I'm a long-time fan of The Onion, and some of its articles are special favourites and a never-failing source of amusement to me, generally because of their almost painful acuity as to human foibles and frailties. "Plan To Straighten Out Entire Life During Weeklong Vacation Yields Mixed Results", originally published in 2001, is one such article. It's a hilarious blow-by-blow account of how 31-year-old data entry operator Derek Olsson intended to get his life organized during his one-week vacation from work, but instead pissed away the entire week, getting next to nothing done.
Back in 2008, while on a week's visit to a friend in Raleigh, North Carolina, I showed him the article "Local Girlfriend Always Wants to Do Stuff". Prior to my flight to Raleigh, I had emailed Tim a carefully researched list of sightseeing activities we might enjoy, and during the visit peppered him with requests to do this or that, while he generally preferred that we just hang out in his apartment, enjoying each other's company, so the article was very much our bag. He laughed out loud a few times while he read it, and "Local House Guest Always Wants to Do Stuff" became a running joke between us for the rest of my stay with him. I thought he'd enjoy the Derek Olsson article too, so I found it for him and left him to read it on his laptop at his desk while I did needlework on the couch. Tim read the second article in silence, without so much as a smile, and then shut down his laptop. I said, "You didn't laugh... didn't you think it was funny?" He said, morosely, "It's too close to home." It is indeed, and I've reread it perhaps half a dozen times since then, each time wincing over how well I relate to Derek's hapless efforts to take charge of his life.
Productivity and self-discipline are things I struggle with. I have chronic fatigue issues, and on the average day I have about four good hours when I have the physical and mental stamina to actively work and focus on whatever tasks I have to do, which is a very significant handicap, but even before I developed chronic fatigue in 2007 at the age of 33, I had a tendency to muddle through life in an introspective fog, hampered by a number of bad mental habits and dysfunctional behaviours. I could do quite well at things when I was able to focus and put the effort in, but my performance has always been, to put it euphemistically, uneven. I'm the kind of person who has to use every organizational trick and scheme in the book to get herself moving on anything. So, as someone who spends a lot of time thinking about how to get more done with limited resources, I've written this post as a way to explore some of my ideas about productivity, and how to improve it, as much for my benefit as anyone else's, and using our executive function challenged friend Derek Olsson as a case study.
According to the article, Derek's planned tasks for his time off included finishing unpacking the remaining boxes from his move into his apartment three years before, buying his two months' married friends Steve and Kim a wedding present, paying his gas bill, having his car serviced, picking up a new computer desk from Staples (and, presumably, assembling it as well), and "a thorough cleaning of his apartment, laundry, re-ordering of checks, buying a bigger CD shelf, signing up for a T'ai Chi course, cashing in a large jar of loose change at the bank, updating his resume, looking for a new job, and 'figuring out the whole Melanie thing'." It seems to me that, unless his apartment was an utter disaster, he could have gotten all those things and quite a bit more done in nine days if he'd planned better and put in a reasonable level of effort each day.
I think productivity can be boiled down to certain key components, and here's my working list of those components:
- Know what you want to do.
- Devise a plan/strategies for how you will do it.
- Do what works for you.
- Keep track of your data and organize your space.
- Try journaling.
- Have realistic expectations and a healthy locus of control.
- Don't get sidetracked.
- Engage with and enjoy whatever you do.
- Talk yourself through frustration and discouragement.
Now, let's look at how these tactics actually work.
Know What You Want to Do and How You Will Do It
When you want to get stuff done, it's important to know both what you want to do and to have a plan and strategies for how you'll do it. Some tasks require pre-planning type steps, such as making appointments and doing internet research, that you'll need to do in advance. You'll need to figure out what to prioritize and what to postpone if necessary, and to plan to do the preparatory things first when tasks are interdependent.
Derek's first mistake was that he didn't know what he was going to do. He made an incomplete to do list on Saturday night. He ought to have made a comprehensive to do list on Friday night, if not sooner, and then he ought to have done some thinking about how he could accomplish as much of his list as possible during his nine office-free days. For instance, he might have decided that, over the next week, he would spend the mornings working on tasks at home, his afternoons running errands, and his evenings relaxing or with his girlfriend, friends, or family, or perhaps doing the kind of low-key things he could do sitting on the couch, such as internet research or working on his resume. He might have decided he would begin his housekeeping efforts by first unpacking the boxes in the basement and putting everything away, then doing a preliminary household tidy with the goal of making sure everything was at least in whatever room it was supposed to be in, and with that done, he could then clean and organize one room each morning. Or he could decide to keep working one process at a time: to first unpack, then tidy, then clean the bathroom, then dust/clean surfaces, then vacuum, then begin organizing one compartment at a time (i.e., closets, drawers, cupboards, the fridge, etc.), or one category of his belongings at a time (i.e., clothes, documents, kitchen equipment, etc.).
I'm not a big believer in multi-tasking, but there are some tasks that can be done in tandem. Laundry is a task that combines well with others as it has lots of down time, so Derek could have combined that with his unpacking, or, if he doesn't have ensuite laundry in his rental apartment, he could have taken his planner or device with him to whatever laundry facility he uses on Friday evening, and worked on getting organized and making his plans while the washer and dryer were running.
He might also have made a separate list of errands he had to do, and then figured out how he could do them as efficiently as possible by subdividing them. For instance, he could have figured out which things he could buy at the mall, and gotten them all on one trip. If he had to take his car to be serviced, he might have planned to take it to a garage within walking distance of a mall, so that he could do his shopping while his vehicle was being worked on. He could plan to reduce the amount of running around he had to do by doing online research/shopping or making phone calls, and he should have made whatever appointments he needed to make very early in the week, if not before then. My dermatologist is always booked up months in advance, so, as I see him twice a year, each time I visit him, I make the next semi-annual appointment before I leave the office, which saves me time and the hassle of not being able to get an appointment slot that works best for my schedule.
Once Derek got his place cleaned and organized, it would have been a good idea for him to create a housekeeping plan that he could use to make sure that he can keep his living quarters in shape and his life in order going forward so that he never again had to use his one-week vacation to play catch up. I have a housekeeping schedule myself. I'm not one of those people who can just automatically do housekeeping things as they need to be done, with the exception of tidying, which comes very naturally to me. I'll notice that something needs to be cleaned, and think, "Oh, I don't feel like doing that now," or "I don't have time to do that now." When I have a housekeeping schedule, my mindset becomes, "This needs to be done, and this is the time I've set aside to do it."
I dust and clean the bathroom on Mondays, vacuum on Tuesdays, grocery shop on Fridays, and cook for the week and do laundry on Saturday mornings. Sunday is my day to work on me -- I'll do my nails, and my hair if it needs it, and do things like polishing my shoes. On Wednesdays and Thursdays I do the "extra" tasks that don't need to be done every week, such as scrubbing the kitchen floor, or cleaning out a closet, or working in the garden if it's summer. Some weeks there's nothing extra that needs doing on Wednesday or Thursday, which means I get the time to do something else. If I stick to this schedule, I always have nice nails, clean clothes, food in the fridge, and a house that's clean and orderly enough for unexpected company, and it doesn't feel arduous at all.
I'm not recommending my plan as some universally suitable housekeeping regimen, but rather as an example. I batch cook once a week because I don't like cooking and absolutely cannot stand having to cook every day, and because it's very cost efficient. I live alone and don't mind eating the same thing for several days in a row. Batch cooking every Saturday morning therefore works really well for me, but it wouldn't work for someone with a family, or who is a foodie. It can take awhile to develop a housekeeping plan that works for you, but I think it's a good idea for most of us.
Then too, such routines can have a very stabilizing influence on us. I have found that, while the pandemic took its toll on me and made me somewhat less productive, my basic daily routines have mostly held firm despite the extra stress.
As to Derek's plan to decide what his future was with his girlfriend Melanie during his time off, all I have to say regarding that is that, given that Derek apparently never spent any of his one-week vacation with his girlfriend, his feelings and intentions towards her have manifested themselves and it's time for him to bail -- if she doesn't dump him overboard first.
Do What Works For You
When organizing your life, it is crucial that you use whatever systems and techniques work best for you. Organizing strategies are like diets: however much everyone else might laud them, if you can't stick to them, or if you find them onerous and painful, they are useless to you. I'm always trying new hacks and methods and routines to get more done, and probably nineteen out of twenty of those new ideas fall by the wayside because they don't work for me, or stop working once the novelty wears off. But perhaps 5% of the time whatever new strategy I've tried works so well for me that it soon ceases to be a rule and simply becomes how I function. I will never find some magic formulation that will make me the super producer I want to be, but given that I sometimes find techniques that help a little, it's worthwhile for me to keep trying new ones.
I read years ago that one should make one's to do list for a day the evening before, because one's unconscious mind will work on it overnight. When I tried it, it did seem to work, so I've been doing it ever since. I find I often wake up with ideas for how to do something on that day's list better or more efficiently. I'm not ever conscious of getting these ideas -- they are simply in my mind when I awake, when they weren't there the night before. In another example, I aim to be up, breakfasted, dressed, and to start work by 9 in the morning, and I used to stop for lunch at 12, try to go back to work at 1, work until 6, and then have supper, exercise after supper, and have the rest of the evening free. (That is, theoretically. The reality is I often have to stop work somewhere in there to go back to bed for several hours, and some mornings I oversleep for hours.) That 3-hour morning was usually fine, but I was finding my 5-hour afternoon such a slog that it basically wasn't happening, and I was always too hungry to wait until 6 for my supper. So, several years ago I decided I would change my routine, and stop for lunch at 1 p.m. instead of noon, which divided my working day neatly into two 4-hour segments: 9-1, and 2-6. It worked very well, the only drawback being that my cat was Very Outraged by the fact that I'd also moved his lunch time from 12 to 1 p.m. without consulting him, but Trilby accepted the new order of things. (Eventually. Mostly.) Then there was the time, soon after I moved to my present (and very walkable) neighbourhood, that I resolved to combine my errand running with the daily one-hour brisk walk I take for exercise. I had been someone who could never get her library books returned on time, and that simple resolution immediately transformed me into someone to a person who was very much on top of her errands. Besides library book drop offs and pick ups, I do my banking, take my shoes to the cobbler, get a few necessities at the dollar store or drug store or Home Depot or Staples, mail parcels or buy stamps at the post office, scout out new restaurants and coffeeshops and other businesses I might use, and probably some other things I'm not thinking of at the moment. Now I actively look for errands to run before going for my walk, and am disappointed if I can't think of anything that needs doing.
You need to become your own efficiency expert, to develop an understanding of how you function, and to work with your own natural tendencies rather than against them. If you are, say, definitely either a morning or an evening person, you will need to structure your day around your best times. My best times are the morning, so I schedule things that take the most energy or are the most high priority for then. I don't have the stamina to do physical work all day long, so I plan it in increments of one or two hours. Setting up any sort of reward system doesn't work for me, as I tend to just give myself the rewards anyway, even when I haven't reached my intended benchmarks, so I just set my living standards and treat myself in a way that seems reasonable and is affordable, and do my work for its own sake.
Track Your Data and Organize Your Working and Living Spaces
In The Onion article, Derek reports that on the Friday of his beleaguered week off, he tried to pick up a desk he had on layaway at Staples, but as he didn't have his receipt with him instead wound up "arguing with the [poor Staples employee] for almost an hour". He also managed, during the course of his week, to lose his gas bill while on his way to the mailbox. He should not have left his house without knowing exactly what errands he was going to do and making sure he had whatever information or items he needed with him to do that, such as measurements for the space for the CD rack he wanted to buy, or his friends' wedding registry details. A planner of some kind would have helped him collate that information, and possibly also given him a secure place to keep his gas bill until he could put it in the mailbox.
I use an old school paper-based planner for my to do lists, and to keep track of other information. Again, thanks to my chronic fatigue issues, my short-term memory is terrible, my memory for numbers and other hard data such as addresses and names, which has always been poor, has only gotten worse, and it helps enormously to have everything documented. I have a dark brown ARC junior-size notebook that I've been using since 2013. I was so thrilled when I first discovered the ARC line of products at Staples, feeling that I'd finally found the planner I'd been looking for since I was in my late teens: a good-looking, durable, customizable, reusable system I could refill from year to year, which made it much less environmentally wasteful than most bound planners. I ran into a snag when I realized that Staples Canada doesn't stock the annual calendar inserts that make the notebooks useful (seriously, what the hell, Staples Canada), and every November for seven years, I made arrangements with one of my American friends to buy and ship me the coming year's refill. Then in late 2019, I became the happy owner of an ARC hole punch, made myself a set of durable laminated monthly tab dividers, and learned to create and print my own calendar refills for my ARC notebook, which makes the cost of a refill pretty negligible.
I love my planner and hardly leave the house without it. For that matter, I barely go from one room in my house to another without it. In it, I not only write my daily to do lists, but also keep lists of the projects I want to do and other goals, lists of the things I want and need to buy, my gift list for the year, list of the books I want to read and movies/TV shows I want to see, lists of the addresses and other contact information for family, friends, and useful professionals, and track my deadlines, appointments, and Zoom meetings. I usually keep recent receipts and/or documents I have immediate need for in the front cover's inside pocket, and a zippered insert at the back holds my samples (fabric, yarn, paint, etc.) for convenient colour matching when shopping.
The above may come across as some sort of ARC advertisement, but it is not. I have no dog in this race. I know a lot of people are using their phones for nearly all of the above these days, and I know people who have other paper-based systems. My 82-year-old parents use a calendar that hangs in their kitchen to keep track of their engagements and coordinate the use of their one vehicle (and the monthly calendar is usually a mass of ink as a result, because they are extraordinarily productive and active people for their age). My sister uses a desk planner at the office, and a kitchen calendar to keep track of her personal life. Do have a planning system of some kind, but use whatever planning system works best for you. It may take a process of trial and error to find out what system that is, and you may never be done refining your system, but by all means try some different methods out, and go with whatever organizational methods make your life go more smoothly and easily.
Having an organized work and living space is even more important than having a planner system. Years ago when I was doing a interior decorator's certificate program at George Brown College, I remember our instructor telling us, "Everything in your home should have a home," and it's a solid maxim. When you have a designated place and/or maintenance system for every object you own, it makes it easy for you to use it. I have a rule that my email inbox can't have more than ten emails in it. I have a folder in my filing cabinet for warranties and user manuals. I have a special folder for paper receipts. I have wardrobe planning strategies (and have written at length about them). I keep my keys either in my coat pocket or in one particular zippered pocket in the handbag I use for daily use. I have a hook on my hall closet door where I hang that handbag. There's a little notebook in the odds and ends drawer in my kitchen that I use for my grocery lists -- I can add items to the list whenever I run out of things during the week. When it comes to basic supplies, my rule is usually "buy one ahead" (i.e., there is one opened bottle of shampoo in the shower and a second unopened one in the supply basket in the linen closet, and the same goes for conditioner, dental floss, moisturizer, cold cream, deodorant, etc.). I very seldom waste time trying to find anything -- if I own something, I very reliably know where it will be in my house, even if I haven't needed it in quite some time -- and it's very rare for me to lose anything, or to have to make a special trip to the store.
In general, I try to be aware of "pain points", by which I mean those tasks that are a pain in the ass, that are a waste of time, that I hate doing, that I can't seem to stay on top of . Whenever I become aware of these pain points, I try to do some thinking about how I can resolve whatever issue I'm having rather than simply assuming nothing can be done about it but soldiering on. Soon after buying my house, which needed a huge amount of work, I became frustrated with my inability to keep track of the samples and information I needed for the renovations, and one day I spent two hours setting up a home renovation binder in which I could keep all my fabric samples, paint chips, quotes from tradespeople, diagrams of the garden, measurements and other specifications, lists of things that needed to be done, etc. Each room/area of the house had its own plastic sheath in which the relevant info was kept. When I described this binder project to my mother, she started going on about how much time it would have taken me to assemble it, her implication being that it was a useless waste of that time. I pointed out that I had been regularly spending much more time on protracted and exasperating searches for a particular sample or piece of information than it had taken me to put the binder together.
Setting up systems to keep your information or physical objects organized does take time and effort, but it's an investment in your quality of life going forward. Once you have organizing methods that work for you, and routines that will help you keep them that way, they will save you time and frustration over the long run. Such rules and systems can seem a tiresome nuisance at the outset, but paradoxically if you implement only those that work well for you, they will be freeing, helping you to get necessary and/or formerly difficult tasks done as quickly and easily as possible, and maximizing the time you have left for more fun or fulfilling activities.
I have found journaling can help a lot when I'm working on an ongoing project, or trying to make life changes. It gives me an outlet for all the feelings and thoughts that might otherwise interfere with what I'm trying to do. I've also found that writing down what I planned to do on a given day, then writing an account of what I did do, and comparing the intended agenda with the actual course of action, is a useful exercise. Seeing what I did that day set down in black and white makes it easier for me to look objectively at how I function, and can help me spot self-sabotaging behaviours or logistical issues, and identify ways to manage my time better. If you're struggling with productivity -- or for that matter any issue in life -- I recommend journaling as a coping strategy.
Have Realistic Expectations
I have one mantra regarding the quality of the work I do, and it is "Aim for excellence, not perfection." The first is achievable; the second isn't.
As to the quantity of the work I do, it's one of those time management tips that, after writing a to do list, one should estimate how much time each thing will take to make sure it's a realistic list. This is a tip that was a revelation to me when I first came across it years ago, because it made me realize that I was hopelessly over optimistic when it came to estimating how long things would take and how much I could get done in a day. I'd write up a to-do list for the day, then duly estimate how long each thing would take... and realize that I'd planned at least fourteen to sixteen hours of work. I'm still overly optimistic in this regard, but now I'm aware of it and guard against its effects when I'm planning my work. If I'm not sure how long something will take, it usually goes on my to do list in the form of "work on X for two hours" rather than "do X". When Derek Olsson was planning his week, he should have estimated how much time each thing on his complete to do list would take, and then, if it really was too much to accomplish in nine days, he should have figured out which items he was going to prioritize and do on his vacation, and then made a post-vacation plan for how he would do the rest.
It's also important to not expect oneself to work too hard, and to make time in your schedule to relax, have fun, and spend time with those who matter to you. Fourteen hour work days aren't sustainable. I think it would be reasonable for Derek to have planned to do 8-9 hours of work each day, which with the addition of 8 hours of sleep would give him 7-8 free hours a day. He'd need to use some of that time for meal breaks, a shower, getting dressed and groomed, and exercise, of course, but that should still have left him with a mostly free evening.
Derek should have planned to have fun and to spend time with the people in his life during his free evenings, but he also should have set some sensible limits on his recreational time to make sure it didn't derail the rest of his agenda. Derek went out to a local pub for its "Rocky's Sunday Night Record Jam" on Sunday evening, something he said he didn't ordinarily didn't get to do because he had to get up at 6 a.m. on workday Mondays. I think it was fine for him to go to the pub, but he should have decided in advance on how many drinks he would have, and what time he would come home and go to bed, and then stuck to that, so as not to impede his ability to work on his projects on Monday.
Have a Healthy Locus of Control
Not every problem can be resolved by individual effort, and it's important to take a step back and make sure you're distinguishing between the things that are realistically within your control, and the things that aren't. Sometimes your problems are going to be larger than you can cope with alone, and you'll need to turn to your family and friends for support, or avail yourself of professional help. Sometimes problems are systemic, and will require collective effort, or even a major societal shift. Things like neurological issues, substance abuse, personality disorders, eating disorders, depression, grief, or other psychological problems can also interfere greatly with your ability to function. If you've been having a protracted struggle with some problem that's impacting your quality of life, and you've been unable to overcome it on your own despite your best efforts, do reach out for the help you need. If you don't believe that anything can help you, think of it as exploring your options and finding out for sure whether there is or isn't help out there for you. If you're a member of a marginalized group, you may be dealing with the fallout from bigotry or oppression. I'm not going to try to tell you how to deal with that, because it's not your responsibility to overcome other people's hate or institutionalized discrimination, but I will say I hope that you have a support system you can turn to for help.
Right now most people are struggling with the emotional stress and practical hardships caused by pandemic conditions, and with the fear occasioned by the looming climate crisis. These are terrible times, I know, and having every horrifying detail of every thing that's especially fucked up about our messed-up world seared into your brain every time you go online or look at the news is not making matters easier, but all we can do is try to keep calm and carry on, and do the best we can to make things better. Look about you, take stock of your skills and resources, identify the things that you can reasonably do to help yourself and others, and then do those things. Start where you are, use what you have, and do what you can. Keep in mind that sometimes your efforts will position you to take advantage of future opportunities and solutions that aren't even on the horizon right now. And, whatever happens, you'll know you did whatever you could do. There's a lot of comfort and peace of mind to be found in that feeling.
When I look at Derek's situation and assess it for possible larger issues that are too much for him to deal with on his own, or are systemic, I find it would probably be a good idea for him to consider whether he has ADHD or some other neurological issue that's interfering with his ability to get anything done, and have himself assessed for it. I also think it's utterly ridiculous that he gets just one week's vacation a year. That is simply not enough time off, and unless he can get a better job with a better compensation package and/or move to a region with better labour laws, that is something he can probably only play a small part in addressing through some sort of political effort (i.e., voting for political candidates who will work towards better protections for labour, or supporting union organization).
But that said, Derek's locus of control is set much too low, and he should be taking more responsibility for his problems. He's a young, straight, white, and apparently healthy and able-bodied man, which is the easiest setting in North American society, and if he can't keep his living quarters clean and tidy and do his laundry, that's on him. He needs to expect more of himself. Resolving to use responsible language and nixing such phrases as "if the whole universe hadn't been against me" would be a good start. Losing his gas bill payment on the way to the mailbox was a boneheaded move, but Derek didn't "have to wait until a second notice" to pay the bill as he claimed, especially when that will probably mean he'll have to pay interest charges/late fees. He could have searched for the missing envelope, or written and mailed another cheque, or better yet, set up automatic payment for that bill and whatever others he can, in order to save himself the time and effort of doing it every month.
Sometimes our problems will be too much for us, and we will need help... and sometimes we simply have to give ourselves a shake and get moving. If you're feeling frozen and overwhelmed (this is something I struggle with), take one action, even if it's only a minor one. That one action will probably help you do another, and another after that.
Don't Get Sidetracked
Once you have a plan to do whatever needs to be done, don't get sidetracked into off-list trivial tasks that might be fun or easy to do but that won't have any actual pay off in terms of your quality of life. Derek spent most of the second Saturday of his vacation re-alphabetizing his CDs. For the record, this is actually something I have some sympathy with. All my books and CDs are alphabetized. When you have a lot of anything, such as books, CDs, or DVDs, it's wise to put them, and keep them, in some sort of order so you can find a particular book or CD easily without a time-wasting search, so I would say it is worth doing. But it's a low priority task, and Derek should have focused on more consequential to do list items first. I also note that the article says Derek was "re-alphabetizing" his CDs, which suggests that the CDs were already in alphabetical order, and well, dude.
I have my own off-list pitfalls. I've noticed I often get sidetracked into planning, researching and shopping for the supplies for some future project when I have so many projects planned, researched, and shopped for already. Or I start a new project when I have so many already on the go. I find the planning and preparation part of a project, and starting a new project, easy, fun, and exciting, while putting in the actual work of doing a project can be frustrating and tedious. I try to be aware of this and to draw a hard line against prepping for new projects, or starting a new project instead of working on an unfinished one, unless it becomes genuinely necessary that I do a particular one right away.
I will add here that sometimes the trivial and/or fun tasks have their uses when it comes to getting yourself into working mode. All those time management books tell us to do the most important tasks first, and while that is sound advice in a general way, I find that sometimes when I can't get going, it can be helpful to start with a quick, easy item. My day usually starts with a few such routine tasks: making my bed, washing up the few breakfast dishes, cleaning the litter box. Getting one or a few such things done gives me a sense of accomplishment and momentum, and helps my brain transition from "Oh No I Have To Do Boring and Unpleasant Work Now And I Don't Wanna" mode to "Yay I'm Getting Things Done" mode.
Be aware of the kind of flabby pleasures one lets oneself slide into in an effort to avoid doing something worthwhile, as when Derek spent the Tuesday of his vacation re-reading a Harry Potter book in his bathrobe. The Harry Potter books are no temptation to me, but I have my own work avoidance black holes to steer clear of. I often spend too much time re-reading an old favourite book or mindlessly browsing the internet, and one of my 2021 resolutions was to stop playing video games, though this specifically meant "stop playing online solitaire", since that is the only one I was playing. I deleted all the games on my 2012 laptop years ago, but in an evil moment in 2020, I discovered I could play solitaire online for free. And I'd often find myself getting sucked into playing it for hours out of inertia -- despite my better self's reminders that it was an idiotic waste of time and I wasn't even really enjoying it -- because my tired, overwhelmed brain found it easier than dealing with the level of effort and frustration involved in doing something worthwhile. Mindfulness is key when it comes to these treading water activities, as it's easy to stop oneself early on or before you begin rather than after one has gotten completely sucked in. These days I try to make it a rule that if I am genuinely too tired to do anything active or focus, I must take a nap rather than do something mindless, as sleep is the constructive option, even if it means I won't get anything done right away.
If you should get some overwhelming urge to play hooky from your working agenda, at least make it count by doing something that you can really enjoy and will be glad you did afterwards. Life is too short and precious to spend doing something stupid that you're only doing because it helps you avoid doing something that you don't want to do.
Engage With And Enjoy Whatever You Do
Try to enjoy whatever you do by engaging with it fully. Mindfulness techniques can help with this. Keep in mind that you needn't enjoy everything in anticipation or wait until you feel like doing something before you do it, because the act of doing something usually generates the appropriate feelings for it. I think I hate to vacuum and dread it, and always have to remind myself that the reality is that once I get going on the vacuuming, I don't mind it very much, and that it's so rewarding to have a clean house afterwards.
As for the things that are impossible to enjoy, or are even miserable, I have read that in Alcoholics Anonymous one of their slogans is, "If you're white knuckling it, you're doing it wrong." This advice seems to me to apply to far more of human experience and endeavour than sobriety, and even though I have never done drugs or been a problem drinker, I try to live by it. There's no virtue or sense in torturing oneself. If we make our lives and our work harder than they really have to be, we're setting ourselves up for a relapse, or outright failure. If something you have to do is time or labour-intensive or otherwise difficult for you in a way you find unbearable, it's time to rethink it. Maybe there's something you could do to make it more pleasant and enjoyable. Maybe there are hacks or techniques that will help you do it faster and/or more easily. Maybe you need better tools or equipment or there's some sort of technological solution. Maybe it's worth hiring it done. Maybe there's another alternative to doing it at all. Maybe the task isn't even your responsibility and someone else should be doing it.
If you are still finding an absolutely necessary task too tedious for words, look for physical ways to make it enjoyable. Playing music or an audiobook or a podcast while you work could be an option, or talking on the phone, or singing while you work. (I seem to be unable to vacuum without also simultaneously belting out Lady Gaga songs.) Or change your environment. Once when I had a skirt to hem, it wasn't happening because I find hemming boring and that skirt seemed to be a mile around. I decided part of the problem was that, when I tried to do it at home, I was surrounded by so many other more interesting/fun things to do that I'd invariably ditch the hemming to do something else. In an impulse born of exasperation with myself, I packed the skirt, scissors, thread, and my pincushion into a tote bag and went to the park. There I had nothing to do but hem the skirt, and while I worked, I could also enjoy the fresh air, sunshine, the sight and sounds of children playing, people watch, and chat with the half dozen or so children or adults who came traipsing up to me see/ask what I was doing. It was all very pleasant and I worked non-stop on that skirt until it was done. I've kept this life hack in mind and have often taken other portable tasks to the park since. Libraries and coffeeshops can also be good places to work (pandemic or post-pandemic conditions allowing) if you can't focus at home or wherever you're "supposed" to be working.
Talk Yourself Through Negativity
Some people have excellent physical and mental stamina and/or naturally stable, positive, direct minds, and they seem to find it easy to forge ahead with whatever needs to be done. I admire and madly envy such highly effective, super productive people, as I have neither attribute. My energy levels have been crap since I developed chronic fatigue issues in 2007, and my bizarre brain has always been a sort of neurological minefield. I am high-strung and irritable, and am very prone to ruminating, fantasizing, distraction, frustration, getting overwhelmed, discouragement, and despair, and it's extremely difficult for me to keep myself on an even keel mentally. I have gotten somewhat better at controlling myself as I've grown older -- my tolerance for frustration has certainly improved immeasurably since I was a teenager or even since my twenties -- but it's still a constant battle.
I can't do much about my physical energy levels, but I live in hope of getting better at managing my mind. I look to the kind of incredibly effective super producers I admire -- some illustrious ones like Elizabeth Warren, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Stacey Abrams, as well as other people I know personally -- and try to analyze how they do what they do, and to apply those insights to my own life. My friend Christine is one such person. I have known her since I was sixteen and she was seventeen, and she has always been the kind of person who could map out a course of action and carry it out in incredibly efficient, no-fuss, matter-of-fact way, whether it was as a co-editor of our high school newspaper as she was when I first met her, or as the senior-level civil servant she now is, or while planning her wedding, or renovating her kitchen during her pregnancy with her first child, or selling her house and moving to a new one while pregnant with her second child. I've learned so much from her over the years, both from observing how she functions, and from her repeatedly giving me timely and specific advice on how to translate my own pie-in-the-sky ideas into realistic plans in which the nuts and bolts are all lined up.
One thing I've noticed about super producers is how good they are at not being bogged down or boxed in by negativity or other such mental roadblocks. They're good at cutting through all that self-defeating mental crap, at separating the useful from the useless, at inverting dysfunctional paradigms, at remaining focused on what can and should be done and what process and resources it will take to do it. No matter how carefully you plan or how hard you try, things will go wrong and you will make mistakes, and you'll get frustrated and discouraged, and that frustration and discouragement can become difficulties in themselves. It's important to develop the mental tool kit for working through mistakes and setbacks, and to talk yourself through moments of frustration or negative thoughts instead of letting them derail you.
For instance, in The Onion article, Derek became exasperated with himself because he found a box labelled "magazines" actually contained socks and a pencil sharpener, and then gave up unpacking the boxes and went upstairs to watch TV, which was only going to lead to him being even angrier with himself in future for having still not unpacked those boxes. What he should have done was remind himself that, mislabeled or not, that box still needed unpacking, that the socks and pencil sharpener were of more use to him than magazines that would have been over three years old, and then unpacked that box, and moved on to the next one. Derek also spent the entire last day of his vacation berating himself for having wasted an entire week, instead of deciding to focus on at least using that one remaining day wisely. There's no point in wallowing in regrets or other negative feelings. Whenever I find myself in an "eleventh hour" situation, which happens all too often (and for that matter is basically status quo for me, given how I've spent my life), I try to think, "What can I do right now," rather than chastise myself for what I should have done hours or days or years ago. Whenever I find myself getting upset about a situation, I try to remind myself that I can either uselessly emote and carry on about it, or make a plan to resolve or at least improve the situation, and then choose to do the latter.
The mental tricks we can use to overcome negative thinking and get ourselves moving can be amazingly simple. My father is a woodworker, and one time some years ago a customer of his had ordered four grandfather clocks from him. It was a huge, complex project and one which Dad probably found intimidating. He told me that at one point when he realized that time was getting on since the order and the clocks weren't getting built, he resolved that from then on he was going to work on that clock project every single day, even if he didn't get much done. He kept that resolve. Some days Dad would work on those clocks for hours, and some days he would work for as little as fifteen minutes, but with progress being made on that job every day, those clocks got done in good time. (And to stunning end results.) Whenever I've used that tip to get moving on a big project, it has worked well for me too.
Getting a Handle on Things
When I began writing this piece, I originally thought I could polish it off in three or four hours (this would be an example of the characteristically hopeless over-optimism that I referred to above). The resulting essay, which is over 7,800 words long, took much more work and far longer than my initial expectation. We live in a messy, complex world and we are messy, complex beings. It can be very, very difficult for us to get ourselves and our lives in any kind of order, and that order will always be limited and fragile given how much shit life can throw at us. But learning, and being mindful of, the basic principles of productivity can help a lot.
When one carries a heavy load, the task can be brutally hard, or even impossible, if all the weight is in one big box that one's arms can't comfortably reach around. Carrying that weight can become much easier when the contents or the box are transferred into packages that can be stowed away in a backpack and a few tote bags, or into smaller boxes carried on separate trips, or if one uses a dolly to move the big box, or has someone to help carry the big box, or if one can even add improvisational handles to the big box using packing tape and a couple of small plastic bags. The weight of the task remains the same in all cases, but strategy and method can make it far easier for us to bear.