Encore: Productivity for Flakes, Head Cases, and Other Natural Disasters

Today we’re revisiting a popular early podcast about how those of us who aren’t “naturally organized” can still get lots of high-quality work done.

Note: For Thanksgiving week in the U.S., we thought we’d offer up an encore presentation of a popular early podcast. This one talks about productivity for those of us who struggle with such things. 🙂

Some people are naturally productive. Naturally organized. Naturally get the important things done, every day. They have clean desks and rational calendars and earn the admiration of family and peers.

I am not one of those people.

In this 26-minute episode, I talk about:

  • What works (and what doesn’t) to improve your habits — especially if you’ve struggled in the past
  • The kinds of productivity tools that work for people who aren’t naturally productive
  • Specific ideas for to-do lists that work
  • What to do on insane days when it feels impossible to get anything done
  • How to get (and stay) out of overwhelm
  • The pivotal technique for moving toward your goals
  • Simple, reality-based ways to take better care of yourself — so you can be a lot more productive

The Show Notes

Productivity for Flakes, Head Cases, and Other Natural Disasters

Sonia Simone: Greetings superfriends! My name is Sonia Simone and these are The Confessions of a Pink-Haired Marketer. For those who don’t know me, I am a co-founder and the chief content officer for Copyblogger Media.

I’m also a champion of running your business and your life according to your own rules. As long as you don’t lie, and you don’t hurt people, this podcast is your official pink permission slip to run your business or your career exactly the way you think you should.

Today, I’m going to talk about productivity, and more specifically I’m going to talk about productivity for flakes, head cases, and other natural disasters.

In Other Words, I’m Going to Talk About Productivity for People Like Me

Because I am a total natural disaster.

I wish you could see my desk right now. It is in a state of, I would say ‘medium explosion’ based on my typical experience of this desk.

I have three different notebooks open with different outlines for podcasting and other recordings that I want to do. I also have two drinks, a couple of free weights, a bunch of chargers, a dead keyboard, my wallet, a new three-hole punch, an old dictionary that I use to prop up a monitor on, but the monitor’s gone somewhere else, and a small can of paint.

This is a normal day for my desk. This is what my desk normally looks like. My kid is the same way. In fact at school, he’s the only kid in his class who has two desks to contain what two separate teachers have described as his explosions.

I’ve always been this way, and I know I’m not alone. I’m not naturally particularly focused.

I have a lot of shiny object syndrome. I suck at doing things that bore me, and that tends to translate pretty readily into not being great about getting the things done that I already know how to do. Which means I’m constantly in a state of stress.

At the same time, left with my own devices, I would pretty much eat pie and play Minecraft with my nine-year old all day, every day.

Somehow, I own a business. I’m the primary breadwinner in my family — I have been since my son was born.

I have employees, and I have a family. I work out at least six days a week and meditate every day. I write every day. I have a weekly podcast.

Somehow, I managed to figure out how to be a grown up, but I had to learn it all. None of it came naturally to me.

I think we all know people who are naturally productive, these people who have awesome control of their to-do list to get it all done and wonder why other people waste so much time.

I work with some of these people, so I can’t hate them because they save my backside all the time.

If you’re a natural disaster, this episode is for you. If you aren’t, then you can listen and laugh at me. I don’t mind. I laugh at me, too.

What Works (and What Doesn’t) to Improve Your Habits — Especially If You’ve Struggled in the Past

The first thing I want to say about being a productive person if that’s not what comes naturally to you, is that habits are your lifesaver.

You may have seen me write on the Copyblogger blog about habits . Habits are everything. They are the whole game.

In fact those naturally organized productive people just happen to pick up good habits somewhere, and have made them a part of their life so they look totally natural. Some of us just have to work a little harder on getting those habits in place and maintaining them.

The thing to know about habits, if your habits right now do not strike you as being awesome, is that you literally cannot start too small. I’ll put a link in the show notes to a book that I really like, by a gentleman named, Robert Maurer.

He talks about things like people starting an exercise habit by standing on a treadmill in their living room for five minutes a day having a coffee in the morning. If you don’t love the habits you have, you need to start with a small, micro, what I call a “You get credit habit.”

I remember a quote from a student of ours that I loved, and I’ve always really taken to heart is:

If you can move it an inch, you can move it a mile

Thank you Judy in the Woods for that awesome piece of wisdom. I still think about that all the time.

You need a small habit, and if you do it every day, and I do think that this type of habit needs to be something you do daily, rather than doing it let’s say five days a week. You need a little tiny habit, and every day you do it, you get credit. You give yourself a little gold star. And very often that habit can lead to something else, a precursor to something else.

That’s what that standing on the treadmill is about. If you get into the habit of going over there to that treadmill, and actually standing on it, then it’s not that hard — you don’t have to overcome as much inertia — to turn the thing on and walk slowly for a minute.

And then once you’re walking slowly for a minute, it’s not that hard to just pick up the pace a little bit. Start so small it’s a little embarrassing — that’s usually a good guideline. For example, I have a habit I do absolutely every single day, which is to do some hip mobility exercises.

The reason I have that habit is, once I’ve done that, I can do a strength workout, but I don’t always do the strength workout after I do the mobility session. It’s a precursor that sometimes I do, and sometimes I don’t. I do more often than not but I don’t have to to get the credit, and that’s what’s important.

You feel like a success, you feel like you did your good deed for the day if you do your small habit. I also have a meditation habit. My meditation habit is five minutes. If I can meditate for five minutes a day, I get the gold star.

Once or twice a week, it is 5 minutes. Most days, it’s more than that — it’s about 15 minutes. It could be 20 minutes. But it doesn’t have to be for me to get the credit for the habit. It only has to be 5 minutes.

If the day has gotten away from me, and things are a little crazy, and these things happen in our lives, I can carve out 5 minutes. I can always carve that out and that’s how you want to approach it. You want to create a small habit that even if the day is crazy, or you’re traveling, or you’re on vacation, or your dog is sick or your kid is sick, you can still do it.

It’s so small that it allows room for all the other things in your life that can be unpredictable.

I am going to give you a lot of resources to check out, including books and blog posts, and things of that nature. If you are listening to this episode on iTunes, you might want to pop on over to pinkhairedmarketer.fm and just pick up all the accompanying materials to this, because there are a lot of resources that I’ve pulled together — almost all of them are free, or very inexpensive, like the cost of a book.

The Kinds of Productivity Tools That Work for People Who Aren’t Naturally Productive

My second tip for you natural disasters out there is to use tools — the right productivity tools. The ones that I found are the most useful are the ones that make things visible That make your progress visible, and that make your habits visible.

Once you’ve done something four or five days in a row, you’ll start to not want to break that streak. Again, small “You Get Credit” habits, that are small enough to sneak in.

One of the things I have is I have four whiteboards for the following four months — the upcoming quarter. Everyday that I do my three micro “I Get Credit” habits, I put a big green X through that day on the whiteboard.

I can tell at a glance if I’ve got a good streak going. When I think about, “Well, it’s only a five minute meditation, and it’s not really doing anything. I don’t need the hip mobility drill, I can skip it for a day,” I look at the whiteboard and I really want to put that green X on the whiteboard.

So that little silly motivation is enough to just tick me over that little bit of resistance. Whiteboard calendars are also used for people like me because they help me get a big picture of what my upcoming obligations are. The conferences where I’m speaking, the business travel I have set up, the recordings that I have scheduled — and that helps me not over commit.

Natural disasters have a real tendency to underestimate what we have coming up and what we’ve committed to. So make your commitments visible.

And of course, there are all kinds of online calendar programs and apps, things like that. Those are very useful and helpful. However, I would encourage you not to be worried about doing this in a belt-and-suspenders way. [In other words, don’t worry about duplicating your effort.]

Don’t worry about keeping two calendars if the two calendars have two different purposes.

My whiteboard calendars are very specifically to keep my habits and my obligations visible, which is not true with an online tool. I close my phone or I close my laptop, and a calendar app is gone, whereas this is literally on the wall in front of me.

Specific Idea for To-Do Lists That Work

Obviously you have to find some to-do list that works for you. Every once in awhile, some productivity person will come out and say, “Don’t use a to-do list. Use my to-do list instead.”

Everybody needs a to-do list, right? Don’t keep stuff in your head, put it on a list.

I’ve tried everything. I keep coming back to just a small paper notebook, a five by eight-inch notebook. The left side, I keep my daily to-do’s, and on the right side is my weekly list. I’m going to talk about that in a second.

For longer projects, you want to think about things like milestones and next actions. Make them all visible. Use a mind map or use Evernote, or use a paper notebook — it doesn’t matter. But make sure everything is laid out in a way that you can look at it and get a good understanding of where you are and what comes next.

What To Do on Insane Days When It feels Impossible to Get Anything Done

That leads me to the third element, which is important, which is that most people who have productivity problems, or organization problems, have these problems because they are overwhelmed, and it’s just too uncomfortable to think about it, so they don’t. Then things start to creep up on them.

You have to come up with tools, techniques, practices and habits that will keep you out of overwhelm.

As soon as you go into overwhelm, you start making bad decisions.

You’ll start putting things off. You’re going to start not using your simple systems and your simple tools, and you’re going to start being a natural disaster again.

How to Get (and Stay) Out of Overwhelm

I have a whole bunch of tips here for you, and I’m just going to power through them. The first is I talked about that paper notebook, on the left side I keep the daily items. I try to keep to two or three things that I know need to have happen that day and no more than that.

As soon as you have more than three things that have to be done today, you’re going to start to edge over towards overwhelm. Now we all have days like that, and sometimes you do and you just power through it. You try not to have that all day, every day.

One of the things I have on my weekly list, that’s the list of these things need to happen this week. I’ll have a section, just a part of the page for things that are fast, things that are just fast to cross off: an e-mail to return, a quick phone call to make, an appointment to schedule, something along those lines which are very quick.

One of the things you can do that will really help you stay out of the overwhelm and get things done, is knock those off. When you have a minute, when you don’t really feel like diving into the next focused chunk of work, hurry off and just use that to cross off something simple like making an appointment for that interview, or something like that.

The other really key tool I use is a timer. You can use a meditation timer, you can use a kitchen timer, you can use a timer on your phone, your laptop — it does not matter, but time your work sessions.

If I don’t have a timer, I’m very reluctant to get started, because I’m a writer, I’m a creative person. Once I get started, a lot of times I’ll get immersed in it and I’ll lose an hour or two hours and there’s part of my brain that says, “I don’t really want to spend two hours on this right now.”

“I’m not in the mood. I don’t have the energy. I literally don’t have time. I need to be somewhere.”

The timer really helps you get past that. No matter how distasteful you find a task, or how intimidating you find a task, you can work on it for 20 minutes. And if you can’t work on it for 20 minutes, you can work on it for 5 minutes.

Use your timer to just, again, take yourself over that little inertia point and get things moving. If your list gets messy or crazy, which mine does every week starting Monday afternoon, you can use a bright highlighter. I use a paper list. I use a bright highlighter pen and I put a number one next to the very next thing I’m going to do.

Then I usually will mark it number two and number three as well. When I’m done, I smoosh out that number one so it’s not staring me in the face.

A lot of times, when you have a bunch of items that need to get done, finding some way to make visible the one thing you’re going to work on next is very helpful for getting you out of overwhelm. Because you’re not thinking about the whole list, you’re just thinking about, “Okay, I need to do that task. I’ll need to work on it for 20 minutes and I’ll just keep doing it in 20 minute chunks until it’s finished.”

Again, if you’re stressed and things are bananas, I like to go to a single post-it for that one next thing, or the next three things max. A small post-it, not one of those big post-its you put on the wall. Just a 2-inch square post-it.

The next thing you’re going to do is put it somewhere you can see it. Put it close your to-do list, close to all the things that are reminding you of how many obligations you have. You just keep the post-it in front of you until the thing is done and then throw it away, recycle it, and make a new post-it for the next thing.

Again, it’s about paring down your focus, so that instead of focusing on the whole thing and getting freaked out, you’re focusing on one thing that you’re going to do next.

It’s really better to do one thing properly, than it is to just sort of halfway do 10 things, or even worse to do 10 things 90% of the way — to get 10 things almost done. It’s much better to just get one thing done properly.

The final one for staying out of overwhelm is obvious, but sometimes we don’t give ourselves permission, so I’m giving you permission.

If you suck at something, try and get some help.

Trade skills. For example, if you put off writing your e-mail newsletter, which a lot of people do, find a friend who’s a good writer who’ll do it for you, and then in return, maybe you can help them add their tax receipts to a spreadsheet, or help them do their WordPress updates, or help them do something you’re good at.

Trade what you do well, for what you don’t like to do.

For some reason, it’s much easier to work on things for other people than it is to work on them for ourselves. You might not even want to upload your tax receipts to your spreadsheet, but doing it for a friend for 20 minutes and then not having to write your e-mail newsletter might sound good.

Think about that. Think about what you can trade fairly painlessly for what you just really don’t want to do for whatever reason.

The Pivotal Technique for Moving Toward Your Goals

The fourth productivity tip for fruit bats like me is, every once in a while you have to remind yourself where you’re going. You have to remind yourself what it is you want out of this whole mess anyway.

You’re looking at your goals. People like us don’t really like the idea of goals, but you do need to have some vision of where you’re going. This has been called the pivotal technique.

You look at where you want to go and you can understand it. You can clearly visualize it. You have a certain goal for your business, certain goal for your income, certain goal for your family life.You have a certain goal for how clean your kitchen is, whatever it might be, and you just put a picture of it in your head.

That’s what it’s going to look like when I get there. Once I’m there, I will know that I have achieved this goal.

Then you take a good, clear eye look at where you are, and you notice the difference.

Now you want to try not to kick yourself all over the planet, if this distance is fairly great. If there’s a little anxiety, try to just notice it and stay with it. A little bit of anxiety will help you get moving. A lot of anxiety will put you into overwhelm and once you’re on overwhelm, again, you’re not going to get anything done.

Metaphorically speaking, if you want to go to New York City and right now you are in San Francisco, then you need to notice that you’re in San Francisco, that it’s some 3,000-miles away from your goal, and you need to think about, “All right, what’s the next thing that I do to get to New York City?”

The next thing might be to find out where the Greyhound station is. Or make your way to the airport. Or it might just be to figure out which direction is west, and start walking.
However it is you’re going to get there, you need to figure out what’s the next thing I do, and then just keep reassessing.

You need to know the big picture, and then you need to know the next action, and you keep cycling back and forth.

I think a lot of non-naturally productive people really avoid ever looking at the big picture, because it makes you feel guilty or anxious or overwhelmed, or because all of the productivity books immediately want you to sit down and write a 42-step map of milestones about how you’re going to get there.

That’s probably not how your head works. It’s actually not how most people’s heads work. Just figure out the next action.

Figure out where you want to go and then figure out what’s the next thing I need to do. It’ll show up. The path will show up as you walk it.

Simple, Reality-Based Ways to Take Better Care of Yourself — So You Can Be a Lot More Productive

Then the fifth one which is major, is you’ve got to take care of yourself. It’s shocking to me how many people do not treat themselves as well as they would like a nice laptop or an expensive printer.

A nice laptop and expensive printer, you do a reasonable amount of maintenance on it. You get some antivirus software setup for your laptop, or you get backup software. You treat the printer reasonably well. You get it cleaned when it needs to get cleaned.

But we will not do any maintenance on ourselves. And if you do not do the correct care and maintenance on yourself, you are going to break.

These are my thoughts on ways to take care of yourself. Some of them are optional, and some of them are not optional.

#1: Sleep

I’m going to start with sleep, because that is the one that most people have the most trouble with in my culture. I’m American, and we have a mythical belief that we can shortchange ourselves on sleep, and that somehow gives us more time to be productive.

In fact, it gives you markedly less time to be productive. If you are shorting on yourself on sleep, you are going to go through your day much less productive than you would be if you’re having a reasonable amount of sleep.

Take it seriously. I won’t go into all of the things here, but do things like turn screens off at 8:30, 9:00 at night, that’s a big one. I’m as guilty as anybody on the planet of staying up much too late on Twitter or Facebook, or getting a project finished, or answering e-mail. It is not productive. It’s very, very unhelpful.

Make sure your screens are turned off and take sleep seriously. Stop making excuses.

Some of us have very legit reasons why it’s tough to get enough sleep — like we have real little kids, or of course, if you have a job where you are working the night shift, it’s tough. So I’m not saying there are no good reasons. However, most of the reasons we have for not getting enough sleep are pretty bogus.

Look at your life. If you have bogus reasons for not sleeping enough, you need to put that as a priority. Everything in your life is going to get easier if you can get enough sleep.

#2: Exercise

Exercise is another one. You really can’t function as a human body without moving it around. It does not mean you need to do six crossfit classes a week. It does not mean you need to be able to lift millions of pounds or run marathons. It does not have to be extreme.

Lots of just good, moderate movement is tremendously helpful. It’s good for your brain. It’s good for your longevity. It’s good for your blood sugar. It’s good for everything.

Just get out and take some walks. It does not have to be a big deal, and it doesn’t have to be expensive and you don’t have to have special clothes.

Just go out, start to take some walks. Don’t sit all the time. If you’re sitting all day for hours at a stretch, it’s very bad for you.

You don’t have to make super crazy radical changes, you just have to get up and take a walk maybe once an hour. Just get up and walk around the building a little bit. It doesn’t have to be crazy.

#3: Reasonable Nutrition

Along those lines: reasonable nutrition. I notice right now that nutrition has become this quasi-religious topic, and there are certainly many people on Facebook who will give you all kinds of very extreme fad diets that you can try.

The only advice I’m going to give you is to avoid extreme fad diets and ways of eating. They can really tank your energy.

Anything that involves you like cutting out food that most people regard as normal food. You really need to think about that because often it will give people a little surge of energy for a while, and then all of a sudden they’re exhausted and they can’t figure out why.

It’s because you don’t eat anything anymore. You’ve given up so many things you don’t eat.

Eat more vegetables. Remember that Doritos are not a food group. Eat like a grown up, as strength coach Dan John tells people to do. You know Coco Krispies are not dinner, so most of the time don’t make Coco Krispies dinner. Reasonable nutrition, without having to go to crazy fads or super extremes.

#4: Meditation

The fourth one, very valuable for me, very valuable for many business people I know. Brian Clark has discovered the value of this. It’s a little hard to explain how valuable it is until you do it, but a meditation practice — and it does not have to be very much time — is very helpful.

I think the reason it’s helpful is it just helps you to let go of that constant stream of chatter in your head. It just gives you a couple of minutes of practice of just letting go of all that stuff that’s in your head.

That’s a lot of what keeps us from being productive. That’s a lot of what keeps us from going where we want to go.

We just have this endless stream. In the Buddhist tradition, we call it, “monkey mind.” This endless monkey mind of swinging, chattering, squabbling, and just swinging all over the place. A meditation practice, if that’s something that you’ve ever considered, it’s very worthwhile.

#5: Negativity Diet

The last one is watch your negativity diet.

Please be mindful of things like all those groups you follow on Facebook, that only exist to get angry at other people.

Or even the friend you have on Facebook who all she ever does is get angry at other people. All the train wrecks that we watch in social media, even stories on the news. Do you need to know the horrible, upsetting thing that has happened to every child under five in every state of the union, because that’s what’s on the news, right?

It’s a tragedy. It’s a bad thing. It’s not necessarily something that needs to be on my evening news.

The mantra for news organizations for many years has been “If it bleeds, it leads.” They know that negativity attracts your attention. It certainly does, but it’s not good for you.

Really think about, if you have a regular source of negativity, a news source, a news blog that you read, anything along those lines, think about — could you give it up?

It will really free up a lot of energy. You want to manage the Eeyore’s in your life as well, and we all have them. We all have those people who just go through life, spreading gloom, spreading rain and greyness and sadness.

And I’m not saying if somebody in your life is depressed, cut them out. That’s not what I would ever say. But do be mindful of such people.

And very often they’re people you’re not actually particularly close to. They’re not close friends, they’re not your family. It’s just somebody in your life who likes to complain, and that person will complain and complain, until you walk away. Consider walking away a little earlier. You would give yourself a lot of extra time by not listening to that person’s endless litanies.

So that’s it. That’s five ideas on productivity for train wrecks and natural disasters.

I would give you more, but I really don’t want to overwhelm you. Focus on those.

Leave me a comment!

Drop a comment. If you’re into it. Let me know if you’ve ever tried any of these, or if you have your own thoughts on productivity tips for those people who are not naturally particularly productive or organized. I would love to hear them.

I am so grateful to those of you who have left ratings and reviews on iTunes — that is a tremendous help to me. If you feel moved to do so, I would be very grateful.

Or you can leave a message in the podcast show notes if you’d like.

If you have any questions about what we talked about today, if you have any business questions that you would like me to answer in an upcoming podcast, or if there’s just anything on your mind, I’d love to hear about it.

This is Sonia Simone with The Confessions of a Pink-Haired Marketer. Thanks, and take care.