Remaining productive when your world is on fire

Let’s face it, in today’s world full of distractions, it can be difficult to be productive. There are books, blogs, podcasts, and tools telling us how to be productive in different facets of our lives. Turn off distractions, go for a walk, plan out your day, they say. We rely on experts to tell us what to do in our day to day instead of trusting ourselves. Why is it that we find it so hard to tap into the inner workings of our brain and just focus?

Let’s trust the woman with 4 arms to tell us how to be productive.

I put the blame on the advancement of technology and the rise of multitasking. Technology has programmed us to multitask, always wanting to accomplish the most amount of things in the shortest amount of time. We wear productivity as a badge of honor. Think about the different contexts of your life where you can be productive. At work, we feel great when we accomplish a lot within an 8 hour day. At home, we run errands on a Saturday to feel productive instead of like lazy bums.

Productivity looks different on everyone. It can mean being efficient. It can mean feeling good about something you’ve accomplished.

I used to think productivity meant working long hours and hustling to get done what you needed to. Since I was young, I’ve always been a self-motivated and productive individual. Working two jobs throughout high school and college pretty much programmed me to be as efficient as possible. Could I squeeze in a three-hour lifeguarding shift after my seven-hour workday at the bakery? Sure, I’ll just bring a change of clothes and eat dinner in my car. Keeping busy was what made me happy, where I was hustling to make something of myself. This mentality continued on to my professional life. I loved getting to the office early, slipping on my headphones, and getting time to focus. I took on freelance and side projects that occupied most of my nights.

This lifestyle came to a screeching halt when earlier this year, I experienced some pretty drastic health issues. I had no choice but to rest (literally, doctor’s orders). People who know me understand that this order didn’t sit well with me. I don’t enjoy binge watching shows, I can’t seem to sit for over an hour, and I have to do something active at least once a day. During the time when I was sick, I couldn’t do anything but rest and take it easy. Despite my efforts to try and get back into my routine, mentally and physically I was exhausted. I classify this as the least productive phase in my life.

The thing is, you don’t realize how fast life moves until you’re forced to slow down. Once I was actually able to go back to work, things felt different. I wasn’t my normal “busy-bee” self — I had little to no motivation and some days it was tough just getting out of bed. My productivity levels tanked and I had no clue how to fix it. I tried listening to podcasts, reading motivational books, and even taking a solo vacation to clear my head.

One day, I stumbled across the notebook that I had written my personal, career, and financial goals for 2017 in. Rereading them forced me to reflect on the person I envisioned I would become. My health issues put a kink in these goals, and I couldn’t help but be disappointed and frustrated with myself. I finally realized that the only person we can really count on to motivate us is our own self. This whole time, I should have been listening to myself, my body, and do what felt right for me.

Slowly, I’m beginning to feel like myself again. I view productivity in a different light, for fear of burning myself out again. Now, I’ve been making a strong effort to slow down, focus on one task, and listen to my own needs. Multitasking can actually hurt our levels of productivity. You’ll get things accomplished faster if you just take the time to sit down and focus on one thing. Working smarter, not harder is my new mantra. Let’s hope this one leads to a more sustainable lifestyle.

Bethany Sonefeld is a Design Lead and UX Designer at IBM Design, based in Austin. The above article is personal and does not necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.