Getting Shtuff Done: a Journey in Productivity

I’ve always had a hard time keeping good habits. I have lofty goals and good intentions, but these fall victim to procrastination and apathy. Soon I carry a string of failed attempts and a load of doubt that I could ever be successful again.

If you’ve ever read some of Gretchen Rubin’s research on human nature, specifically her Four Tendencies personality studies, my tendency is to be an Obliger, which means that while I dutifully meet the expectations of other people, I have a hard time keeping promises to myself. This rather self-sabotaging mindset means it’s incredibly difficult for me to stick to my goals, no matter how much I want them.

Writing, I’ve found, is a very risky career choice for someone like myself, because in writing, you have to make yourself write. You have to find that motivation. It’s not a job in which you clock in and out at a certain time and meet a defined list of expectations set by someone you fear and respect. No, it’s just me, and my thoughts, and a string of projects with some loose deadlines. (Loose deadlines, by the way, are Kryptonite to an Obliger).

Rubin’s advice to Obligers is to create external accountability, like deadlines in your work, friends who will join you for a morning run, or reading groups that will incline you to read. While I have found that advice useful, it also left a gnawing feeling that I wasn’t quite getting to the root of the problem. And this was the problem: I am afraid to commit to my personal priorities, because I am afraid they aren’t worthy. I am afraid to stick up for them, to say no to other things, to endure the hard times my priorities require.

Take exercise, for instance. I’ve never been very good at working out, because I’ve always been defeated before I finish. I don’t let myself start at a comfortable pace, my pace, on my terms. I let myself get swept up in someone else’s idea of good exercise, and then I get burnt out. And of course, I spend too much time worrying about how my body looks instead of how I feel.

When a few months ago, Alex and I restarted the habit of going to the gym regularly, I began this new habit differently than I ever approached anything before: I gave myself the freedom to do what I liked. Truth is, I don’t like being overly sweaty and in pain for a whole hour. But I do like running a mile at a time, and I do like lifting weights, and I do like yoga. So that’s what I did. I let myself set low goals, because even those low goals were higher than doing nothing. For a while I waited for the other shoe to drop; I’d started out so well so many other times, only to fail.

But this time was different; this time I actually enjoyed working out, which I’ve never in my whole life been able to say. I enjoyed it because it was my own goals on my own terms, and I was hitting those goals, week by week.

That’s when it dawned on me: I didn’t have to try to trick myself into meeting goals. I had discovered a simple, oft-forgettable truth: getting stuff done feels good.

I think we so often fall into a victim mindset, if even a little. If you’re naturally more inclined to it, like me as an Obliger, it’s even easier. You get used to the feeling of failing yourself. And I’m not sure why, but suddenly I just got fed up with it. I didn’t want to have to have some kind of external structure to do the things I loved and wanted to accomplish: I wanted to accomplish them because it feels good. 

It feels good to have a yoga habit. It feels good to eat salads. It feels good to read. It feels good to floss.

And I don’t mean “feels good” just on the surface level, the physical level. I mean it feels good on a deep, soul level. It nourishes my mind, body, and spirit. It makes me more of who I really want to be.

And I think you have to discover, for yourself, which lofty goals create that kind of soul-level good feeling for you. There are many good habits we keep that might not be the best for us, our specific personhood and calling. There are good habits that feed you on that physical level, but not on the soul level.

Realizing that made me narrow down my daily goals so I can meet my ultimate, long-term ones. It helped me carve out time for prayer and meditation. It helped me write 20,000 words of my graduate manuscript in a month (I still have no idea how that happened).

It’s not a fool safe, one-and-done process; it’s an ongoing one. It takes overcoming laziness and doubt and fear moment by moment by moment. But I’m learning that motivating yourself by fear or frustration, by competition or by other people’s values, is never a sustainable way to build your life. You have to figure out what you value, stick up for it, and run for it with abandon.

So today, what are some things you value? What are some goals you have? Why do you want them, and what has kept you from reaching for them?

And how will it feel to get them done?

The Book I Want to Write

Suddenly, there are people everywhere and I’m wrapped in a towel, sitting on a bench while Laura sobs next to me. I vaguely remember calling the police. Or maybe I called Theo – I don’t remember. I feel like I’ve just come out of surgery and the last hour of my life is lost. 

Theo’s there, sitting with us and talking to the police so we don’t have to. Officers lift the bodies from the pool, and I know for sure it’s them. Mom and Dad. Laura sobs harder.

But it’s so surreal that I feel it must be an elaborate prank. Less than an hour ago our parents were, to our knowledge, asleep in their room with the door shut, safe and sound. And it feels so logical that they should still be there, I’m tempted to leave this suddenly bustling back yard to go check on them upstairs, to make sure they’re still dreaming peacefully. 

But of course, they’re not in bed. They’re in body bags now, going to sleep at the morgue.

At least I know they’re dreaming peacefully.

Hey all! I hope your week is going well. This last week of August (!) is bustling by beautifully, with sunny blue skies and balmy cool breezes.

I’ve been mostly failing at the 20 Minute Writing Challenge, but that’s okay. I got several days of really good writing in, and for that I’m thankful. I just have to take it day by day and page by page. The challenge has allowed me to develop ideas for a book I’ve been cooking up for a long time now, and I’ve been able to more deeply thatch together the plot.

There are many elements to the story I want to tell, many layers. The topmost layer is a mystery story, about two people who mysteriously die. The next layer is a small-town story, about how their deaths effect the tiny community in which they lived. The deepest layer is a family story, about their two daughters who have to come to terms with what has happened, to deal with the community, and to solve the mystery.

That’s the story in a nutshell. As a native of a small town, I’ve studied that little microcosm of society and I find it fascinating. I think so often in literature and entertainment we get a sugarcoated and/or romanticized version of small town life. It’s fun, but the deeper story of these communities is missing. Small towns are hopeless and charming and frustrating and wonderful all at the same time. I want to show that in a way that’s new and entertaining and somber.

So, that’s what I’ve been working on. What do you think? I’m still musing and marinating, and I probably will be for a while. I’m writing the story patch by patch and eventually, it will be chronologically readable :). Stay tuned.