Lately I’ve been talking a lot about how to get more done. While I’m a big advocate of pursuing multiple things, the truth is, no matter how much you accomplish, there will also be many things that you wanted and intended to do that did not get done. I know you have those line items on your to-do list that you just keep moving from one day, or week, or month, or year, to the next. I know I do!
It’s so tempting to focus on those yet-to-be-done tasks instead of appreciating what you did complete. But you can’t let feeling bad about whatever’s left undone weigh you down; beating yourself up just isn’t useful. It lowers your energy and that makes it harder to do the work you want and need to do.
Here are some ways I’ve found to be more realistic about what I can actually expect to complete in any given time, and how to not beat myself up about those things that remain undone at the end of the day (or week, or month, or year):
Look for where you’re doing magical thinking
I got a great email from a reader in response to my recent post, “Are You a Tortoise or a Hare?” She said that realizing that she was a tortoise was really empowering, because she didn’t have to feel bad that her progress wasn’t happening fast enough; it was happening at the right pace for her.
I love when that happens! Timing is just not something that’s our business, so it’s such a misplacement of energy to worry that something’s not happening fast enough.
And then she asked, “I seem to have a LOT of projects that I don’t follow through on. Just thinking about them, I overwhelm myself! Any tips on getting–and staying–organized and tracking progress?”
I responded with some thoughts to her that I’m now incorporating into this blog (in a little trick called leveraging, where you use the efforts you spend on one thing to help you on another thing, but that could be a post all on its own!).
When I was a kid I spent many summer days at the pool with my cousin, Joanie. Joanie was a real jump in the deep end kind of kid. She didn’t care how cold the water was. She would throw her towel down, kick off her flops, walk over to the side of the pool and promptly plop in. I, on the other hand, put down my stuff, kicked off my flops, and walked right over to the steps.
I would stand on the first step and if it was cold I would get back out. Seeing Joanie splashing around would make me want to get in, so then I would go two steps down. I needed to acclimate. It typically took a full five minutes to fully immerse myself.
Which one of our approaches was better? Neither. Everyone has their own pace. YOU have your own pace. But if you’re anything other than a speed racer, you might be feeling bad about your natural rhythm—perhaps even to the point that you haven’t fully admitted what it is. It makes sense, because there’s a real focus on speed in most things self-help related, a la “thinner thighs in 30 days,” or “how to build a six-figure business in six months.”
A side benefit of this flurry is that it has forced me to hone my productivity and focus skills. I simply haven’t had the time to fool around. It’s also gotten me to take stock of the habits I have that are time-fritterers. At the top of this list is checking email.
I just love checking email, and have ever since I popped in my first AOL CD-Rom and set up my first email address. That was 22 years ago—time to develop quite a compulsion to see what new thing may have arrived in my inbox. It’s like Christmas every day, many times a day. Many, many, many times a day. (I haven’t stopped to count how many times I check email on a typical day yet; I should, because a few well-placed numbers can really help demystify a mental habit. Let me get back you on that one.)
It’s when you don’t trust that things are going to be OK that your mind goes in to over-drive, rehearsing various scenarios (very few of them favorable), and trying to figure out what to do next. That kicks off a downward spiral of shallow breathing that triggers your stress response, and nothing has changed except the thoughts in your head.
The four things below are alternatives to that all-too-familiar route of doubt, worry, and anxiety. I can’t promise these four things will exempt you from all worry, forever and ever, but using them in your moments of need will absolutely help you give yourself a different experience, and that’s how changes get made.
Look back on things that you fretted about in the past. How did they work out? You can apply the principles of hindsight to the future—it feels weird, kind of like writing with your non-dominant hand, but it’s the same skillset. And you will get better at it with practice.
Ask, “How might this be working out better than I am imagining?” As I mentioned, the mind tends to only think about how things could go wrong. Counter that with time spent pondering how things could go right. What we focus on grows. Read more…
(It’s kind of like exams for me at the moment—and honestly, I always loved exams. High stakes, short duration, plenty of high jinks mixed in with the hard work. I’ll be on the other side soon enough.)
Which has gotten me really focused on the idea of being focused, and how to pop into that zone more readily so that you can get a lot of good work done without depleting yourself in the process.
Here are some things I’ve unearthed on my own and through reading Deep Work, by Cal Newport, that have helped me carve out dedicated chunks of time for work that requires a lot of that.
Consolidate your schedule. Have calls first thing in the morning and just before the end of the day, but leave the heart of the day for the good stuff; including a lunch-time walk to clear your head and build a buffer between two multi-hour blocks of concentration. Read more…
After my son, Teddy, was born, I was trying to figure out how to be a mom to two kids and how to pivot in my career—it was the recession and I had been writing primarily for magazines for several years, when all my regular markets started closing. I was in freefall on multiple levels and really wanted—and needed—to focus both on my family and my work at the same time.
So what did I do? I listened to the conventional wisdom that says that you have to limit the number of things you’re trying to accomplish because you will not be able to do multiple things well. I figured I had to let something go, so I stopped any form of mind-body practice. I thought it would give me some extra time to either work or be with the kids and I would feel so much more productive and get so much more done.
What really happened is that I started needing some other way to take my edge off, so I turned to wine—two, sometimes three glasses a night. Which then interrupted my sleep, which then made me tired and cranky, which then had me reaching for carbs every afternoon for energy and comfort, which made me develop a spare tire, which made me crankier.
You can picture it, right?
Um, yeah, Kate, it’s called my LIFE.
I hear you. I really do. My work hours are feeling particularly finite at this stage in my life when the kids’ bus leaves at 8:15 and returns home at 4. I get coverage a couple afternoons a week and do often work an hour after they have gone to bed or on a weekend. But I have to think pretty carefully about taking new stuff on in regards to where in the week it will fit.
This is all a long way of saying that I don’t take the idea of telling you do something in addition to what you’re already doing lightly.
But there is a three-minute ritual I want to tell you about, because adopting it can make you so much more productive, focused, and less stressed. (Not a bad promise for three minutes, right?)
It’s a little thing I call “slowing down to speed up.” And you can do it with this three-minute check in:
There are lots of ways the resolutions I made about what kind of parent I was going to be have gradually faded away the longer I am a mother and the older my kids get. For example, where I was once devoted to 100% homemade meals, I now buy chicken nuggets and fruit strips. The kids have clamored long enough and I don’t want them to be the kids who never got anything that could be perceived as junk so they binge on it any chance they get. Also, you’ve got to love having stuff on hand that they rave about.
But one thing I’m sticking to for as long as I am physically able is no screens at the bus stop or on car drives. I want the kids to stare out the window and be bored, to let their mind wander and get random songs stuck in their head and daydream about all kinds of different things. When they say, “Mom, I’m bored!” I say, “Good!” Read more…
I’m writing this from the gymnastics gym while my daughter is in class. I had to bring my son with me today for a variety of reasons, and he is practically vibrating with impatience. He keeps asking how many more minutes and groaning and putting his head down when I tell him how much longer until we can leave and go home and get a snack.
I get how he feels. I have spent a pretty fair amount of time feeling just as impatient—and I didn’t have the excuse of being six years old. =)
Impatience can be motivating—if there’s something you’ve been tolerating too long, and it’s starting to bug you and give you ants in your pants, DEFINITELY, use it to get moving!
But in my experience, impatience is more often a hindrance than a help.
Impatience can be a sneaky way of trying to convince yourself that whatever you want isn’t available to you. Like, if it hasn’t happened yet it must mean there’s some reason why it’s never going to happen and so you may as well give up already. Or things are taking longer because there’s something wrong with you and so you start feeling sorry for myself. Read more…