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?

Open Mind, Narrow Focus: Learning to Prioritize with Joy

In the past year, one concept that’s really latched onto me is the importance of prioritizing. We all know that life often feels crazy, beyond our control, that there aren’t enough hours in the day. And it’s so hard to choose those few things we want to focus on in our limited time.

Alex and I got married when we were still in college, so maybe the realization that I had to prioritize my time hit me extra early. I had to choose from the get go that when it came down to it, my relationship and time with him was more important than all the intricacies of a college education.

Of course, this doesn’t mean I totally slacked at my work, or that I considered my personal development not important. If anything, this new arrangement gave me more responsibility for my own priorities. I’m someone who has the tendency to throw aside my own agenda for others, especially people I love or respect. While I truly believe there’s a time and place for that, I came to a sobering realization:  I cannot let other people decide what my priorities are. That is my responsibility.

For me, as a newlywed college student, that meant two discernible things: first, that I could not let the expectations put on me as a student by teachers or coursework dictate the time and attention I spent on my husband; and second, I could not let my desire to be a good partner to my husband detract from the work I had as a student.

This may sound contradictory. How can partner and personal growth both be the most important thing at the same time? I spent the rest of my college career trying to figure out that balance, and I went on to grad school trying to learn the same thing, and every job I’ve had and will have is a challenge in trying to figure it out.

Because for me, prioritizing boils down to the daily questions of: What things are most important to me? and When must I say no to one important thing so I can say yes to another? 

This week, my best friend Jenny and I were chatting about this concept. We noticed how many of the people we meet seem perpetually rushed, with absolutely no time to spare. We noticed how it’s so easy to say, “I don’t have time to work out,” or “I don’t have time for self-care,” or “I wish I could do xyz, but I just can’t.”

Jenny has a full time job, a lengthy commute, various activities that all take time, and her husband has a demanding and time-consuming job as well. But the truth, she said, is that we all do have the time for whatever we want to do. We just don’t always use the resources we have wisely. As she put it, “The way you spend your time shows what your priorities are.” In other words, what we do with our time reflects the things we most value.

In pondering this, I had another thought: what if the priorities that people commonly feel that they should have, say working out or social time or whatever it is, aren’t actually priorities they want to have? But instead of admitting, “hey, that’s not something I value or even want, and I choose to spend my time elsewhere,” we frame ourselves as victims. “I don’t want to” becomes “I would if I could, but I can’t,” and that makes us feel better, more justified, in not doing what we feel pressured to do. But that also ends up making us feel more strained, more stressed, less free to spend our time as we like. And we feel constantly defeated, because we don’t meet those lofty goals we feel we should.

One thing I found helpful in this process of refocusing my priorities was to look big-picture. In my life, what are a handful of things I want to be true? A handful of goals I want to accomplish? For me, it narrowed down to three things: I want to have a good relationship with God (and by extension, everyone else); I want to be physically healthy; and I want to publish a book.

With these big picture ideals in mind, I try to do something every day that cultivates those things. I spend time in prayer or devotional reading. I work out or do yoga. I read and write. Suddenly my days are very simplified; I don’t have to worry that I didn’t do enough or that I’m not succeeding enough. As long as I hit the three big priorities on my list, everything else is a bonus. And suddenly, life feels a lot more victorious, a lot more joyful.

On paper it sounds simple, but it’s not always fun, and it’s not always easy. For example, being physically healthy is one of my life goals, but it’s not a life goal that’s always joyful to pursue. I have to set aside time to work out, I have to endure the moments of pain that come with working out, and I have to be mindful about not stuffing my face with cake at every whim.

What keeps me motivated is realizing that this goal is mine, and no one else’s. I am doing this because I want to, even if in the moment I don’t really “want” to. It also encourages me to make my goals on my own terms. For me, this means I don’t run super fast or participate in insane cardio or go to hot yoga classes, because honestly, I don’t want to. I don’t completely abstain from carbs or sugar or dairy, because I don’t want to. My goal is not to win a bikini contest; my goal is to create sustainable, mindful health. I challenge myself according to my own ability and lifestyle, not someone else’s. As a result, I feel good not only physically, but mentally.

Despite the best of intentions, prioritizing is still a struggle, especially in a society that is perennially rushed and always comparing one person with another. But I keep coming back to that conviction I first put together in college: I cannot let other people decide what my priorities are. That is my responsibility.

I don’t have to be a victim to other people’s values. I don’t have to be a victim to society’s values. If each of us took back those reins a little bit, if we chose our priorities with mindfulness, I wonder how much society, big bad wolf that it is, might change little by little. I wonder if eventually, we might become more peaceful, more joyful, as a whole.

And it’s not something we can achieve with a snap. It’s a daily practice, one that will change with each season of life. I am still learning the balance between being married and following my personal callings, and I’m realizing its a daily mindfulness more than a one-and-done decision. But it’s a mindfulness we can each practice in little ways, little baby steps.

At first it might seem really hard, and it is! For the first time we’re going against the current; there’s bound to be some resistance. Ultimately, though, I am convinced that setting priorities leads to a more joyful heart, open mind, and narrow focus. It leads to more intentionally enjoying life, not just for our own sake, but so we can take the newfound peace we have and pour into others.

Weekend Pith: (Try to) Live and (Try to) Let Live

This week’s life rule is sort of long, so I suppose it doesn’t quite fit the “pith” bill:
Your goals aren’t always someone else’s goals. Their goals aren’t always yours. This is okay.

This is the same principle as my “It’s not a contest” rule, but apparently that pithy one-liner wasn’t enough for me, so I had to spell it out better.

I often find myself unsatisfied or discontented with various aspects of my life and self, not because I’m genuinely unsatisfied, but because I feel that I should be. I see the lifestyle and discipline of other people, and I think, I should be like that. And I’m not. And therefore, I must work harder. 

While there’s something to be said for pushing yourself to do and be better, this should never come from feelings of inadequacy. I’ve found that when you change because you don’t feel good enough as you are, you’re doing it wrong. When, however, you change because you want to improve and progress, the change is more positive and lasting. There’s a difference between being motivated by the idea of filling a deficiency and that of regenerating something. They are completely separate mindsets, one negative and one positive.

And the truth is, sometimes my life looks different from someone else’s because my goals are different. My values are different. And sometimes, even if the goals and values are the same, the approaches and methods are different. And this is okay.

I fall into the comparison game more times than I can bear to realize. Just when I think I’m good, I’m not. So I remind myself I am content. Because I am. And I can only get better from here.