How Do You Get Shit Done?
This is unoriginal, but I’m a really bad procrastinator. I like spending thirty minutes staring at my pores in the mirror, or spending an hour scrolling to the hundredth page of Tumblr, or spending a day imagining what I’d look like if I shaved my eyebrows off (ok?). But I also crave the feeling of being productive, and can’t operate too well without it. A friend recently asked me what I’d deem a perfect day, and nestled among 2-5 breakfast sandwiches, I asserted that I wanted a block of 90 minutes where I would put music on and get things done—clean my bathroom, get to inbox zero, update my nail polish—so that I could go through the rest of my day not feeling guilty about having fun, followed by a two-hour nap because I deserve it.
So I’ve adopted that mentality for the new year (nap success TBD)—simply, “just do it”—and thus far it’s done me well; every day I have to do one thing that needs to get done before I can consider the day over. This isn’t going to result in any major changes, because part of the reason why I procrastinate is because I enjoy it—I am at my best when I have a large Dunkin’ Donuts iced coffee, a Girl Talk album blaring through my headphones, and five hours to write 2000 words—but will keep me from losing my mind, I hope. But I’m always curious how other people get this done—to all of the Hairpin contributors who file articles before their deadline, I ask: “how”—so this month, I asked: how do you get your shit done?
(Note: I mostly assumed everyone had already finished Scandal, which is the bulk of the reason why I have difficulty getting things done.)
How I think I get shit done is very different from how I actually get shit done. When I look back at the kind of student I was, it’s no surprise that I’ve taken strains of my (terrible) work ethic into my adult life. I’m mostly recalling the two-night-in-a-row all nighter I pulled writing a 30 page essay that I knew about for months my junior year of college. THE POINT IS, I finished the essay. Yes, I put myself into therapy immediately after and it took a long time to recover from missing two full nights of sleep (did you know some people physically and emotionally and mentally are not equipped whatsoever to miss out on sleep? I am one of those people, turns out) BUT I got an A on that essay (I think), and so what I’m saying is, I spend a lot of time worrying, stressing, considering, and talking myself into and out of completing work. This can be anything from blog posts I am assigned by editors to work that I’ve pitched and was, at one point, super excited and inspired to write! (This happens a lot.) Look at me, I haven’t even accomplished what I set out to explain in this paragraph, I’ve just talked in circles until I get to the point of no return and have to buckle down and get something written so I guess here’s how I get shit done: I overthink the assignment until there’s no more time left to do it, and then I abandon everything and just fucking spew all over the page until I have something that doesn’t make sense to me but maybe will make sense to whoever is editing me (all the while motivated by projecting how disappointed everyone will be in me if I don’t complete the task at hand.) And usually, everything ends up okay. I hope other people have better answers than this but I have a hunch that for most people to get anything done, they too have to first spend a healthily amount of time doubting themselves.
I stole a trick from my dear friend/spirit guide Marian Bull: I keep a little note stuck to my laptop that says “Is this distraction worth your time?” Whenever I start to go down the inevitable internet rabbit hole of Facebook vacation photos from someone who lived on my floor freshman year or a stranger’s Tweetstorm or fun recipes to make in a slow cooker (I don’t even own a slow cooker, goddammit) I look at the note and am reminded to go back to doing something productive. Other small things help too: I deleted the Twitter app off my phone. I listen to the Mountain Goats discography at full volume. I try to go running every day. And whenever I’m getting really frazzled, I think: What Would Chill Sitch Do? ;)
I am sort of obsessed with the notion of Getting Shit Done™; sometimes it feels like the knowledge that I am doing so is the only way I know how to feel valuable, like I’m moving forward and worthy of taking up space. (I’m one of those people who will write things she’s already accomplished on a to-do list just to have the satisfaction of crossing them all out.)
The flip side of this, of course, is that I’m extremely hard on myself when I don’t have a pile of recent little victories to point to. During these times I stare at Twitter and leave my bed unmade and contemplate my puffier-than-usual stomach with this weird sense of passive paralysis, like “Welp, guess that’s it for ever being my good self ever again.”
I’ve found that I can best snap out of it with a small entry point: for me, a lot of the time that means crafting something, but writing a throwaway paragraph or doing the laundry can work if you do not happen to be a knitting maniac (or even if you do and your thumbs are just tired). Having something concrete to point to — proof that I am smart, I am capable, I can and will do this — helps hold the door open for bigger triumphs.
I get out of bed. That sounds simple, but I can easily spend a day in bed, especially since I switched to freelancing full time. I can lose entire days under the covers. So, I find different ways to force myself up. I tried making coffee at home to save money, but I would start drinking coffee in my PJs and fall right back asleep. I realized that by going out to buy coffee, I am forcing myself to get up, get dressed, leave the house, and talk to people. I’m sure you could add up all the money I spent on coffee this year and it would add up to like, a million Ferraris dipped in gold, but if it wasn’t for this little morning ritual I would get no work done ever, so I can justify the budget for it.
I write out most of my drafts by hand in a little notebook, usually at night. I like to go to a bar and order a shot of whiskey and a beer and bring my notebook and write write write anything I can think of, then type the good bits up later the next morning. I had my go-to dive bar in Toronto, but I had to stop going there to work because—like clockwork—some guy with a stupid hat will see me writing in my notebook and take that as an invitation to come up to me about his art.
Lately, I’ve become obsessed with sports bars. Sports bars are perfect because I don’t care about sports, so it’s easy to drown out all the background noise, and most people at sports bars are there to watch sports, so they won’t come bug me when I’m trying to write alone in the corner, and also sports bars have the best beer and snacks.
I get shit done by beating myself up constantly, lol. If I don’t do my work I feel immensely guilty, and I hate feeling immensely guilty, so I do my work. So probably my two main productivity methods are “guilt” and “ruthless rigidity.”
At some point I decided on a number of words I thought I could reasonably and consistently expect myself to write everyday, in about an hour, every morning before I start my job. (I have also found earlyish mornings to be the most productive time of day for me, so I prioritize that time for writing above all else.) And then I just make myself hit that number every single day, with very rare exception. For me that number is 500. More on weekend days if I can; ideally 1000. It’s not a ton, but I’m always surprised how quickly it adds up. Occasionally I’ll fall short—I’ll stall out at like 337 or something, and if that happens, I gchat my roommate Chiara to whine about it. Then she’ll graciously ignore me and change the subject to something else. And then the next day I’ll do better. I try not to go too far over my count either, because I like to know where I’m starting the next day. That helps me not to panic.
I don’t think I could ever be someone who writes for hours and hours at a time, all the time. I do a little work at a time, on an inflexible routine, trying not to overthink it, until I have a big chunk of pages. A lot of them are probably garbage, but if I worry too much about that I’d have a lot fewer. Sometimes I roll my eyes at myself as I’m going, like, this whole page is stupid and you know it. But I rarely delete more than a few sentences as I write a first draft. I’ll do that later. I’ve never stared an empty page into perfection.
So, one thing I’ve realized is that procrastination is part of my process. That sounds like such a cop out! Like, “no, it’s okay for me to watch Dogs with Jobs on Netflix, it’s my process.”
Obviously, at some point, it’s important to just sit down and work. But I have started to cut myself a little slack, and factor in X hours of agony/procrastination/fear of starting per project. (Procrastination, for me, is just a manifestation of performance anxiety.) So I don’t kill myself over the hours (days?) spent where I feel like I should be working. Because I know that eventually I will run out of episodes to watch, and rooms to clean, and people to gchat with, and excuses. Then and only then will I sit down and work…but I’ve got to run through all the other options first. No use thinking about that as inefficiency: it’s just how I start.
Okay, so clearly I don’t stay on top of things that well because I even let this response slip.
Whoops. I guess when I’m actually on top of things, it’s because I take immediate action after I plan to get started. I’ll immediately open my Google calendar, set a due date, set at least 5 notifications in the days leading up to it, and then that way it doesn’t slide. It sounds crazy, but I have the worst history of forgetting everything from my sister’s birthday to important doctor’s appointments, to deadlines at work, so that’s the only thing that helps. “Just remembering” is a complete thing of the past.
So my mom has this story about me from when I was in third grade. I went to school near Central Park, and she picked me up on a beautiful spring day and suggested we go hang out in the park for a while before going home. I responded “is there a place in the park for me to do my homework?” Clearly, I have always been the type of person who is into Getting Shit Done. I am the living embodiment of this Lisa Simpson.
There are practical ways I try to make this drive to constantly be doing something actually productive—to do lists, answering emails promptly, keeping a regular work schedule even though I work from home—but I’ve realized I need a lot of outside help, whether it’s reaching out to editors about things, or just talking to my friends and husband for feedback. I also try to anticipate the burnout, and remind myself that I do my best work when I’m rested and relaxed, not when I haven’t moved from my chair for nine hours.
It’s hard, because I am constantly convinced that I am not productive enough, like work is the only thing keeping me from falling off a precipice and landing on a couch with my hand in a bag of Cheetoes for three days. I’m learning to let myself recharge and be lazy once in a while.
I have admittedly still retained a number of terrible college habits (read: 2a.m. Tumblr binges), but blessedly there are things that help me push through unproductive forays into the depths of Harry Potter conspiracy theories. When I want to fling myself headfirst into the kind of creative self-loathing that produces the quickest results, I use the SelfControl app, which blocks whatever websites you ask it to for however long you need. It makes me feel like a child with no willpower of my own, but it works.
I’ve been making use of “dead times,” like my commute, and it’s given me the space to develop ideas and nurture forms of creativity I might not otherwise have dedicated time to. This got a lot easier when I started believing in my own introspection as a potentially generative space, not just me spacing out. I jot down ideas or phrases that come to me during the day using the Evernote app and revisit them later; sometimes I even outline entire essays by the time I get home. I read once that Toni Morrison wrote her first novel entirely on her commute, and it’s made me be more honest about how I sometimes use the idea of a mythical “perfect writing setup” as an excuse to sabotage my own productivity.
If I need to take a break from writing, I try to use it to read a profile or interview of a woman I admire, which gives me a boost but keeps my head in the game. If I’m writing something heavy, I use the break to read something that’ll make me laugh. I’m trying to be kinder to myself as I write—and hoping that tenderness makes it into my words. And when shit gets really real, I listen to the Prince Royce station on Pandora and think about writing something so good that he and Romeo Santos both read it and fight over who gets my ink-stained hand in marriage.
To me, the secret to getting shit done is largely about picking the right shit to get done. No matter how important or prestigious the work, it’s a slog if it’s not something that lights a fire in your belly, that excites you or inspires you or pisses you off so much that you almost can’t not work on it. I write a lot about how technology impacts working-class people and marginalized groups; it’s a set of issues I care so much about, that drive me so crazy, that I want to think and talk about it all the time.
So how do you find the work that drives you crazy in a good way? For me the secret is to make myself available to everything—to experiment with saying yes. I’ve learned that I’m terrible at guessing what ideas will get me excited, so I try to show up to a lot of things and just open myself up to accidents. The flip side of this is giving yourself permission to end projects that aren’t doing it for you anymore; an abandoned project isn’t a waste of time, it’s a experiment. I start way more than I finish, but I see this as a strategy, not a failure.
The last piece—and I think this is so, so key for women especially—is not apologizing for your work. So many of us undermine own own work through how we talk about it. We apologize for the state of a draft, or for having a work-in-progress thought, or for not being 100% amazing all the time. Doing this preemptively invites other people to not take us seriously. This is obviously a problem in its own right, but it also relates to productivity; if you undermine your own work enough, you start to internalize that, and then of course you won’t feel amped up about what you’re doing. So part of it, I think, is convincing yourself that your work is important and awesome, and that you’re absolutely the best person to do it.
How do I get shit done? Well, I come from a long line of driven, never-sit-still women, so it’s in my nature to add a dose of urgency to everything I do; I can only describe my mantra as “Do it now.” Aided by the music of Beyonce and a scary reliance on my G-cal, I thrive on forward momentum and knocking shit off my to-do list; slowing down to consider the strategy behind what I’m doing and why is probably one of my biggest challenges, personally and professionally. Big Projects are always daunting (er, I need to finish my website…), and you will often find me plucking stray facial hair or eating over the sink to avoid getting started. One of my favorite hippy dippy ways to get motivated is to visualize myself rock climbing: by making incremental movements up a steep cliff face, I pull myself up by sheer force of will. Combine this exercise with some IRL push ups or weight lifting (and Beyonce) and you will be ready to conquer the world.
The key to keeping my shit and productivity intact has been accepting the inevitability of my depression—and its toll on focus, attention, and motivation—by simplifying my daily work plan. I only prioritize goals that I truly, deep-down want to accomplish, not ones I fake-set for myself, like shaving my legs or getting into Mad Men. And as I work, I make sure to eat regular meals and snacks—nice ones, too, where I can sit on a chair that’s not my bed and read some words that aren’t the Internet, so my eyeballs can cool down. When I treat myself with care, I think and write more carefully, in the same way that pampered cows taste better. At the end of every day, I write a To-Did list, where I can take stock of everything I’ve accomplished, rather than beating myself up for failing to accomplish the fanciful tasks I dreamed up on a morning To-Do list. To-Did lists make me feel proud of how hard I’ve worked and inspire me to grow the list the next day.
I’m a recent journalist graduate who no longer has an institutional affiliation or a title to hold me accountable each day. My worst fear is that I will revert to a lazy sludge who indulges in healthy dreams of slaying dudebro corporations without doing the work of earning it. I surround myself with wonderfully organized women who offer lists and bullet points as antidotes, but crossing my day off doesn’t motivate me. Astrology would call me a big picture Gemini; my middle school report card called me a scatterbrain who needed to stop looking out the window.
To protect myself against myself, I separate wants from needs, and prioritize the latter. The scale tips between words I wish I had written first to what I cannot afford to lose: letting his comment go, the weight of a source counting on me, and absolutely anything that will stop Mami’s weary, “Oh Monica, if you had been here.”
Talking with my Mom always puts “productivity,” the hamster wheel demanding my bottom-line, in perspective. I set her 4a.m. alarm and shut up. If my inclination is to scatter, my family and friends are the gravitational pull holding me together. Their words and actions are the most powerful spells of all: I believe you and I believe in you. It’s Papi asking about New York City weather, in the absence of having no shared language about my career. It’s wearing the clothes Mami bought for my interview. It’s you being on Gchat when I can’t sleep. It’s being the hero I needed when I was younger and seeing dragons everywhere, unable to name them. Ready up, Player One. Don’t worry, I have the words now. There’s no way out but through.
I procrastinated writing this, which seems like a good place to start my answer so that this next part is slightly less irritating: I don’t tend to have huge problems with Getting Shit Done. [ducks, hides]
Partly it’s because I really like the work I do, so I don’t see work as some big chore. And then also, I’m me, so I enjoy chores too. When it comes to things I don’t necessarily want to do, like shopping or going to the gym, I have a few psychological tricks that probably none of you should use so I won’t mention them. What I will mention is the JFDI trick. JFDI stands for “Just Fucking Do It” and that’s really all there is to it: Tell yourself to JFDI and then, you know, do it. It seems like it shouldn’t work! But it actually does.
An important corollary to JFDI et al. is having a constant reminder of The Things I Need/Want To Get Done. I am, in news that will surprise exactly no one, a compulsive list maker. The thing about the lists is that it also lets me play a little bit of “if-then” in terms of picking off the most dreaded items in order to be rewarded with the stuff I’m more interested in doing. So on a Tuesday, I might have to do invoices and wash the floors, so I’ll bargain with myself that if I finish my invoices then I can wash the floors. Of course all of this is predicated on being the sort of person who would rather wash her floors than send out invoices. I’ll show myself out now.
One Big Question is a monthly series. Because I’m really nosy, I’ll pose a question to a bunch of our contributors and collect their responses. I figured a few of you might be really nosy too; together, we can find out everything about everyone. Got a question you’d like me to ask? Email me.