The Problem with Productivity

Remember when I said I’d like to see information on productivity for those of us whose lives don’t look like the typical career-oriented person? Well…

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I’ll admit it. Planning and productivity are kind of a hobby for me. I have a planning system that works for me, but I still have a hard time resisting the allure of a new paper planner that promises to guide me in using my time better. And reading about productivity, brain science, and psychology are as entertaining for me as a good novel. It’s fascinating, and it leaves me feeling like the world is full of nothing but potential for reaching my loftiest goals.

I’m very aware that planning does not necessarily equal follow-through. There’s a danger of spending a whole lot of time researching/planning and none actually doing the parts that require work and sacrifice. But all told, this little hobby has done great things for me.

But as I noted in my last post, I have trouble connecting with a lot of advice.

In my reading, I’ve noticed that the subjects held up as examples don’t tend to have lives that look like mine. They’re men (mostly) whose lives revolve around a cycle of work and restoration. Even when it’s acknowledged that they have kids, there’s little indication that it affects their schedules or flexibility in a major way. I often see few women, and fewer who are balancing work with primary responsibility for a home and family*. Fewer still who are also dealing with mental or physical health challenges that can stop productivity in its tracks or whose lives otherwise include factors outside of the standard work/life balance.

And that’s actually fine. We all like to read about the massive successes, the people who organize and use every hour for peak effectiveness. The people who win wars, make half a million dollars a quarter, write multiple bestsellers every year. Of course we do. It’s fascinating. Inspiring, even, and that’s a valid reason to study them. I’m absolutely not complaining that no one follows someone exactly like me around with a stopwatch and a fMRI machine to study her brain waves, and I know stories like “Gina needed two hours to settle down to work and then wrote 1000 words before the school called to say little Jimmy was puking in the coat closet” ain’t gonna make for a productivity bestseller.

But what does it look like when people with different obstacles (or just making different choices) try to follow their example? Our stories don’t show up on those pages, but they’re ones I’m interested in reading.

I have factors in my life that affect my potential productivity. I don’t consider them all negatives by any means. Quite frankly, my life rocks my socks most of the time, even if I get frustrated by the amount of work I’d like to do but can’t/don’t. Some of them are generally negative, but even then I can often see a bright side.

Things like working only during school hours because me being available when the kids are home makes things run more smoothly around here (and because I find it less stressful to not have the office door closed when everyone is home). Being the primary caregiver for kids and the person ultimately responsible for most aspects of running a household (which I know I’m privileged to be able to do, but I find all of it mentally exhausting). Migraines that can limit my productivity to some degree for two weeks out of every month. Limited physical and mental energy. Issues relating to the ADD** I’ve dealt with my whole life but was only recently diagnosed with.

There are other factors that affect my productivity, but you get the idea. I don’t look at these as excuses for not getting things done, but variables to play with as I work toward doing what I want with my life. I also have a lot of advantages. I’ve been a SAHM since our second child was born (full disclosure: this was because I’m not qualified to do any job that would cover the cost of daycare), and this offered me a bit of flexibility when I started my work as an author. I’m naturally inquisitive and can learn quickly if something really catches my interest. I’ve only got a high school education (plus one year of university), but it was a good one. I’ve got a fantastic doctor helping me out. My family supports me. I’m my own boss, which is both a positive (unlimited sick days!) and a negative (nobody cares if I don’t get my work done!). Everyone’s life is a unique mix of challenge and opportunity.

And this can make it hard to get on board with a lot of the suggestions in productivity books. Reading them can actually be a little disheartening. I don’t have the resources I’d need to hire a nanny*** even if I wanted to. I can’t take off for a sabbatical/reading week/focused writing retreat just because It’s Good For My Career. Napping in the middle of the day probably isn’t going to happen, and my other responsibilities aren’t going to get out of the way so I can work during my biological prime time (which starts about 30 minutes before school ends). I have a lot of trouble switching gears, especially once I get really focused on a task, so playing Tetris with my schedule and fitting work in 20 minute bursts around other responsibilities hasn’t worked for me so far.

But like I said, I’ve learned a lot from my interest in productivity. The key isn’t trying to follow exactly in anyone else’s footsteps, but taking a few steps back and asking how an idea might be changed, adapted, turned on its head, mangled, or shifted to look like something I can use.

My time is limited. My focus is often crap (and when I do get into a really focused state, my schedule often limits how long I can stay there). But in 2010 I started writing. In 2014 I published my first book. Since then I’ve published five more (ranging from 53,000 to 192,000 words) and am happy to say that writing is, for now, my job. That’s not a lot of books by many people’s standards, but for me it’s a dream come true. I run a business, and even if I don’t do a great job of it and generally feel like I’m falling behind and always seem to be playing catch-up, I’m making it work.

I’ve managed it by making other people’s ideas work for me, and I know there’s more I can do with that.

So I’m not going to sit here and moan about why I can’t use everything I’ve learned.

Pfft.

No. What I’m going to do is an experiment.

While I was reading Rest (see previous post), I decided that I was going to try some of the ideas presented there and in other books, but I was going to try to fit them into my life instead of demanding that my life get out of my way.

And that to keep me accountable for sticking to the changes I was experimenting with and for tracking the results, I was going to post about it here.

For the next two weeks I’ll be working my regular schedule from last year (and trying to get back into routine after an August that didn’t include many solid work days), and I’ll post about the rules I’ll be playing by during the experiment. Then we’ll get to the good stuff: trying a major schedule change or two, then playing with other ideas to see what clicks.

For now, here’s my goal:

To experiment with productivity hacks and lifestyle changes in order to find a DAILY and WEEKLY ROUTINE that allows me to reach my personal best focus and productivity without leaving me burned out or forcing me to neglect my health, home, family, or the time I need to rest and pursue other interests.

Obviously it’s not a perfect or typical productivity experiment. My goal isn’t to maximize work productivity and squeeze every drop of get-er-done out of every hour of the day. It’s not to find a way to work 50 or 90-hour weeks with kids at home, and it’s not to find a way to publish six books this year and hit a bestseller list while I’m at it (though those are all awesome goals if they make your personal motor run). It’s to figure out how to manage my attention and energy during my limited work hours to make the most of them, to stop wasting time, and to stop feeling guilty about the things I’m not doing during those hours.

…and to stop feeling guilty about not working more. There’s a lot of guilt. That needs to go, too.

My goals, my methods, and my results aren’t going to be a roadmap for anyone else to become more productive. Even if you also happen to be a writer with kids, we’ve all got different challenges, advantages, and ideas of what a good life looks like. My stumbling blocks might even look like someone else’s dream life, and I’ll seem like a jerk for not appreciating them. But I hope my posts will present an example of adapting ideas about productivity to fit a life that doesn’t necessarily look like the ones in the books I get those ideas from. Along the way I’ll share my thoughts and ideas I’ve picked up from the books I’m reading, topics related to my productivity quest, and insights I run into. And my results will be focused on real work, not on hours spent on this project. You’ll see my hours, my word counts, my plans, my successes, and my slip-ups.

If that sounds like something you’d like to follow along with, stick around. It might be interesting, and I hope it’s going to be a lot of fun.

(And if you have any ideas you’d like to suggest/questions about what I’m doing, or want to point me toward a resource you’ve found helpful, feel free to comment any time!)


 

*That’s not to say there aren’t books out there with a different perspective. I’m reading (and will review) I Know How She Does It by Laura Vanderkam, which looks at women with careers and kids. The focus is still on people who make $100,000+ per year and have things like daycare and nannies and business trips, but there are people out there looking at how parents are making things work for them, and that’s pretty cool.

**Yes, I know. It’s ADHD. I have a non-hyperactive subtype that’s common (and commonly undiagnosed) in women, and much of the reading I do about it refers to it simply as ADD. Doing so feels easier for me than clarifying the particulars of what I deal with, so that’s what I’m going with here.

***One of the books I’ve read on managing ADD (written for women) suggested hiring a babysitter so you could focus on getting the dishes done. Sounds swell, but again, not so practical for most of us.

 

 

 

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About Kate Sparkes

Kate Sparkes was born in Hamilton, Ontario, but now resides in Newfoundland, where she tries not to talk too much about the dragons she sees in the fog. She lives with a Mountie, two kids who take turns playing Jeckyll and Hyde, two cats, an intentional boxer and an accidental chihuahua. She's the author of the bestselling Bound Trilogy (mature YA Fantasy). www.katesparkes.com View all posts by Kate Sparkes

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