On productivity when you just can't even

This post was originally written for The Human In The Machine.

2017 has been a rough year for nearly everyone I know. Many people have been finding it difficult to just get by, to say nothing of being productive. Personally, I’ve been trying to recover from a year-long period of pretty severe burnout, generalized anxiety, and more stress in my personal life than is considered healthy by several internet quizzes. It’s one thing to talk about productivity when you’re generally feeling healthy and optimistic and safe, but how do you deal with trying to be productive when just making it through the day feels like an insurmountable challenge?

I’m going to share some of the ways that I’ve managed to trick myself into being something vaguely resembling a productive human being this year. Not all of these will work for everyone, but I’m hoping some of them will help at least some people. I also realize that I’m incredibly lucky to have been in a good financial position and working for supportive employers while I’ve been dealing with this stuff, and acknowledge that not everyone is going to be in this same position. With that being said:

Daily To-Do Lists

As someone who has struggled with depression, anxiety, and burnout over the years, I’m all too familiar with barely being able to make it out of bed and through basic daily tasks like showering or feeding myself. I’m also very familiar with the satisfaction of checking something off a checklist, so I use that to my advantage as much as possible.

I’ve been using Wunderlist for daily todos for a couple years now. In addition to daily/weekly lists and recurring tasks, I love its persistent notification option for quickly adding tasks, because in the time it takes for me to find and open the app otherwise, I’ll very likely forget what I was going to add. I also really appreciate that it doesn’t break all my due dates when I travel across timezones, which is crucial when I find myself traveling a lot.

During good weeks, my lists are full of things like trying new recipes, working on art projects, or seeing friends. When I’m on the strugglebus of life, it will be items like “take a shower”, “clean one thing”, or “reply to one email.” Some people will say that you should tackle the biggest things on your todo list first, but when I’m really struggling, I will rearrange my list to put the easiest things on top, because checking off even one thing usually gives me motivation to at least try to do a second thing. If everything seems too hard, I’ve been known to add something even easier to the top of the list to give myself that first check. It’s a hack, but for some reason it works for my brain. Also, when I check everything off, I get to see this kitten:

The other thing I do to help myself on a day-to-day basis is habit tracking, using Loop habit tracker. I get to check things off, and I get graphs to see how I’m doing over time. This helps me get basic things done but it also helps me detect patterns in my life that can be indicative of bigger problems. When I start getting burnt out, I won’t always realize it consciously, but I will notice that I stop doing things outside of work I used to enjoy.

That two week gap in my doing something artistic or musical was actually because I was out of the country and not traveling with any creative accoutrements, but if that weren’t the case, it could have been indicative of me starting to lose interest in things, which is something I would want to dig into more. I also get handy little widgets to put on my home screen to remind me of which things I have or have not yet done every day. This is good because, especially when I’m struggling already, I won’t always remember which things I usually do (like practicing meditation or doing stretches to help with my chronic back pain) that will actually help me feel better. Don’t rely on an over-stressed brain to remember things when you can make a computer remember for you!

Longer-Term Planning

For the past few years now I’ve been using the Volt Planner (formerly Spark notebook) for setting and tracking yearly and monthly goals. Some months I have lots of big goals (complete major project X at work! Add Y% to my powerlifting maxes! Do big side project Z!) and some months I’m just getting through the month (survive thing X I already agreed to do. Decide if I want to keep doing Y regularly. Just go to the gym like once).

It would be great if every month was a month full of new and exciting personal achievements, but like I’ve said, sometimes I literally can’t even. Letting myself adjust my goals month to month and week to week as necessary gives me the space I need to keep going at all, because I know that if I keep trying to push myself to the limit, I will instead hit my breaking point. Better to accomplish a couple small things than nothing at all, and if I can get some small things done, that can help give me a mental boost to keep doing more.

Reassessing Goals

As I mentioned, this year has been an exceptionally difficult one for me, to the point where July rolled around and I realized that some of the goals I’d set for myself in January were actually impossible to accomplish at that point. I ended up switching jobs in July, so a bunch of the professional goals I’d set around my previous company no longer made sense. I didn’t want to give up on having goals at all for the rest of the year, so I had to set new ones instead.

If you find that you are in a wildly different place than you were six months ago, it’s okay to take a step back and reassess if previously set goals still make sense. Several of mine didn’t. All of a sudden I found myself much less focused on one particular company and a lot more invested in making sure I felt like a balanced and well-rounded person outside of work, so I completely scrapped a couple old-job-specific goals and replaced them with newer ones.

Another thing I’ve found while recovering from burnout is that I had less motivation to continue doing things I used to enjoy, and I wasn’t sure how much of that was situational (in that I wasn’t really enthusiastic about anything at that point) and how much was an actual need to change directions. As such, I took a few weeks off from trying to make myself do those things, took a step back, and tried to figure out what I actually wanted to get out of them. For example, when I realized I hadn’t made it to the gym in a couple months, I sat down, did a bunch of thinking, and realized that while I was decidedly not interested in doing anything externally competitive (such as more powerlifting meets), I really loved still how lifting made me feel strong and capable. I made the decision to explicitly not do any more competitions and just focus on my own individual training, and I was able to get back to the gym much more regularly and with renewed motivation.

In other situations in the past, I’ve ended up quitting things, and that can be the right choice too. I like longer-term planning for helping me set and often stick to bigger goals, but especially if you’re feeling like you or the world are a bit on fire, stepping back and reassessing those goals can be absolutely necessary.

Calling in Reinforcements

In all honesty, I probably wouldn’t have made it this far through 2017 if it weren’t for some really amazing people around me. Asking for help is hard, especially as someone who’s struggled with impostor syndrome - it’s easy to feel like asking for support means that I’m a failure or “not good enough” or something like that.

I’ve been very fortunate that at my current and most recent previous jobs, I’ve been able to be honest with managers and team members about my mental health. This has enabled me to do things like take time off when I’ve needed to, adjust on-call responsibilities when I haven’t been sleeping in general, or lighten my workload a bit when I know I’m not operating at 100%. Not every job will be able to make every accommodation you need, but a team that is unwilling to try to support you at all is probably not a team you should be on if you have a choice.

Asking for help has been as big as scheduling 1:1 time with colleagues to pair on project work when I’ve needed extra help focusing, and as small as asking my twitter followers to send me some cute animal gifs. At various times I’ve enlisted friends and partners for distractions or pep talks or venting. Being able to figure out which of those I needed at any given time (and communicate that) has been crucial - help the people around you to help you most effectively. I’ve also been seeing a therapist who has been incredibly valuable in helping me through various things this year. Finding a mental health professional who is a good fit for you can be tough, but if you are able to make it through that process, I highly recommend it.

Giving Up Sometimes

When push comes to shove, sometimes you’ll find yourself in a position where you have to quit something. For me, sometimes that’s been because I’d rather not do something than do a bad job at it, sometimes it’s a matter of not having enough resources to do as much as I’d anticipated earlier, and sometimes it’s the realization that if I keep pushing myself, I’ll end up doing serious damage to my health in some way.

This year I quit a job that, years earlier, had been my literal dream job. I’ve had to pull out of a couple speaking engagements due to scheduling and health reasons. I decided recently that I’m going to try to take a hiatus from public speaking for at least half of next year. None of these were easy decisions to make. I hate the feeling of quitting something, of not being able to follow through on a commitment. But I would argue that there are few commitments, professional or otherwise, that are worth sacrificing your physical or mental health for. Feeling like you have to quit or give up on something is rarely a fun feeling, but sometimes it’s necessary. Think of it not as giving up entirely, but as investing in future-you.

In Conclusion

Despite how on fire I have been for most of this year, I have still managed to maintain some vague semblance of productivity. I’ve used to-do lists and planners to try to bring some order to things, to help me remember what needs to be done, and to keep track of goals. I’ve been using habit tracking to help me maintain healthy routines. I’ve had to reassess what is really important to me, and figure out how that changes over time, and sometimes I’ve quit things, giving present-me some room to breathe and to better support future-me. Hopefully 2018 will bring some positive changes and actual productivity, but if you’re struggling in the meantime, hopefully some of these strategies will help you out as well.