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?

Know Thyself

In the past few months, my best friend and I have become inadvertent personality scholars.

I don’t quite remember how it started. We bought the same book, Better than Before, about temperament and habit formation. Then we hit a streak where, ironically, we got competitive about reading Quiet, the book on introverts (which we both are). Then during the semester, she read a Myers-Briggs textbook, and we figured out each of our personalities and those of our respective husbands, and read each feature of each personality to oblivion.

(In case you were wondering, I’m a shy introvert, an obliger with a rebel streak, an INFP with a turbulent nature, and a highly-sensitive person. On the Pinterest chart of introverted types as pets, I’m a cute cuddly mouse. According to Buzzfeed, which is even more scientific than Pinterest, I’m a meerkat.)

At some point Jenny asked me whether I thought our newfound knowledge of personality types made us almost too knowledgeable. “Do you think it might make us not rely on God enough?” she wondered. In our shared spiritual tradition, there’s a principle of recognizing, with humility, that we as human beings don’t know everything. And we certainly didn’t want to know so much we became smug, unable to relate to people without first asking the four letters of their Myers-Briggs personality type.

“I find it’s making me rely on him more,” I answered. For one thing, I need guidance outside of myself for putting my newfound knowledge to good use. Also, knowing a lot makes me that smug asshole. So I need help with that too.

But in all seriousness, figuring out how to use one’s knowledge of oneself is incredibly important. Learning so much about myself has taught me that I’m not always as impervious to cultural peer pressure as I think I am. Sometimes I adopt the values of my environment because everyone else thinks those values are common sense, when in reality they often squelch the very strengths I have. And then instead of being thoughtful about my nature, I’ve often been the hardest squelcher of them all, thinking I must fix myself in some way.

I’ve worked fast-paced jobs, but I’m a more quiet, deliberate person. I’ve worked in environments that encourage making sales, but I value authenticity and good causes. I’ve put myself in situations where I am expected to be chatty and engaging and to connect with a ton of people in any given day, but to me connection is something you can’t force. It must be deep and intentional and take a lot of time.

All of this pushing against my own nature has left me frustrated and even more disappointed with who I am. But when Jenny and I started studying personalities, (admittedly) becoming greater nerds on the subject, something clicked. It’s no longer a matter of changing myself to fit a mold, but rather of finding a mold that I can fit into already, a mold with a shape I fit and room I can grow in.

The catch, of course, is that we all have to spend our lives figuring out the tension between who we are and what life is, between who we should be and what life should be. We have to figure out when it’s okay to change and when it’s okay to stick to our nature, when it’s appropriate to build on our strengths, and when it’s better to strengthen our weaknesses. This goes along with that spiritual principle of realizing that no matter how much I know, I don’t know everything. I need guidance and strength outside myself to make big decisions and little decisions, moment by moment, that will polish me more and more into the person I truly am.

So that’s step two.

Weekend Pith: Life Rules

One of the newer features of my repainted blog is the little page at the top of the screen, which I call “My Life Rules.” It has pithy little one-liners that describe or sum up life, or at least the kind of person I want to be.

This idea was inspired by a book my best friend gifted to me, The Happiness Project, by Gretchen Rubin. The book is full of practical ways to simply be happier, but it goes deeper than that. Happiness occurs when we have meaningful relationships, discipline, and joy in day to day life, and there are simple, down-to-earth steps to make that happen. It was the practicality of it that really spoke to me; we often talk about being happier or having more joy, but these are usually abstract concepts we don’t back up with a plan. You can’t arrive at a goal without a plan.

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Rubin starts the book by listing what she calls her “rules of adulthood.” They are little principles she’s found to be true in her life, and so they help her remain true to herself while becoming better. And in the end, that’s what the point of her book is: we must always be working towards better versions of ourselves, and that in turn will give us greater satisfaction in life.
This inspired me to look for my own “rules of adulthood,” the little principles I live by even when I don’t realize it. Every so often they cross my mind, and now I catch them and tag them before letting them fly away again. In this way I become a lot more mindful and aware of the unwritten rules we all govern ourselves by, and as a bonus they sound pretty cool in a blog post.

Here’s a little look at some of my life rules. The list is ongoing, and I’m adding to it daily. 

 

It’s not a contest.

We get pretty competitive with the other people in our lives. Someone else’s successes, joys, and blessings become like vinegar in our mouths. I’ve noticed myself often envying friends my age as their lives start to become more settled, more sure, with stable careers and permanent homes and (even more permanent) children. It’s often hard to be okay with the fact that my life is rather tumultuous right now, and that’s okay. It’s not a contest.

Choose to be friends.

I’ve always had this fatalistic view of friendship, where I just hope someone likes me enough to stick around. I’ve had some friendships, ones I really liked, dissolve, leaving me to want to dissolve along with them. Then I had a realization: I can be friends with anyone I damn well please. Sometimes relationships do run their natural course, but sometimes you get to just decide: you’re one of my peeps now. Let’s be friends. Always. M’kay?

Always be more loving than you feel.

This one is so hard. I once had a boss tell me that one of my strengths was my ability to leave my life at home and focus on the task at hand, to keep my emotions under wraps and set aside a bad day without letting my frustrations shine forth.

To which I looked at her and said “Really?”

I don’t know what she saw in me, but I’m terrible at concealing my emotions. If I’m upset, I will cry. If I’m angry, I won’t look you in the eye (this could also happen if I’m especially shy, so don’t panic). If I’m happy, I can’t wipe the silly grin off my face.

So this is why, when I’m not feeling very loving, I… won’t be very loving. 

This quality is especially unfortunate in married life, when acting exactly how you feel all the time doesn’t help anybody. Especially if you’re an emotional person who could feel ten different things in the space of an hour. It’s confusing for a spouse to keep up with. 

(Not that I’m speaking from first-hand experience, or anything…)

I’ve often found a tense situation to be greatly improved by just acting even a little more loving than I feel. Because it makes him feel better, and soon I feel better too. Love is like gravy on a Thanksgiving plate. It gets in and around everything and makes it taste better. Just as we can never have too much gravy, we should never be sparing with love. Even if we’re not always feeling it. Because the monumentous effort it may take to be loving returns even more monumentous results. You literally cannot lose by showing love, just as you cannot lose by passing the gravy. 

(You’re welcome for the gravy analogy.)

Beware of fads.

This is one you see a lot on the internet. Everyone look over here! This person did that! Everyone talk about this! It’s trending now! Everyone buy this! It’s in style!

This might be my hipster streak showing, and as I type this I realize being hipster is somewhat of a fad as well. Dammit. At any rate, I try to be aware of what new thing I genuinely love or appreciate and what is just a fad. Sometimes our brains ping pong from one thing to another, and we lose our mental autonomy. We lose the energy to recognize what to purge from our lives and what we’d really like to keep. We become dependent on fads for mental stimulation. And it leaves us even more exhausted, more cluttered. It’s a terrible cycle, and not worth it.

Sometimes, however, the fad of the day is fun, and sometimes you like it. And that’s when you should ask your doctor if this fad is right for you.

 

So there’s a little look at my life rules. Hopefully they inspire you to recognize your own unwritten life principles. I’ve found writing a few down where I’ll see them daily, or making a note on my phone, helps me revisit and recommit whenever I forget. It’s way to be more mindful and evermore myself.

What unwritten rules will you write down?