Chasing the Illusive Unicorn, Productivity

Focus and I are not friends. It’s never been my friend, to be honest. I always find something else that I’d rather be doing than whatever I need to do. If I needed to do my homework, I was on Horseland, Livejournal, and the website where I fandom-RPG’d in the Wheel of Time world. That’s right, I was a nerd. If I needed to organize the tack room, I’d clean my tack instead. That makes sense to you if you rode horses, but in case you didn’t ride, cleaning tack is really boring and painstaking. Part of this is I’m an anxious person and procrastination and anxiety are BEST friends in my head. Most toxic friendship ever, tbh.

And that was BEFORE the internet was a big part of our lives. That was BEFORE cellphones. Before anxiety looked like likes and retweets and everything like that.

At some point, I realized that reading went something like this: read one page, check Twitter, read a page, text a friend, read a page, check Facebook, read a page, refresh Tumblr, read a page, take a picture of a cat. No wonder I wasn’t reading as much. Writing wasn’t much better. I’d write a few lines, go onto Twitter, complain about writing, whine to my friends, and go back to staring at my manuscript. Circling the drain.

And feeling like this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The less you focus and the more you procrastinate, the higher your anxiety goes, and the less you can focus and the more you procrastinate. I know. I’m there. I get it. I really really do.

But my anxiety is sky-high right now and I am still getting my stuff done. 

With the help of a couple of tools, I’ve been on a roll and it’s the best feeling. It’s been weeks, E=enough for me to say that it’s a pattern and I think I’ve developed better habits. I’m forcing myself to focus.

So let’s talk productivity tools.

  1. Honesty time. I started an anti-depressent and if your mental health is part of the reason you cannot get on top of your life, I strongly encourage you to talk to someone. I hadn’t been medicated in years. The last 3 months of medication have been the best three months in several years. I feel like I am capable of now dealing with the part of my procrastination and productivity that isn’t connected to my depression.
  2. RescueTime – I run RescueTime in the background of my personal computer all the time. Every week I get a report showing me how much time I spent doing work (Microsoft Word) versus how much time I spend on social networks (I’m looking at you, Tweetdeck). I set goals for how much I want to spend on each of those categories daily and I can check any time during the day to see how I’m doing. I’m a work in progress.
  3. SelfControl – the app for people with no self control. This is a free Mac app that lets you blacklist certain websites and then set a timer and block those websites. It is a serious blocker. You can’t restart and get around it. You can’t use a different browser. It’s really effective and I love it, except that I frequently was then using my phone to get around it…defeating the purpose. Look, procrastinators gonna procrastinate.
  4. Forest – which is why I’m now using Forest, an app on my phone that blocks me from doing ANYTHING with my phone as long as it’s running and you plant a ‘forest’ for as long as you don’t use your phone. I like this because a) trees! b) I really do feel bad if I kill a tree because I used my phone while Forest was running c) you can set it as short as five minutes and as long as two hours. and d) you can link it with your friends via Facebook or their emails. I’m really competitive. Really competitive. A key part of learning to be productive is learning to use your own strengths and weaknesses to your advantage. Usually my competitiveness can be a self-defeating prophecy, but here? I want to be the MOST PRODUCTIVE one on my friend list. I’m really into winning productivity. Also, Forest has actually really useful on another level. I have a bad habit of checking my phone at red lights or in heavy traffic. I know, it’s horrible. Now I set Forest for the duration of my expected drive when I get in the car and let it run to prevent me from being a distracted driver.
  5. Noisli – this is a white noise/background noise app you can run on your phone or on your computer. I got the Chrome extension for it. I’ve found that I work really well to the Railroad + Fan noise. It’s rhythmic and soothing and puts me in the zone. (I also have big, dorky looking headphones that have helped with my focus since I got them months ago. Much better than earbuds, at least for me!)

So how do I use these tools?

I’m using what I call Focus Hours versus writing sprints because I’ve been doing a lot of editing and email writing lately. So I turn on Self Control, Noisli, and Forest at the same time. No social media on my computer OR my phone. No music. Just the sound of being on a train with a window open. Then I sit down and start to work. I try to take 15 minute breaks between Focus Hours unless I’m really on a roll. I set a timer for those breaks so I can’t get totally absorbed in them and not get back to work.

I’m using Victoria (VE) Schwab’s star calendar method again. I started again in October and it’s been really helpful in getting me back on track and keeping me productive every day. I use a BIG Neuyear calendar on my wall (thanks to author friend Tiffany Schmidt for linking me to this) so my failures stare me in the face as I work/eat dinner/sit in my tiny apartment. But I can also see patterns. I tend to have lower productivity at the end of the week. I tend to have higher productivity at the beginning of the month and less at the end. I’m still working on how to use this data.

And finally, two friends (writers Tristina Wright and Nita Tyndall) and I have an email chain where we email each other at the beginning of the week and set attainable but challenging goals, and then check in with each other usually once sometimes twice throughout the week. That’s been a really good way to write down my goals that can be as simple as “clean my bedroom” and “get to work on time every day” outside of writing/freelance/reading.

Once you get started, being productive feels good and less overwhelming. I’m one of those people who easily gets overwhelmed by what she has to do and shuts down. Using these apps helps me focus in and get my stuff done, check things off my list, and find breathing room again.

Focus and I aren’t friends, but we’re frenemies now. I’m hoping this is one of those juicy enemy-to-lovers romances.

I hope this was helpful!

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9 thoughts on “Chasing the Illusive Unicorn, Productivity

  1. The email chain idea is brilliant. And yes, Forest is helping me tons (and with my super-competitive side, also, so thanks for that!). I think I may have to try the giant wall calendar, because the visual pat on the back I get from seeing a well-populated Forest would be even better with giant stickers on my wall.

    1. It’s so helpful to do that at the start of every week! I’m all about visually rewarding yourself for being awesome…and shaming yourself for not being awesome.

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