On Productivity

Did you write anything today? Make anything? Do your homework or catch up on readings or study for a test? Practice piano?

If the answer to all those questions is no, and you’re anything like me, you feel guilty about it. After all, everyone knows how life works: if you want to get good things out of it – if you want to be able to play an instrument or speak a language or graduate with good marks or make money – you have to put the hours in. And god knows I want to be able to do all those things, preferably at the same time. At the same time, though, I don’t want to live under the burden of a hundred self-imposed and unrealistically expectations when I could – and probably should – be proud of what I can already do. That leaves us with the same timeworn issue that so often rears its ugly head – how do we find the right balance?

Obviously, there’s no tried-and-true, step-by-step guide to finding that equilibrium that works for anyone and everyone, or else, as the saying goes, we’d all be doing it.

That doesn’t mean there’s not a few tricks for figuring out whether you need to step down or step up, though.

The first is easy – ask. Look to the people you respect, people who you consider seem to be striking an alright balance themselves and who know you. It’s difficult to judge your own efforts, and particularly so when we’re so constantly inundated by other people’s results. Though everyone you know might only be doing one noteworthy thing – getting an award at uni, or a promotion, or just being really excellent at making their own dresses – the cumulative effect of seeing so many people’s sole achievement ends up making it seem like everyone can, and does, do everything better than you.

Asking the people around you whether or not you seem to be holding your own against the onslaught of Other People’s Achievements can help give you back some of the perspective you might be missing. Frequently, we underestimate ourselves by downplaying our own accomplishments – over time, they come to seem so naturally a part of you that you forget other people would find them impressive.

Consider your goals. In the end, we want achievements because we imagine they’ll make us happier. But the work involved to attain them can end up making us unhappier than the joy we gain from having them. Acknowledging that, no, you can’t do everything – and certainly not all at once – is vital, because you need to be able to consider the achievements you’re aiming for and whether the end-goal is, ultimately, worth the work. Not everything is, and the goals that matter most are different for everyone.

Some achievements, like graduating, might be reasonably necessary to your future. But if it’s something you’re doing only for the sake of being able to do it, well, don’t stress about not having practiced or studied if you were doing something else that brought you pleasure. Just ask yourself, every time: will you gain more enjoyment, in the long run, by being ‘productive’ for an hour or by procrastinating? After all, you can still enjoy your life to the full without a list of achievements as long as your arm – more so, even, than if you constantly torture yourself with remembering what you haven’t done.

Don’t waste your time. Often, when we do have to do something, we waste our time stalling and being distracted. Three hours at home rarely means three hours of uninterrupted leisure, let alone productive work. Instead of trying to get your work done in bite-size intervals, dedicate the necessary time to it – give yourself instant objectives, like finishing a book this week, practicing for a full half hour today, or not getting up till you’ve written 500 words, and stick to them. It really is easier to get things done if you give them your full attention, and it leaves you with more time to spend doing absolutely nothing productive, but with one important difference – you don’t have to feel guilty about it.


It will still never be easy to judge how well you’re doing. But if you’re content with the way you actually spend your days, and with how people see you, there’s no point worrying about amassing achievements to your name. Just try to consciously enjoy every moment that you can, and when you can’t escape the necessity of some boring or difficult work, keep in mind the reasons you’re doing it. Finding the balance will still be tricky, but at least you’ll be a little more aware of what you need to be weighing up.

 

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