Bullish: How To Reduce (Un-) Productivity Guilt


Practically every woman I know lives in a state of near-constant guilt for not getting enough done.

Of course, I have ambitious friends.

When you look for advice on a problem like this, your ambitious friends typically say, “Me, too!” and sometimes try to compete with you about who is the most behind on their goals.

Your unambitious, casually-relaxed friends are often equally unhelpful. Sure, sometimes they force you to get out of the city and go camping, which, surprisingly, works wonders: either the rhythms of nature quiet your internal stress meter and you wake up at dawn, happy to be alive, or else you become so infuriated at nature (IT MOVES SO SLOWLY) that you are delighted to return to your regularly-scheduled programming.

But mostly, your unambitious friends say things like, “You shouldn’t try to do so many things. Why are you doing ALL THE THINGS?” These friends then helpfully point out that all they do is go to work and pursue some kind of hobby like “restaurants” or “Pilates.” And you want to say, “But I don’t want your life,” but that would be rude, so you smile, tensely.

(See Bullish Life: What to Do When You’re Surrounded by Lazy Idiots and Bullish: Maybe Work-Life Balance Means You Should Work MORE.)

So, how can you do all the things without the inevitable feeling of being behind on most of them?

Declare a Theme

I came up with this idea while having lunch with a friend who had a lot of goals, all of them important but none of them very urgent. Write her next book, perfect her six-pack, meditate every morning, get new donors for the nonprofit she manages, et cetera. She was trying to go full-bore on all of these.

“How about last month?,” I asked. The same. “What’s the plan for next month?” The same. Her plan was to pursue 5-6 goals at full-speed, all the time.

That sort of standard will make anyone feel like a failure. But I certainly didn’t want to say, “Stop doing some of those things.” I believe in maximizing life.

Instead, I suggested: “Why don’t you declare a theme for each month? And then keep doing all the things, but when you can only do one thing for a day, you’ll know which one to do and you won’t feel bad about all the others.”

For instance, the theme for the month could be: Finish that book! You are an author! You have good abs, but they are primarily the abs of an author! The abs are subservient to the book! When in doubt about what one thing can be accomplished before having to go to someone’s bridal shower on a Saturday at 2pm, there’s no thought required: BOOK. Next month, maybe the answer is: SCHMOOZE WITH RICH PEOPLE, or SIT DOWN AND CHANT.

Since that lunch, I’ve adopted this idea for myself. Earlier this year, I cut back on work to do a twelve-week course in executive coaching. And then I freaked out when my bank balance dropped, even though I was in no financial danger, and even though that was exactly what was supposed to happen when I spent money on a class and started making less money. (I teach math! I am very familiar with subtracting!)

So, I declared, “The theme of this quarter is LEARNING.” Everything else can be gently tended to in the background. No guilt required.

(See Bullish: How to Make a Career Out of the 10,000 Things You Want to Do.)

Maximize Your Willpower by Automating

I have a limited amount of willpower, just like everyone else.

As such, I’m all about pursuing various tracks of a gentlewomanly life: multiple income streams, creative expression, health and fitness, philanthropy, pursuing justice and defending the defenseless, earning professional respect, developing expertise, building fruitful personal relationships, and gaining greater dignity and gravitas over time. (And perhaps epicureanism, world travel and international savoir faire, or an exquisite sex life.) But I’m also all about getting as many of those to run on autopilot as possible. (Except maybe the sex life.)

I wrote about running nutrition and fitness on autopilot in Bullish Life: Gentlewomen Don’t Crash Diet. I wrote about motivating yourself with the power of disgust in Bullish: How to Motivate Yourself to Be Motivated. I think eating sugar is infantile; it makes my teeth feel hideous. So, I never eat sugar. I expend zero willpower on this. I need my willpower to get up early and write these columns before I start my second workday, on my other businesses.

Nutrition and fitness are easy grabs, though. How can you automate making money, earning professional respect, philanthropy, etc.? These are topics for many other columns, but all are possible.

(See Bullish Life: A Day in the Life of Bullish.)

You can automate making money by making your products and services so incredibly useful to people that they share your name with each other like some kind of well-guarded secret; free advertising happens while you sleep.

You can automate earning professional respect by getting your name on excellent work products. Publish a whitepaper – a very detailed and useful how-to of a whitepaper. Make instructional videos about whatever it is that you do, and put them on Vimeo (“The YouTube For Grownups Who Never Write ‘Fag’ Below Videos of TED Talks™”). Do this on your own time if it’s not so much part of your job. When people Google a problem you know how to solve, can they find your solution?

How can you automate philanthropy? Obviously, you could have money automatically debited from your accounts (here, $21 per month provides career training for an impoverished young woman in India). You can also decide to become very, very good at what you do so as to increase your power to change the world a decade from now (see Bullish: How to Use Your Career to Make the World a Better Place.)

And you can automate your responses to unacceptable behavior from others. You can decide that, should you hear a racist joke, you will respond, “Whoa, that joke is definitely racist. I don’t think you should tell it anymore.” What if it’s your boss telling the joke? Do you tell him? Do you tell HR? What if someone on the subway says “Move your ass, fat bitch” to someone else on the subway? Do you say, “You have no right to talk to her that way?” Do you do so only if there are enough people around that you are not likely to experience physical danger? You can decide in advance how you will respond to injustice. Then it’s not so much willpower to actually respond: that’s just what you do.

I don’t even think it’s crazy to automate the process of investing in your personal relationships. It’s considered thoughtful to enter someone’s birthday in your calendar so that you remember it later, right? I think it’s equally thoughtful – and not fake at all – to dedicate “the end of work every Friday” or some other time as a time to send thank-you emails to everyone who did something nice during the week. Maybe Wednesday is a good time to reach out about weekend plans. Maybe the first of the month is a nice time to send greeting cards to elderly relatives.

Developing the portfolio of skills, attributes, and circumstances that compose a gentlewomanly life is, well … a lifelong project. We all live in mortal human bodies led by easily distractible brains. And yet, with a little conscious management, it is possible to pursue every track of a gentlewomanly life all at once, while feeling mostly pretty fabulous.

(See also Bullish Life: What Do You Feel Guilty About Today? and Bullish Life: How to Reduce Your Stress Level Immediately.)

Originally published on The Grindstone.