People talk about “catching themselves” being unproductive, and I don’t get it. I “catch myself” glancing at the bus window’s emergency hammer when someone asks me what I’m going to do with my life. I don’t “catch myself” being useless. I’m a knowing accomplice. I aid and abet. I see my keeping up with the grasshopper plague in Las Vegas and raise myself studying Wikipedia pages of Love Island UK seasons.
I eventually started searching “how to be productive when you don’t feel like it” and reading productivity articles in a sort of asymptote to productivity, hoping that someone else could tell me what to do if I couldn’t help myself. But the problem with most “how to stop wasting time” and “how to be productive when you’d Rather Not” articles is that they don’t tackle the core of my issues.
Lots of articles feel like what I imagine therapy’s like. They recommend thinking about the emotion that surrounds your lack of productivity and about what’s behind that feeling so you can understand it. But “and-how-does-that-make-you-feel”-ing myself to work doesn’t seem useful, as I know how I feel about what I’m avoiding. It’s because the task could be difficult. I don’t want to start because I’m avoiding negative emotion, most often the fear that I’ll be incompetent at it.
What some advice columns don’t stress is that there are different contexts to being unproductive. For me, at least, there’s A) wanting to work on something else, B) not wanting to do anything (usually burnout), and C) avoiding something.
I drew a peach, potato, and a prune, respectively, for your visualization. (When I avoid things I feel shrivel-y like a prune. Potato for couch potato. And peach because I think A is peachy keen. It means you still have a healthy interest and capacity to want things, just other activities that you’d more rather do.)
My situations are usually a mix of “potato” and “prune,” but here are some tips that may help you escape your next rabbit hole, categorized by what might help each scenario.
- Map out your conspiracy theory (potato – don’t want to do anything)
This one’s the most long-term project but probably the most effective. I can no longer find the post, but someone on the Internet once shared the spreadsheet he used to manage his depression. Every day, he’d track when he woke up and went to sleep, his mood (overall and the times they changed,) significant events, and so on. He quantified the data pretty neatly, but you could easily just jot down a couple of notes each day and learn a lot about when you work and feel best. Like a mood journal, or, if you’re too good for that, an “energy sheet.”
- Don’t watch Cat (potato, prune – don’t want to do specific thing)
Sometimes I watch Cat take her seventh nap on the arm of our couch and can just feel myself forgetting how to breathe. Hanging around someone (not limited to cats) who refuses to contribute to society will not inspire you to take action.
- Jump into the pool (prune)
If the water’s ice cold and you’re not a monster, the best method is to jump and suffer the brief shock as opposed to drawn-out pain. Just start.
I kind of knew this guy in high school who couldn’t get started on his graduation speech and just wrote F*CK at the top of the page. I can’t remember if he told me this or I just heard from other people—most likely the latter, given no one really wanted to talk to me in high school—but that “start” psyched him into continuing. And then he forgot to delete the word and turned it in to the principal.
- Bite and chew. (peach – want to do something else, prune)
For some reason, I associate watermelon with “don’t bite off more than you can chew,” but now I’m wondering if I’ve been conditioned because since when do you bite into watermelon? You might say that they’re really talking about a cut watermelon, but then where are the consequences?
Anyway, there’s the Pomodoro method, which breaks up your work into 25-minute intervals of hyper-focus. A less intense version of that would be “shrinking” your work until the portion seems manageable. (i.e. “I don’t want to start that. It’ll take me hours.” -> “I’ll spend an hour?” “45 minutes?” “30 for now.”)
- Disconnect, as the elders say. (peach, prune)
I hate it when people tell me this, but I’ve never felt time pass more slowly than the rare occasion during which my phone is more than an arm’s length away from me.
- Sleep (peach, potato)
Obviously depends if you have an imminent deadline and if you care about the quality of your work, but if I’m too tired to accomplish something, I usually find that it’s better to bite the bullet and nap. Otherwise, in putting off sleep, I’ll seek out tasks that don’t require brain activity, like listening to US politicians talk about climate change, and end up sleeping anyway.
- Meditate (potato)
I’ve been told by many people that meditating would help. I agree. It’d probably be good for me. However, if I could simply do what’s in my best interest, I wouldn’t be in this situation in the first place. I’m including this in case you’ll take more initiative.
- Don’t overdo a to-do list. (prune)
I make to-do lists all the time because I’m constantly coming up with miscellaneous tasks I need to do and am never able to remember them. In trying to cram as many items onto the agenda as possible, though, I’ll burn out because I never finish what I set out to. Like how I’ll bring three textbooks and a laptop to a study date at some coffee shop and only end up typing “The” in a Word doc.
Example to-do list of mine
- Write blog post
- Finish three lab reports
- Look up “sco pa tu manaa”
- Regain self-worth
- Become a better person
All equally unlikely.
- Exercise? (potato)
Exercise is another one that’s on almost all of the “I am wasting time” listicles. Of course it’d be helpful to get your blood flowing and be healthy. But exercising doesn’t always make me productive, even if I’m multitasking Netflix and glute bridges, because to me exercise seems like a Thing, after which I have the right to do nothing. So yes, exercise is always great, but while we’re at it, I’ve never had a pet chinchilla and I think that’d be pretty great, too.
- Rope other people into it (peach, prune)
This one’s good if shame is what gets you going. Just like how women tend to negotiate better when they’re advocating for other people, so you can picture yourself becoming productive for someone else. If no one directly depends on your work, you can still try whatever makes you feel accountable—just telling someone, paying someone, whatever.
Me: –and I just really need to get this over with, so I’m going to start working on it in thirty-minute blocks until it’s done by tonight. Maybe if I’m good I’ll eat a cheese danish.
Employee: Ma’am, this is a Wendy’s.
- Stop trying to give people unqualified advice.
Please consider following this blog via email and/or liking its Facebook page, where I post occasional life updates and quality excuses for the lack of said life updates. Oh, and find me on Instagram, another place where I am wasting my time.
Last post: What To Do At A House Party: Not This