I used to have a lot of anxiety around productivity, consistently worried that I wasn’t creating enough projects. When I am excited about an idea, though, I tend to be consumed by it. While I enjoy this approach to making things, it’s not a sustainable practice. Finishing a project always brought me joy, but also gave me angst. Without a project to work on or organize my time, I would start to doubt my self-identity as a maker and creative person.
The most egregious example of this was after I left my first job. I was burned out when I left, too young or inexperienced to know how to hit a work/life balance. I remember multiple people telling me that I would “finally have time to work on my own projects.” Well-meaning words, to be sure, but the truth was that I didn’t have any projects in mind, and I didn’t want one. I wanted a break, but also hated myself for wanting this. Cue several months of mentally beating myself up, angry that I hadn’t come up with a new project, and doubting if I was cut out for this tech industry after all.
In the end of course I did come up with a new idea, I did get back to coding, and my confidence returned. (The specific project that came out of that period was meshu print maps, which was mostly banged out in one marathon 12hr session in a hotel room.) I still struggle with a minor version of this every time that I am between projects. I feel out of ideas and worry that i will never come up with another project.
In the past few years, I have been working on this problem by widening my definition of what counts as “productive.” I am trying to be more holistic in my self-evaluation, and approach exercise, cooking, or friendships with the same dedication and focus as I would approach a coding project. Catching up with a friend, reading a book, or taking a walk around my neighborhood now count as being “productive” to me.
I still get anxious about coming up with new ideas, but I’m working on fixing that too. My current strategy is something I call Peak Boring, which has three tenants:
1) I am a creative person who enjoys working on projects
2) I will come up with a new idea eventually
3) Instead of worrying about when that new idea will pop up, I should instead make it my project to hit Peak Boring.
PB means activities such as deep cleaning my living space, going through my closet, reorganizing the pantry — I am serious here about focusing on the most boring and mundane of tasks. It’s all stuff that will make my life better, but it also gives me something to focus on while I wait for inspiration to strike. “Achieving” PB means getting so fed up with household chores that I suddenly want to get back on the computer and work on something. This process can take awhile, sometimes weeks, but boy howdy is it a good way to reset my internal motivation!
Ironically, I am most productive when I am least concerned about being productive. In the past, I have been so focused on my project output that it was detrimental to my mental health. I’m still working to achieve the perfect balance, but taking a holistic approach to productivity has helped tremendously.