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  • By Kelsey Olesen

How to Be Productive

Written by a Procrastinator and Perfectionist.

A sad woman is surrounded by the words perfectionism, procrastination, and paralysis with arrows pointing from one to the next in a circle.

Right now, we're all stuck inside for the most part. Some people are returning to work, or have always been forced to go to work throughout the COVID-19 pandemic response. It is an unusual time, a time to consider how we spend our lives, and what we're doing with the short amount of time we have on this Earth. I, personally, have been more introspective of late, more analytical of my own habits, more curious about what makes a good life. I don't have any answers--Who does?--but I've learned a lot about myself in the last few months.

The first thing I learned is, "Not Having The Time" Was NOT My Problem.

Oof, I know. Shots fired. This statement is not to attempt to claim that the mental and emotional stress of worrying over oneself and one's loved ones is not valid and debilitating. For many of us, working to achieve our dreams during the pandemic has consisted of just getting out of bed, just making good eating choices, just surviving the trip to the grocery store. And that is completely okay.

No, what I mean is that, when all other responsibilities were removed, I discovered that I will continue to avoid my dreams without any excuses what so ever. When the coronavirus spread to Europe and the United States, I quit my job, went back to California, and moved back in with my parents. I suddenly had endless time to myself. To worry, to deliberate, and to avoid writing.

Pie chart titled Procrastinating. One third of the chart is one third Netflix and can't decide what to watch, one third scrolling, one third snacks. The remaining two thirds are feeling guilty for not doing the thing.

And MAN did I avoid it. Like an Olympic procrastinator, I found multiple reasons throughout each day to do anything BUT write. (If I'm being honest, right now I am doing something which conveniently allows me not to write a novel, but I'll get back to that later.) If you're like me, you probably discovered a similar propensity for sitting around watching YouTube and Netflix within yourself. In his self-help book, The War of Art, author Steven Pressfield calls this propensity "Resistance."

Resistance is the internal pressure which keeps you from achieving or even striving for that which you most desire. Its most important attributes are that it only kicks in when you're trying to move from a lower to a higher place (e.g. minimum-wage worker to manager, unpaid writer to published author) and that it can take any form to convince you not to do your work. The sudden urgent thought you have to clean every shelf in the fridge right when you've decided to sit down and write your novel? Resistance. The fight you suddenly get into with your significant other instead of writing that email asking for a raise? Resistance. The blog post on a website you've been avoiding for months when you're almost done with final edits on your manuscript? Resistance!

The thing to know about Productivity is that it will always be faced by Resistance. By "the Fear" of success, by impostor syndrome, by procrastination, by debilitating perfectionism. Every wildly successful author I've ever seen speak about their experiences has mentioned how difficult it is to write every single book. Not just the first, second, or third one, but every single one. No matter who you are or what you're struggling to do, the struggle will continue to be there for the rest of your life. Whether there is a pandemic. Whether you are working every day in a laundry (shout out to Steven King). Whether you have two degrees and over a decade of experience in the field you want to be in. It will always be hard to sit down and do the work necessary to get to the next stage of your dream.

Rock climber lifts his fists in the air on top of a cliff.
Success looks GREAT from the top of the mountain, but how do you get there?

Some of you might be sitting on the first step of that dream, looking up at the mountain of steps before you, and thinking, "What's the point?" The point is that you know the point already. The last, special thing about Resistance is that it ONLY ever kicks in with the thing that matters most to you. Try this as a test: Decide to go do something right now that you could not care less about. If you don't care at all about whether you can dance, go grab your partner and do a little dose-e-do with them. If singing well is the least interesting thing in the world to you, put on a song and sing-along. Go do it now. I'll wait.




Was that at all hard? Now, if you want to be a professional author and I told you to go write the best chapter you've ever imagined right now, what would happen? If you want to be a rockstar and I told you to go belt one out for your neighbors, would you do it? Would you feel scared, or come up with a reason not to do it? Right there. THAT is the resistance. And it is the perfect compass to what matters most to you in your life.

Back to quarantine productivity: having nothing urgent to do every moment of every day, I discovered something wonderful about the resistance. If I did the things that the resistance told me not to do, if I took even the smallest step towards one of my dreams, I felt better. I felt productive. I was more productive. This didn't work just once, but over and over again. I'm not perfect by any means, and I still have too many goals probably, but this was a discovery that I couldn't keep to myself. It's okay if you are too wrought with stress to do anything creative or goal-oriented right now. But if you are like me and feel like you're slowly sinking into a hole of despair when you spend too many days doing absolutely nothing to achieve your goals, then this is how you can be productive during any hardship:

Step 1: Watch Yourself.

For me, I downloaded an app called "Daylio" to record what I did every day and how I felt that day overall. Not everything I did, but the things I thought might be important to my daily mood. These included writing, practicing yoga, talking with my friends, doing chores, what I ate, and how I slept the night before. What I found was shocking, at least to me: While my sleep and time spent doing chores hardly correlated with my emotions at all, the days I did yoga, wrote, drank coffee and ate carbs (of all things) were my best days overall. I did not expect half of what I discovered, as it went against all the "advice" out there to live a better life. Since I believe everyone is different (and everyone is the same, la la la!), you must watch yourself to see how you respond to your actions. As much as possible, try to track the things you can control with your emotions or productivity--this will be more helpful and empowering than basing your life on external factors.

Step 2: Make A Plan.

What is a plan? It will look a little different for everyone. For me, it is scheduling a recurring daily schedule which I modify to fit any outside time requirements. Since I have taken on a part-time teaching gig (online), I put these sessions into my iPhone calendar app and the rest of the time I segment into pieces with a primary focus on these three activities: 1) Writing, 2) Author Career Building, and 3) PhD Application Prep. Why these three things? Because I discovered in Step 1 that working towards these three things brings me the most fulfillment overall. They are also the things I feel the most Resistance to do because they matter the most to me. I desperately want to be a published author, so I will avoid writing a bad book stronger than I will work to write a good one. I desperately want people to love my book when it comes out, so I will never talk about it with anyone--if they don't know I'm a writer, even better! I desperately want to be a professor of English and creative writing at a university, so I better ignore all looming PhD program deadlines to make sure I'm never fully qualified for that position. As I say these things, hopefully they make you think of the things that matter the most to you too. THOSE are the most important activities to put into your plan. Bullet journal them with pretty pictures, track them in a spreadsheet, schedule them in your calendar, hire someone to come beat you over the head with a tree branch to get you to do them. Whatever it is, make that plan!

Step 3: Work Your Plan!

Integrity is when you make a plan and then stick to that plan. I suck at the second part of that equation. If you've ever asked me to read what you've written and I said yes but never got back to you or gave you my notes super late, this step is where the breakdown happened. Luckily, we are not required to be the way we have always been! I have been learning for the past year and a half what it is like to follow through on a plan. It is hard. It takes flexibility and learning from your mistakes. Personally, I tend to plan too much. Then, when I inevitably feel overwhelmed, I get to give up. Because I gave up, I feel terrible about myself. So I build an even MORE ambitious plan to make up for it. And around and around we go. Maybe you're like me, or maybe you rock at following through on plans (shout out to my amazing friends with book deals and in med school!), but every trip towards greater productivity must go through this step. Sometimes, it looks like using the "5 Second Rule" to roll out of bed when your alarm goes off and put on your workout pants before Resistance has time to kick in. Sometimes, it means being honest with yourself when you didn't follow through on your plan, evaluate what went wrong, and make adjustments to more likely follow it from now on. Most of the time, it means just putting in the work. When your plan says "Jump," you jump, whether your legs hurt or not.

Step 4: Get Help

No one is an island. You are surrounded by people who are emotionally, financially, or genetically linked to you. They want to help you as much as they want help from you! Don't believe me? Ask one of them to help you stick to your plan. They will most likely say yes. If they don't, no sweat. Perhaps they'd like to help you another way. Being productive requires more than personal, internal motivation. According to the American Psychological Association, multiple peer-reviewed studies show that willpower is a finite skill. If you use it all, there's none left until you do something to "recharge." Especially during situations of hardship, such as dealing with a global health pandemic, willpower drains are going to be even more common. Don't go see your friends, stay inside, don't eat another ice cream bar, don't yell at your significant other just because they have a very loud indoor-on-the-phone-business voice and you're both working from home. When it comes to sitting down to write your novel, or study for school, or take that next step to achieve your goal, there's no more willpower left for the things that really matter to your life. So outsource that motivation! Just the other day, I asked my boyfriend to just sit with me while I drafted several important emails I have been avoiding (honestly, for weeks, if not months). My boyfriend was confused how he could help me, but I assured his presence would be enough. It was. Several times (maybe TEN???) in the approximate hour it took me to send these four emails that were important to my writing career, I wanted to quit. If he hadn't been sitting there, playing a game or scrolling through Reddit on his phone but still present to being my cheerleader if I needed it, I would have stopped what I was doing. These emails were very important to me, so the Resistance was STRONG. But by asking for help, even something as simple as just being there before me, kept me motivated to finish. Having other people hold you accountable makes it that much more difficult to give in to the Resistance because you have to admit it not just to yourself, but to your helper who was rooting for you! Thus, you are more productive than you ever could have been through willpower alone.

Star Wars resistance fighter ships assembled with the text, The resistance has come.
Not THIS Resistance...

My Resistance towards writing blog posts is saying that all my contacts already know how to be SO much more productive than me, so what is even the point of this article? But the Plan I came up with from determining what's important to me, paired with the help I receive from sources such as my Life Coach (highly recommend!), help me work my plan to actually write something here. My original plan for today says I should be writing in my book right now. In 8 minutes, I should start studying for the GRE (graduate school standardized test, like the SAT), but I haven't even brushed my teeth yet, and it's the afternoon. My plan is morphing today because I accidentally slept in, but that's okay. I know from the productivity steps above that if I keep moving to accomplish the things that are most important to me, then I will have a good day. And I believe that if you follow those steps, you will too.

So, go be productive, and Write On!

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