A Primer On Productivity

2010 June 14

I’ve been visiting my family for the last few days and I’ve been thinking a lot about productivity.  My father and I were discussing deadlines (this pseudo vacation happens to be full of them) of the physical vs. intellectual variety and the usefulness of putting conditions on work that normally requires creativity and inspiration to fuel it. This conversation, plus a recent reader question about increasing one’s writing output, convinced me that this is a fine time to share with you my own productivity secrets, which boil down to getting yourself to sack up and do work when you’d rather do just about anything else. They’re not glamorous, but they keep slackerdom at bay, at least in my world.

Photo by jazzmasterson


Willpower is overrated. It might help you to gut out the last five miles of the Boston Marathon, but it won’t take you from the couch to actually qualifying for next year’s Marathon in the first place.  We romanticize grit and stick-to-it determination as being hallmarks of strong character and gloss over the fact that we’re social creatures and that willpower often requires us to isolate ourselves from people or situations we fear might be a challenge to it in order to toil in a vacuum.  Better that we should focus on accountability – both to ourselves and our values and to others who are depending on us.  Whether it be the buddy system to get in your training runs or volunteering at your grandmother’s nursing home or a group project for one of your marketing classes, we are less likely to slack off when we know that doing so would publicly let others down and not simply disappoint ourselves. This is part of the logic behind the Virtual Brain Trust and part of the impetus that recently allowed me to bang out 24 consecutive think pieces on the Gen Y experience in modern America for Bitch Magazine*. Believe me, willpower and divine inspiration had nothing to do with those columns.


I’d love to be one of those people who can drag their laptops to a coffee shop to happily work or study for hours. I am not.  Too nosy curious about fellow patrons and their conversations, relationships and drink orders.  I know that I work best alone in the quiet (maybe with my headphones on, but never when editing) and that trying to produce a quality effort in cacophonous surroundings is a losing battle.  While most of us likely don’t have perfect control over our environment (especially if you live with others), knowing the context in which you are best able to focus and to be productive goes a long way in helping you to minimize the distractions (that’s why God made noise-canceling headphones!) within your control and to adjust your expectations as to your output under less than ideal conditions and the type of tasks that you shouldn’t tackle (hint: expecting to finish your MA thesis over Thanksgiving with your 35-person extended family might not be entirely realistic) in that environment.

Incentives and Consequences

Although it’s not the only example, money works particularly well in this context, especially for those who are conscientious about accruing/saving it and squeamish about wasting it. The need to eat and pay rent forces you to hustle to land clients or to sell more cars or houses. You leave yourself no choice but to be productive. Inaction is a luxury you can’t afford. Literally.  Or the fact that you’re coughing up almost $50/month in gym fees is a heckuva motivation to squeeze in as many fitness classes as possible each week (it also decreases the per-class cost and makes you feel all virtuously thrifty!).

*If you haven’t read them, you should. That was some hardcore productivity right there.

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