Today on Facebook, someone I went to middle school with posted a photo of her own daughter — on the first day of middle school. Circle of life! Cue Lion King music! (She must have had that kid back when I was in my sophomore year of college, shaving my head and protesting things like God intended.)
Of course, some Bullish readers are headed back to university right now (see Bullish: What I Wish I Had Known When I Was 18), but many of us are done with school and only become vaguely aware of the start of the school year when the local Staples is completely taken over by children and glittery binders. True story: I said “fuck” in a Staples and a woman angrily pointed at her rambunctious children running around the aisles, and I replied, “IT’S A GROWN-UP STORE.”
That said, doesn’t this week kind of feel like the start of something big? Nineteenth grade or something? I’ll bet a freshly-sharpened number two pencil would smell amazing right now.
Here’s how to harness this back-to-school moment for your own use.
I recently received this question from a reader:
Jen, I really admire your energy and ability to be so prolific and efficient! I also really admire your no-holds-barred attitude. Any advice on how to maintain high energy levels and be productive on a daily (okay, mostly daily) basis?
Here’s what I wrote in reply:
Hi there, and thanks for the excellent (and flattering) question. I definitely don’t feel jazzed up and super full of energy all day long — that’s just not sustainable for long periods of time. It’s more that I’ve just cut a lot of crap out of my life. I don’t have TV at all, and I don’t hang out with groups of people (it’s just pointless; meaningful conversations almost never happen in groups of more than two).
My deadlines for TheGloss and The Grindstone keep me on a writing schedule (I make a point to plan what I’m going to write the night before, and then sleep on it), and I add a lot of other deadlines to my calendar to make sure I keep producing. I haven’t yet figured out the holy grail for doing big projects that need to be scheduled in many small modules, but I do manage to slam out all kinds of day-length projects.
I think it’s also important not to be crippled by perfectionism. Sometimes I feel stuck, and I say, “Okay, this article’s going to suck, but I’ll just write something that sucks and then try to fix it up if I can.” When it’s done, though, it almost never actually sucks (well, at least I think so). And if it did suck, well, a first draft is way better than no draft (and that’s true for lots of things other than writing).
Finally, sometimes I feel tired, stupid, or just plain terrible, just like everyone else. But, if you have a lot going on, then you can easily say, “Okay, I’m not going to do any of these big-thinking tasks right now, so what’s on the I’m-stupid-right-now list?” And then I clean the bathtub and print and collate worksheets for my students and follow back a bunch of people who followed me on Twitter and a bunch of other stuff that would bore the living shit out of me if I were on top of my game.
Life usually hands you less than ideal circumstances, so it’s important to move forward under duress. You will usually be under some kind of duress! You don’t need to feel guilty about it; it’s the human condition. Some not-very-glamorous scheduling techniques, as above, can keep the engine running when life has given you the proverbial lemons (or cramps, or hangovers, or breakups, or pink slips).
I’d add to this, though: unless you are totally divorced from society, you probably absorb a certain sense of get-up-and-go at New Year’s, and around the start of school, and maybe even just on Mondays. Don’t waste it on cleaning your kitchen counters! (I mean, my kitchen counter is spotless, but I live in Manhattan and we’re talking about 1.5 square feet of countertop here, and I can clean that when I’m done being smart for the day.)
So, now is the time for a big project or two.
(See also Bullish: How To Stop Procrastinating About Stopping Procrastinating and Bullish: How to Motivate Yourself to Be Motivated.)
Big projects need a reasonable timeframe, and an endpoint.
What do you want to do with yourself? Start a business? Teach yourself to program iPhone apps? Start a blog that establishes you as a thought leader in your field? Write a book? Plan a conference? Learn three languages at the same time?
It’s easy to get caught up in small goals — things that fit on a calendar in a visual way. I’ve written before about the benefits of paper (Bullish: Pre-Internet Productivity Tips for the Young and Sprightly); on my printed-out iCal pages, I can visualize a month, but not six months or a year. It’s easy to jump from deadline-in-two-weeks to deadline-two-weeks-after-that and then all the sudden your twenties or thirties are gone and you’re trying to list 200 piddly little things on your resume when you wish you’d done five big ones instead.
It’s September! What project, if you divided it into nine relatively equal segments, could you slowly and steadily complete by June?
Write it down. Write down all the steps. Divide the steps up per month. Do some of the steps. Feel free to employ the services of a glittery binder.
Finally, big projects are easier to start when there’s a natural endpoint.
If you want to learn Chinese or write a book “eventually,” smaller and more (seemingly) pressing things will get in the way. If you want to learn Chinese or write a book by June, well … have you spent more years of your life in the educational system than out of it? You know the drill.
(See also Bullish: Maybe Work-Life Balance Means You Should Work MORE.)
You remember tests, right?
If you’ve planned what you want to get done in the next nine months, why not plan your own “final exam”? Make a test you’ll take in June. Maybe it says “Did you write a book proposal? Where did you send it?” Put it someplace important.
Remember once asking “Is this going to be on the test?” Well … now everything important to you is on the test.
(See also Bullish: What I Learned About Success in a Korean Cram School.)
You can do more in a day — or a year — than you think.
Back in high school, I wasn’t too cool to carry an enormous backpack. In fact, it was the only physically possible way to succeed: every day I left school with an enormous backpack, an extra textbook or two that didn’t fit in the backpack, and a viola. This meant I had no hands free to dry off my glasses when it rained. Dorktastic!
I mention this because, once upon a time, you used to succeed at five or six subjects at once, and one of them was gym. (As an adult, could you even imagine trying to do physics, and then run and change and exercise and change again and then do English, all in less than three hours?)
The job market is currently terrible, and your competition is made up almost entirely of young people who went to good colleges, and took lots of AP classes in order to get into them. You can’t just have a job. You can’t base your career off an impressive resume.
In Bullish: Personality Qualities That Are Way More Important Than Anything on Your Resume, I wrote about the importance of the skill of pitching things. In other columns, I’ve suggested creating a “work portfolio” or publishing whitepapers:
Even better than a resume, create a work “portfolio,” especially if you are young and have only one real job on your resume. Give every project, initiative, marketing campaign, etc., that you work on its own page or Powerpoint slide in this portfolio. A resume with one job on it makes you look like someone a new employer doesn’t have to pay that much. A woman with twenty pages of easy-to-browse documentation of twenty projects she worked on in that job is a force to be reckoned with. Quantify everything.
Whatever is on your list — a work portfolio, a new company, or some other career or life improvement — remember that you not only can work steadily towards those things, but that you can increase your actual capacity for doing the things that move you forward.
I never advocate productivity for its own sake — there’s nothing worse than rushing to do 20 things in one day, none of which matter — but you can absolutely stretch yourself over time when you actually know where it is you want to go. (See Bullish Life: When “Achievements” Just Leave You Feeling Empty for more on choosing worthwhile goals.)
If you exercise regularly and with gusto, your workouts don’t just get better; you build stamina, and they can also get longer. You can increase your capacity for contribution. You can widen whatever channel exists between your brain and your life. Sometimes it’s good to force things. The first day of school was once a rude surprise, but after awhile, you grow.
(See also Bullish: Using Your College Skills to Succeed After College.)