Productivity is an interesting word. It means to produce something. Anything. For any reason. There’s no inherent expectation of a specific result. As a society, we’re far too focused on productivity itself and not concerned enough with intention. People elect politicians to “get stuff done” with apparently no understanding or interest in intended outcomes. I’ve worked in corporate environments where Nike’s “Just do it!” tagline was touted as the path to success, but just do what? And why?
I see myself as an essentially lazy person, so I always question the need to get things done. If I don’t see a direct link to a benefit, odds are, I won’t do it. But very few people know how lazy I really am because I’m productive despite my disinclination. I own and run a content strategy consultancy, manage internal and client teams, lead complex projects, and am now writing a book. I’m a single mother of three (recently grown and out of the house) and an involved grandmother to an energetic three-year-old. I’m currently learning how to eat properly and exercise. I sometimes recycle. My life is crazy and chaotic and dysfunctional at times, and I’ve learned to work around and through that.
I know that if I want the benefits of a productive life, I need to do more than read Jane Austen novels and snuggle with my cat – as eternally appealing as those things are. I’ve had to learn a few things along the way to help me be productive, despite myself. These are some of the more important ones:
1. Choose desire over fear
I tend to be very productive, in short bursts, when I’m driven by fear. Fear of not providing for my kids, fear of failure, fear of not being able to retire. But that’s neither sustainable nor enjoyable. I’m more productive over the long haul when I focus on the things I want: more financial freedom, more interesting work, more time to spend how I choose. When I focus on desirable outcomes, I end up creating rewarding situations for myself rather than simply avoiding negative ones. So, yes, I do still sometimes use fear to give me an initial kick, but I quickly shift to a longer-term desire for things that fulfill me.
2. Do more things that get you in the zone
Find things that bring value to your life or job and completely absorb you. The kinds of things that pull you in and make you forget to eat or sleep – where time passes without you realizing it. For me, it’s writing and solving problems. For my son, it’s cooking. For others, it’s meeting new people or creating artwork or balancing budgets. If a necessary task doesn’t get you in the zone, try music – great music can make all sorts of tedious tasks fly by.
3. When you’re not in the zone, take breaks
If I’m in the zone, I don’t like taking breaks. But if I’m not, I’m much more productive if I step away from the computer, go for a walk, eat, talk to a friend, have a shower, do my dishes… any kind of regular life stuff. When I come back to the task, I’m much more likely to be refreshed, positive, productive.
4. Offload things you don’t enjoy doing (or just don’t do them)
I’m fortunate to be in a position now where I can offload some of the things I don’t like doing that are essential to my well-being. I have a personal trainer to keep me active and healthy. I have someone who cleans my house twice a month. These things create a lot of space for me to be more productive in ways I enjoy. But, as a single mom I’ve spent most of my adult life with insufficient human and financial resources to do everything I felt necessary. I got help where I could (thanks, mom!), prioritized my kids first and my career second, and didn’t sweat the small stuff. Honestly, the world doesn’t stop turning if dirty dishes are left in the sink or your wardrobe is out of date.
5. Commit to administrative and operational essentials
Like it or not, some things just need to get done or your world gets bumpy: Doing your taxes, going to the dentist, making sure your staff gets paid. Those are the obvious must do’s. But I’ve found that it’s just as important for me to commit to the administrative work of scheduling the things I enjoy the most: time with family and friends. It’s too easy to want to spend time together, and then you blink and another month has gone by. I try to set aside time every month to enjoy with the people I love, including myself.
6. Be accountable to self-disciplined people and meaningful deadlines
I don’t like working in a vacuum. Aside from spending too much time rattling around in my own head, I’m better at getting things done when other people count on me. I work well to deadlines, real or imagined. I hire people who have the self-discipline to manage their own productivity, which in turn inspires mine.
7. Allow time for distractions, big and small
Life rarely goes according to plan. Sometimes your social channels light up with a new world crisis. Sometimes your cat has a digestive problem or a loved one’s legs randomly stop working. No joke – these things happen. I’ve learned to allow myself an appropriate amount of time to be distracted. It may be minutes or it may be months. Sometimes unexpected things need to take precedence over planned productivity, and that’s okay. It’s nicer when the distraction is an impromptu hooky day with your best friend, but you still need to make time for a kid with a concussion. It’s all about priorities.
8. Make time to read novels and snuggle with your cat (or whatever recharges you)
If I spend a full day binge-watching Netflix, I’ll thoroughly enjoy it in the moment, but then feel like I’ve come out of a trance, mind-numb and hung over. If I spend the same amount of time reading a great novel, with my cat on my lap, I emerge fully refreshed with a sharp mind ready to refocus. Long walks are also great for that. I’ve learned to be stingy with my TV time and generous with books and walks and cats.
These are just some of my go-to tactics to improve productivity. I think the first one, focusing on what I desire, is the most important because it forces me to consider the intention behind productivity. It keeps me energized and positive and aligned with my values. That’s the kind of productivity we all need more of these days.