Be More Productive

Last Saturday, I pretty much had my day to myself. I went to the store, did some housework and spent an inexplicably long time making a card; also working on my stamp collection. Finally around 3pm I forced myself to go into the office where I checked my news blogs and email… and wrote in my writing journal: “I don’t know why I can’t seem to concentrate, but I can’t. Arg! My brain feels like oatmeal. I want to go iron or bake a cake, not write… what is wrong with me????”

So I tried again, and instead found myself Googling “why not more productive.” That brought up a slew of articles on being productive, all with the same tired advice I’d read a thousand times before. (Many of which also included solicitations of the “buy our inspirational DVDs and become more productive in just two weeks” nature) But then, just as I was ready to give it up I stumbled onto the blog of Aaron Swartz  and his post  HOWTO: Be More productive.

It starts out,

“With all the time you spend watching TV,” he tells me, “you could have written a novel by now.” It’s hard to disagree with the sentiment — writing a novel is undoubtedly a better use of time than watching TV — but what about the hidden assumption? Such comments imply that time is “fungible” — that time spent watching TV can just as easily be spent writing a novel. And sadly, that’s just not the case.

Well THAT got my attention! (And I love the word “fungible.”) As soon as I read it I knew the truth in it. Time at the start of the day is much more useful than time in the afternoon when one’s system is taking that “post-prandial” dip. (I like “post-prandial,” too) 

To be more productive, Swartz concludes, one must recognize the fact that the quality of any given period of time is not the same and learn to work with that reality in an efficient wa. For example, “it’s easy to start working on something because it’s convenient,” he says, “but you should always be questioning yourself about it.” Does this really need to be done now? Is there something more important you could be doing? Since I often do question myself about that, this was only marginally helpful — especially since even if I agree that there is something more “important” I just keep doing whatever distraction I happen to be pursuing. Still, it’s nice to have the concept reinforced.

He also suggested pursuing several different projects at the same time , thus having things to do in accordance with the different qualities of time throughout the day. I liked that because I think maybe… just maybe… some of the things I do in apparent distraction could actually be preparatory for writing. Card-making is not something I have to force myself to do, like ironing, so it’s fun, relaxing, my brain is occupied with non-word related tasks and it might just be a good activity for the subconscious to be wrestling with the writing task I seem to be ignoring. (Which lines up with other things I’ve read about writing)

Other suggestions he gave were to make a list of things to work on, integrate the list with your life, make your time higher quality, and ease physical and mental constraints, all of which were familiar but good to be reminded of. And then we got to “Procrastination and the mental force field.”

The real productivity problem people have is procrastination. It’s something of a dirty little secret, but everyone procrastinates — severely. It’s not just you.”

Really? It’s not? 

He goes on to define procrastination:

To the outside observer, it looks like you’re just doing something “fun” (like playing a game or reading the news) instead of doing your actual work. (This usually causes the outside observer to think you’re lazy and bad.) But the real question is: what’s going on inside your head?

I’ve spent a bunch of time trying to explore this and the best way I can describe it is that your brain puts up a sort of mental force field around a task. Ever play with two magnets? If you orient the magnets properly and try to push them toward each other, they’ll repel fiercely. As you move them around, you can sort of feel out the edges of the magnetic field. And as you try to bring the magnets together, the field will push you back or off in another direction.

That’s exactly how it is! Exactly what it feels like. And the more you try to go toward it, the more it pushes you away. I will go into the office to work, not be able to find the pen I want, go off to the desk in the bedroom and suddenly be doing something that has nothing to do with writing.  And just as with the magnets, which will NOT sit together no matter how hard you push, you can’t push through the mental force field on sheer willpower.

And what causes the force field?  Swartz cites two major factors: whether the task is hard and whether it’s assigned. By hard, he means it can be a problem that’s too big. Or too complicated. Or both. Yeah.

He offers suggestions there, too, but I already do almost all of them. The cool thing for me was having it all validated. All my notions about being productive he labels as myths: “that time is fungible, that focusing is good, that bribing yourself is effective, that hard work is unpleasant, that procrastinating is unnatural… that real work is something that goes against your natural inclinations.” No, not at all.

If you’re trying to do something creative that’s of worth, says Swartz, the real secret is not to shut down your brain and just DO IT, but the opposite: “to listen to your body. To eat when you’re hungry, to sleep when you’re tired, to take a break when you’re bored, to work on projects that seem fun and interesting.”

And not to condemn yourself for doing any of it.

Which sounds a lot like the freedom we are to enjoy in Christ that I’ve been blogging about previously.

If you want to read the full article, it’s here.

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4 Responses to “Be More Productive”


  1. 1 Gayle April 8, 2010 at 11:53 am

    Fungible…Freedom…Frantic..Friendly…Funny…Forsaken…Former…Focus…Format…Fragmented…Fore…Few…Fame…all because fungible got me started thinking of words that begin with F. Seems I should stick with TV. There is no future for me in writing. See, I did not list future. Which reminds me, I know my future is secure!

    • 2 karenhancock April 8, 2010 at 12:13 pm

      Right in the spirit of “fungible,” Gayle. You made me laugh. Which fungible tends to do anyway. (“Liver” has the same effect on me. Don’t ask… I have no idea why.)

  2. 3 william blanton April 8, 2010 at 12:05 pm

    Dear Karen:
    That all sounds very interesting and especially the reference to “The Boob Tube” which could also be “fungible” for a more appropriate definition . . . shall we try . . .”The Cosmic Pulpit”, or perhaps, “Satan’s Church” Gee . . . that seems to fit, doesn’t it? Gee . . . they even have a building to go to with theatrical seating just like ours, and now that I think of it, there is even a “Tithe” offering at the door; isn’t there?

    So much of the “Doctrine of Demons” comes from the television set and the Movie Theaters, often in some of the more sublime forms that it is frightening to consider. No longer are these the source of entertainment in times ago, when there at the very least was something of inspired virtues we hold dear. Everyone should be very careful as to what sort of information they put into the mind, especially as a source of entertainment that seems to have the wonderful opportunity to have the greatest effect on the soul; The creative people especially should guard the doors of their “Nous” and be ready to — Just as our man Job was willing to do– and “Turn from Evil”

    It seems very hard to imagine some of the things Mr. Swartz had to say, or the Television and Movie Theaters for sure, could have the same efficacy as going to the very source of contentment and graceful points of view; a personal sense of destiny and relaxed mental attitude that is its result of “living in the palace” for which the Royal Family is privileged to do. “And” (favorite conjunction again) to be constantly making good decisions from the position of strength that is “absolutely convinced” as to whom me belong, what has been done on our behalf, and the indomitable power of the “offensive weapon” of Faith and Prayer, Spiritual Self Esteem, and that all too illusive “remembrance” at times, but, nevertheless still there . . . His Majesty and our very best friend, The Lord Jesus Christ, who personal said and will not change His mind:

    “I will never leave thee, most emphatically not, I will never forsake thee, so that you may say with confidence, the lord is my helper, I shall not fear what man SHALL do unto me”

    See you . . .

  3. 4 william blanton April 8, 2010 at 1:27 pm

    gee . . .well done captain well see if the prayer is answered


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