Being productive is really a battle. It’s the worst kind of battle: a battle against yourself.
When most people talk about productivity they miss the point. They talk about external distractions and minimizing those influences. They encourage all sorts of external productivity tools and services. That’s all great but it sort of shifts the blame from where it rightly lies: on us, on our tendencies.
The author Steven Pressfield calls this the Resistance. When we sit down to do any important project whether it’s writing a book or a business plan, we face Resistance. The bigger the project, the more vulnerable or creative it forces us to be, the stronger the resistance.
We’re not productive because of the Resistance. In other words, productivity is not a matter of organization or distractions, it is primarily a matter of dealing with and redirecting the Resistance.
I’ll give you an example. I am working on a book proposal right now that requires me to examine some uncomfortable stuff. I also don’t totally have a handle on the concept as a whole, which basically means that every second I work on it is excruciating and difficult.
This is the reason I seek the relief of distractions. It’s definitely not because I’m unorganized. So I pop open Facebook, I come up with reasons to call people, I go around and bother my animals. I say, “Hey, let’s go out to breakfast, I’ll work there,” even though I know that I won’t.
Now, I could eliminate those particular problems or throw away my car keys, but like any addict I’d just find a new one. You’d find me doing whatever the productivity-equivalent of drinking rubbing alcohol is. Anything to take the edge off.
God knows how much energy is wasted by creative people this way. It’s a nervous energy, a pain-driven energy that must be channeled and sloughed off. White knuckling it? Well, that’s not exactly a solution.
I’m reminded of a quote from the dog trainer Cesar Millan, “Never work against Mother Nature. You only succeed when you work with her.” But how do you work with something that tries to distract and undermine what you’ve set out to do?
The key is to find some way to harness and redirect that negative energy.
When I find myself looking for an escape–I have a list of activities I can do that are productive ways to channel the resistance:
-I will take notes on a book I read for my commonplace book.
-I will go through my starred emails in my inbox (emails that didn’t immediately require a response which I’ve marked from the last 7 days or so).
-I will cross the business items off my to do list (review 15five reports, edit documents or research my team did, etc).
They are little pieces of big, never-ending projects that I can always make a little contribution to. They are always there–no matter what else I happen to be working on. This means I can always turn to them and use them as a productive excuse.
As Jerry Seinfeld put it, you want to find the pain you’re comfortable with. That’s the secret. Those are all activities I hate, but can tolerate. It puts me right between the horns of a dilemma. Work, or different work–and either one I choose moves me forward.
This is also where being good at more than one thing can help you. If all you do is write, then the opposite is not-writing. But if you write and consult, well you can run from writing into the arms of consulting or vice versa.
(On a side note, I think this is why creative people spend a lot of time thinking/producing work on being creative. It’s a way to work and practice their craft even though deep down they know they’re putting off a harder version of it.)
The real benefit of those tasks isn’t just setting up some sort of Sophie’s choice. It’s that when I put off writing or thinking about something and cross those other items off the list, I start to accumulate some momentum. When I switch tracks again, that momentum carries over. It makes it easier to get through whatever Resistance was holding me back.
So that’s my productivity secret. It’s not about systems. It’s not about technology–you don’t need Evernote or 37Signals to do it.
It’s about having a set of tasks that you can always do when you feel like procrastinating. This way you turn your least productive habit–running away from your work–into a potent motive force.
All that’s left to decide is what that happens to be for you.