Productivity: Why is this so hard?

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There’s no way to control this to-do list. It has a mind of its own. Sometimes it races to add to itself and flow off the edge of my dot-grid journal. It won’t be contained by Todoist or Things. It is full of never-do tasks that I look at and decide “not right now, no thanks, not today,” over and over until sometimes I just take them off the list and decide I never wanted to do that in the first place.

Sometimes the list fizzles out, slows to a drip. My mind seems to hit a brick wall. What even would BE productive if I did it? Cleaning out the pantry springs to mind, but I don’t write it down because then I would have to look at it and decide “not right now, no thanks, not today.”

I put projects into my GTD framework. If it has more than one action, it’s a project! What’s the next action? Add it to the list and then push it out to next month, again and again, until there are so many undone tasks that it looks like I’m living someone else’s highly productive life. Delete them all and start over.

Try a new app. Watch bullet journal videos on YouTube and lay out a new spread. Rolling weekly. Daily planner. Monthly tracker.

I’ve committed to Todoist, but the urge to download Omnifocus or Nirvana or Asana is hard to resist. Maybe a new tool will be the one that finally works for me. The one that finally gets me to DO the things.

But wait, am I unproductive? Not really. I get all of the required tasks done, even when I don’t write them down. There was a time when I might have forgotten to pay a bill or avoided cleaning out my fridge. But now I mostly keep up on what I need to do and have time for extracurriculars. If I have time to sit here playing Sims and watching Dexter, surely I have a few minutes to address the projects I avoid, ignore, or procrastinate indefinitely.

I can’t tell you how many times I have set up a new GTD system in the past two decades. I bought the folders and the label makers, and then realized I had nothing to put in them. I didn’t even know what I wanted to work on. I just knew I wasn’t doing it.

Now I’m trying to do hard things, including the elusive “productivity.” I have rituals and habits to support my health, but I can’t seem to habituate things like household chores and creative endeavors.

I avoid doing things because I’m tired, and I can’t decide what if anything is the right thing to spend my limited energy on. I avoid doing things that might involve a phone call or even a vulnerable text (inviting someone to do something always feels terribly risky). I avoid doing things because I know they will be hard, requiring hard thinking or scrubbing, or doing something I don’t know how to do. I avoid doing things because they seem boring or tedious, and not worth my time and attention.

I avoid things if there are too many things that are equally important. I can’t pick the right one out of dozen, so I don’t pick.

There’s a reason that there is a whole cult of productivity, mostly populated by white, male bloggers, lifehackers, and businessmen with Steven Covey fetishes. Doing important, meaningful work is full of vulnerability and uncertainty, and most people will avoid feeling vulnerable and uncertain. Even (or especially) white businessmen. So you put it in your system and whittle it down to such a small task that it would feel silly not to do it.

Why are women so late to or absent from the productivity cult? Maybe it’s because we were the housewives and secretaries of the twentieth century, already tracking all of the projects and lists so men would never have to. Until we stopped doing that (mostly?), and the David Allens of the world realized they were kind of adrift. They needed a scaffolding to keep their lives in order.

Unlike other twentieth century women, I never got good at serving men. My one job interview for a personal assistant role resulted in me being told (again) that I was not “perky” enough. So I never learned to be the scaffolding, and I found I needed my own.

I didn’t come from a family that valued productivity, as such. There were no chores or regular household tasks. There were no perfectionists or neat freaks or DIY gurus. My grandpa spent his free time “tinkering” on his antique cars, but he rarely had a to-do list. My grandma served the meals and washed the dishes, but spent the rest of her time watching soaps and relaxing. My parents both embodied chaotic laziness in their own unique ways. There were no white boards or gold stars in the houses where I grew up.

It has not come naturally to me, but productivity has always fascinated me. I’m mesmerized by the idea that there is a system for living life. That there are things to do that are worth doing. And that by identifying those things and putting them in the right system, life might change for the better.

I believe it is true that tiny actions add up to big change, and that they become easier over time. Productivity is a practice like everything else. I know how to run a project at work, but somehow haven’t figured out how to make my own life into an ordered system with measurable results.

I try to turn creativity into projects and suddenly art becomes a chore. It’s another thing on a list that I don’t want to look at. “Plan painting,” I wrote down, but that’s a project not a task. What’s the next action? Pick subject matter? Figure out if my paints have all dried up? Move to a house with room for an art studio? Oh, wait, that’s probably a project too. Sigh.

I think I’m a person who wants too many different things at the same time. My brain is always striving for some better self, but there’s not a single path to get there. There are books to write, classes to take, storage closets to organize, and I just can’t quite figure out which one matters enough to pour myself into. One thing at a time. But which one?

One Comment Add yours

  1. I think this is the main danger of productivity, that we aim for action without first knowing our ‘why’. I tend to fall into this trap too, and I’ve whittled down my priorities to health, loved ones, and writing.

    That makes organising my to-dos much easier, as I get to knock useless (for me) things like sharpen kitchen knife or organise journal collection down the ladder. Wishing you all the best in your journey!

    Liked by 1 person

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