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How To Be Insanely Productive: Lessons from the April Line School of High Energy Living

From ishane on Flickr.

People have been asking me lately, “How do you do it?  How do you get so much stuff done?”  These are usually my fellow self-employed friends and they are typically asking with respect to my blog.  I spend a lot of time on my blog.  A LOT.  I also freelance consistently for one publishing company and a handful of publications.  I’m also a mother and a partner and a grownup with a modest (but rewarding) social life.

But I’ve always been a high energy person with big ideas who digs being turbo busy.  I had three jobs at a time in high school. I worked full time through college while making Dean’s list every semester.  I applied to grad school 1.0 while Child was an infant and I was a senior in college and running an eBay business.

I have held several sales jobs while freelancing as an editor and writer, being a single mom, and responsible for a domicile.  I’m not bragging.  This is all ridiculously insane, and if I keep going at the pace I’ve maintained for the past sixteen years, I will burn out by the time I’m forty.

But if you really want to know, this is how I do it:

 Be born blue collar.

I credit my ridiculous work ethic 100% to having been born into a family that doesn’t have much money but works really, really hard.  I’m productive because I have to be.  And I’m not going to blow any of that working class self-righteous smoke up your asses.  I’m not going to say, “I’ve worked damn hard for everything I have and that’s why I’m not a twat.”  I’m not a twat because I’m a nice person.  I have worked very hard in my life, but that’s because I’ve had to.  If given a choice, I wouldn’t have, but I would probably still be a nice person.  I know plenty of people who are nice who have led reasonably charmed lives.  I know lots of blue collar twats.  The source of twattery is not–as the blue collar set would have you believe–privilege.  The rest of this post applies regardless of the class into which you were born.

Acquire as many competencies as you can as early as possible.

When I was a kid, I loved learning how to do new things. I got bored quickly and would move on to the next thing. This did a number of things for my future productivity: It taught me how to self-motivate, and it gave me self-confidence. Here are some of the things I learned how to do before I was 20: play piano, play saxophone, paint ceramics, throw clay pots, take pictures, draw, dance, cook, sew, clean, write, read, do laundry, knit, crochet, paint, etc. To be fair, I’m only still interested in about seven of those things, and only any good at about 4 of them. But learning how to do things quickly and well sets you up to like yourself and be efficient as you go along in life. Since I was 20, I’ve learned to play guitar, knit & crochet better (though I am still a total rookie), make jewelry, do zumba, and write and read better. Continue to read and learn and grow. That will make you like yourself more, which will make you more interested in pushing your personal boundaries, which will mean that you’ll be more motivated to do more stuff.

Get Acquainted with Dawn’s asshole.

I get up at 5.  Sometimes earlier.  On weekends, when I sleep in, I sleep till 6.  Stay in bed till 7.  Monday through Friday, I’ve accomplished more than most people do all day by 9:00 a.m.  I’ve grown & drawn boundaries, and I feel positive about a five-day work week these days.  But if I didn’t have a child and partner who want to spend time with me, I would do this seven days a week.  If you can’t get up, stay up.  Work into the night.  I used to do it that way.  Work till 2:00 a.m., get up at 9:00 a.m.  The get up early model works better for me now because I am mom.

 If you are feeling shitty and you need a day off, take it.

I only relatively recently–within the past two years–started this policy, but it increases my productivity because I get all the wallow or sick out of my system, then I can return to my pursuits with full steam energy and effort instead of diminished-by-moodiness-or-illness energy and effort which can be embarrassingly lackluster.  Plus, when I push through sickness or the doldrums, I hate myself for not getting anything done, and then I keep not getting anything done because my energy is all negativity and fatalism and not positivity and gumption.

 The glass is half full.

My cliche mantras:  It could always be worse; At least I’m not dead; I’m good enough, smart enough, and people like me.  These are the little truisms that keep me going, that keep me looking on the bright side.  It’s not enough to just say them, though.  You have to believe them.  You have to know that your life is never as shitty as it could be, and that around every corner is an opportunity waiting for you to grab on and charge forward.  You have to know–without needing affirmation–that you’re good and smart and people like you.

Take advantage of every minute.

Here’s how to do housework when you’re already booked past full: It only takes five minutes to do dishes.  It takes about ninety seconds to move laundry if you have to go to a different floor.  It take six minutes to fold laundry if you’re anal about it like I am, less time if you’re not.  It takes about four minutes to vacuum a big room.  It takes fifteen minutes to scrub hell out of a bathroom, ten minutes to sweep and mop the kitchen.  Whenever you’re waiting for something to happen, do something else.  If you’re baking some macaroni or chicken, run up and clean the bathroom till the buzzer goes off.  If you’re ready to go and you still have five minutes till you have to leave, do the dishes. Go to the grocery store as early in the morning as possible, that’s when the fewest people are there so it will go faster.  Whenever you go to the basement with laundry or supplies, bring up something you need.  If you can choose, put your laundry machines on the same floor as the bedrooms.  In short: be efficient.  A cool thing that can help you even more with this is using the Pomodoro Technique’s free timer.  There’s a DROID app, too.  Working in bursts of 25 minutes will keep you focused, plus give you five-minute breaks to do dishes or laundry.

Sometimes you have to give yourself a treat.

For me, productivity and accomplishment are often their own rewards.  But I’m also a deeply moody person and can be too sensitive and pissy without reason.  Sometimes, I have to go get myself a ridiculous decadent coffee from Starbucks.  Breve and extra espresso and whipped cream and all of it.  Or I have to have an absurdly carby meal.  Once in a while, do whatever gives you superfluous joy or gratification.  It sometimes helps to bribe yourself: If you know that you can do anything if you get to have a long, hot bath, promise yourself one once you accomplish a micro goal.

Exercise.

I’ve been thinking about this one a lot lately, since I’ve been working out with intention.  But when I was younger, I ran my face off as a food server around everything else, so I’ve usually practiced this in my life.  Getting sweaty is key to optimum productivity.  Do this in a way that gives you satisfaction and as little discomfort as possible. I am ridiculously motivated by self-sufficiency and money, so waiting tables was a good match for me.  Now that I can’t fit that into my life anymore, I do Zumba. If you love to run, run.  If you love to dance, dance.  If you love to hike, do that.  If your thing is outdoors, have a bad-weather backup plan. Do not make excuses, just do it–at least three times a week.

 Make time for the important stuff.

This is the hardest one for me.  I have no trouble at all feeling urgency about getting work done for money. Sometimes, I have to force myself to acknowledge the importance of leisure and family time. Money is not as important as good relationships or being a good parent.  Volunteer at your kid’s school as much as your schedule will allow.  Spend time with your partner or best friends.  Write emails with people who are important to you but who live far away. Your work will always still be there tomorrow. These things will keep stuff in perspective.  Perspective will keep you moving.

Know your own boundaries.

You can’t push yourself past your own physical limitations.  If you need 8 hours of sleep a night, take it.  If you can’t exercise three times a week, do it as often as you can.  If you can’t work for 6 hours straight, take breaks.  Get to know yourself while pursuing productivity, and if you must push past your boundaries, work up to it systematically: Every day, do another five minutes or hour of x, reward yourself, and drink coffee.  Be careful with other, less-legal uppers.  I almost called this post the Honorary Crack Files, but I didn’t want you to think that I’m getting ramped up with drugs.  I’m not.

Have a clear sense of your goals in both short and long term.

My ten year goal now is to be able to make enough money just from my blog. I want people to come to me for services without prospecting.  I can do this, and I will.  My shorter term goals include finishing the MFA ahead of schedule, and get a couple of tidy, nice-paying writing gigs so I can give up some of the work that I derive lesser satisfaction from.  My goals for this week are to read 600 pages and do another five pitches to my current target publications, Bust and Paste.  I am constantly re-evaluating these goals and priorities and building action plans around them.

Reuse your work, take shortcuts, and ask for help.

If you’ve done a piece of work, make it work for you in a different context: if you’re a writer, re-sell your stories, or use your research to do different pitches.  If you design something, figure out how to use that design for other, similar projects.  Start from scratch as little as possible.  Google Passive Income.  Almost everybody has a potential passive income source.  Find yours.  If you find a fast way to do something that does not diminish the quality of the final product, use it.  There is honor in making the most of your time, even if it you’re not using a classically perfect method.  Also, use technology.  If you don’t know how, learn.  It will make your life easier and will give you back time you wouldn’t otherwise have. Email saves me tons of time.  Instead of a list of phone calls that need to be made during business hours, I can write emails at any time, and schedule them to send at appropriate hours.  Asking for help can be anything from reading a blog by a person who does what you want to do but does it more effectively, to asking other human beings for help, starting a child care co-op, or setting up a chore share with your roommates, partner or spouse.

Don’t get down on yourself if you don’t get everything done.

If you fall short of your goals, don’t fret.  Step back, re-evaluate, and do better next time.  There’s always a next time.  Some failures do not mean failure is constant.  It just means that you have things to learn.  Learn them and bear forth.  Be diligent and thorough, and the rest will follow.

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7 comments on “How To Be Insanely Productive: Lessons from the April Line School of High Energy Living

  1. This is one of my favorites that you have written. You are what being a strong woman is about and that’s why I respect you so much.

    A lot of people ask me how I do grad school and write and be a Mama and I can’t quite put it so eloquently, and I’m not half as busy as you are. I want to say “I don’t play FarmVille 6 hours a day” but since thats kind of mean, I don’t. Although I should note I don’t think I’m nearly as organized of a person as you. I respect that you have figured out how to draw boundaries and say “ok right now I’m going to take a break and be a Mom” or “right now, my partner needs me.” It took me awhile to be able to spend time with my family without a huge list of things going through my head of what I should be doing. I’m still not that good at it. Thank goodness I’ve learned that I NEED my hour of coffee and baby snuggling every morning. Unproductive? Sure, but I’m in love with a 2 year old and that’s my favorite part of every day. :)

    • That’s the best comment ever, too, Brooke. Thanks a million. I’ve got warm fuzzies all over right now.

      I love that your knee-jerk is, “I don’t play Farmville six hours a day.”

      Trust me when I tell you that I CANNOT stop the stream of 200 things going through my head that need doing Right This Minute when I’m hanging out with the fam. Especially if we’re watching TV together. Especially if it’s something I’m not interested in watching. Still. Not easy almost always = totally worth it.
      <3

  2. WOW! this makes me feel that I am really, really, lazy…LOL. But thanks for the break down. Great tips for us procrastinators and the over-whelmed. :-D

  3. [...] offer the following with a caveat:  I know I should be reading more blogs.  But if you read the productivity post, you know I’m pretty strict with myself in terms of reading for leisure, especially right now [...]

  4. [...] this.  Contentment doesn’t have much to do with youth in my experience.  Contentment, like productivity and boredom, is a choice.  It’s yours if you want it, youth, weight, culture, job be [...]

  5. [...] But each consists of 55ish pages +/- 10K words of the best stuff on this blog.  Notes on Life and Love is something of a memoir in essay, fiction, list.  On Writing and Living is all about writing and how to live as a writer, from style and grammar to a version of The Productivity Post. [...]

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