How to Productivity: April 2016 Edition

Look at that big-ass task list. Just look at it.

“I’m overwhelming!” it crones. “You’ll never amount to anything and your breath smells like fingers!”

Your eyes well up with tears. Your hands are trembling. “We used to be friends, Task List. You used to keep me organized and on track. What’s going on?”

“Gloop glorp!” it hoots, “I’ve sucked the FUN out of all your tasks! I’m nothing but a graveyard for hope! Wheeee!” And with that, Task List zooms around, knocks over a chair, and shits on your keyboard before giggling its way out of the room.

You sit there, your body filled with the familiar hollowness that accompanies a friend shitting on something you own. After a moment, you look down at your hands. They’re not trembling anymore. They’ve become fists.

Your body is tense, your enthusiasm gone. Your once-fun-but-now-unpleasant task list’s cackle still echoes in your mind. What do you do? You resume work like you’re supposed to, your soul sluggish and your mind cluttered. You try to keep typing, but typing with fists is nearly impossible.

And scene.

This happened to me a bunch over the last few weeks, and I dealt with it, but I didn’t understand what was going on until now. The technique that’s been working the best is this: any time I felt overwhelmed by tasks or guilt, I’d ask “What am I in the mood to work on right now?” and then have fun doing that thing. That’s it.

Somehow, as if by magic, my productivity soared. But it’s not magic; it’s the fact I’m enjoying and interested in what I’m working on. Once I separate a task from its priority, perceived difficulty, how much I’ve been putting it off, and so on, I can actually see what makes it fun.

It’s important to note that what I think I’d want to work on is often not what I want to work on: I can’t use logic to deduce what I’m in the mood for. I’ve gotta look through the whole menu and see what whets my brain-appetite. Remarkably, I found myself tackling tasks I’d been putting off for months because I’d built up a picture in my head that they were harsh and intimidating. I completed them, did them well, AND enjoyed myself.

The coolest unexpected effect I found was that I’d complete tasks I didn’t expect to enjoy (but did), then I’d ride that momentum to complete harder tasks. Now that’s pretty cool.

Caveat time: It’s easy to take breaking the rules of doing tasks in priority order too far. If I let myself slide too deep down the carefree-attitude slope, I’d gradually bend other rules (e.g. sleeping in on a work day because I stayed up late— a cardinal no-no). Whenever I float towards this cycle, I lose sight of my goals, I start drifting, and I feel crappy and unproductive. So this specific rule-bending tactic is simply one productivity strategy in a toolbox of many. I’ve been oscillating regularly between excessive rule-breaking and excessive rule-following over the last year (each bout a reaction to the other), and I gradually find myself spending less and less time in the extremes as I work towards hovering around the sweet spot in the middle.

TL;DR: When you start dreading all your tasks, stop, and only work on whatever task interests you in that current moment.

“…Hey,” says Task List, waddling back in. “I’m sorry about what I said earlier. And for shitting on your desk.” You watch as Task List shuffles over to your computer and sucks the shit back up into its butt.

“It’s okay, Task List,” you reply, “It’s my fault for taking you too seriously. Friends?”

Task List sizes you up with a mysterious smile.

“Yep. Friends. Now let’s get back to work.”