As previously seen on Wit & Delight
Last summer, I penned this article as a way of sharing the one practice that was helping me be more productive and more intentional with my time. I’ve since done even more work to untangle exactly what helps my brain get stuff done, but the rules I shared below still apply. October is ADHD Awareness Month, and it felt like a good time to bring this article to life again. If you’re looking for more info about my experience with ADHD, have a look at an essay I shared earlier this week, and a podcast I recorded with Dr. Anna Roth. Have a great weekend, folks.
Five years of therapy, twelve productivity apps, and 20+ self-help books later, I’ve finally found the secret sauce. I’ve untangled my busy brain, my workload, and my ambition into one simple rule of productivity: Follow your energy.
Figuring out how to make the most out of your day isn’t just about getting as many tasks on your to-do list done. It’s about doing meaningful work; work that fills you up and moves you towards your goals—both measurable and indefinable. When you’re doing work that fuels your soul, it is no longer work. It’s a calling, a purpose, an opportunity to contribute. It doesn’t matter how important or big the work is. It matters how it makes you feel. For people with serve ADHD, this kind of magnetic pull to a task that requires any level of executive functioning is a monumental feat. But you don’t need to have a learning disability like ADHD for this productivity secret to work for you. In the age of information overload, many people are reporting symptoms of ADHD.
Figuring out how to make the most out of your day isn’t just about getting as many tasks on your to-do list done. It’s about doing meaningful work; work that fills you up and moves you towards your goals—both measurable and indefinable.
This kind of feeling is hard to harness. One day we might be super excited about diving into Google Analytics and the next week we will have our head buried in a complicated branding project.
One thing I’ve learned for sure? Traditional forms of time management don’t work for my brain. I would overestimate what I can get done in a day by about 50%, meaning I leave around half of what I expected to get done untouched. My days end abruptly at 5 p.m. with kids, and when I would muster up the energy to get back online, the to-do list in front of me read like a list of character flaws.
Could I find a way to switch the script and design my days around the to-do items that spoke to me? After all, I was excited about the prospect of combing through Google Analytics, when last month I would have rather done anything BUT tackle that project.
When I got back to work after my maternity leave, I had taken a total of 4 months away from the office. It was literally impossible to figure out what to work on because everything felt critical. In fact, a large majority of the things I needed to get done were important. What little sleep and baby daze taught me was that relying on willpower is not sustainable.
Once I realized I couldn’t will myself through my to-do list, I stopped trying to squeeze my life into judgments to measure my productivity. What makes a day spent making things any less important than one spent crossing tasks off a list? When I stopped thinking I had to spend my working hours a certain way, I was free to rethink how to approach work. I was able to start looking at my time as an asset, not something I constantly needed more of. One cannot will themselves more than 24 hours in a day, and even when you try to take all those hours for doing and not recuperating, you’ve bought yourself a one-way ticket to burnoutville.
By organizing my time around what I felt most inspired to do during that time of day, I had a flexible schedule that I could come back to even after a day, week, or weekend away from work.
This statement is my north star of the week. Sometimes, if I’m in a low, depressive state, the goal is to keep moving forward. Even if I get one thing done per day, I made it a point to not give up. This is when I do repetitive tasks that don’t require too much mental energy like reporting, automating, and task management. Figuring out how to work when I’m in a low energy state has changed my relationship with my mood changes.
In fact, I can pretty much predict when a low state will happen. If I am away from the office or my communication tools for more than 24 hours, I will need to spend the subsequent amount of time just getting my head wrapped around everything that happened the day before. I know now not to beat myself up about feeling “low energy” because I have a list of things that I can do that won’t make me feel more anxious or depleted.
Setting an intentional objective that isn’t about a KPI or measurable result allows me to assess my energy level before adding anything else to my workload.
Most weeks, I have to choose what project of business will have the majority of my focus. There just isn’t enough time in the week to accomplish EVERYTHING I need to do, so I often pick my big projects based on deadlines or time sensitivity. I prefer to work on big projects like these and let my more administrative tasks fall to the wayside, so I organize my weeks with a flexible time period allowing me to indulge in my hyperfocused working style.
Knowing I put off the little tasks in favor of a big one, I schedule all my administrative work and meetings in the beginning of the week and then give myself three full days to tackle bigger tasks. That way when I get to work on Monday and want to just dive into a big design project, I remember that I scheduled time to do that, by getting all my small tasks out of the way in the beginning of the week.
Monday and Tuesday are for catching up and meetings. Wednesdays, Thursday, and Fridays are for diving into the work I cannot get done in less than 15 minutes. Knowing I’ve made time for the work I want to do later in the week makes it a lot easier for me to focus on administrative tasks like responding to emails and approvals.
We tend to overestimate the time it takes to do small, administrative tasks and underestimate the time it takes to do the projects we enjoy. If I want to accomplish ten things in a day, I know I will realistically only get to five.
One issue I’ve had with managing my productivity has to do with point 4: not understanding how long it takes to actually complete a task. I installed a timer on my computer and I use it to keep myself focused on things I would otherwise give up on. For example, I make myself write for ten minutes and if I’m not in a groove by then, I get to move on. I also set timers for tasks I would spend too much time on. For example, I often find myself spending too much time collecting inspirational imagery instead of diving into a design project. Setting a timer keeps me honest and in tune with how much time has passed so I’m able to keep my hyperfocused tendencies at bay—a hallmark of someone with ADHD.
Once I got a handle on how to manage my weeks and how many hours were spent on certain projects, I looked for ways to automate the things that were repetitive. For example, I auto-schedule content that I find while browsing the web for Twitter posts, and set reminders for posting to Instagram. Because I had already planned out posts for days that I’m busy with other tasks, the automated notification allows me to stay focused on the work that needs to get done that day and keep from going down a rabbit hole that used to throw my productivity into a downward spiral.
There are a lot of practical tips here for managing productivity, but the biggest take away from my experience is that you can design your work life around what gives you energy.
Don’t know where to start? Think about last week. What did you enjoy the most about your job? Was it connecting with your mentor? Or how about diving into four hours worth of research for the article you were working on? What if it was collecting ideas on Pinterest for an upcoming event you are hosting? Make time for those activities. Make them the most important part of your week.
Don’t know where to start? Think about last week. What did you enjoy the most about your job? Was it connecting with your mentor? Or how about diving into four hours worth of research for the article you were working on? What if it was collecting ideas on Pinterest for an upcoming event you are hosting? Make time for those activities. Make them the most important part of your week. Then, when your energy is low, you have made space and time to tackle the things that take up less of your heart and mind, like responding to those emails that actually take very little time to sort through.
Figuring out what worked for me meant asking for advice, reading a lot, and taking classes on Skillshare. I would love for you to share your tips and tricks for making the most of your week without feeling totally burnt out. Your process might just change another reader’s entire outlook on the way they approach work.
BY Kate Arends - October 26, 2019
Thank you for being here. For being open to enjoying life’s simple pleasures and looking inward to understand yourself, your neighbors, and your fellow humans! I’m looking forward to chatting with you.