Why I’m Kissing Productivity Goodbye
After years of attempts in morning routines, ideal schedules, getting-it-done systems — I’m dropping out.
Medium and Productivity
Like a moth drawn to light, I can’t help clicking on any productivity article that comes across my feed in Medium. You know the type — the ones with the catchy titles such as:
10 Ways to Be More Productive Now
3 Ways to Optimize Your Morning
8 Ways You’re Doing It Wrong with Productivity
9 Micro-Habits to Turn Your Life Around
These contain a list of things you already know, because you’ve read them elsewhere. An inevitable combination and regurgitation of:
1.“Have you tried Pomodoro?”
2. “Build a system not a list”
4. “What’s your trigger?”
5. “Delete the addictive apps from your phone”
6. “Break down the big tasks into mini tasks”
7. “Do the hardest thing first”
8. “Replace the old habit with a new one”
9. “Morning routine/night routine”
I keep reading these articles (and maybe you do too) because I’m hoping there will be something new that will crack the case on how I can be more functional.
After years of pushing myself through systems, routines, habits, schedules — only to always end up where I started — I’m burnt out. And I’m wondering what it would look like if, instead, if I trusted my body and brain instead of trying to follow another system made by someone who is not me.
What would it look like to say goodbye to productivity?
Riddled With Late Nights
I’m someone who is extremely productive. With lots of caffeine, a group of folks who are relying on me, and a couple of hours before the deadline.
In other words, I’ve struggled my whole life with the other way of being a productive person, which is maintaining consistent effort over time so that deadlines are smooth crescendos as opposed to panicked waves.
And I’ve struggled most when there’s no deadline at all — e.g. maintaining friendships, doing the laundry, writing the book I always said I wanted to write.
That means my life is riddled with late nights, late mornings, and late fees. It means crumbled friendships, a thousand unfinished projects, and dreams that have never seen daylight. It means I’ve constantly felt behind in life and like I’m swimming hard just to keep at the same pace as my peers.
Which makes me the perfect victim and scholar of productivity, because I want so badly to be better at it. Like a broken egg searching for soldiers to put it together again (these metaphors are getting out of hand), I’ve spent years attempting to find the solution that will fix myself. How do others not feel so overwhelmed? How do they get things done when there’s not a huge deadline looming over their heads?
But no matter how much I read, knowing more doesn’t seem to help.
There’s Been a Lot of Books
I have a love/hate relationship with productivity. I love it because it deals with persuasion, why people behave the way they do, and design with trying to configure the outside environment. Whenever I go to a bookstore, just like I’m drawn to the Medium articles, I always find myself in the psychology/productivity section in hopes of finding answers.
To quickly demonstrate how often I keep coming back to this gorram category, here’s a list of books I’ve read over the last couple of years:
“Predictably Irrational” — Barry Schwartz
“Paradox of Choice” — Barry Schwartz
“The 4 Hour Workweek” — Tim Ferriss
“Tools of Titans” — Tim Ferriss
“The Power of Habit” — Charles Duhigg
“Smarter, Faster, Better” — Charles Duhigg
“Eat That Frog!” — Brian Tracy
“Atomic Habits” — James Clear
“7 Habits of Highly Effective People” — Stephen Covey
“First Things First” — Stephen Covey
“Deep Work” — Cal Newport
“Manage Your Day-To-Day: Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus, & Sharpen Your Creative Mind” — Joceyln Giel
“The 5-Second Rule” — Mel Robbins
“The Productivity Project” — Chris Bailey
“Grit” — Angela Duckworth
“The Wim Hof Method” — Wim Hof
“Getting Things Done” — David Allen
“The 80/20 Principle” — Richard Koch
“Thinking Fast & Slow” — Daniel Kahnerman
“Indistractable” — Nir Eyal
“Flow” — Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
“Extreme Ownership” — Jocko Willink
And of all these books, do you know which one was the most helpful? They all were, for a month or two.
I’m learning that there are often cycles to anything I adapt in order to fix myself, whether that’s waking up at 4:30 in the morning and exercising (Jocko Willink), counting down from 5 and doing the thing NOW (Mel Robbins), drinking green smoothies and meditating (Tim Ferriss), or taking really cold showers (Wim Hof).
The cycle goes like this:
(I’ll try it right now and see how it goes)
(omg it’s working! This is the best thing ever!)
- Over Committing
(I will do this for always and never go back)
- Things still going well
(I feel so productive and put-together. I’m doing “xyz” and will start telling my friends about it)
- Getting Bored
(This is getting kind of…. repetitive)
- Mess Up
(Become overly confident or overly tired and skip a day)
(Because I messed up/skipped a day, suddenly the whole thing seems pointless to continue and self-sabotaging goes into full effect)
(Disappointed and ashamed as I end up back or worse than when I started. Decide that next time will go differently with smaller steps and being kinder to myself)
This cycle still surprises me when I find myself in the dust looking back — mainly because I think the thing I’m currently fixated on is different and not part of the cycle. It’s a bit like when you’re falling in love and can’t imagine ever having a crush on someone else — perhaps it’s true for awhile but everything once novel becomes familiar.
And after going through these cycles so many times, of adaption just to burn out, I realize that something needs to change — I can’t keep getting feverishly excited about a new productivity system/framework, only to beat myself up a few months (or a few weeks) down the line.
“So I want you to understand that you have a brain — the back part of it is where you learn and the front part is where you do — knowledge, performance. Knowing, doing. And ADHD splits them apart. I don’t care what you know, you won’t use it.”
This first line by Dr. Russell Barkley, a thin man with a white beard and large suit, caught my attention and held me fast through this video clip from his 2012 lecture. He goes on to say:
“You can be the brightest kid in the world, it’s not going to matter. So, you’ve got a real problem on your hands. Because you can know stuff, but you won’t do stuff. And that’s a serious problem called a performance disorder.
So what we know about ADHD is that it [. . .] interferes with all 7 executive functions. That means you’re going to have time blindness. And you won’t be able to aim your behavior towards the future — to care for yourself as effectively as other people are able to do. You have intention executive disorder. You have a disorder of performance, not knowledge. You have a disorder of the when and the where, not the what and the how. Your problem is not with knowing what to do, it’s with doing what you know.”
This talk was like a beacon of light in the dark — of finally understanding a bit of what was going on in my brain. Looking at the comments on the video, I’m not the only one who was affected this way — there’s a sense of relief that finally, finally, someone gets it and is treating it as seriously as we feel about it. Because of course we know what to do. But the knowing isn’t helping things.
From the slides seen later in this lecture:
“Executive function system is multi-leveled and arranged in a hierarchy over maturation.
By disrupting executive function, ADHD effects:
- Self-restrain behavior, thoughts, words, emotions
- Self-manage to time; anticipate and prepare for the future
- Self-organize and problem solve across time
- Self-motivate across time
- Self-regulation emotions across time”
This talk is what led me down the rabbit hole of research that led me to getting diagnosed with ADHD. And after seeing common patterns of how other adult women are only now getting diagnosed with ADHD (often first being misdiagnosed with anxiety and depression), I’m wondering how many of us have been spending years reading productivity books and articles in attempts to fixing ourselves — gaining knowledge but nothing behaviorally changing.
Meaning — many of these productivity books and articles were not written for us, and they won’t help us by reading more about it. As Dr. Russel Barkley expands upon, the only thing that helps us is intervention in the actual environment — e.g. the thing has to happen now, not later. (which is why I believe we’re great in environments of now, such as on stage or in an emergency.)
How to Do Nothing — The Flipside
While there’s a whole part of me that fully accepts that the reason I’m not as productive as I’d like to be is that I have an executive function disorder, there’s another small part of me that’s questioning this whole productivity thing to begin with.
The book that expanded this thinking was “How To Do Nothing” by Jenny Odell — a beautiful little book weaving tales of bird-watching, art, literature, and history to critique the “attention economy”, where we are told our time is only worthwhile if in pursuit of profit and progress.
For me, reading her questioning productivity and success (“Productivity that produces what? Successful in what way, and for whom? p.xix) was, just like Dr. Russell Barkley’s lecture, like a glass of cool water. In other words: there’s a different way to look at what’s going on here.
In the introduction she questions how we understand productivity and success:
“Productivity that produces what? Successful in what way, and for whom?” (Odell, p. xix).
She questions society’s fusion of usefulness and worth, describing the tale of the “The Useless Tree” (often attributed to Zhang Zhou) in which a tree is deemed worthless by a logger for its gnarled branches, but later appears in a dream and explains that if it had been a more useful tree, it never would have grown so tall (Odell, p. xv).
So while I’ve been grasping with medication and routines and deadlines, along with looking at newsfeeds saturated with news ways I could be optimizing my time and monetizing my hobbies, there’s part of me that wonders if there’s actually something quite beautifully useless and therefore useful for me just being me.
What it would be like to live in a world where we are deemed worthwhile for who we are, not what we can create?
There’s a lovely community on subreddit who follow this same type of thinking, which is r/simpleliving. Interested more in enjoying life than the rat race of work and the hustle culture, they focus on building relationships and living slowly.
The Fish in the Plastic Bag
There’s an image in my head I wish I could forget but keeps popping back up — and that’s a fish in a tiny plastic bag I saw at my local petstore.
It was on a shelf and it was just swimming there — looking at me — not being able to move except for making small circles. And I imagined what it must be like for that fish — it must realize something is wrong. There’s nothing to interact with, nothing to feel, and there’s no where to go. If someone were to tell me this fish were depressed and not as productive as it could be, I wouldn’t be surprised. I would immediately think that it needs a different environment and other fish to interact with.
One thing I think that’s missing from the productivity conversations is the humans connecting piece. I think we all realize something’s wrong, we just can’t place our finger on it exactly. Even before the pandemic we were isolated from each other, working on separate things in screens, trying to drum up more motivation to stare at screens. While there’s nothing wrong about screens in themselves, I do think productivity is trying to fill in the gap where the natural rhythm of human community propelled it forward, a bit like the rhythm of a school of fish dancing through water.
E.g., struggling with laundry? You would’ve done that before in a group. Struggling with cooking? Also would’ve done in a group. Waking up with the alarm wouldn’t be so hard if you could hear everyone waking up at the same time. Being productive at work? Sewing, hunting, jewelry making, food making — group. Things were done together, and if not done together there’d be constant feedback. (E.g., the animal you killed by yourself appreciated by the group).
Perhaps this is simplifying too much, or glorifying the past too much, but I do think there’s something to it — that we’ve separated ourselves from each other and now are finding it difficult to do things. We get constant feedback, but its all abstract — text and numbers and emojis.
Which Leads Me To
I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of reading about productivity and systems to better myself. Even writing down the list of books made me want to go back and look at them (just in case there was something useful that I’d forgotten).
But after years of trying things that haven’t worked, and learning that I have an executive disorder, I need to take a different approach.
And I’m not sure what this approach will look like, besides that I’m going to listen more to how my body feels without judging it. It wants to sleep? I’ll sleep. It wants to stay up and feverishly work? I’ll do that. It doesn’t want a 9–5 job? I’ll look for a job that maybe doesn’t pay as much, but is flexible in its hours. It doesn’t want to try to monetize a hobby? Then I won’t do it, regardless if I’m feeling like I’m missing out.
And if even I am drawn to certain productivity articles (maybe I should read that 189th about how to get +3000 views on Medium) — I’m not going to try to follow it. It wasn’t written for me, it isn’t worth the burnout, and I’m doing okay just as I am.
This post was inspired after reading articles by two of my favorite authors on medium, Shannon Ashley and Jessica Wildfire
Writing a Blog Post In 30 Minutes Is Not What I Need
I can’t see how this sort of pressure benefits anyone’s mental health.