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?

On Ukuleles

I’m not always good at asking for gifts. Someone says, “What do you want for Christmas?” and I’m like, “Um… stuff and things, please.”

But this past holiday season I planned ahead. I gave little lists to the various people who wanted them, and one of the presents I asked for was a thing I’d had tucked in my mind for a long time:

a ukulele.

I don’t know what drew me to the ukulele in particular. Maybe it’s because they’re small and only have four strings, although I did used to play the violin, which fits all those requirements. But a violin is much more labor-intensive; I appreciate the compact little ukulele, which you can pick up and strum with cheerful determination.

Sure enough, on Christmas morning an oddly-shaped package was labeled to me. It was my very own gorgeous little ukulele. I was so excited I spent three hours learning chords.

While I’m still rusty—though I do fancy myself a quick learner—the ukulele has already brought a lot of joy to me. There’s something about being able to sit down and make music, with no need to talk, no need to think really, and to be creative simply by showing up and letting your mind spill out into sound.

Sometimes as a writer, I want to be able to write without using any words, letting the repetition and flow of my mind create something without effort. But of course, this is the antithesis of writing. One must naturally exert effort, in order for the words to make any sense.

Playing the ukulele is my writing without words; my creativity finds a voice even when my words are knotted, and I can create something beautiful even when my mind is numb.