My inbox has at least 40 questions with the theme “Dear Captain Awkward, how do I stay productive right now?” stacking up in it right now.
We are living through a collective trauma on a massive scale. People are dying. The right wing government in the USA is making it worse and gaslighting and abusing us daily. Every routine and touchstone that we used to count on is being upended, many of the things we took for granted to make life easier and more convenient (and free up brain space to be “more productive”) are unavailable, as in, it sometimes takes me about four days to figure out how to safely and ethically get groceries.
My executive function is sketchy at the best of times, and please know that sometimes when I open these emails about productivity I am roughly four days away from a shower at any given time and have just had to reset my email password – again – because I keep forgetting things I used to know handily. And I am a relatively lucky person who can stay home and make choices about what I do with my time and mostly in what order, since I’m not doing exhausting shift work, nor am I not trying to provide round-the-clock childcare or suddenly become a one-room-schoolhouse teacher responsible for multiple grade levels like many of you are.
I do propose a method for you to try to try to regain some control of your days, if you are willing to take advice from a naturally disorganized person. This is not as ridiculous as it sounds, since advice from competent, organized people who make goals and then make lists about those goals and then diligently do the lists to achieve those goals has never really worked for me (if any of it worked it would, like, work already?). No, I need the advice from people who are like “Here is how to maybe claw your way out of the depths of your own failure and outrun your self-sabotaging urges at least some of the time, godspeed little doodle.”
The process has distinct steps and it’s actually important that you do each step on its own without combining them or peeking ahead. You’ll need some blank paper (or a blank spreadsheet or word processing document) and something to write with.
Step 1: Make four columns.
Step 2: Label the first column “What”
Step 3: Ignore the other columns for now. We’re doing this one at a time.
Step 4: In the “What” column, write down everything you need to do, have to do, want to do, think you should do, wish you could do, aspire to do, or worry that you’ll forget to do over the next month.
It is okay to mix work, home, personal, parenting tasks up in any order. Do not attempt to prioritize tasks or organize them logically at this time, I promise you will get to do that later. It’s actually important (to my thinking) that this be a brainstorm where you have permission to write things down in the order they occur to you without having to triage or feel anything in particular about them at this stage. Work fast, you can always add more things later if you forget something.
I realize that freaks some of you out a lot, and if you are one of those people, a spreadsheet or table (vs. a sheet of paper) is going to be your best bet because at the end of this process you can add a fifth column for “work” “home” “body/health” “kids” etc. and use that to sort later.
Stop reading until you’ve done this part.
I realize it is going to make some of you feel insane to start designing something without knowing what the end product is, but I promise you that “one column at a time” is important and it will make sense later and that I will not leave you hanging with this mess.
Got your list?
The list you just made is your master to-do list. It also represents your mental load. It is very likely that you are measuring yourself against all the things on this list and thinking about yourself only in terms of the things you haven’t done or might not be able to do (vs. what you are actually doing) and finding yourself consistently wanting. We are going to try to fix that and mentally take you out of existing only in the gap of shame between aspirations and rapidly shrinking capacity.
Step 6: If you’re here, you’re ready for the second column. The label for that column is “When.”
Step 7: Next to every item in the “What” category, try your best to add deadlines (anything that must be done by a certain day or time) and rough time estimates (how long you think it will take). Work fast, try not to judge or overthink yourself, your best guess is just fine. You can always verify or add things later.
Once you assign times to these things, you are very likely to notice a few things:
There will probably be a bunch of immediately apparent priorities and quick-but- necessary tasks that don’t take very long that will be pretty easy to knock out and cross off the list. It is okay to stop now and knock these things out, get your momentum and positive feedback loops wherever you can! In the middle of writing this post I stopped and paid a bunch of bills and checked on my prescriptions. I can’t speak for all of you, obviously, but often when I am procrastinating about something for a long time it takes on a much larger time and difficulty load than it actually needs, and when I finally do it it’s like, “Wait, that’s IT? It didn’t need a whole afternoon, it needed 20 good minutes! Aaaaahhhhhh!!!! But I could have done this right away and gotten it over and done with and not felt bad about myself for avoiding it? Why am I like this?”
(In college, this was writing the paper the night before and realizing halfway through churning it out that I’m actually interested in this topic and have a lot to say about it but unfortunately I’ve already written 6 out of ten pages of boilerplate drivel and connect-the-quotes and it’s too late to launch an original thesis on page 7-of-10, I just gotta keep going and hope I stick the landing. Did I ever apply this knowledge meaningfully going forward? I think we all know the answer to that question.)
Some of you are going to have RIDICULOUS, IMPOSSIBLE lists where it is very apparent that nobody could possibly do all these things in a single day, week, month, or even year. Either your boss, your children’s enthusiastic teachers, your family, and your own idea of how to be the perfect employee, parent, graduate student, partner, friend, daughter/son, caretaker, housekeeper, amateur epidemiologist, activist, and human all got together and detonated magical thinking bombs simultaneously and blew up your whole calendar, or your beautiful busy taskmaster of brain started generating work for yourself because you feel like you must be accomplishing things at all times in order to be worthwhile, or it added a bunch of aspirational projects just ’cause you are under the (highly mistaken, in my opinion) impression that you have extra time on your hands all of a sudden, or (lucky you) all of those at once!
Whatever the combination, the result is like when you’ve just given your two weeks’ notice at a job and your boss suddenly wants you to take care of three years’ worth of piled-up tasks from the whole department while also recruiting, hiring and training a replacement who will seamlessly fill your shoes before you go and you both pretend that is going to happen while knowing fully that it is not. Some of the stuff on your list is just not happening. That is okay.
Some of the stuff on your list is possibly bullshit in that either it doesn’t actually need to happen, it doesn’t actually need to be done by you, or it’s ridiculous to think it’s going to happen right now or any time soon. We’ll dig into that in Steps 8 and beyond, I promise, so you don’t have to do anything about that right now. Just, notice it.
I love this piece about Time Blindness from René Brooks at Black Girl, Lost Keys. It’s written for people with ADHD by someone with ADHD, but I think “time blindness” is something many people are feeling right now as our usual routines are upended. Executive dysfunction, whether it’s caused by ADHD, depression, trauma, grief, situational stress & pressure like now, often makes time move weirdly and disrupts our sense of how long things actually take vs. how long they should take. It’s hard to nail things down, remember things, realistically plan how long things take, meet deadlines, and you can feel like you are in a fog. Making yourself stop and figure out “when” and “how long” things on your to-do list take can be a way of fighting against the fog.
Step 8: Once you have filled out the “When” column, you get a new column! Are you ready? Are you sure?
Here is my favorite motivating background music (the album is called Into The Trees):
Okay. New column is called “Why.” It is the most important, motivating, and possibly the most liberating column in the list.
Step 9: Go down your list and write a reason for everything on your to-do list in the “Why” column.
“I need to be more productive.”
No, seriously, why.
What is “productive.”
What is being produced.
For what purpose.
To what end.
Does it make you happy?
Does it make you healthier, safer, better off?
Are people depending on you to get it done?
Is it something that connects you to others?
Does it make the world better?
Does it help your community?
Is it an act of care for yourself or someone else?
Is it part of the boring but mandatory work of being alive?
Is it so that you don’t get fired from your job or lose income?
Is it because you don’t want to let down your team?
Is it because you’re afraid of looking bad or failing if you don’t do it?
Does it fulfill a cherished wish or dream or plan or goal?
Will someone be angry or disappointed if you don’t?
Will you just feel better if you finish whatever it is?
Is it something that used to be or seem important but isn’t now?
No shame, no judgment, your reasons are your reasons, but why are you doing any of the things on this list?
“I’m too busy to think about the big picture of the meaning of what I do, I’m just trying to get through today” is a state many of us live in, all the time. I’m not searching this pandemic for silver linings (barf emoji) like all the commercials that start with a plinking piano and “In these uncertain times” and go on and on about “connection” and “togetherness” and “we’re here for you” (in a way that almost never includes their employees) but I think it is actually a matter of urgent necessity and human survival to take a moment, if you can, stop, and think: WHY.
I still want you to move fast, your first instinct reason is a good enough reason, these are cells in a spreadsheet, not personal essays. But…why. Why is this on your list and why is it important?
If you’re feeling unmotivated, maybe connecting to the reason why you are doing something can re-motivate you. If there is no reason that you can think of? Then let it gleefully de-motivate you.
Step 9: Remember in Step 7 when I said some of the things on the list were almost certainly going to be bullshit? Consider that anything that doesn’t have a strong why attached might be safely discarded going forward. Can’t be discarded? Can it be delegated? Postponed? Anything that you can just write “Nope,” “Not me” or “Not now” next to is a gift. Do it.
Step 10: Last column!
FYI, the Daft Punk Tron Legacy soundtrack is also good background brain music, in my experience. (Baaaaaaaaaaad movie. GREAT soundtrack.)
The last column is “Need/Want/Should.”
In this column, each entry in your to-do list has three recommended options, based on the “why” information:
- I must do this (to be alive, healthy, stay employed, fed, & housed, be a good parent)
- I want to do this (it will make me happy, feel good, make my days better, relax me, connect me)
- I should do this (but the world probably won’t end if I don’t)
Classify your heart out.
Step 11: The Daily List
You made the master list, you assigned time frames, you assigned reasons, you assigned a rough priority level. Good job! That’s enough for today.
Tomorrow morning, when you’d generally be trying to plan your day, grab a new, blank piece of paper.
Write three things on it that you are going to do today.
Probable Frequently Asked Questions:
“Which three things?”
I don’t know, pick three.
“But how do I pick?”
You’re the boss of you, pick three.
“But I need to do more than three things, surely?” “Are you nuts? I have 100 things to do!”
Probably so, but start with three.
“Shouldn’t they be the most important things?”
Maybe? What do you think those are?
“Should I try to spread it out a little – do one thing I must do, and one from the ‘want’ category, and throw in a ‘should’?”
If you like! I would advise not treating pleasure and comfort like afterthoughts or things you have to earn.
Here’s the deal: You probably do have to do more than three things in on day to be alive, employed, happy, & safe. There is a likely obvious and strong hierarchy of what things those are. And you will probably do more than three things today.
P.S. One of your list items can be “Delegate x thing to _____/Ask ______for help with y thing.” Whatever gets it done.
Here is also the deal: I TRUST YOU TO FIGURE IT OUT.
You are not a “lazy” or unmotivated person. If you were, you wouldn’t write me long emails beating yourself up for all the shit you’re not doing. You are anxious because you care a lot about getting things done and not letting anyone down and not fucking it up. You are in the kind of distress and pain that makes it really, really hard to function but I bet you are still functioning way better than you think you are. You have survived this long and managed to take care of your basic needs plus a few nice-to-haves so far, so I trust you will keep doing that and bounce back eventually from any temporary lulls.
Choose three things. Write them on a fresh list. That’s your list for today. When you’ve done them, cross them off and give yourself an “A” for the day. You nailed it!
While you are doing your three things, I give you permission to do only those things for as long as they take. Gonna reorganize the spice rack? Dive in, my friend. Get the label-maker out. Savor it. Organize the fuck out of those spices. No multitasking, no constant cycling through what else you have to do, no beating yourself up for what you should be doing instead. You wrote “spice rack” on your list and here you are, with your spice rack, good job. Need to shower? Make it a great one. Really comb that conditioner into your hair, scrub yourself from head to toe. If you need to set a timer to remind you to switch tasks, great! Until the timer goes off, *this* is what you’re doing.
Anything you accomplish after that is extra credit. I recommend writing everything else you actually do on the day’s list after you’ve done it and crossing that off, too. Keep the lists.They are records of what you did today that you can look at when you start to feel like you can’t get anything done. Stop measuring yourself in the gap of what you think you should have done. Stop referring to the Master List only to beat yourself up about what’s on it. Slow down and pay attention to what you are actually doing.
While you were listing, scheduling, and connecting tasks to reasons and outcomes, your brain was already doing a ton of the work of triaging. You will pick the right three things today. I just know that you will. If you don’t, you’ll pick a different three things tomorrow, and the next day, until you get it right. Some days you’ll get in a groove, the “three things” list is just to get you started, and you’ll add to it and add to it without even thinking about it and realize you were a rock star today. Some days it will be like pulling teeth to do even one thing. Some days you’ll get caught up in an “unimportant” thing and forget to do an important one. Start again tomorrow: Three things. Do those things. Good job.
Productivity experts might tell you how to optimize your list. “Pick the big things first, the rest can wait.” “Pick a few easy tasks to get momentum.” Sure. I think that your mood, capacity, and focus are going to vary from day to day, so it’s going to be in constant flux, and I know that for me, past a certain point, optimizing my choices down to the granular level is another form of procrastination, so I say pick three, ANY THREE, that you actually have a shot at doing and want/need to do, and get going.
“What if I don’t get to everything on the master list?”
I am absolutely assuming that you won’t get to everything on your master list. Maybe it wasn’t clear but one of the points of the exercise was for you to figure out what stuff didn’t need to be there in the first place and remove it from your mental load.
“What if I don’t have the energy to even make a list?”
Tomorrow, make a list that says 1. Eat breakfast 2. Make list.
“Can this really make me more productive?”
I don’t know. Again, I ask, productive how? What does that even mean right now?
What I do know: When I am struggling and feel like I am drowning, I know that shame does nothing to help, being reminded of what I should be doing does nothing to help, the only thing that really helps is to make the tasks very small and gentle and friendly and slowly build up from there. The big list has to come out somewhere, it’s all your anxieties in one spot, so go ahead and make that and freak out a little bit about the enormity. Then make tiny lists each day that set you up to under-promise and over-deliver.
If you try this process and are more productive after this, I salute you.
If I made you feel even 10% less shame and dread about this, if I got you to stop beating yourself up for one day, then I can check that off my list and plan the rest of my afternoon. Maybe I’ll even take a shower.
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