(No, really. How are you doing?)
When I wrote about COVID back in March, I knew it would be tough.
I didn’t know it was going to be this tough.
Lately I’ve been thinking about what makes the difference between productive times and unproductive times, especially when the outside world makes everything ten times harder than it would normally be.
In addition to the worries about our health and the people we care about, and the serious concerns about the economy, we can also add an incredible challenge to our ability to produce high-quality, focused work.
The kind of work, in other words, that is what’s valued in the 21st century.
The great 2020 brain freeze
Whatever kind of important work you’re doing, you need focus. And focus is really hard to come by right now.
The particular kind of stress we’re facing — a steady state of uncertainty and concern for our safety and well-being — takes our ability to think clearly and tosses it right into a blender.
I can’t tell you how many people I know who are usually ultra productive, but have been trailing off in the middle of tasks because they’ve forgotten what they were just working on.
These aren’t normal times. And if you don’t feel normal, that’s completely understandable.
Before I launch into today’s post, I want to let you know that I’ll be launching a small (not too expensive) program in a few weeks. I’m taking what I’ve been learning about doing what matters, even in a crazy environment, and getting it out to more people. I’ll be letting you know more about that in the next couple of weeks.
While I”m getting that together, I thought I’d share some thoughts I’ve been mulling over about what makes the difference.
What lets us get significant work done … even when the world is totally bananas?
I came up with seven … but I’d love to know yours, as well.
Here are the practices and mindsets that I have found to be the most helpful right now:
#1: A reliable autopilot
The most productive people I know in this moment have a commitment to getting their work as much on autopilot as possible.
I’m not talking about automation. I’m talking about making a commitment to smaller-than-you-think-you-need habits, and sticking to them nearly religiously.
Every day seems to call for superheroic struggle.
And superheroic struggle is hard to face on days when we don’t exactly feel like superheroes.
That’s not because we’re lazy. It’s because we’re already overwhelmed.
Sometimes, in the right context, a “big, hairy audacious goal” can be motivating.
Right now, for most of us, it just feels impossible.
Small, trustworthy habits keep the most important stuff moving forward. It may not be fast, but it’s steady. And steady wins, especially now.
Rigidity always carries certain problems, but right now it’s particularly risky.
We’re dealing with a pandemic and threats to democracy and family issues and dogs that need walking. Everything’s changing faster than we can adapt, and every day some new form of overwhelm.
Once upon a time, some had the wonderful luxury of being able to shut the door and do great work for hours every day.
A few people still have that — but most of us are seeing what a true luxury that is.
Flexibility is what lets us bend rather than break. It lets us continue to make meaningful progress — even when that progress isn’t what we had on our original plan.
#3: Self compassion
Some of the “productivity guru” types like to talk about kicking yourself in the ass, kicking one another in the ass, or paying the guru to kick you in the ass.
The only thing this will get you is a sore ass.
What you won’t get is any meaningful work done.
Beating yourself up about what you didn’t do today (or yesterday, or last month) just doesn’t work to motivate you to do more tomorrow.
Worse, while you’re spinning your wheels, you also waste valuable energy blaming yourself instead of finding a smarter strategy.
Beating yourself up creates a flood of stress chemicals that can sometimes feel energizing. But they don’t last, and they leave you depleted and without the confidence to keep going.
None of us can rewrite yesterday. We’re much better off thinking about how to restructure tomorrow so it will serve us better.
#4: Smart planning
I’ve always been puzzled by the expression, “You’ve got your work cut out for you,” meaning you’re facing a difficult task.
Anyone who sews or does other kinds of making knows that cutting the work out is one of the hardest parts.
It’s easy to want to skip making a detailed plan before we begin work. (Especially when we’re behind on a deadline.)
But when we don’t do it, we spend ten times more time and energy without moving forward.
Why do we skip planning? Well, because it’s boring. And it doesn’t feel like “real” work. When we start to feel the stress of undone tasks, planning seems like one we can skip so we can get the important things crossed off.
But getting structures in place to make sure you do your planning will always pay off. To circle back to our earlier factors, planning benefits immensely from making it a habit … and from building flexibility into your plan so you don’t have to abandon it altogether.
I’ve worked from home for decades now, and there’s a lot I love about that. But it can be really hard to set the boundaries around time and space that make room for deep work.
And with semi-permanent lockdown, other humans in my house all the time, and no option to go off to a co-working space or the library, that got a lot worse.
I’ve noticed that when I have a hard deadline (a meeting to attend, a workshop to lead), the work gets done, and it gets done well.
When it’s just something I want for myself, but there’s no firm time and space associated with it, the work tends not to get done.
I bet you’ve noticed something similar, and I bet it’s more pronounced now.
It’s critical to set boundaries around that time and space for focused work, and to stay firm with them.
Even for introverts, connection to other humans helps give us the energy and focus to work.
When we’re working with colleagues we like and respect, or to help our families, or lending a hand in our communities, we work harder and better.
Humans are social. Not everyone wants to get on a stage or surround themselves with endless hustle and bustle. But virtually all of us need contact with some other people, and we get listless and demotivated when we don’t have it.
I just lost an old and very dear friend. (Still processing that, and I may write about her, because she was amazing.)
And I think part of the reason is that she had become disconnected from the family and friends who loved her so much.
Isolation is not natural to the human condition, and togetherness can make us more resilient.
The other side of the connection coin is:
#7: Respect for self
We need other people, but it’s also crucial to respect and care for ourselves.
In 2020, the needs of our community can easily become another source of overwhelm.
The mountain of things we should be doing to make our communities healthier, safer, and more equitable creates a whole new weather system of stress.
Wise people know how to find a balance between what we do for others and what we do for ourselves.
But in times when the need is so great, that balance can be hard to find.
Getting the mix wrong eventually leads to burnout, exhaustion, depression, and other bad things.
When times are this hard, selfishness can become actively evil.
But attempts at pure selflessness will burn you to ash, and all the good you could have contributed will be wasted.
The thing I’m launching
As I mentioned, in the next few weeks, I’m going to be launching a program that’s intended to help us do the important stuff.
Important stuff for our businesses or workplaces, but also for our own self care, for our relationships, and for our communities.
It’s going to provide structure, so we have the boundaries to do good work.
And it’s also going to provide flexibility, because none of us knows what’s happening tomorrow.
And we’ll be able to connect, so we can support each other.
The price and time commitment will be extremely reasonable. And because this is such a tricky time economically, I will also have recommendations for free or extremely cheap resources for those who need to watch every dollar.
I’m calling this a “Screw it, let’s do it” launch (with thanks to Richard Branson for the phrase). That means that for the initial offering, there won’t be any fancy copywriting or advanced marketing stuff. I’m just going to let you know what it is, and if sounds good, you’ll be able to jump in.
(Fancier marketing will probably happen later in the year, because I think this structure and support is going to be useful for a lot of folks.)
So stay tuned, sign up for the email list if you’re into that, and we’ll talk more soon.
And whether or not you have any interest in the program — give the list above another read and see if there’s something there you can get more of into your life.
Stay healthy and connected, my friends. We’ll talk more soon.