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A new theory of getting things done

This story starts with burnout.

You see, I’ve been trying to recover from burnout for what seems like forever. Some days it feels like sleep I lost a decade ago still haunts me today. Some days it feels like I carry a weight of exhaustion so heavy it will never be lifted.

And on other days I feel great. Sometimes I even feel great for several weeks in a row.

But always, inevitably, it seems like there comes a point when I crash again. When the sweet zing of excitement wears off and I come staggering back into my body to discover how deeply, truly, and utterly tired I am.

Maybe you have this problem, too. Maybe you, too, have the skittish, delicate kind of energy that can take you oh so far — but only if you treat it oh so gently and carefully. And only if you put it to bed often and for longer than any body should reasonably “need” to rest.

Or maybe you are nothing like me and your energy is strong and robust, in which case you should tell me all your secrets in the comments below. For years I longed to have the kind of strong, robust energy that I so admired in others.

But the truth is that I don’t — I have the quiet, delicate energy of a dreamer. And my constitution requires a lot of rest, a lot of time for night-dreaming, and a lot of time for day-dreaming and quiet contemplation.

Which is why I need a new theory of getting things done — because my old way was clearly not working.

My way of pretending my energy was strong and robust. My way of gritting my teeth and digging my heels in and just pushing through. My way of shouldering should-dos and have-tos until I felt like Atlas with the weight of a life lived by other people’s rules resting on my shoulders.

For the past couple of months I have been experimenting with a new way of doing things.

It’s a way that I shan’t take credit for inventing, but it’s new-to-me and it seems to be working — so this week I’d like to invite you to try it, too.

The new way involves not-doing more than it involves doing. The new way means sitting down and resting when my back hurts even though the cooking isn’t done yet. The new way means typing out this missive to you because I felt the words pattering in my heart even though I didn’t “have time” to write to you today. The new way means trusting that I will find the time I need, that I can write this missive and that things will work out anyway. And, most of all, the new way means sleeping — it means a lot of sleeping.

The new way looks nothing like “working” the way I’ve always conceived of working — the slogging away, the grinding through I’ve always envisioned and pursued.

But here’s the thing. For the first time in possibly forever, I achieved everything I set out to do in March.

Since last summer I have set goals at the start of every month, and at the end of every month I reflect on what I achieved and what I didn’t achieve and I recalibrate and set my goals for the coming month.

Every month I note that I failed to achieve roughly ⅔ of what I set out to achieve.

But in March I did it all. Even the wishy-washy, maybe-if-I-get-around-to-it stuff I thought would be nice but didn’t really plan to achieve.

In the spirit of total honesty, my top priority in March was to rest — so maybe some of my success is just that I’m getting better at setting more attainable goals.

I don’t think that’s the whole story.

I think there’s a kind of magic to living this way. Free of rules and have-tos and should-dos. Free to rest when you’re tired. Free to do whatever you want when you’re not. Free to play and go for a walk and take a nap and write a book.

I think that getting things done works like this:

Motivation + inspiration = joy

Motivation – inspiration = toil

Inspiration – motivation = guilt

If we want to get things effortlessly and joyously we have to align our doing with our inspiration.

And in order to do that we need to give ourselves permission to rest. Because no one feels creative and inspired when they’re tired.

We need to give ourselves permission to tend to our quiet, delicate dreamer-energy and care for our bodies and our needs. We need permission to break the rules. Permission to be imperfect and flawed. Permission to suck at it — to fall back into our old patterns and habits and to realize we were still following rules without realizing it.

Because permission is the key to everything.

And when we give ourselves permission to live like this we unlock the door to getting things done in a way that feels easy, playful, and joyous instead of hard, burdensome, and exhausting.

After all, who wouldn’t want to live their life like that?

Much love,
Jessica

P.S. If this sounds brilliant but you’re not sure where to start, I’d love to invite you to work with me as a private coaching client.

I forgot I needed a plan

It’s been a while (months, I’m afraid) since I’ve mentioned the book I’m writing. Or rather, I suppose I should say “the book I was writing” because if we’re being honest I haven’t worked on it much since July.

There’s plenty of excuses for why I haven’t been writing — my book notes and thoughts were never properly unpacked after I moved in early July, I became busy with another major project at the end of July that’s been eating up a lot of my free time, etc.

Excuses are cheap and easy to come by.

But the truth is that all of those pretty excuses are just excuses.

It’s not that I don’t have the time to work on my book.

In fact, I’ve had “spend 20 mins writing” on my To Do list every week since July and there’s only been a handful of times I’ve actually crossed that item off.

For weeks now I’ve been trying to figure out why I wasn’t writing.

I tried most of the tricks I know — I used to set the goal of writing for an hour but when that didn’t work I made the goal smaller, just 20 minutes. Surely I could find 20 minutes?

But no.

I started to work on other intangibles, trying to sleep more and working to tidy up my physical space — both of which are important but neither of which helped me.

And then I started to toy with the idea of doing just five measly minutes minutes of writing.

If I didn’t have 20 minutes then I absolutely had five. I’ve had great luck in using five minutes to re-build flagging habits (an idea I heard first from the lovely Anna Kunnecke).

What if I wrote for just five minutes?

It was a question that haunted me for weeks. Surely 5 minutes wasn’t enough to produce anything meaningful?

Usually when I write I need at least 20 minutes to get into the swing of things, remember what I was doing, and produce something useful.

But 20 minutes wasn’t working and I kept wondering about the tantalizing possibility of five.

Which was, naturally, when I figured the whole thing out.

Because five minutes might totally be enough time to write something useful — but only if you sit down at the beginning of those five minutes knowing exactly what it is you plan to write.

Five minutes wasn’t working for me because I didn’t have a plan.

[Photo of index cards on wall]
The “Wall of Book” that now exists in my bedroom.
This not-having-a-plan thing is the problem I’ve run into every time I’ve declared I was writing a book — from my first attempt at age 11 to my most recent failure during NaNoWriMo 2012. And it nearly got me again, this time around.

Every time I have a book idea, I jump right into the writing. I draft pages and pages of story (sometimes as much as 100) and inevitably, eventually I get stuck.

I get stuck because the story grows so large that I can’t keep it all in my head.

I get stuck because I have a million and one good ideas and none of them quite seem to fit.

I get stuck because I only kinda-sorta-maybe know where I’m going.

I get stuck because I don’t have a plan.

So this time I’ve brushed off my index cards and painter’s tape and I’m putting together my plan.

One scene, one idea, one paragraph at a time.

And you can bet that once I’ve got the plan worked out I’m going to write my way to the finish line — even if I have to do it five fucking minutes at a time.

 

What about you — do you have a big project you’ve been stalled out on? If so, what’s been holding you back? Let me know in the comments!

 

Is it really a good idea to keep your options open?

Confession: I have too much on my plate again.

It’s a problem that occurs every month or two as I struggle (usually unsuccessfully) to fit all the things I really want to do into a finite number of post-work hours.

I try to do this because in theory I want to do it all. But the reality (which I have a hard time remembering) is that when I’m busy trying to do it all I invariably end up exhausted and unhappy.

Instead of cramming more and more into my already-busy schedule, I find that I make the most progress when I have wide open space and only a few tasks competing for my attention. Into this wide open space my creative endeavors unfold gracefully, effortlessly.

But as soon as my schedule starts to get cluttered again, I find myself feeling overwhelmed. And once I’m overwhelmed I stop getting things done.

Learning this lesson has been hard for me because I taught myself to manage the opposite when I was at MIT. And so I know that the opposite is also true.

You can motivate yourself to achieve impossible tasks when your schedule is so cluttered it is beyond overwhelming and begins to induce panic.

Martha Beck would say that when the to-do list get to panic-inducing levels of overwhelm we shift into the place beyond fear (an idea from her book, Steering by Starlight: The Science and Magic of Finding Your Destiny) and from this place we can act with calm and clear precision, taking highly effective action toward our goals.

As a student at MIT I usually completed my work from the place beyond fear. The amount of work was so extreme that I had to stop worrying about if I could do it at all because every drop of my energy was focused into getting as much done as I could. I didn’t need to prioritize or schedule — I just started with the assignment that was most pressing and worked until I was too tired to press on.

In this way I accomplished impressive, impossible tasks as a student at MIT. But most of the time I was miserable.

Because this place-beyond-fear ridiculousness isn’t a healthy way to get things done in our day-to-day lives, but as a student it became the only way I knew. I didn’t know the steady effort of healthy progress — I knew the reckless, careening drama of a panic-stricken dash to meet a looming deadline.

And so I’ve struggled with finding a model for getting things done that works for me out in the real world, and especially one that works for me in my own personal life.
Because my personal projects don’t have deadlines really, and if they do have deadlines those deadlines were usually arbitrary goals I set for myself.

I’m not good at keeping myself accountable to my own deadlines. I expect to disappoint myself and so I usually do — partly because my deadlines often assume a willingness to pursue the kinds of herculean efforts I invested as a student, and partly because I find it hard to feel motivated when the only person my failure is disappointing is myself.

All of which is to say that I have a history of feeling ineffective when it comes to achieving my personal goals and it’s taken me a lot of experimentation and observation and practice to start to figure out why I struggle with this and what to do differently.

But I’m starting to get a handle on the answer. I’m slowly, grudgingly coming to the conclusion that I can’t do it all. I’m finding I can’t have more than one or two personal projects I’m focused on at a time.

Which brings me back to the title of this post, because i’ve lived most of my life in an attempt to keep my options open. When I didn’t want to get my PhD after finishing undergrad I got my Master’s degree instead because that seemed to “keep my options open”. When I didn’t know what I wanted to do after I graduated with my Master’s degree I accepted the first job that came along (a job that happened to be in science) because that felt like “keeping my options open”.

In some ways, the whole story of my life since I was a student at MIT has been a tale of keeping my options open about having a career in science.

And I apply the same principle in my personal life. I hesitate to cross projects off my list because leaving them on feels like “keeping my options open”.

Crossing off a project means saying I’m not going to work on this right now and making that decision can be scary.

What if I’m making a mistake? What if I decide something isn’t a priority and then find myself wanting to spend my time on it?

These sort of nonsensical concerns weigh on my heart and I think the real problem is that I still think it’s best to keep my options open.

But, increasingly, I believe that keeping one’s options open is a fool’s journey. Instead I think it might be better to slam doors shut early and often — after all, we rarely close a door that can’t be opened again.

The more I spend my energy keeping all the doors open, the more paralyzed I feel.

When all my energy is spent holding doors open, I don’t have anything left to make progress toward reaching the goals that lie through those very doors I’m so busy holding open.

 

I’d love for this to be a conversation, and not a monologue! How do you feel about keeping your options open? Do you need white space to get things done? Do you struggle to prioritize? Let me know in the comments below.

 

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