You can listen to an audio version of this newsletter above. Please note that this is unedited and I’m recording in my home office. It was raining outside when I recorded, so you may hear cars going by or raindrops on the windows. Sam the cat also cameos with a meow at 1:18.
As I said in Tend to It: A Holistic Guide to Intentional Productivity, productivity is personal.
When it comes to being a productive knowledge worker,
We are constantly shown messages that purport that there’s one right way to find success, and we are bombarded with tips to get there quicker than everyone else. Even though social media and advertisements would have us think otherwise, practices like productivity, creativity, entrepreneurship, and personal development are not one-size-fits-all. To find out what works best for you as an individual, you need to experiment (14).
A personal productivity session is structured time where you work on an intentionally-chosen task. In order to select an appropriate task from your to-do list, you begin with your context:
How am I feeling?
When will I need to end my productivity session?
What do I want to prioritize?
If you have brain fog, you might choose to write an outline instead of drafting paragraphs. If you have a lot of energy, you might choose to respond to emails you’ve been avoiding. When we get to know our needs and preferences before we choose a task to work on, we can develop personal productivity sessions that help us make progress while tending to ourselves.
When you get to know your particular patterns and comfort levels when it comes to your productivity practices, you can streamline the process of setting up effective personal productivity sessions. For example, you might have a particular time of day when certain tasks feel easier or harder, or you might know that aversive tasks are best scheduled when you’re co-working with friends for accountability.
In my Structure as a Path to Sustainability workshop with Dr. Katy Peplin on May 10th 10am-2pm EDT (recording available if you can’t make it live!), I’ll guide folks through multiple processes for developing personal productivity sessions that provide a supportive framework, while creating room for flexibility and change. Today I want to touch on two topics that I’ll cover in-depth during the workshop: personal resources and accessible productivity.
Personal resources are the things that fuel our productivity. Productivity researchers often present time, energy, and focus as the trifecta for gaining maximum efficiency. In other words, if you’re looking for ways to increase your productivity, you’ll probably encounter tips to optimize your time, energy, and focus to get as much done as quickly as possible. I’ve written before about the complicated nature of efficiency, and while increased efficiency may mean more output, it may also result in more burnout. That’s why I’m also interested in personal resources that deal with accessibility, like mental health, physical comfort, and spoons, a tool used by folks with chronic conditions to track energy expenditure.
Personal Resources and Accessibility
When we personalize our productivity sessions, we should not only take into account the time we have, our energy levels, and our ability to focus, but also consider what tasks would be most accessible for our present physical and emotional states. We may find that going with the flow of what we need is more productive than forcing ourselves to overproduce.
The Goldilocks Approach to Productivity
One of the tools I’ll cover during Structure As a Path to Sustainability is a favorite of mine that I return to regularly for my own personal productivity sessions: The Goldilocks Approach to Productivity. You may remember the children’s story in which Goldilocks tests out items to discover which are too little, too much, and just right. This method fits well with productivity, particularly if a project is long-term and lacking in step-by-step instructions. Using the Goldilocks Approach helps you to develop a personal productivity session that accounts for the time you have, how you feel, and what’s accessible to you that day.
Here’s how I describe the tool in Tend to It:
Step 1: Choose a Project and Timeline
To make your own Goldilocks Approach to Productivity, you should choose a project or task you’re working on and predetermine a set timeframe that you’ll dedicate to a work session. Determining how much time you have to spend on a work session will help you develop a realistic just right goal.
Step 2: Choose Your Goal And Your “Not Enough” and “Too Much”
Before you begin your work session, identify an actionable and achievable goal by writing down what would be not enough or too little and what would be too much for you to accomplish in that work session. Consider the time you have to work, your mood, energy, focus levels, and the deadline for your project. Other things that might help you determine what would be not enough or too much are how much scaffolding and preparation you’ve already done for this project. Don’t set yourself up to do unnecessary labor for this step of the project.
Be honest with yourself when it comes to determining what is not enough and too much. Think back to times when you failed to achieve your goals, and consider what obstacles caused you to miss your mark. Did you wait until the last minute to work on your project? Did you try to do too much at once, so you ended up feeling defeated and stressed? Allow that awareness to influence what too much and not enough would look like for your current work session.
If you’re still unsure of what to write for not enough and too much, scale your intention for your larger project down to this single work session and aim to accomplish enough to feel satisfied with your progress. You can do this by considering the total amount of work the larger project will demand and dividing it by how many more work sessions you will have before your final deadline.
Step 3: Identify Your Just Right
Once you’ve determined what not enough and too much look like, identify your just right. I often ask my coaching clients how a goal feels in their body. How does your just right task feel when you check in with yourself? If you feel anxious or overwhelmed or hopeless, experiment with shifting the overwhelming task to your too much category and scale down to create a new just right. Repeat this process until you feel engaged and comfortable—even eager—about your goal, and then begin your session. (82-83)
Using the Goldilocks Approach to structure personal productivity sessions is helpful because it enables you to make progress on your own terms. When you can choose a task that is realistic based on your personal resources, you’re able to feel good about your progress and keep up momentum.
I welcome you to join Dr. Katy Peplin and me on May 10th to learn how to develop your personal productivity plans. If you can’t attend live or can only make part of the workshop, don’t worry because we’ll record it and share with all registrants. If you have any questions, shoot me an email at email@example.com.
This section of my letters is for things that made me say “hmmm” or “wow!” recently.
I finished Oliver Burkeman’s 4,000 Weeks: Time Management for Mortals and I really did enjoy it. Once I read Jenny Odell’s Saving Time: Discovering a Life Beyond the Clock I’ll write more thoughts about time management.
Have you heard the “If I Were a Fish” song yet? It is such a sweet, tender, queer, cute little song by Corook ft. Olivia Barton and it makes me very happy:
If you’re on social media you’ve likely seen the Wes Anderson-inspired shorts and I am loving them all. The premise is “You better not be acting like you’re in a Wes Anderson film while you do fill-in-the-blank” and then folks share their experience doing an action in a location at a specific time in an Anderson-esque style, which means twee, bright, and with subtle movements of items. Here’s a little article summarizing the trend.
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I hope a lot of PhD students take your course. Academia doesn’t really guide you in this (in my experience). Wise words here.