As you know, I’ve been kind of on a journey of self-discovery, finding out who I am for the first time. It’s a bit like being an archeologist, uncovering layers of things that have always been there, just hidden from view. I don’t have any big wisdom to impart, or advice to give. But it is what I am going through right now, so I thought it might be nice to share it with you.
The other day, Mr. Magpie came to me. He was having trouble deciding how he wanted to organize his daily work and needed to talk things through. He named off several things that he was working on, and was trying to figure it out. Should he work a little bit on each thing each day? Work on one thing for a day then switch? Work until completion? What was going to be most effective?
The funny thing is, for most of my life, nobody would have come to me asking for advice on organizing their work day. To be blunt, I was a mess. My desk was crawling with papers, and I made endless lists and plans, but I never actually got anything done. And I was very unhappy.
Then, a year or so ago, sparked by a blog post I read on Zen Habits (I’m sorry, I don’t have the exact one, but here’s a similar one: The Best Goal is No Goal), I decided to chuck out the lists and let it all go. In other words, I stopped making lists and started just working on whatever inspired me that day. It was a big leap. I had thought FOR SURE that I had to have my long lists and my project plans and everything. I thought I had to write it all done or I’d never remember what I wanted to do. But guess what? I spent all my time writing lists and feeling overwhelmed, and no time doing. I am a person who needs to create, make, think and do, every day. I had to let go of all of those rules about productivity in order to become a kind of productive that made me truly happy.
Even more importantly, I actually know how I work best, and it’s not at all what I thought it would be. For example:
- I don’t like to work on a bunch of things at once. It keeps me from settling into a project. I prefer to just work on one thing at a time.
- I like to complete the same day. Going to a second day is fine. After that, my grouch level goes up exponentially. (As a result, I break large projects into bit-sized chunks.)
- I like projects that connect to a larger whole. I like large, transformative projects with big results. I just like to do them in bite-sized pieces.
- I like a variety of repetitive, low-cocnentration tasks.
This last one deserves a bit of explanation. My favorite activities are creative, yes, and they produce creative results, yes. But even more importantly, they provide a background for the active part of my mind to attend to so that the creative part of my mind can do it’s thing. While I am weeding, ironing, sewing, painting, canning, my mind is wandering and connecting and generating ideas. I do my best and most creative thinking at these times.
I have discovered some things about what I don’t like as well.
- I don’t big lists. They don’t inspire me. They make me feel depleted and overwhelmed.
- I don’t need big lists. The work itself is the list.
- I prefer to limit my reference material. I do keep those things, but not as much as I used to. I am more authentic and original when I enjoy it but then let it go rather than trying to hold on to the ideas of others too tightly. (P.S. I find this last one scary, even though it’s true for me.)
I can’t tell you how powerful it is to know these simple things about myself. If I was still persisting in “multitasking” between a long list of items, I’d still be miserable, unhappy and unproductive. It was when I chucked out the lists and the rules and the “shoulds” and just started working on what I felt like on a day to day basis that I started to really get things done. Doing things makes me happy, and I do more when I plan less, and so I am happier.
I want to say that I think in general, as a culture, we place too much emphasis on “productivity” and getting things done. There are classes and lists and systems to get more done, fit more in, produce more, create more, do more, be more. This is not helping anyone. In fact, in my case it definitely hindered. I had been taught all that stuff when I worked as an executive, and I thought I needed to multitask, needed to have extensive lists, needed all kinds of systems. But in fact, those things just took all my time and energy and didn’t give me anything back. They didn’t help me to do what would make me happy.
Each of us has to follow and find our truth and our happiness in our own way. Some people are truly happiest when they aren’t trying to accomplish anything at all. Some people are truly happiest when they are taking on the whole world, and some are in the middle. We have to find our best place and inhabit it fully.
For me, I am a person who is happiest when I am living in the moment, creating, making, thinking and doing. Knowing that is one of the most empowering things I have ever learned.
Do you know what works best for you?