Productivity for the Rest of Us (How I Wrote Half a Million Words Last Year)
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For some people, half a million words is not much, but it’s impressive for me because I wrote every one of those words with children underfoot.
Most of the productivity tips and productivity hacks out there seem to be written by people who have somebody else taking care of the kids. But I am the spouse doing the childcare so half a million words in a year feels like a feat.
Productive seems to be something of a holy grail (more on that later), but whether we're trying to make more money or create more of some kind of content or simply work fewer hours, most of us are engaged in a very real war against distractions--the good kind (children) and the bad kind (Facebook).
Many of you are also looking for more productivity--you, too, are the spouse doing the childcare, but you still need to get work done, whether that work is:
working from home
writing a novel
running a house more efficiently (less effort, more productivity)
starting a side-hustle
Like centuries of parents before us, we either don't have or are not taking advantage of the privilege of devoting our leisure hours to non-vital childcare, yet we find the daily requests for snacks, breaking up fights, and being put down for naps to be derailing.
For me, the cost of childcare negates working; paying somebody so I can work offers no benefits for me at this time. Call me strange, too, but in principle I like having my kids nearby while I’m working. As they get older, I’m involving them more in what I do.
It doesn’t always make for distracted-free working, but they’ll be out of the house eventually.
This shouldn’t be misconstrued as a guilt-trip; hire childcare if you can and you think it’s worth it. I can’t and it isn’t; but that might change for me in six months.
I do have a little bit of free childcare: a mother-in-law who watches my children for about five hours on Tuesdays. Unashamedly, I rarely use that chunk of time for work--and I'll explain more about that later, too.
Before I go much further, I'll also say that I'm not the type for rigid schedules. I am a creative, and as fascinated as I am by efficiency experts, if I had to do the exact same thing every day my soul would die.
My routines get reinvented every quarter or so, anyways; when my kids were tiny (I had three in diapers at one point), it was because they were growing and changing so much that nap times had to follow suit. Now it's because of the changing school year.
The following, however, are deeply personal--these are the habits and routines I return to again and again. They help me reset, recharge, and--yes, write half a million words a year.
If you'd like to know, that’s ten thousand words a week.
Are you sure you need to be more productive?
When it comes to productivity, every article wants to sell you something, and all the possibilities look shiny, especially when you're tired and a little grumpy and vaguely frustrated by the Legos you keep tripping over in the hall.
There is nothing wrong with you or your productivity because you didn't write 500,000 words last year.
I did a lot of a specific kind of work when my kids were ultra small and now my workload looks different; I don't think I would have been able to do this, then. So, be careful that you're not trying to fit a round peg in a square hole. Pay attention to the seasons in your life and adjust your expectations accordingly.
Also, you probably bathed your children at least three hundred times in one year and I can assure you I bathed mine less than a hundred times. In other words, everything has an opportunity cost. Make yours intentionally, and be unafraid.
You should also be careful about what you're measuring when you look at how productive you are. The mightiest trees in the forest take the longest to grow, and maybe you are doing alright.
2. You Don’t Have to Justify Yourself
Women seem to struggle with this more than men. I once had somebody tell me she couldn’t justify haircuts for herself because she wasn’t working anymore.
You are working--you and your spouse have a labor arrangement in which one of you trades time for dollars and one of you trades time for childcare/child education.
Treat yourself like the important person you are and for fuck’s sake, get a haircut.
3. To Increase Productivity, Prioritize Sleep Over Productivity
I never pulled an all-nighter in college. I don’t know where I got this idea, but I would study and then just go to sleep. In spite of my apparent lack of productivity, I often did better on tests than my fellow honor students who stayed up all night. #humblebrag but also, it’s science: sleep makes us more productive.
It’s tempting to pull out your computer when your kids go down for the night. I did this for a long time; eventually I burned out. I suspect you will, too. Your extra hour won’t be that productive anyway, and there’s a good chance it will turn into an extra four hours and you’ll be exhausted and slangry (sleepy-angry) when you wake up in the morning. Do this occasionally, by all means, but not always.
Plus, sleep will help you convert all your short-term memories into long-term memories (i.e., sleep will help you learn and remember things) and be sharper, more creative, and better at problem-solving.
Your brain also works on problems while you sleep. Your body heals and rejuvenates you while you sleep. And, sleeping helps significantly with mental health. In other words, by sacrificing a small amount of potential productivity to sleep, you’ll be more productive, and you’ll be happier.
Practical Ideas for Prioritizing Sleep
If it was easy to sleep more, everyone would be doing it. And there’s always that baby who, at eighteen months, still isn’t sleeping through the night, despite all the helpful advice people dish out.
Despite what I learned about sleep and productivity in college, I forgot it all in the haze of new motherhood and work, and by 2014, I had to get a bit maniacal about sleep. My newborn and I weren’t quite sleeping through the night, but I had to at least be in bed more often.
I started by creating a routine for myself, much like the kind you’d create for an infant. This included (and still does include sometimes):
No technology after 8pm
Aromatherapy (lavender has been shown to calm stressed people; whatever smells you like are great, as they will become sleep triggers over time)
Nature’s Calm magnesium supplement (this takes the edge off and helps me relax; just look at those reviews!)
This sleep mask, which is filled with the same small beads inside weighted blankets, and can be left in the freezer for a cooling effect
Your routine might include blackout curtains, sound machines, and so forth.
Getting more sleep might also include heart-to-hearts with a spouse who has different habits. Maybe he/she can do the Netflix binging in another room, or wear headphones, or…just deal. You need sleep.
The neat thing about sleep is it helps you do other fantastic things: focus, be kinder, exercise, feel better, be more productive, everything.
You just forget that when you’re trying to get a task done and don’t want to close your computer.
4. Adopt a Less-is-More Approach to Parenting
Your children likely need you less than you think they need you, and even less than they think they need you. Responsibly ignoring your children means they learn to solve their own problems, take responsible risks, and work through conflict.
They get to experience the creative destruction only boredom can provide; the angst of failing at problems; and (my favorite) the unmitigated rush that comes from trying something hard and succeeding. What a gift you’re giving to your children, by giving them less of your constant attention!
It’s all very messy and doesn’t fit into the stereotypical suburban “more is more” ideal, in which hands-on time with children is highly prized, but that’s not for me or my kids, and if you need permission to responsibly ignore your children, here it is.
I really want this list to be personal; you’ve likely already seen the research that says exercise grows your brain (literally) and can be as effective as medication when it comes to anxiety and depression, but if you’re like me, it’s not that you don’t know exercise is good for you, it’s that you struggle to find a place for it in your life.
What if I told you that exercise would make you more productive, even if it technically took minutes away from your work day?
I’ve found exercise is like sleep--it seems counterintuitive to take time away from working, but it’s the kind of time away that makes you far, far more productive in the long-run. It doesn’t take much, either.
My preferred drug is a twenty-minute walk before my husband leaves for work in the morning. It’s winter right now, and I dread getting out of bed to walk every single time. But I have grown to love the quiet, before anyone else is out walking dogs or children yet, before the sun has fully risen, before the day has truly begun.
I was researching an article for a client and stumbled upon research about bergamot. It was about students performing better on tests when they inhaled the scent of bergamot beforehand.
I find it very, very, very difficult to concentrate sometimes, and I have found bergamot essential oil to be extremely helpful. I also came across this article with some other ideas (rosemary, lavender, and peppermint were the most interesting) plus scientific studies to back them up.
I just rub a drop or two of oil in my hands and inhale a few times, or I diffuse it (here’s the inexpensive diffuser I bought). Here’s a good oil to buy on Amazon, if you don’t have friends that already sell it.
7. Mental Scripts
I just mentioned I have a very hard time concentrating sometimes, and it’s true. I just don’t want to work some days. This is a problem, because I get a job on Tuesday that has to be completed by Friday and it often taxes my ability to be productivity. I don’t have time to waste.
I have been perilously close to not making some important deadlines, and I’ve had to create mental scripts that help me enjoy my work, not dread it.
Here are mine:
I get to do this
This is the job I prayed for years ago
This is the job somebody else is praying for now
Work is noble and I’m grateful for it
I am thankful for this work
I am going to do a great job
Nothing magic here, just a change in perspective.
8. Put Your Hand Over Your Heart
The grind of work that doesn’t feel very significant for me has been very hard lately (that’s why those mental scripts are so important).
Sometime this summer I listened to this podcast about self-compassion with Dr. Kristen Neff and host Jessica Honegger. Placing your hand over your heart or holding one hand with the other hand is a physical way to exhibit compassion to yourself.
Let’s try an experiment. Right now, I want you to place a hand over your heart.
How does it feel?
Tears came to my eyes the first time I did it, and it never fails to flood me with gentle love for myself.
If you’re a Christian you’ve likely been taught to avoid self-love as vanity, but this is not infatuation, this is having God’s love for everything, including you.
I’ve found, without fail, that this tiny act of self-compassion throws open the gates of my heart to experience more of God’s love and to give it away.
If you’re a man, you might be tempted to write off this idea as feminine, but it’s not; you likely need self-compassion more than you think.
9. Unleash Your Inner Hippie
My parents drove a Volvo and subscribed to Mother Earth and bought soy milk at Whole Foods long before going natural was an Instagram commodity, so I come by my hippie tendencies naturally.
Part of the reason I rely so heavily on my walks is that they take me out of doors. I love to walk without headphones. After a few minutes of feeling bored, I start to hear things and see things. I hear birds rustling in branches above me and calling to each other from across the street. I see earthworms or beetles--beautiful beetles--and I wonder where they’re going. I smell outdoorsy, natury fustiness and it wakens my brain from my distracted stupor and I revel in it.
Apparently, the delightful impact of nature on our mental state is not just anecdotal. Nature relieves stress, improves risk of disease, betters mental health, and even--here’s the important part for us!--improves cognitive performance (this is a fascinating article on the subject).
Here’s Deep Work author Cal Newport on the topic:
“Nature has a way of filling your senses without demanding your attention (c.f., research on attention restoration theory), which, when combined with the act of walking, behaves like a performance enhancing drug for deep work.” (the rest of his brief post is here)
You might not have nature nearby, but you can do little things--look at images of nature, look outside your window, grow indoor plants, or--my favorite!--try grounding.
Grounding is so weird and delightful.
To my knowledge, it is a fringe science at best and has something to with negative ions? Idk, but it feels fantastic. Just stand on the grass or dirt barefoot for a few minutes. You’re a new person, I promise. And try yoga on the grass if you ever get a chance. It is delightful!
I’m sorry to do this to you, but this is an intervention. Sugar is a drug and it’s stealing your productivity. I told you that I got maniacal about my sleep a few years ago--I also got serious about what I was eating. I felt horrible. Sluggish, bloated, hungry but not hungry, and so exhausted I could barely see straight.
I tried to do a Whole30 and by the second day I was crying because I felt deprived, so I switched to thirty days of no grains and no added sugar.
Yes, it was miserable for a few days. But the 4pm slump disappeared from my life completely, and I could think again. I stopped craving sugar. I largely keep it out of my life now (I’m not militant about it, but I do better with all or nothing than with just a little bit of something).
Now, when I start eating sugar again, I notice a weird effect--I get irrationally angry. Sugar makes it very difficult for me to regulate my emotions.
If you’re struggling to get off sugar, you might (like me), need to first address emotional issues like “I’m depriving myself if I don’t eat this chocolate.”
Smarter people than I can help you work through those things, but if you’re having trouble quitting sugar--or anything--don’t beat yourself up. You’re probably plenty smart and capable, sugar just has a stronger hold on you than you thought. Welcome to the club.
11. Watch Your Natural Energy Swings
Rachel Hollis taught me this. When I don’t want to work and I need to, I do ten jumping jacks, or I do a bunch of lunges, or I dance around to some music with my kids. It’s cheesy but it gives me that little extra boost.
12. Put Blinders On
Do you know what blinders are? They’re small pieces of leather that shield a horse’s eyes so that it can only look in one direction: forward. Jumpy horses that would shy at everything around them did much better when they had blinders because the blinders helped them focus on moving forward.
Sometimes I have to stop looking at how many words I have to write this week and how many more things there are to do: I just need to write a sentence.
And then another sentence.
Then one more.
On really bad days: just write a word, Sarah.
13. Just Take a Break
This might be something just for me, but maybe it will help somebody reading this. Maybe you create this perfect schedule but by Wednesday you’re exhausted.
If you’re exhausted, take a break.
I’ve worked from home with three very young children underfoot for a very long time, now. I’ve been impressively productive during that time, and I have steadfastly taken a break when I needed to take a break.
You are neither god nor machine and it’s really fantastic to remember this every once in a while.
14. Learn How to Take a Nap
I stopped taking naps at the tender age of twelve months but my 2018 goal was to learn how to take one again.
I managed three but I tried many, many more. Here’s how it went, more or less:
Lays down and sets a timer for fifteen minutes
Scrunches eyes to keep them closed
Pulls a pillow over head to keep them closed
Wonders how long it had been
Checks the time
It’s only been 90 seconds
I learned how to count my breathing to control my thoughts and to take deep breaths. I still rarely fall asleep when I lay down and I still have to force myself to lay down, but I feel like a million bucks when the timer finally goes off and I get up again.
My weighted sleep mask is especially happy for taking a nap--it has a calming effect. If I was fancy I’d probably do some kind of aromatherapy, too. Also, I hear brain.fm is great for this sort of thing.
15. Be Careful With Your Goals
If my goal had been to nap daily in 2018, I would have utterly failed. But I was smart--I didn’t set myself up to fail. Instead of making naps my goal, I made the discipline of napping a goal. I also didn’t shoot for every day--something that would be impossible and discouraging. I just wanted to start trying and to learn about myself as I tried.
So, I met my goal. And, I’m better at napping than when I started 2018, and I’m pumped to keep going and keep getting better at it.
This is the difference between the kind of goal you can’t ultimately control and the kind of regular action you can.
Here’s another example: when I started trying to get healthy again a few years ago, I started with a walk around the block. After three kids in three years, a simple walk took me twenty minutes and required me to ice down my vagina. But I kept trying, working on the variables I could control: showing up every day to the walk, not trying to hit a certain time or length.
Eventually, things got better and now, I walk two miles in twenty minutes and I feel great (no ice). I was able to meet my goal because I focused on the very small action that I knew I could do (show up to the walk and just try), and I focused on learning about how to get better.
I believe I would have failed if I had focused on trying to run five miles, say, or if I had required myself to walk for a certain number of minutes each day.
16. Plant Trees, Not Annuals
When I started as a freelancer, I wanted to start making lots of money for my family as fast as possible. I had already pinned and read all the articles and books that told me I could be rich in just a few months, and I was devastated when my wild hopes didn’t pan out.
I realized that I was focused on planting annuals instead of trees. Annuals are flashy and showy. They have a place, but they’re not the kind of thing that will produce for me and my family and my family’s families for centuries to come. Not like trees.
This idea has changed everything for me, especially how I see progress and productivity. In fact, productivity is a lot harder to manage. It’s a bit like raising kids: you don’t see your results quickly, sometimes it feels like you’re going backwards, and it takes a great deal of faith to keep doing the work when you’re not seeing results or when you feel like you’re going backward.
I’ve am convinced, however, that this keeping on with the tree planting and tending is what I want my life to be about.
16. Take Small Steps
I haven’t read it yet, but I Finish from Jon Acuff is on my nighstand. It’s all about how tiny goals are better than big goals, because people who set small goals reach them, and then go on to set more small goals which they reach, and so progress much further than people who set big goals.
I learned this the hard way, prior to Jon’s amazing book, but I can vouch for the principle.
Even if I can’t take a walk every day or do a bikini body challenge, I can still take a short walk a few days a week. A few days of walking each week, over a month, adds up a little.
Over a year, it adds up more.
Over a decade, it adds up tremendously.
Trees over annuals.
17. Set a Timer
The Pomodoro method is neat because it dovetails with what we know about human productivity--people do best when we’re focusing on a single thing for a period of time. If I had regular childcare, I’d work up to 90 minute Pomodoros, but for now, 25 minute Pomodoros work best for me. On days when writing is a real slog, sometimes it’s just 15 minute Pomodoros.
I set a timer, work furiously on a single task for a period of time, and then go switch a load of laundry or make more coffee or check Instagram or something.
18. Know the Difference Between Urgent and Important
There’s this concise little matrix called the Eisenhower Matrix that teaches us about the difference between urgent and important.
Important tasks are ones that bring you close to your goal of success. Cleaning out my inbox, for example, is not important, but completing research for my article due next week is.
Tasks may also be urgent or not urgent. Cleaning out my inbox may feel urgent--I see it all the time, and the unopened emails and emails waiting for responses bother me. But answering these emails or deleting these emails doesn’t move my business goals forward; they are pretending to be urgent but they’re not.
When you’ve listed all your tasks, decide if they are important--and if so, urgent. Here’s the breakdown:
Things that are important and urgent get top attention from you—do them right away.
Things that are important but not urgent come next--you must resist the tyranny of the urgent to work on these, but you can do it! It’s usually best to schedule these so that they don’t get lost in the shuffle.
Things that are urgent but unimportant usually feel important but are not. It’s amazing how many messages we get in the course of a day and despite loads of bad productivity advice about how answering all emails within an hour will make us leaders of the free world, this is bollocks and should be resisted.
If things are neither urgent nor important, just cross them off and move on with your life.
19. People Over Productivity
I never get to my entire to-do list and I’ve made peace with that, because after I get the important things done, I’m choosing people. I am ruthless about what’s important and what’s not because I have to be. I think if I expected to get them all done, I’d be frustrated often. But I don’t, and I invite you to have the same expectation.
20. My Gmail Productivity Hacks
I turn off conversation view (ugh) because I can’t ever understand what’s going on with that, and I just archive my whole inbox when it gets too out of hand. If it’s really important, they’ll email me again.
21. Track the Gains
I count my word count each week. Your work might not have something easily trackable like mine, which is fine, but it’s motivating and empowering to watch something--slowly--slowly--start to build into something pretty significant.
It was realizing I was writing 40,000-50,000 words a month that has made me wholeheartedly believe I could write a novel or book.
22. Do Not Beat Yourself Up
A baby falls a thousand times before she learns how to walk; so do I.
Don’t despise going backwards or down; if you’ve ever climbed a mountain or traversed difficult terrain, you know that sometimes you have to go back to go forward and go down to go up. Be patient with the process but above all, but patient with yourself.
23. Know Thyself
When I started working for myself--and started calling myself an entrepreneur--I realized quickly that growing a business was much less about working on a product and working on myself. I don’t think we talk about this enough.
One of the things I had to be crystal-clear on this year was what success meant, for me. It was hard. But it was worth it. I credit the book The Sacred Enneagram with helping me come to grips with some things I had been running from for a long time.
24. Stop Working
Many of my tips for greater productivity are related to each other. Stop working is related to knowing myself; I need breaks. I need creative breaks. I need time to breathe and explore and think--and I take them on Tuesdays, when my mother-in-law watches the kids.
Not always. And not always the whole day. And sometimes she can’t watch them. But I gave up guilt long ago for being creative or taking a long bubble bath by myself on my “day off.”
Things I Want to Get Better At
Two things that I’d really like to get better at are celebrating the wins. I’ve gotten better at tracking the gains and it’s been very helpful; but I’m not very good at celebrating progress--or even just celebrating the time I’ve spent in the ring. I want to get better at this.
I also want to learn how to do centering prayer or meditation. Centering prayer was recommended in the life-changing book I read in 2018, The Sacred Enneagram. I’ve tried it a few times and liked it tremendously (it’s like naps; it’s very hard and I hate it but I’m always glad I did it).
It’s recommended that you do it twice a day--each time about 15-20 minutes.
Honestly, I’m just not sure how I can do that. Where do I fit those chunks into my day? I don’t know, but I’d like to learn more. If you have tried it and have tips for me, I’d love to hear them!
What Do You Do With All This Information?
Most of these concepts could be whole chapters in a book. Where do you go from here?
Here are my suggestions if you’re ready to put these productivity tips to work for you:
1. Get clear on what success and productivity mean to you (when you sign up for my reminders, you’ll get a list of questions to ask yourself).
2. Pick one of the above productivity hacks and work on it for a month. I know, you want to pick three things; you want to pick all the things. That’s wildly unhelpful and destines you for failure; pick one. Work on it all month.
You’ll get a late start, do good for a few days, realize you need to make changes in your life to better accommodate your new habit, and take a ten day break and think you’ve failed. At this point, you’ll likely have forgotten about the new habit you were trying to build (it’s not as urgent as your emails and everything else, afterall).
But then, because you’ve signed up for reminders, you’ll get an email from me and at that point you have two choices: you can unsubscribe and write off better habits altogether, or you can try again.
The try-againers are the winners. Ask me how I know.
3. When you’ve tried and fail and tried again and won; pick a new habit, and try again.
Look at you, building momentum!
Links I mentioned in this article:
Nature’s Calm magnesium supplement to help with sleep
Exercise can reduce your risk of Alzheimer's (NY Times)