I’m not sure it’s healthy, but I love feeling productive. I love crossing the last item off a to-do list and then making the next list. I love being so busy I can’t think about the negative things that are happening in the world (or in my head).
For me being productive means not being on social media and instead creating beautiful and useful things I can share with the world. It’s finishing a book instead of watching TV. Or it’s just plain getting a lot of stuff done. When I can focus all day and finish a design sooner than I had planned? That feels like peak productivity. I definitely feel productive when I’m doing more things that I love than things I am obligated to do, but it really depends on the day and what kind of existential crisis I might be in the middle of. I might feel a slight sense of accomplishment when I finish a load of laundry, but that is usually followed by a sense of impending doom about the mundane aspects of life.
Unfortunately, this drive and focus on filling a page with strike-throughs or checking a box and seeing the line disappear leads to burnout and an inability to relax. At one point in my life, without irony, I added a checkbox to my to-do list that said "Relax.” I don’t recommend getting to this point in your life.
The tips below are for the productivity obsessed, those who constantly feel busy but not productive, or those looking to remember how to relax.
The "just looking for tips and not at all dealing with deeper existential issues” people can tl;dr down to points three and four.
1) Love What You Do
Sometimes you may find yourself stuck in a mediocre or toxic work environment and feeling unproductive. Focus on figuring out what you can work on in that job that will help you move on to the next thing. Finding a way to improve your skills and further your own personal and professional dreams, instead of trying to kid yourself that you're on board with the company line, can help you be more productive for yourself and the company you work for.
2) Volunteer, but Learn to Say No
I have a list of phrases that I've practiced and use to say no, even when my Southern need to please thinks I should say yes. "I'd like to commit my time to other causes in the new year" helped me wind down a project that was unfulfilling. While it might be hard to get those words to exit your mouth, saying no becomes easier when you remember that it leaves room to say yes to things you really want to do. When you are excited by a cause, you will be able to do more for that cause.
3) Yes, I Meant to Unsubscribe
Cut down on consumption. Unfollow with glee (or keep extensive lists on social media to read only what is important). Declare Instapaper zero. Ignore clickbait by knowing what is a reliable source and what is a content farm. Do you really need to follow all those RSS feeds? If you're already scared about the state of the world, only read articles that help you take action, and save the terrifying ones for when you are feeling complacent.
Turn off notifications for everything except direct messages in all of your apps. Until you do this, you have no idea how freeing it can be!
4) The To-Do List From Hell
About three years ago I became a little too reliant on a to-do list app. I took notes in the app. I wrote lyrics in the app. I filled the app with tasks that didn’t absolutely need to be done, but probably maybe kind of should have been done. I sometimes spent an embarrassing amount of time staring at the to-do list and feeling paralyzed by what "needed" to be done. I would have been more productive if I’d done something to clear my head like going for a walk or playing with my dogs.
When you're a creative person, a little scattered organization and a little more room for big-picture thinking over task-based thinking may ultimately help your productivity.
Mixing the mundane tasks with the big picture and creative pursuits makes the creative mundane. You don’t need to pass over housecleaning tasks every time you want to dream up a new song. This is why Evernote, Pinterest, and journaling apps exist.
If you need to keep a list in Evernote of how you’ve organized yourself across all these apps, that’s okay! When you're a creative person, a little scattered organization and a little more room for big-picture thinking over task-based thinking may ultimately help your productivity.
Raise Your Antenna
You can’t raise your antenna to find inspiration if it's buried under things you "should" be doing. If you constantly hold on to what should be done, you remove all the space in your life for serendipity.
Give yourself some space. Remove everything from your to-do list that doesn’t absolutely have to be done right now - and try to resist moving those tasks into a “Future" list into Evernote. (I see you, people just like me.) If I can break the to-do list habit, I believe you can, too.