A guide for people who resist traditional productivity tips

Liz Sumner
Jul 11, 2017 · 9 min read
Photo: Pexels.com

What do you think of when you say, “I should be more productive”? Some people imagine how to use that 20 minutes before bed more effectively. Others think differently and picture piles of unfinished projects.

Productivity is not one size fits all. What’s true for you may or may not have relevance for me. What’s true in one part of your life might not be so in another. Each of us can increase our productivity, but we do it in different ways. What’s important is finding the method that works best for you.

What does it mean to be productive? I define it this way:

  • You do what you intend to do.
  • You move forward on your goals at a satisfactory pace.
  • You gain a sense of completion and accomplishment.

Implied with this are three components:

  • You have a plan.
  • You make progress.
  • You feel good about yourself.

These concepts are true whether you are a highly successful corporate executive or an aspiring artist who wants to quit her day job. The goals and ways you measure success are individual, but the structure is the same.

The world of productivity writing is full of resources for people who already love plans and progress. Some of my favorites are David Allen’s Getting Things Done, Cathryn Lavery and Allen Brouwer’s Self Journal, and Taylor Pearson’s essays.

But these aren’t much help for someone who resists even the first step — a person with years of built-up reasons why their good idea can’t get off the ground — or for someone who tries the latest system only to be frustrated because it doesn’t fit their style.

While some people love planning, it’s just as common that you are someone who hates planning or following a plan. That doesn’t mean you can’t learn to be productive — you just have to adjust your productivity methods to fit your own quirks.

I’m a recovering procrastinator. My father used to call me “The Rock” because I could not be moved. In a family of overachievers, I chose to distinguish myself by doing as little as possible. I was written off as lazy.

It took me 10 years to finish college. I fell into a number of unchallenging jobs and avoided the assignments that would have made them more interesting. Finally, the combination of graduate school, coach training, and the wisdom of age helped me see the life I was creating for myself. I started accepting responsibility, making and keeping commitments, and recognizing the satisfaction of work done well.

But I didn’t learn it from chirpy superachievers telling me to Just Do It. Maybe it’s leftover resentment from my family of origin, but people who don’t appreciate what a big deal it is for me to gear up and do something will never propel me into action. They just don’t get it.

Photo: jeff_golden, Flickr, via Compfight cc

Are You a Productivity Resister?

I call us Resisters. We are resolute and determined to block our own advancement. We take a perverse pleasure in putting off what’s good for us. We share horror stories about how long we avoid doing something: “I have boxes from our move 10 years ago still in the living room.” “I haven’t been to the dentist since 1990.” “You think that’s bad? I could have had opportunity X if only I’d done Y before the deadline.”

In our hearts, Resisters know that putting things off isn’t admirable. We aren’t fooling ourselves. We make jokes because the alternative feelings of shame and remorse are too unpleasant. We put on a brave face and defy anyone to judge us.

Experts say that procrastination is a problem of emotion management rather than time management.

Avoidance acts as short-term mood repair. It works in the short term but not in the long term. We may escape the task and its associated negative emotions — like anxiety, frustration, resentment, or boredom — but the task doesn’t go away.
—Tim Pychyl, “How to Use Psychology to Solve the Procrastination Puzzle

Resisters are way beyond garden-variety procrastination. Those of us with 10,000-plus hours of avoidance have truly mastered the ability. If this is you, you may not even believe it’s possible to change. The predominant negative emotion may be fear — of failure, of success, of even trying. We have painful memories of broken commitments and missed opportunities, and we cover them up with bravado and intransigence.

But even a fortress of resistance like this can be overcome by finding your own productivity style.

Photo: Anguskirk, Flickr, via Compfight cc

Breaking into the Fortress of Procrastination

No matter how formidable the exterior, the way in is forgiveness, because it enables you to let go of past mistakes without judgment. According to Marianne Williamson:

Whatever it was that happened to you, it is over. It happened in the past; in the present, it does not exist unless you bring it with you. Nothing anyone has ever done to you has permanent effects, unless you hold onto it permanently.
—Marianne Williamson, “The Miracle of Forgiveness

Learning from mistakes is valuable, but beating yourself up and carrying the burden of past failures has no good purpose. We may have broken our commitments to ourselves, but we can forgive ourselves and begin again.

Once you have released any shame you carry from previous acts (or lack thereof), the next step is to recognize your core qualities. What is the essence of you that you want to keep — what’s working for you? One way to begin is by identifying your most important values, what they mean to you, and how they show up in your life. These give you a guiding focus — a kind of definition of who you are and what you care about.

For example, one of my core values is freedom. It shows up in my life as wanting to do things my way and ignoring others who tell me what to do. When I’m given instructions, I pay attention to those that make sense to me and put my own spin on what’s left. This discernment comes through in my approach to coaching. I’m unwilling to be authoritarian and prescriptive.

Productivity can be increased in many ways, but no single right answer exists. The key is to consider the best practices and adapt them to your individual style.

If you’re a free-spirited poet, you’re unlikely to be successful tracking your progress in a spreadsheet. Don’t follow that advice. If monitoring your consistent action is the objective, do it in a way that’s natural to you — perhaps use a leather-bound journal with your favorite calligraphy pen or gold stars on a handmade wall chart.

And if your best creative work comes in blocks of free time, don’t try to fit yourself into a tightly regimented schedule. If you know you need 20 or 30 minutes of brainstorming or doodling before you can compose a satisfactory blog post or sketch, set aside a realistic amount of time to be successful. Notice and build on what works for you. Reject or modify what doesn’t.

Success looks different to each of us. According to David McClelland’s human motivation theory, regardless of gender, culture, or age, we have three driving motivators — achievement, affiliation, and power—one of which is dominant.

When you’re motivated by achievement, you have a strong need to set and accomplish challenging goals. When power is your driving motivator, you enjoy competition and winning. And affiliators want more than anything to connect with others and belong to the group.

These drivers affect our productivity style by influencing the goals and pace we set for ourselves and the level of satisfaction we feel from our accomplishments.

If I’m not motivated by achievement or power, then encouraging me with prizes and glory falls flat. I need to connect with my driving force and deep desire. For some of us, that desire is strong and clear. For others, it’s barely perceptible, and we have to coax it out of hiding.

Photo: eltpics, Flickr, via Compfight cc

What Is Your Version of Being Productive?

What is it that you truly want? That’s a big question if you don’t already know. I’m reminded of the old joke:

How do you make a statue of an elephant?
Get a rock and cut off everything that doesn’t look like an elephant.

What I mean is identify what you want as precisely as possible, and keep chipping away at it. Move toward your best estimate, and get more clarity. Evaluate and make adjustments as needed. Your values will inform your choices.

It all begins by accepting the assumption “I am productive in my own way.” Even if you don’t believe it’s true at first, try it on. Tell yourself: “I am a productive person according to my own definition.”

Then, define what that means using your own scale:

  • I’m not going to make my first million before I’m 30, but I’d like to get going on that side business — maybe one client as a test case.
  • I’ve been talking forever about clearing the junk out of the basement, but it will be a good start if I take all those empty boxes to the dump.

Set realistic goals and deadlines, and keep track of what you’re doing. The purpose of tracking is not to judge you, but to give you information. If a project took four hours longer than you planned, ask yourself why. Maybe you need to recalibrate your estimates or eliminate foreseeable distractions. Maybe some prep work would have made things easier — you can add that to the plan next time.

Here’s another example: If you’re managing to get to the gym for that class after work but blowing off all the 6 a.m. workouts, stick with what’s working. The point is to follow your rhythms and flow instead of automatically assuming that you’re doing it wrong. Fit the system to you, not the other way around.

“Man’s reach must extend his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?” —Robert Browning

Once you are noticing success, make your goals a smidge more challenging. Striving to improve can be motivating. But easy does it. You don’t want to fall back into your “I’m a failure” narrative. As you learn to trust your own productivity style, you can set more demanding goals, but it’s wise to take baby steps and build confidence when you’re getting started.

We all know it’s never a good idea to try to be someone you’re not. But it’s hard to believe in yourself and affirm your way of doing things if you feel unaccomplished.

Here’s where we can use all the tenacity and doggedness we’ve been mastering as procrastinators. We must resist the urge to look outside for answers. We must avoid the appeal to adapt ourselves to someone else’s rules. Cue the stirring soundtrack, and raise the call to arms. We are productive in our own way!

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

Thanks to Coach Tony

Liz Sumner

Written by

Living in a palazzo in central Italy, singing with a jazz band whenever possible, and coaching women who want to start valuing themselves more.

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

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