In all the “online business” stuff I’ve been reading over the past few months, I hear that I need to “present myself as an expert in my field”. I’m also supposed to have some kind of system or thing to teach that will Get Results As Quickly As Possible For My Students. But honestly, the only thing I am an expert at is persevering over decades in self-improvement and creative work even when I don’t see tangible results and when no one else seems to be all that impressed. It seems like the perseverance itself is what keeps the tiniest ember of hope burning when my inner fire pit of hope is just about extinguished.
I have gone back and forth with myself on the importance of having “specific, measurable goals” – the necessity of which is of highest importance to most productivity voices. I like to achieve goals as much as the next person, but when I take the meandering out of my life and my projects (in favor of reaching a specific outcome by a specific time) that’s when my Ego Gets Involved, and an ego is a fragile and fickle thing. If I “succeed” at whatever my goal is, I feel good (usually better than is justified in proportion to the actual success). But then anxiety starts creeping in because I now have to keep performing up to the standard of my previous awesomeness. If I fail at achieving my goal or if my project isn’t well-received, then I’m just a loser who doesn’t even have any laurels to rest upon.
One of the big themes that has run through my life is the relationship between freedom and form. Too much structure or too much focus on one project, and I rebel. I dig my heels in and refuse to do anything because no one (not even ME) is going to give me orders! No rulers, no masters, anarchy FOREVER!!! But when I have too much freedom (too many art supplies, too many “possible” projects or plans or too much outer chaos because I am just too “free” to have to do basic household chores) then I freeze up and do nothing. Either way, I don’t get a lot done, which for a self-improvement junkie means that withdrawal symptoms kick in pretty quickly. Understandably, this is something most addicts try to avoid.
But sometimes, I’m being super-effective and my inner Stephen Covey is patting me on the back, and then suddenly I find myself burned out and unable to do anything except what I call monk’s work – those repetitive tasks of daily living that sometimes seem to be what hold me back from the mythical self-actualization, but which save me when I can’t eke out even one more “productive” thing, when I just want to be left alone to die in peaceful obscurity, thank you very much.
It’s the proverbial vicious cycle or the blessed paradox. I can’t decide which.
Before you decide whether I have the right to say anything about productivity, let me tell you about myself and what my life has been like for the past quarter century. I am a 48-year-old homemaker with five children from 23-5 who have never gone to school. I haven’t been the CEO of any companies or started a successful nonprofit. What I have done is spent spent untold hours answering questions, wiping butts and making rotini pasta with butter and romano cheese. I’ve also spent a lot of sleepless nights (pre-Netflix). Despite these challenges, I have made 13 long zines, written scores of illustrated letters to friends, made acrylic paintings, hand-bound and then filled numerous art journals and sketchbooks and written a 22,000 word spiritual memoir that was published by Christianity Today (and they even paid me!) I have done thousands of shoulder press reps with 20lb dumbbells and read a lot of theology and psychology books, as well as as many pleasantly gruesome crime novels. I did not do all these things within the same week or even the same year.
I used to strive for “balance” in my life planning, but I have found through long and sometimes humiliating experience that I can’t “manufacture” balance. But in hindsight and often in spite of manic planning, some kind of balance and a measure of freedom within form appears when I follow some “general principles” maybe 75% of the time. The other 25% of the time I am having some kind of existential crisis and doing nothing but drinking too much coffee:
1) Focus On One Thing, But Not For Too Long:
This might mean that I binge a project over a relatively short time, like a thirty-day zine (which necessitates ignoring other semi-important things but which quickly gives me a finished project and a significant deposit into the oft-overdrawn Personal Integrity Account) OR I work on a bunch of different projects for maybe 25-minutes at a time. I have accomplished extensive projects and goals using both these methods. I have also accomplished things with absolutely no plan at all and now I am baffled as to how I managed to do (insert whatever I did here).
And let’s be honest, I have also gone years where I accomplished nothing except basic household maintenance, no matter what my self-improvement technique was at that time. I have learned to honor the fallow periods. If you don’t honor them, they are like the Godfather when he doesn’t get any respect. But at the very least they do allow you to develop simple memories of your life with your people, undistracted by too much doing. And sometimes, like their agricultural cousins, they are working unseen in the soil of your life, and some weird but beautiful plant may grow.
2) Try New Projects and Self-Improvement/Productivity Techniques On For Size, But Feel Free to Abandon Them If They’re Not a Good Fit:
I have tried so many creative things and quickly realized I hated them. Despite the cultural belief that quitting equals failure, I have finally accepted that time is limited and just because I admire something as a concept doesn’t mean I have any talent for or true vocation towards it as a pastime.
And just because I am impressed by certain techniques, planning systems and philosophies other people may use to accomplish things, that doesn’t mean their method will work for me. You will ultimately get more done in the areas that are important to you if you accept who you are and work with your strengths. Time spent learning discernment about yourself, your energy levels, your motivations and true aspirations – that time is never wasted. So even if you “fail” at whatever it is, you have learned what doesn’t work. That’s important information.
3) Go Outside Your Comfort Zone Sometimes, And Retreat As Far As Possible Into Your Comfort Zone at Other Times:
This is the difficult challenge of determining when you are experiencing fear and resistance, and when you are experiencing burnout. They can look the same on the surface but require different tactics to overcome. What fear and resistance want to do is keep you from working, that’s why they are always distracting you with other things and/or tell you how much you suck so you may as well stop now. It really pisses them off when you ignore them and work anyway. They retreat and lick their wounds for a while. You will, unfortunately, deal with them again and again in your life.
When I find myself burned out, I either have too many projects going at once and/or I am not getting enough time alone and/or my work is being done with wrong motive – meaning I’m using it as a self-justification project, trying to impress people etc. Sometimes I misread the symptoms as resistance, and I make it worse by pushing through for longer than I should. Once I recognize it for what it is I go into monk’s work mode, and I usually choose a new television show and I take a lot of baths with the oil lamp burning. I try not to judge how long it takes me to come out of this and “start working again”, and so far, I always have.
4) Keep a habit tracker, and be generous to yourself when filling it out:
I’m not a big pinterest person, but when I first saw a habit tracker there I knew it was something that would work for me. But what it took me a while to figure out was that I respond better if I just have to do a little tiny bit of something for it to “count”. With my first habit tracker, I think I had to do a whole workout DVD to be able to color in “exercise” on a certain day. Well, I rarely had time or energy to do a whole DVD, which left me discouraged when I looked at my tracker, because it looked like I wasn’t exercising at all. But most days I really do at least a few minutes of exercise…I might jump on my rebounder for two 5-minute periods or do 15 knee pushups and 20 single leg bodyweight deadlifts or eke out a few downward dogs or sun salutations.
Now, I give myself the pleasure of taking out those Inktense pencils and waterbrushes and I color in that darned “cardio” square if I stepped on the freaking rebounder. I color in the “writing” square if I wrote three sentences in my journal. And I color in the “mindfulness” section if I sit outside with my kids for 15 minutes without doing anything else. Our get-as-much-done-as-possible-every-day-society would think I was cheating here, but what I want to do is develop a habit, and I know I am not going to stick with anything if I feel beaten down and judged by my very own self for yes, keeping the habit but doing it in an unimpressive way. It’s better to give myself the small wins and they will either add up cumulatively over time OR I will eventually feel confident enough to expand the length or scope of the habit.
Today I hula hooped for 250 turns each way, but I’m not sure if that should be labeled cardio, strength, or restorative? Either way, I’m marking it down!
Please tell me in the comments what you know about your own productivity personality!
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