Promises, Promises or The Problem with Productivity

It’s amazing how much time you can waste reading about productivity.

Like most people, I have a love/hate relationship with Reddit. One of the blogs I follow is The Art of Manliness,which recently suggested that the way to handle Reddit was to subscribe to the subreddits that are geared towards self-improvement, such as the subreddits for losing weight, quitting smoking, or getting motivated. I decided to take the author’s advice, and bookmarked all the subreddits he suggested that seemed applicable to me and my current situation (mostly motivation, organization, and productivity). I figured I’d visit each subreddit individually, scroll through the content, and decide if it was right for me.

After about half an hour on r/productivity, I realized that I was reading all the same advice I’d always heard, all in familiar “I don’t have time for this” list form. Ten Things to Jump Start Your Productivity. Top Five Distractions at Work. Eight Ways to Get Organized. Ad nauseam.

None of it is new, whether the advice is for me as a human or me as a writer. Get up earlier. Turn off the TV. Make lists. Write in the mornings. Eat the same thing every day. Make lists. Use this app for tracking your time. Make lists. Don’t let people interrupt you. Make lists. Quit Facebook. Make lists. Make lists. Make lists.

That fact is, the only times I’ve ever experienced a real surge in productivity is when it feels like it just happens. Suddenly I stop doing whatever was holding me back and start focusing on what matters to me. And when people try to give you advice on how to make this magical moment happen, they generally use some version of the phrase “just start.” To someone having trouble starting, this seems like inane and useless advice. If I could “just start,” I would have done it already.

In pedagogy they warn teachers not to get frustrated when they find themselves saying the same thing over and over and never seeming to get through to their students. I learned about it in relation to dance. You will tell a student over and over to straighten their arm during the musical bridge. Straighten your arm during the bridge. You need to keep your arm straight. Over and over. And then one day, the student will raise his or her hand and ask, as though the topic has never come up before, “Should our arms be straight during the bridge?” And you will sigh and nod. But it is not the student’s fault. It’s a symptom of learning. They were always listening, always paying attention. The student’s brain was just working on all the other elements. Maybe it was the rhythm, or the feet. Maybe they were just trying to memorize the sequence. But now they have mastered those other elements and are ready to straighten their arms.

I wonder if the “just start” philosophy isn’t a different name for the same thing. No one has to convince me that getting up earlier or writing every day are good ideas. I know they are. I’ve been told a hundred times. I know I should just start. I should just do it. Right now. But maybe what holds me back from doing what I want to do is that I am not ready to do it. And more importantly, I might not be in control of my readiness. Being ready might be something so terribly subconscious that I can neither see it coming nor force it to speed up. It may come at me without fanfare, and when I look back I will think that I “just started.”

I called this post “Promises, Promises” because I made a promise when I wrote my first post that even if no one was reading my blog yet, I would update regularly. I would update at least every two weeks, no matter what. But this post is now at least four days behind. So much for promises.

Productivity promises so often leave procrastinatory regrets. It’s the new year, so the idea of making a promise only to disappoint yourself should be fresh in everyone’s mind. So what’s the solution for those wishing to up their productivity? It can’t be to wait for your magical ready moment, as that will quickly turn into an excuse not to try. It’s can’t be to “just start,” because such advice is only useful to those who hear it when they are ready to take it.

So I’m not going to give you any advice. That would go against my fun new theory that the moment a person finally turns the corner and becomes more productive has everything to do with them internally, and little to nothing to do with what they read on the internet. All I can do is wish you luck, and make more promises to myself. One day my promises will stick. One day I will be ready. One day, I will just start.