The Emotions of Meaningful Productivity #2: Fear

In the first article of this Emotions of Meaningful Productivity series we took a look at the idea of whether "being a productive person" was a personality trait outside the realm of our control or more like a skill that can be learned by everyone. Now, I'd like to move into the realm of fear.

Fear and its various incarnations could probably be a series of articles in itself. For our purposes I'm going to focus on three primary types of fear that we often have to wrestle with when deciding to get organized or try to become more productive. There are certainly many other types (and they may make an appearance in this series later).

Last time we talked about the desire to do meaningful work broadly whereas this time I'd like to focus on the feelings of fear that can emerge when implementing some kind of productivity system like Getting Things Done. The specific system doesn't matter. What I'm talking about is the desire and effort to get a complete handle on everything going on in your life -- responsibilities, commitments, goals, aspirations, and day-to-day minutiae. Systems like GTD are great for that but they require us to come face to face with some pretty intense fears.

Fear of Completion

A huge component of GTD is getting your mind to 100% empty and relying on your external system to hold reminders of everything that's going on in your life. For many people, this imperative to get to 100% complete is extremely daunting. Not only is the sheer amount of information often intense but the emotional component of seeing the entirety of your life on paper can be unexpected. For some, looking at a complete record of everything going on in their life evokes feelings of, "Oh my God, how am I ever going to do all of this in one lifetime?" It's utterly overwhelming. However, some people often have the exact opposite reaction. They see the representation of all their responsibilities, commitments, and goals in front of them and think, "That's it? My entire existence has been reduced to a few pieces of paper?"

If you've ever experienced resistance to getting to 100% complete with any kind of productivity system then you might be wrestling with this type of fear.

Fear of Routine

GTD has always caught flak from a certain type of creative professional who argues it's incompatible with their type of work because it's too structured. People fear systematizing the various components of their life because they think it'll cause them to lose the spontaneity and serendipity they think they rely on to be effective professionals.

If you've ever felt this fear when contemplating some kind of overhaul around how you think about and organize your work I encourage you to dig a little deeper. Are you using this fear as a crutch for why you're surrounded by discord? Is it possible that there are better ways to nurturing and developing your creative career than by letting administrative details and other "boring" parts of your work and life fall through the cracks?

In fact, is it possible that when you have a complete organizational system or approach to running your life you'll free up attention, energy, and space to do truly creative work? Does having a handle on everything going in your life truly lock you into a soulless routine or does it potentially allow the mental space for more spontaneity and creativity?

Fear of Being in the Moment

A byproduct of being truly organized and on top of your game means you can give your attention to one task or activity at a time. With less chaos floating around in the background of your mind and environment there are fewer and fewer excuses for not diving deep into what you're trying to do. It becomes easier to truly be in the moment with whatever you're doing. Whether that's writing a report, hanging out with your spouse, or paying the bills.

Being in the moment can be a vulnerable experience. It can be mentally taxing. It can rile up emotions that are normally tamped down by layers of mental and emotional detritus. A lack of organization can result in a reality where you're comfortably numb with everything you're doing. You don't necessarily feel great about it but you certainly don't feel too badly about it either. Being in the moment can be like moving from the bland middle bit of the emotional continuum and toward the poles. That's not to say you'll swing from mania to depression but that what you're feeling will be clearer and more intense. Like cleaning a dirty lens or removing a filter between you and the world. Scary, eh?

It's not my goal to psychoanalyze you via the written word or give exceedingly general advice that may or may not apply to anyone reading this piece. The process for working through each of these fears looks very different and chances are not all three apply to every single person. Therefore, all I can say at this point is to try to spend some time in quiet reflection if you've ever had trouble "getting organized" and see if any of these three fears resonates with what you've experienced. If so, how did it manifest? What did it feel like? What might be a first step to overcoming that fear?

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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