larger reward is rooted in your “why” for using your planner in the first place. What benefit will it bring to your life?
For me, the reward is threefold: planning ahead for when I will follow up with clients so I will be sure to stay on task, completing milestone tasks at the right time in order to achieve a later deadline, and finally, seeing a visual representation of my must-do lists so I don’t overschedule myself. I also like that my paper planner will record my journey with coaching, writing my dissertation, and my work at The Tending Year, so I’ll be able to track my progress.
Question 5: How do I keep myself accountable with going to the gym even if I’m anxious or tired?
I sourced assitance in answering this question from my Sweetie, who is a regular gym-goer who has been going for years. Here’s a list of tips we came up with. Some of these are for people who are new to the gym, but they should be applicable to people who are on-again-off-again who want to turn the switch back to on.
- Build in accountability. Do you have a buddy you can either go to the gym with or who can help to keep you accountable for going to the gym when you plan to? Perhaps they have their own new habit they’d like to form, and you can both check in to report your individual progresses!
- Prepare ahead of time. You’re more likely to get out the door to the gym if your your gym clothes, sneakers, and water bottle are easily accessible. If you plan to go to the gym after work, bring them with you to work so you can head right there. If you plan to go in the AM, put them by your bed and put them on before you leave the room.
- What is your “why” for going to the gym in the first place? If you can root your desire to go to the gym in a clear purpose, you may feel more motivated to see each gym visit as chipping away at a larger goal. Here’s a blog post about how our “why” can be a great motivator.
- Start small. A workout is still a workout, regardless of the time you spend on it! Go for small amounts of time in the beginning, like 20 minutes. You can always work up, and as many exercisers say, once you start going, you’ll likely want to continue.
- Pair a particular television show or podcast with going to the gym. If you do cardio, choose a show that you can finish in the amount of time you’ll spend on the machine. If you can only watch that show at the gym, you may feel motivated to find out what happens in the next episode! Also, watching tv may make the workout go by quicker.
- Many new faces = many shy newbies. If you’re new to the gym this January, there will be SO many new faces in the gym. Many of them will be working out for the first time, so you’ll be surrounded by beginners. This may help to assuage some anxiety around doing everything correctly.
- Remember that it’s okay to try things once and then stop. It’s also okay to leave the gym and go home if you don’t feel good. You can always try again tomorrow.
- Do research ahead of time. If there’s a new weight machine that you’ve been eyeing up but you aren’t sure how to use it, look it up on Youtube before you go to the gym. You can also walk around the gym and look at all the machines, which will likely have pictures of how you should use them.
- Fuel up ahead of time. Try eating a snack or a powerbar and drinking water before you go to the gym so that you have enough energy to get you through your workout.
- Set goals and stretch goals for how often you’d like to go to the gym, and be sure to include rest days. An example goal is to go three times a week, and a stretch goal would be to go four times. Another goal is to do a walkaround in the gym and look at the machines, and a stretch goal would be to try one out.
- If you want to work out but aren’t feeling up to going to the gym, try out a functional strength training circuit on Youtube (i.e., squats, handweights, planks). You can do a set of 3 or 5 at home in your pajamas, and it still definitely counts as working out!
- Finally, give yourself permission to listen to your body. If your body is telling you to adjust your workout from an hour run to a 20 minute walk or to stay home and get necessary rest, allow yourself to rest today and try again tomorrow.
Question 6: This question is in response to this quote by @chasinggarza, which I shared in an Instagram story: “Stop letting people who do so little for you control so much of your mind[,] feelings and emotions.” The questioner asked for advice on how to do this.
While it might sound like a no-brainer that we should protect our minds, feelings, and emotions from people who don’t respect us or who actively harm us, setting boundaries can feel very challenging. It’s especially difficult for for those of us with complex trauma or who experienced neglect or abuse as children.
Here are a few ways that I’ve tried to establish healthy boundaries around how much space I let others take up in my mind.
- Acknowledge when another person’s negativity (or rudeness, or disrespect, or etc.) is rooted in their own experiences, trauma, shadow work, or fear. This does not excuse their behavior, but it may help you to have some compassion for them and to establish some distance between their negative actions and yourself.
- Perform a mental reset. I do this by literally telling myself “it does not serve me to believe this negative thought.” Sometimes I have to repeat this many times before it sinks in, but when it does, I feel better.
- When I first started addressing my own codependency, I read Melody Beattie’s Codependent No More. It helped me have language for describing the feelings of fear and anxiety I felt around setting boundaries with people who expected me to be there for them through hell (because I’d never set boundaries before), and it empowered me to shift my perspective around what was my responsibility and what wasn’t.
- Seek external validation from someone who truly loves and respects you. If you’re struggling with something negative that someone said or did, share your concern with a trusted friend (or a support group) who can validate for you that the action in question is invalid, inappropriate, or unwarranted. This friend may be willing to help you draft and/or send a letter to the person who is being hurtful to you, and/or they may be willing to be your support system after you establish a boundary.
Question 7: I want to review my last year and set goals for 2020. How do you start this process?
The best way to answer this question is to point you towards my blog post “Reflection Prompts for the End of the Year…and Decade!,” which incudes my free Year’s End Journal Prompts guide. The post walks you through the Hows and Whys behind reflection and the guide includes journal prompts that will help you to reflect and start planning for 2020.
If you’re looking for more step-by-step guidance to set goals for 2020, I’m planning to send two Tending Letters in January about theming your year and setting actionable and achievable goals. As you may have heard, I’m shifting from weekly blog posts to twice-a-month Tending Letter newsletters starting January 1, 2020. I’ll still post to the blog when the mood strikes me, but I’ll primarily share my research, stories, and prompts via The Tending Letter. You can sign up fo The Tending Letter here, and I’ll send you my free habit formation guide and access to all past Tending Letters when you subscribe.