The Emotions of Meaningful Productivity #1: "I'm Just Not That Type of Person"

I'm kicking off a new series I'm calling The Emotions of Meaningful Productivity. Much of the productivity writing I and others have done focuses on the implementation and tactical levels (easy to digest tools, tips, and "hacks") which means we often miss the mark of what's going on at a more foundational level. Anybody who has tried to "get organized" or "be more productive" is wrestling with more than a need for a hot new tool or a pithy line of advice (even if we think that's all we need). Usually we are wrestling with some pretty heavy emotional hangups and barriers that require more careful consideration. I want to explore these deeper emotional challenges that often get in the way of doing more meaningful work. This means we'll touch on aspects of productivity, personal organization, focus, and generally being effective and happy human beings in a world where work and human emotion come into contact on a regular basis.

Let's step to it, eh?

"I'm just not an organized/productive/diligent person."

On more than one occasion I've spoken to someone who notices I have a strange (to them) approach toward being productive. After briefly explaining the main points of my system more often than not I hear something like, "Oh, that must be great. I'm just not that type of person."

Hogwash! Poppycock! Hammermittens! (I think I made that last one up).

Antiquated exclamations aside, I do understand the feeling. I'm sure there must be some genetic variation in terms of whether or not you're attracted to the process of organizing things or thinking systematically about being more productive. God knows not every little kid thought organizing and re-organizing his hockey cards for hours on end or playing with calendars and planners was a fun time (hi Mom!). Looking around at people who seem to have their lives in order often uncovers other feelings that spread beyond a desire for a little more organization and productivity. It can make you think something is wrong with you. It feels crappy when someone else makes something you want and find difficult look so incredibly easy. Not only do you start to feel frustrated with your own lack of being on top of things, you may even start hating the raw material that's creating all this discord in your life -- i.e. the decisions, responsibilities, and components of your career and life. That's heavy stuff.

Putting our natural inclinations to be interested in organization and productivity aside, does that mean "meaningful productivity" is something for only a select few? You either get it or you don't? And if you don't, you're doomed to an existence of stress and chaos?

I don't think it's much of a surprise that I argue it's not.

"Getting organized" or "being productive" are a series of behaviors that when enacted result in a more controlled and orderly work (or personal) life. These are behaviors that are concrete, discrete, and extremely learnable. Like learning to ride a bike or drive a car or even tie your shoes -- they consist of steps that build upon one another and can be practiced discretely. Eventually you're able to start stringing together these steps together and before you know it you're riding a bike, driving a car, tying your shoes, or doing more meaningful work with less stress.

The problem arises when we see the distance between where we are right now (some combination of a disorganized, harried, busy, and overwhelmed mess) and where we want to be (a Zen-like master of everything) as a huge gulf instead of a series of steps. Would you rather try to scale a sheer cliff or walk up a staircase? I don't blame anybody for walking away from even trying to climb a cliff with no apparent handholds. But, there's a stairway just over here. I'm not saying it'll be quick but anybody can walk up some stairs, right?

Instead of trying to adopt some kind of wholesale, wide-ranging, and all-inclusive organizational system (like GTD), try a series of smaller changes first. These could be almost anything, but I would err on the side of simplicity and ease. By building some success with smaller steps that momentum can be banked and utilized for larger changes later.

  1. If you currently write ideas in more than one place try consolidating down to one notebook or location (or at least fewer than you're currently using). Behavior being learned: Ubiquitous capture and trust in your inbox(es).

  2. Spend 5 minutes at the beginning/end of each day thinking about what you intend to do today/tomorrow. Behavior being learned: Front-end decision making and planning.

  3. Go through your email inbox and unsubscribe from everything that isn't giving you value. Behavior being learned: Attention management.

  4. Install Rescue Time and let it run for a week or two. Figure out where you're currently using your time. Behavior being learned: Attention and time management.

  5. Go through your desk (or just one drawer if it's a true disaster zone) and get ride of unneeded stuff. Old pens, broken electronics, pieces of useless paper, etc. Behavior being learned: Respect for your workspace and creation of space for doing better work.

These steps may seem silly easy but when you're dealing with a deep seated belief that you're just not the type of person to get organized and be productive then you need to do things to prove yourself wrong. Instead of conceptualizing this ability to be organized and get work done as a personality trait that you sadly don't have you can begin building the very real skills and behaviors that every "productive person" uses on a daily basis. Like anything else that's tricky it will take time to practice the requisite steps but that isn't evidence that you're incapable of doing it -- it's simply evidence that you're learning a new way to interact with the world.

Next time we'll dive into another emotional roadblock to developing meaningful productivity -- fear.

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Photo by Peter Thoeny