Productivity: Baseline Check

When my first daughter was a baby, I had the revelation that I didn’t really understand people. I had spent so much time improving the rational part of my brain that I felt as if my primordial brain had completely atrophied. All of a sudden, I was faced with the basic elements of life: food and sleep. Without those, she would die. I had to keep her alive. Oddly enough, before having her, I had managed to keep myself alive for more than two decades, and yet, the act of caring for this lovely little human was confounding.

I made myself create a system. I would count off on my fingers: food, check; burped, check; diaper, check; nap, check. When I finished with the first three, I would lay her down in her bassinet. Feeling as if I knew the right the thing.

In actuality, I didn’t know much about caring for my own physical needs. Becoming an adult in society is about learning to order your base needs. You have no doubt waited to use the restroom in order to accomplish something. You have to wait for lunch so that you can finish a certain assignment. We often preference the timeline of our rational selves over the desires of our base ones. But, the problem is that both parts of ourselves are interconnected. Without physical sustenance, our mental and emotional selves can’t exist. We often unknowingly push ourselves to the limits.

Even in our rational minds, we develop hierarchies. Some tasks feel good. Think of the joy of crossing something off your list. Or filing an email. Or recycling a stack of a paper. These are often low-level tasks regarding personal fulfillment or challenge, but they feel so good. You decide what to do, you do it, and you get to low-key celebrate. Work has a number of these little tasks. They multiply like rabbits if you don’t keep up on them.

External rewards are key to the next tier of tasks. These can be emails, social media posts, or even meeting conversations. Someone else pats you on the back for your efforts. Now, external rewards get a bad rap. But, in moderation, these rewards can promote good work. The problem is that sometimes you start working for the “likes” instead of enjoying the likes that your work garners. These tasks ramp up if you become addicted to the rewards.

Finally, the work that you love. This is work that you do without the need for external reward. It takes time and concentration. You can’t just do it in just a minute. You might be able to chip away in a minute. But, this is the kind of work that fills your mind. Ideally, you would like it to fill your time. This is also the kind of work that you so often put off.

Why? I can’t say for sure. I don’t know you. But, you know you. With a simple checklist, you figure out why you are procrastinating. Basically, think of procrastination as a screaming child. Start with your base issues. Are you hungry? Thirsty? Tired? Etc. If you can resolve those issues, do it. If you can’t, say sleeping at your desk isn’t a good idea, then find another solution. You might need a quick stroll. Or, you might need to schedule a time tomorrow when you can concentrate.

Then go to your work issues. Here you are not looking for absence, as in your base needs. Instead, you are looking to see where you are overextending. Are you doing too many lower level tasks? Are they pulling your attention away from the big reward by overdoing the little rewards? Recalibrate your time. Reclaim your attention. Turn off your email. Hide your phone.

My checklist is:

O Hungry?

O Thirsty?

O Headache?

O Sore?

O Too much Social Media?

O Too task-oriented?

Once you come up with your checklist, pull it out every time you find yourself avoiding something. This won’t help you get over certain kinds of procrastination (like the fear of failure kind), but this checklist has helped me get through the vast majority of avoidance responses.