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.

What am I Doing?

shy

When I was a teenager, I was awkward. Really awkward. Painfully awkward. I had a hard time talking to people and making friends. I was shy. I was insecure. Being home schooled was not helpful for me in this department. (My taste in clothes at the time probably wasn’t helpful either.)

But then I became a woman and put childish ways behind me. Well, sort of. I became a woman around the time a bunch of other awkward people were becoming adults too, and by the time I arrived on the scene with a driver’s license and voter’s registration, being awkward was incredibly cool. Introversion was in. What a time to be alive.

This is a huge oversimplification, I realize, but it makes me laugh. I spent all my teen years wondering what was the matter with me, trying to push and prune myself into assertiveness, and then I got to college and realized that it was okay to not do all that.

This was a blessed relief to me. I didn’t have to bring myself up to some standard of social interaction. I could choose what was most important to me and not feel guilty for cutting out what wasn’t. I could celebrate the personality God gave me without regret.

But my newfound pride in introversion came with a dark side: when you’re an introvert, you don’t tend to do things unless you have to. So if millennial internet culture says being anti-social, loving naps and coffee and Netflix, and getting anxiety every time you go out is okay, introverts have a hard time coming up with the oomph to disagree. We’re terrible at disagreeing with a majority, we introverts. We also have very low stores of natural oomph. Besides, the land of naps and coffee and Netflix is our native country.

Is this bad? Should we force ourselves to get off our pajama-clad butts and be more Type A go-getters? I wonder. While I’m naturally drawn to a quieter, slower-paced life, I also know myself enough to realize that if I don’t push myself, I’m going to miss out on accomplishments, relationships, and opportunities because I fall back on the introvert excuse.

I’m totally fine with missing out on some of those things; I have no desire to be some amazing networking socialite. But I know I’ll hate myself forever if I miss out on everything because I couldn’t learn to keep it together in the face of awkwardness.

Oddly enough, all the jobs I’ve had have been pretty extroverted. It’s not until recently that freelancing has given me some freedom to hide behind a computer. I’ve done food service, retail, and office work. One time I was telling my friend about my various experiences working in malls and she shook her head.

“How did you get into that business?” she asked.

“I honestly have no idea,” I said.

I forgot to tell her about the year I worked selling jewelry at house parties. I went to strangers’ houses and sold jewelry to them and their friends. Even looking back makes me cringe. What the hell was I doing? I loved that job in theory, but in practice I was a bundle of nerves. And I know I’ll never do anything like that again. But for a year I did it, and I survived. Because I pushed myself. (Also, money.)

So I think the problem is not with being an introvert, but in forgetting that while introversion has its strengths, it also comes with inherent weaknesses, just as any personality has. Introversion’s weaknesses are sneaky, though, because they wrap you in a blanket of comfort and say, “There there, just slow down. Sit this one out. You’re delicate. It’s okay.”

Yes, introverts often need more downtime than others. But giving self-care doesn’t mean we should self-coddle. The world misses out on all the thoughtfulness and sensitivity that introverts can offer because introverts are just too damn scared to speak up about it, so no one has any reason to listen.

Personally, I’m still trying to figure out the balance between self-care and self-coddling. It’ll probably take me a while to find that balance. And that’s okay. It starts with being aware of my strengths and weaknesses as an introvert. It starts with learning when to push myself and when to relax.

This week, I’m presenting some of my writing in public. I’m terrified. There are moments when I ask myself what the hell I’m doing. There are moments when I wonder what the cancellation policy is on public readings. But ultimately I know this is a time where pushing myself into assertiveness will positively impact my writing and well-being.

What the am I doing? I’m learning to do what I love and live with the pain of awkwardness.

 

It’s Been Awhile

I want to be a blogger, I really do.
You wouldn’t know it by the frequency of my posts, but it’s true.
Life overwhelms, so many colors and flavors.
Some of them bitter and drab, others too sweet and bright.
And my very logical reaction is to curl up in a ball
and ignore every semblance of responsibility,
to cry like a tired child
who won’t admit she needs a nap.
This reaction may be logical, but it’s far from right.
And it takes me farther from who I want to be.
I – and we all – need to choose
what is important and what isn’t.
(The grownup word is pri-or-i-tize.)
And to pursue all that is lovely and pure,
And throw out that which hinders.
It’s been awhile since I’ve done that,
and it’ll be awhile until I get it right.
But it’s the only option.