The (Al)Lure of Productivity

Which projects to tackle?

September 5, 2013

I am much better at reading productivity blogs than I am at taking the advice and improving my productivity. I have a daily routine app on my phone, an online to-do list in Workflowy, and I’ve flirted with both David Seah’s products and GTD. I have a tickler folder in my inbox. The last time I moved a message there was four months ago, the last time I read a blog post about GTD. My inbox is not at zero.


Likewise, I do better at signing up for emails than actually reading them—especially the daily ones. I’ve been reading daily updates via email from IHE and The Chronicle for years now, but recently I missed the humanities so I signed up for a poem a day. Then I signed up for a 15 day meditation challenge with Deepak Chopra and Oprah. The daily meditation emails were successful in getting me to meditate daily, until I took a vacation and my meditation routine became sporadic at best.


Creating habits takes time. Is 15 days long enough to create a habit? Is 21 days the tipping point, or is that a myth? I’ve done one 21-day vegan, no sugar, no alcohol challenge, so I know I can stick to a habit when I really put my attention on it. But what happens on day 22 when habits start to slip away as other more pressing emails and new habits take over?


At home I’ve tried to implement the FlyLady routine (I use Readability, I can’t stand the purple web site). Maybe I’m trying to create too many new habits at once. Just shine your sink. Just do something for 15 minutes.


Around the same time I started to feel overwhelmed with daily emails, Gmail redesigned the inbox interface with tabs for different types of emails. I love it. Now I can read my updates when I read my updates, and not get distracted by a Groupon or Kayak alert under the promotions tab. Personal emails are now uncluttered. I used the same tactic with my pen and paper to do list. Rather than a running list, I created “tabs” for different types of tasks, such as managing, documenting, testing, and data entry. Rewriting my to do list on a clean sheet of paper feels wonderful, but it doesn’t reduce the items still undone.


For many administrators, summer is the time of big projects which are just not possible during the school year. Yet the myth of quiet time is misleading, both because the summers are not actually that much quieter, but also because it is that much harder to get the big projects started and keep up momentum to finish them before the rush of September and the start of a new semester.


I am trying something simpler now: every morning when I arrive at my office, I write three things on a post-it, and put it on the edge of my monitor. Sounds simple. But actually getting those three things done is hard. It isn’t that I’m slacking off at my job, but between interruptions, emails, and the three items on the list—invariably the hardest, longest, projects I don’t want to tackle—I’m lucky if I can cross off two items. (Is it cheating if I put easy items on the list?)


Which is why I should tackle the hardest thing on my list first. Get the worst thing over first thing in the morning. Right after I finish reading a few blog posts....  


New Haven, Connecticut in the USA

Heather Abbott is one of the founding members of the editorial collective at University of Venus and is an Associate Registrar at Yale Law School.


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