I stopped trying to be productive. Here’s what happened

Spoiler alert: it made me more productive.

I used to love reading—and writing—about productivity. The thought of achieving a balance between success and happiness was indeed alluring, and I was determined to find the right tools, refine the perfect system. Moreover, I wanted to help others do the same.

Then, COVID-19 happened.

My already declining mental health worsened. I was always tired, struggled to focus and dreaded the start of my workday. No matter how long I worked, I was not getting much done and had no energy to spend time on the personal projects that mattered to me.

What about the productivity hacks, the apps, the lists, and the routines?

None of them worked.

My morning routine consisted of me staying in bed for two hours after the alarm went off, groggy and anxious, only to rush to the kitchen to eat my breakfast in a hurry before work.

The planner I lovingly bought last year became a source of anxiety and guilt as unfinished tasks piled up and rolled over day after day, for weeks.

Blocking distractions meant that instead of getting distracted with YouTube videos, I stared at my screen in paralyzing fear, second-guessing every word of my emails and social media messages to my clients’ customers.

I used to love remote work—it gave me the chance to work with people from all over the world and companies in different industries and provided me with experiences and skills. But now, it was making me miserable.

However, I was missing the obvious: remote work was never the problem. The situations created by the pandemic were

You see, working from home meant flexible schedules and not being tied to an office. More importantly, it was meant to be voluntary.

It never meant not leaving your home at all for two months, unable to meet with friends and relatives, forced to work without the right space and equipment, perhaps worrying about your health and financial stability while a worldwide pandemic wreaked havoc in society as we know it and killed hundreds of thousands of people. In the right conditions, we know remote work benefits companies and employees alike.

Work after the pandemic is an unknown world with new rules. To me, it seemed like the system I created to keep me focused and productive collapsed over my head and it left me trying to build a new one while nursing my wounds. 

Have I found an alternative system? Not yet, but I’m getting closer. Here are some steps I’m taking to get back on track.

Forget about to-do lists

For some, lists are still the way to go to get things done. Others take more existential approaches to keep them focused on their goals.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t work for me anymore. 

I already know what I have to do—on top of doing client work I have to finish this blog post, update my portfolio and write short stories for my newsletter. These tasks are always on the back of my head, looming over me as I do yoga right out of bed or take 20 minutes to have lunch away from the computer.

So I no longer structure my time based on which tasks I will do that day. Instead, I block out time to work on any personal project, giving me the flexibility to pick what I want to do on in that moment depending on my energy levels and mental health. This was, I still get some things done without pushing myself beyond my means.

I have also stopped planning every single hour of my day. If I take longer to make lunch or prefer to spend more time writing than scheduling social media posts, or if I’m too fatigued and can’t get anything done no matter how hard I stare at my screen, then I have the freedom to go easy that day without feeling guilty about messing up my carefully planned schedule.

Be realistic

Sometimes I still wish I had the strength and willpower to work from 7 am to 11 pm. To run on 4 hours of sleep, caffeine and ambition and remain sharp, efficient, laser-focused on my tasks.

In reality, if I sleep less than seven hours I’m useless the next day. A cup of regular coffee will take me to the brink of an anxiety attack. All attempts to work for long periods without breaks have only made me miserable, rendered me unable to make progress and enjoy whatever success I’ve achieved.

Clearly, living to work, well, didn’t work. It affected my psychological health to the point I was not just unhappy, but I wasn’t getting anything done.  Something had to give.

Now I dedicate two hours each weekday and four to five hours on weekends to personal projects. This is enough for me to see some progress without neglecting my health, my relationships, and the cleanliness of my living space. 

Of course, it may be different for you. Maybe you’d rather get up at 4 am on weekdays to work on your personal project and have the weekends off to spend time with your kids. Or maybe you’re fine with working 14 hours on a Sunday and take it easy the rest of the week. Whatever it is, instead of trying to mold your life according to someone else’s routine, create your own. 

Use rewards, not punishments

I used a few habits tracking apps before, but none worked until I tried Habitica.

Habitica is a gamified habit building app in which the health and progress of your RPG character depends on your real-life habits. If you complete whatever habits and daily tasks you’ve created, your character gains coins, experience, and even random items. If you don’t, it takes a hit. If it loses all its health, it dies. 

After starting using this app I noticed that I work much better with positive reinforcement rather than with penalties for bad habits. While punishments make me more anxious, and thus more likely to put off the task, rewards turn an intimidating task into an enjoyable one. If I want to level up my character or buy extra equipment for it, I’ve got to finish my tasks first. Focusing on rewards rather than punishments may work for other people with anxiety.

Also, the social aspect of the app helps with accountability and provides with much needed moral support and tips. Habitica has hundreds of groups, called guilds, of users gathered around a common interest or goal, and many challenges require you to check in with your guild and share your progress. 

Celebrate all achievements

One habit Habitica has helped me reinforce is to celebrate victories, big and small. Finishing a short story gets a pat on the back just as cooking a meal or getting out of my pyjamas and into regular clothes in the morning. 

This helps combat negative self-talk. If you haven’t experienced it, let me tell you it can be debilitating. If all you can say to yourself is all the ways you’re messing up, it’s difficult to continue working, evaluate your growth objectively and be proud of your accomplishments. 

Now that I have my negative self-talk the new job of focusing on my achievements instead of my mistakes and insecurities, I can look back at my day and understand the progress I’ve made and what I need to do next.

Is this new, less structured approach to productivity working? Well, for me it is. Since then my negative self-talk and anxiety have decreased, and I went from getting nothing done to starting my flash fiction newsletter, sending proposals to clients, and writing posts for my remote work blog again.

If there’s something the pandemic has taught me about productivity is that it shouldn’t be only the number of hours you work or the income it generates or your weekly KPIs. They do matter, but not as much as your mental health, your well-being, and the fulfilment you get from work.

Slowing down and focusing less on results and more on the small steps has done more for my productivity and mental health than any hack, fancy to-do list app or beautiful daily planner. Instead of dreading getting up in the morning only to leave half-my tasks unchecked, I feel good about getting down to work and do my best, whatever that means that day. Some days I finish a short story in one sitting. Other, I struggle to write 100 words. Both are fine. Both are progress. 

Do you have any tips not mentioned in the post? Let me know in the comments below!

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