I do not usually give sanctimonious advice. Nor do I promote lists meant to “improve your life” in easy steps. In my experience, people rarely change in fundamental ways. Who you are by age 20 is a pretty good indication of your future, though someone recently told me that temperament and character emerge clearly before a child turns two. All the same, I am about to provide you with a series of tips encouraging you to be more productive and goal oriented. I decided to write this post after several people asked me for help, wondering: How can I multi-task, be more efficient, and simply get more shit done in a day? What is your secret, oh great goddess FFG? How do you maintain a full-time career, teach spin classes, stay fit, write books, bake delicious frittatas, and catch your child’s pink projectile vomit in the palm of your hand, thereby avoiding yet another load of laundry? Well, firstly, I never admit my weaknesses and lack of success so that others will think I am the bomb. And secondly I follow a few rules every day, and they might also work for you.
Don’t Waste Time
Unexpected shit is going to happen. A meeting will be cancelled at the last minute, someone will not show up, or the subway will be delayed “for technical reasons.” While it is important to have a rational plan of action every day—written in tedious list form—it is always a good idea to have a backup plan. I bring something to do when I am waiting in the doctor’s office, standing in line at a grocery store, or walking across campus to the shockingly new dental building. Instead of day dreaming, I grade a few papers, read more of that crap-heavy MA thesis, or choreograph my next spin class. There are in fact plenty of hours in a day. You can get a lot done in a piecemeal, constantly interrupted fashion. Moms will know exactly what I mean. Today I had, for example, a full fifteen minutes to spare after I finished revising a chapter and before I needed to pick up my son at daycare. So I wrote this paragraph.
Get Over Yourself
I constantly hear people explaining why they can’t get something done. It is not the right time; I am not “in a good place”; I am too busy, and other such horseshit. They imagine that what they want to do is so important and daunting that it will take a massive amount of psychic and physical energy to complete. My primary example stems from my own profession: writing a book. And by book I mean a carefully researched and well written refereed monograph published by a respected press. When I was told that I had to write such a book in order to get tenure, the prospect seemed overwhelming, especially since no one offered advice or help. But then I thought: “lots of idiots publish scholarly books, so I can probably do it too.” I was correct. Was it easy? No. Was it a big fucking deal that left scars on my body? Well… In any case, my book might be your something else (cluttered closet, law degree, new job, or business). Just remember: you are probably not going to change the world. No one will remember you. Few people will read your book, see your play, visit your salon, or benefit from your organic vegetable garden. So get over yourself and get on with your plan. There is no perfect time waiting for you in the future.
Is the story you tell about yourself in your head different from your everyday lived reality? Welcome to the club. Still, it is possible to overcome your delusions, however slightly. Let’s start with the basics: Are you a morning person, or a night person? Plan your important work tasks for when you are most alert. Save the shit work for your down time. I am a morning person, so I try to write and think during that time of day. Do I have a million other things on my “to do” list, plus hundreds of emails to answer? Yes. That is my shit work. My shit list includes the following: administrative work, course prep, editing, grading, answering emails, attending meetings. These things are important, but they are categorized as shit work because they do not require my full intellectual faculties. They can mostly be done later in the day, when I am not at my best. I abide rigidly to this rule. Maybe your entire job is shit work? That means your priorities are elsewhere and you will save your best self for whatever you actually care about. Do not invest your emotions or extra time in fruitless ventures. Think that’s impossible? Think again. I could get caught up in the frustrating politics of my department or university, but I choose not to. That does not mean that I do not participate. I contribute fully. I just don’t care that much. I care about my family, my research and my workouts, saving my passion for them.
I make a lot of lists, covering short, medium, and long term goals. Not everyone wants to do that. But in my line work, I can spend years on end writing books and articles, waiting forever for editors and publishers before the texts finally appear in print and no one reads them. How can I stay on task and feel accomplished in the meantime? Of course, it is always a good idea to break large projects into smaller tasks and then celebrate their achievement (i.e. one glass of wine per 25 exams graded and the like). It is also wise to undertake and recognize other tasks as important, like baking a pie, cleaning the house, lifting heavier at the gym, or maintaining important friendships. I keep track of and “count” everything as an accomplishment. I am very pleased that I dressed my son in a red snow suit and pulled him on a purple sled today. That was a butt load of work. Sometimes people fail to accomplish large tasks because they lack confidence in their ability to get things done. One solution is to get small things done, even when they seem unimportant. Here are a few monumental accomplishments from my past week:
-I went through my tights and nylons drawer and threw out all the pairs with holes in them. Then I had to buy some tights since I had none. Victory was mine!
-I cleaned out both bathroom cabinets, throwing away and replacing the out of date medications. In your face world! This triumph took about 20 minutes plus shopping time.
I think you get the picture. Getting a small project finished will provide stress relief. From this success, confidence will grow. Books will get written. Governments will be toppled, and so forth.
In the end, there is really no need to be like me. I am naturally organized, energetic, and on task. I do not have to force myself to do things. Nor do I need to lie down and rest on a regular basis. I move happily from one chore to the next to the next. But if you are the kind of person who needs downtime, then hells yeah. Prioritize that. Go for it. Understand your abilities and limitations. Don’t make yourself feel like a loser by always thinking you will do more in the future and finally fulfill that dream (but then you never do). Accept yourself and live your life by pursing something else. Everyone will benefit once you are more content and focused on the possible.