Monday, October 13, 2014

My Greatest Productivity Challenge

My productivity system broke down this summer.  It started when I didn't complete all of my weekly tasks that I had written down in my planner.  To be honest, I usually didn't complete all of these anyway (I tend to over-estimate the number of things I can get done in a given period), but now the problem started to get worse.  Some weeks I only checked one or two items off my list.  As I fell more and more behind, I felt more and more guilty about not getting as much done as I thought I should.  When I re-wrote my list of tasks every week, all I felt was dread.  Eventually, I stopped using my planner altogether.  By then, it just felt pointless.

It doesn't matter whether you use a paper or digital planner; the system you use cannot automatically make you more productive, focused, or motivated.  Ultimately, you have to actively make the decision to work on tasks you need to get done.  You can plan, write to-do lists, make schedules, and try different systems as much as you like, but none of this is useful unless you actually do the work.  That's the hard part.

As August and September passed me by, I realized that if I wanted to start being productive again (and I did), then I needed to make a change.

By this time, I also had realized what the main cause of my productivity system breakdown was: procrastination.  Procrastination is, I now know, the greatest challenge I face to my ability to get things done and to make any kind of progress in my life generally.

Procrastination starts as a way of avoiding and putting off a task that I feel is too difficult or large to tackle.  Sometimes it's just that another activity (easier and less important) is much more tempting.  Or that I convince myself that I have lots of time (even when I don't) so I don't need to start right away.  Once it gets started, procrastination builds on itself.  Once I put one task off, it becomes easier to find excuses for not doing other tasks.  And the more behind I get in everything, the more negative feelings (guilt, dread) I start to have around all of my tasks, which means that I turn to procrastination more as a way of (temporarily) avoiding those feelings.

When dealing with procrastination, it's important to start small and build slowly.  Habits cannot be changed quickly.  I know that from years of trying and failing.  A large change is scary and I'll probably procrastinate about it or give up on it after only a few days.  A small change is easy and I can slowly build on it.  It's also important to realize that you cannot conquer procrastination completely.  I expect that this challenge will be with me for the rest of my life, so I need to focus on learning to live with it, not on trying to eliminate it.

I have not yet gone back to using my planner, but I am starting to rebuild my productivity system.  Every day, I set myself a few small tasks, writing them down in a simple pad of paper that I keep on my desk.  I make sure to break down even simple tasks into tiny steps.  If "write next blog post" is too intimidating, then "choose photos" or "write first draft by hand" may not be.  I've also put most of my projects to the side for now.  Part of the problem was that I was simply trying to do too much, so for now I'm just going to focus on one project (blogging).  When I get that on track, I can add in other tasks and projects.  Selecting tasks or setting goals for an entire week or month also feels like too much right now, but as I have more success on a daily basis, I hope to re-introduce this (in some form) to my productivity system as well.

I don't know what my productivity system is going to look like as I rebuild it.  I do know that at some point I'll start using a planner again, but I don't know if I'll go back to a Bullet Journal or not.  I suspect that I may want something with a bit more structure instead.  At this point, I'm trying to keep my mind open to any possibilities.

Most importantly, I have discovered in the last two weeks that I can complete tasks again and that it feels good.  I know that some people perceive writing as a difficult and painful business, but I've found that writing makes me happy.  It's not writing that causes the problems.  When procrastination returns, I will try to remember this.  Getting things done feels good.  Procrastination does not.  And it doesn't have to be more complicated than that.

Have you ever experienced a productivity system breakdown?  How did you deal with it?  And how do you deal with procrastination?  I'd love to hear your thoughts and experiences on these issues.


  1. I completely relate because I too suffer from the ill-effects of procrastination! Similarly, my Bullet Journal has largely fallen by the wayside compared to when I first started using it last year - likely due to having so much to do. I am definitely at my happiest when I am productive, and I loved how the Bullet Journal system worked for me, but you are wise when you say to start small and build slowly (the tortoise is my spirit animal). Even the habits that I previously thought I had mastered are not reestablished overnight. All this to say, I don't have any answers for you, but I am in the same boat. Thank you for this post, Heather!

  2. It's easy to villify procrastination as a vice, or as a sign of failure or weak nature, etc. But the psychology involved is actually quite interesting -- it's a sort of defense mechanism, almost a selective memory -- that our brain uses when anxiety is threatening to overwhelm daily functioning. The problem comes when we see procrastination as the problem, rather than as a red flag that something is wrong. The question isn't what we're avoiding but rather -- why are we avoiding it? For example a phone call that -should- be simple to make, but somehow is getting left undone for far too long. If telling yourself "just stop being lazy and make the call" isn't working, then perhaps you need to step back and accept that the call is difficult for you for some reason. (Non-judgmentally.) And then try to figure out why it's difficult, or simply -- what would help you feel more comfortable about doing it? Breaking down large tasks into smaller ones is key, as you suggested. It helps identify the exact portion of the project that is provoking the anxiety and is derailing your efforts.

    When you do this regularly, you can begin to see the types of things that will predictably be difficult for you, and you can begin to build in supports for yourself around those sorts of tasks. Some people organize their to-do lists based on "amount of energy needed for this task", and for the tough tasks - maybe you plan to do JUST that one thing on a specific day, and then reward yourself with a mini vacation from all the rest of it.

    I'm willing to bet that most people who focus on productivity systems struggle with procrastination far more than they would admit, either to themselves or in public. You're absolutely not alone with this sense of having "fallen off the wagon". A few years ago I had my ultra-organized, high-pressure lifestyle completely shattered by personal losses. In the years after, I found myself unable to complete a to-do list that I would have once laughed off as trivial. It has been a deep learning experience, as I've learned to throw off the bullying drill-sergeant that used to rule my inner life, and find compassion for myself and my flaws. I still struggle with procrastination daily, but it is getting easier to get things done, and honestly -- I feel the quality of my life is better now than it was before all the changes.

    1. This post and the thoughtful, kind responses to it have really helped me out this afternoon. I was checking email as a form of procrastination and giving myself a kicking for the things I haven't done today, "wasting" a day off work.

      I know that's an unhelpful and counter-productive attitude but I also felt that to not berate myself was somehow "letting myself off the hook". I'm so glad I meandered over to this post from today's email. Thanks one and all!
      Kindness! That's the way!

    2. Thank you, ElaineB. <3 This post and your timely answer was truly a Godsend today.

  3. It feels like you're reading my mind! I stopped using to-do lists long ago when I realized that just writing it down did not mean that I was actually going to do it. I still find it helpful if I forget which items I still have outstanding, but for the most part, I just feel the same way you do when I have to rewrite tasks I haven't completed yet, and then it just makes me feel bad about it. And a productivity system should NOT make you feel bad! I'm not sure how I can tackle my procrastination issues, but I feel a lot better now that I use my list more as a reminder than a "must do immediately" list.

  4. This is why The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy had the words DON'T PANIC inscribed on the cover : because Human beings have a problem with immensity. This is why Diaries are stressful but Journals (without dates) are gentler on the follicles. This is why definitions of success or failure, value judgements and criticisms can be harmful to your mental health. Procrastination might well be a message from the Creative Gods to remind you of the fact that doing & being are part of the process and that the Process can be changed. I have a less than satisfying job and my creative drive is bubbling away whilst I physically carry out that job. Outside of that job I try to be present and gentle to myself (it doesn't always work) - I try to be mindful and accepting of the cumulative effect of creativity. To place piece by piece, line by line, elements together that reassure and above all please me. First and foremost - that please me. The list might not get done but it is written in beautiful handwriting. and illustrated. and it helps me sleep.

  5. I suffer greatly from procrastination, but at work, I've luckily found a version of bullet journaling that helps keep me moving forward. I do the page of calendar for the month, and the big tasks for the month on the next page. But, for each day, I don't write down what I need to get done, I write down what I DID. Answered phone calls, emails, sent accounts for review, etc. It may be a super small task, but I write it down anyway. At the end of my day, I can actually SEE that I've done SOMETHING, whether it be from my task list at the beginning of the month on not. And that task list is a few pages back, out of sight until I get some free time and go back to it. It seems to work for me at the moment, but who knows what will happen next week? LOL - thanks for sharing!


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