on productivity, motivation, goal-setting, and how to be [more] awesome

I started developing self-improvement programs for myself back in middle school.

Back then, my goals were mostly school related, and I got into a habit of going into a self-improvement frenzy at the beginning of every school term. THIS quarter/semester was going to be the best ever, because I was finally going to be super organized, start all of my long term projects long before they were due, and so on. I would obsess over setting up my new notebooks and binders, complete with careful labels and color coding. I’d go through my planner and write in all the due dates and exam dates we’d been given.

Invariably, I would finish all of this organization work and find myself restless. I had all this energy right this second–I wanted to put it towards making the term amazing.

Also invariably, by a few weeks into the term, my detailed plans would be beginning to unravel, just a little. I’d write down the homework assignment, but in my class notebook instead of my planner, and then I’d bring the wrong notebook home. I’d forget to write things down altogether. I’d shove papers into textbooks or random folders instead of into the right section of the right binder.

I still managed to get what I needed to done the vast majority of the time. So at the end of the term, I’d have a lot of empty planner pages and messy binders, but I’d also have my A’s.

The thing was, the little rampages of planning and goal-setting I undertook at the beginning of every term were never really about my grades. For the most part, up until my tougher classes in high school, I did quite well in school without putting much effort into the work itself. [In fact, I spent a lot of time reading non-school-related books under my desk–in the particularly worthless years (I’m looking at you 6th grade) I spent a good 75% of class time cranking through novels.] What I did struggle with, to some degree, was keeping school from stressing me the fuck out in spite of this fact.

See, I struggled with procrastination, and, particularly when I was younger, with keeping all my papers and due dates in order. In retrospect, I see that this is entirely unremarkable–most people have to work to learn how to be organized (though some harder than others), and procrastination and the crippling perfectionism I started developing at a young age go hand in hand. Oh, and most humans struggle with making themselves get shit done: there are literally thousands of books on the subject.

But I didn’t think about it that way back then.

I just knew that I was supposed to be smart, and that all of these side things–tracking due dates, keeping an organized binder–were supposed to be the easy part. Which is how I somehow managed to find reasons to beat myself up at the end of every semester–sure, I got the grades in the end, but hadn’t I made it way harder on myself than it should have been?

As I got older, school remained central enough to my life that I still typically used new school terms as justification for big planning/goal-setting/organizing binges, but the scope of things about myself I wanted to change expanded. There were fitness goals, goals for writing more, goals for watching less tv. Once I began to come to terms with the fact that I had to deal with my mental health issues, I had goals and plans for that too.

My schemes for keeping track of it all got more elaborate, and I got gradually more interested in carefully tracking habits: what I ate, my exercise habits, my sleep patterns. Late in college, I got an ipod touch and began to incorporate apps and electronic reminders into it all.

And it isn’t fair to say that I didn’t have successes. I did get better at keeping a planner/calendar, first on paper and later with various computer/phone based tools… it just happened very gradually. I did manage to cultivate some good fitness habits that I kept up with for large stretches of time–some of which only ended because my life circumstances changed in a way that made them impossible or very impractical.

And probably most importantly, I succeeded in doing a lot of significant things–with very few exceptions, I continued to get my A’s, including at a gifted-kids high school where I faced consistently challenging coursework for the first time of my life. I went to a good college on a scholarship, and did well in a strong science program there. I got into, and for awhile did quite well in, a pretty decent PhD program.

But despite my successes, I still thought of myself as someone who sucked at sticking to good habits, finishing projects, and achieving goals. Because at least twice every year, I was sitting down and making all these plans and goals, and the vast majority of them never lasted more than a few weeks.

The reasons for all of this are a little messy.

Of course, on one level, this is just a human problem–cultivating healthy/productive habits is very difficult. Even worse, we often we go about it in less-than-ideal ways, because a lot of conventional wisdom/our intuitions about the best way to do these things does not at all jive with how our brains actually work.

That said, my own quirks have added layers of difficulty to the problem that, while not unique, are not quite universal either. Many of my self-improvement projects have ultimately been abandoned because, despite being successful on some level, they were wreaking havoc on my mental health. I’ve also failed a lot because my standards for myself are often utterly ridiculous, so I set goals that are impossible to meet. Basically, I have all the same struggles that everyone else has, but I am especially good at beating myself up,

So it should be abundantly clear by now: I’ve spent a LOT of my life figuring out how to motivate myself and meet my goals… without destroying my sanity in the process.

I still definitely don’t have things all figured out, but I have an intimate understanding of many of the classic mistakes to be avoided, and in the past few years I’ve started to get a better handle on how to avoid being derailed by guilt spirals and other such nonsense. Though I’ve obviously touched on the subject in the past, I have a lot more that I’ve been meaning say in relation to it, so it occurred to me that I should make it something of a regular feature.

A lot of different concepts and buzzwords fall into this larger idea: self-improvement. motivation. productivity. hacks/hacking [of psychology/life/etc]. goal-setting. habits. But no one catchall term feels like a good way to sum it all up without leaving something out or being misleading.

I’m particularly sensitive to the fact that a lot of people spend a lot of time writing about “productivity hacks” and “productivity apps,” and while there isn’t necessarily anything inherently wrong with either of those things, a lot of bullshit gets put out attached to one of those headings.

I don’t really have a good replacement term, to be honest, but for now at least, I’ll be categorizing these sorts of posts under “being awesome.” It won’t be the only thing I write, as a lot of the posts I have planned are going to be somewhat time consuming to put together, but you can expect several to happen between now and the end of NaBloPoMo.



****I’m sorry if this all sounds a little rambly and confusing at the moment. I’ve been super exhausted this week, which has contributed to NaBloPoMo kicking my ass, though it’s still only just started. I want to try and see it through, but it is killing me to put out stuff that I’m less than thrilled with.****

3 thoughts on “on productivity, motivation, goal-setting, and how to be [more] awesome

  1. You may think this post is “rambly and confusing,” Keely, but as I was reading it, I was nodding, nodding, nodding and muttering “yes! Her, too? yes, yes! SHE gets it!”

    Which is one of those paradoxes I run into all the time, myself. I carefully plan and craft and hone something, and lovingly place it ‘out there’ and do all the SoMe linking so it might, just possibly, reach someone, and it sinks like a stone.

    Then I toss something off, hardly thinking about it, and damn, if it doesn’t actually get some kind of response!

    I’ve stopped beating myself up for much of the time I “waste” on the organizing, noodling, researching, prep work, etcetera, because over the years I’ve realized that to a large extent that is part of the process, and I just have to live with it.

    Some of it is procrastination, pure and simple. Usually based on fear or lack of energy or the “freeze” response to some kind of anxiety. (The ones who talk about the “flight/fight” response always forget that one, but it seems to be my default.) But a lot of it is simply the “revving” my chaotic brain needs to do to get all the parts aligned and tapping the wells.

    So, yeah, this one worked. For me, anyway. Thanks.

  2. Aww, thank you! I’m glad my point came through despite my lack of organization. I have also found that a lot of the time, things that I put together fairly quickly end up resonating with people more than some of my carefully crafted stuff.

    My old “how to move forward” piece is probably the closest I’ve come to a happy medium–I spent a lot of time thinking about it before I sat down to write, but the writing all happened in a few-hour chunk, and I published it the same day.

    This is tough for me to contend with, because I think there is a lot of value in carefully crafted pieces that are edited and honed over time, and I’d like to do more of that type of writing. [In particular, I LOVE essays, and dream of writing a collection of those at some point.] But maybe I just have to accept that I do lots of different types of writing, and in this particular context, people are responding to stuff that is relatively “raw”, in my opinion, and I shouldn’t fight that?

    Hmm. Definitely a thing to think about. Thanks for the food for thought!

  3. I have both perfectionism & procrastination too! I would rather organize my folders and binders and write on my calendar than actually get started on anything!

    I find I can focus on 1 thing for maybe 1/2 hr to an hr, then I have to take a 15-20 min. break.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *