It's easy to fall into the traps of self-criticism and negativity when your productivity isn't where you want it to be, whether the cause is self-inflicted or out of your control. Author and speaker Liz Curtis Higgs shares how she overcomes these challenges with grace.
A productive life seasoned with grace
Liz Curtis Higgs is a best-selling author and in-demand speaker at women’s conferences all over the world. She’s also a wife to Bill and mom to two grown children. Liz has been speaking around the world for 35 years and got into writing exactly 25 years ago. She has traveled to 15 countries to speak, and she loves experiencing the differences and similarities among her own American culture and those of the countries she has visited. In 2018, Liz is starting her own radio show as well. Her favorite career so far is being a mother, though she is mostly graduated from that job as her children are grown, but she’s always prepared to put her mothering hat back on when her adult children need her.
A typical day
Liz has two types of typical days depending on the day of the week: she has the Monday-Thursday mode and the Friday-Sunday mode, and each mode has its own rhythm.
Monday through Thursday are home-writing days. In the morning, she is very intentional about having a good breakfast consisting of high-protein, low-carb food, so she doesn’t have to think about food again until noon. Then she’ll shower if necessary and dress in the clothes she laid out the night before. By 8:30 am, she is fed, dressed, and at her desk, ready to tackle whatever the day may hold.
Liz uses a Word document as her on-going to-do list. The Word document works for her because it is easy, flexible, and she can keep it neat despite her ever-changing schedule. She bold-faces items that must get done on that particular day but doesn’t panic if she has to put her plans aside to address unplanned and critical things that come up.
Liz measures her productivity by how much she has blessed other people, so that's how she prioritizes the items on her to-do list. Generally, if she has to choose between a “Liz thing”–a task that will make her happy–and another task, such as a Facebook post, that will bless her followers, she’ll choose the Facebook post. It may sound crazy that a social media post takes precedence, but Liz has about 92,000 (that number is not a typo) followers, many of whom like to start their days on a positive note by reading Liz’s positive and encouraging posts.
At the end of the day, if the “Liz thing” didn’t get done, but she did something that helped someone else, she counts that day as not only more productive but also more valuable.
For Liz, one of the delights of maturing is the ability to understand the big picture, to recognize that some things we think are “do-or-die” critical are not that important in the grand scheme. The things that actually matter are things like loving the people in your life, being a positive influence, or putting yourself aside in favor of others. At the end of our lives, Liz says, people won't remember us for wearing a certain size clothing, or for dressing well, or having our hair a certain way, or other things that we waste a phenomenal amount of time on. What people will remember, in the end, is how much we loved, cared, and did for others. The more she can focus on others, the more peace she has in her heart at the end of the day.
Liz was diagnosed with cancer 6 months ago, which she says definitely was not on her to-do list. Doctor visits and chemotherapies fill full 7-hour days every 3 weeks, something she says she would normally not “have the time for,” but she’s amazed how she is able to make use of her time well to fit these appointments in because she has to. For instance, she doesn’t waste the time in the car. Instead, she phones friends on her drives to and back from doctor visits.
Liz has found that the cancer diagnosis has helped her to prioritize like nothing else has. She appreciates all the good things in her life. (You can read more about her learnings in a blog post titled 6 Reasons I'm Thankful for cancer.) Cancer has cleared the cobwebs in her head and schedule, taught her even more to give herself grace. She doesn’t push herself as hard as she used to and allows space to savor the moments. She believes that you may not have “something to show for it” if you pause on a gorgeous day to look out the window bask in the beauty, but it's very productive for the heart. So she encourages us to stop being our own harshest critic, be kinder to ourselves, and let the positive aspects of seemingly negative situations inform our definition of productivity.
She also encourages us to think about the question, “What would I do with my life if I had a year left to live?” She believes this question would help us to make better choices about what we do with our lives, calendars, and how much time you would spend with other people.
One of Liz's favorite Scriptures is Proverbs 27:1 which says “Do not boast about tomorrow for you do not know what a day may bring.” Not knowing what a day may bring sounds ominous, but it's also true that we don’t know what good news a day may bring. There may be wonderful things that will suddenly change all our priorities, so this brings us back to embracing each moment for the joy that it all offers.
Another Proverb she loves is verse 25 of chapter 31, which says “strength and dignity are her clothing.” To her, this is a visual and tactile representation of a woman who is grounded in today but can smile at the future because she is dressed in strength and dignity.
Biggest Productivity Challenges
The temptations of the internet pose a challenge for Liz’s productivity because it can hog up her time. She once saw a quote on Twitter: “Writing is 3% inspiration and 97% warding off the temptations of the internet.” Though distractions have always been present, nothing is as pervasive as the internet. Even though she wakes up early with the best of intentions to work on a project, she can find a whole hour gone after getting sucked into something online.
Liz has taken steps to deal with this challenge. For example, she has removed all games from the laptop she uses for her writing. She also put a reward system in place so she gets to watch something on Netflix after her work is done. She put an elliptical machine where the television is so she makes sure to get exercise time as she enjoys a show.
We may have to play games with ourselves to reduce the distraction, but we can’t give up. Liz says we’ve never needed self-discipline more than we do now, and it will happen because you make it happen.
She also advises that if you go a little off-schedule and end up doing something that isn’t the smartest thing you’ve ever done, like perusing Pinterest for floor plan ideas instead of sleeping like I (Laura) did, ask yourself if you’ve enjoyed it. Don’t be so hard on yourself. Give yourself some grace. And take a nap.
Tools Liz recommends
As briefly mentioned above, Liz uses a Microsoft Word document as her to-do list. She doesn’t have a physical calendar nor a particular system. This Word document is about 20 pages long; she uses color coding and bold-face to type indicate her priorities.
To connect with her followers, Liz uses various social media platforms. When she published her book Bad Girls of the Bible she created a Pinterest board for each of the book's characters as if they live today. She posted things like “What would Jezebel’s ride be?” or “What kind of house would she live in?” or “What would her birthday cake look like?”
Liz posts on Twitter about 5 times a day. Instead of jumping on Twitter multiple times a day, she uses Hootsuite to upload a week’s worth of posts in advance. Similarly, she uses the Facebook pages feature that allows you to pre-schedule posts and loads up a week’s worth at once, scheduling them go live at 3 a.m. daily whether she’s sleeping, traveling, or speaking.
How Liz organizes her day
On Sunday afternoons, Liz takes care of her social media posts for the week. As for her writing, she worked with a physical calendar in the past to schedule her writing time. When she was working on a book, she would simply fill the square with a large W for each day she'd scheduled to write, and didn’t allow herself to book anything else like haircuts, doctors’ appointments, or even lunch with a friend on those days. That's how she wrote 37 books.
Liz knows she writes best in the morning, so if she can get a jump start on writing in the morning, she is able to write continuously until the world makes its demands on her.
In order to write a full book, it takes about 100 writing days, each day consisting of about 8 to 10 hours. Using those numbers, Liz plans backward from the deadline. For example, if the manuscript is due on April 30, she blocks out the days she can write. It sounds like a pretty quick turnaround, but it actually takes about 6 months to make those 100 writing days happen, which is understandable as it would be a challenge to block out one hundred consecutive days to devote to one project. The writing days are numbered in her calendar in a countdown fashion, and she knows how many words she has to write each day so she doesn’t fall behind schedule. She always sets a word count goal as a target to aim for, but she's careful not to measure her productivity based on that number. Some days, she says, she might write only about 750 words, but she's okay with that if they're “good words” that move the story forward (if she’s writing fiction), or she was able to write through a tough part in a non-fiction book. Her focus is on her achievement, knowing she was able to get through something she wasn’t sure she could.
How Liz plans for the new year
January 1 is always an exciting day for Liz. She thinks about what the next year will hold. She gets excited when there’s something new to look forward to in the new year. This year is the 25th anniversary of her writing career, so each month on her website and social media channels she'll be featuring a different non-fiction book she’s published.
The month of November is when she thinks about all the things she’s grateful for. Last year, her November Facebook posts were all about gratitude.
Sometimes Liz has a word for the year or a verse for the year. She always tries to have something new that is overarching for the year and tries to stay open to something coming that she hadn't expected. This year, she is looking forward to the CAT scan that will tell her she is cancer free! She knows she cannot affect the outcome, but she faithfully does what she can do such as take her pills, go to chemo, eat right, and exercise, and trusts that God is in charge of the outcome.
What happens on a day when everything gets away from you?
Liz definitely has difficult days, but during her cancer journey, it has only happened twice! She confesses one of the two bad days she’s had was entirely her fault because she had decided to google her cancer diagnosis and drove herself crazy as it pretty much told her she would be dead in five days. Her search results gave her the worst-case scenarios possible. She reached out to her husband, but couldn’t get a hold of him and she just sat there stewing in her misery.
But in retrospect, she thinks even that bad day was a gift to her because she finally had to talk to God about it. She confessed, “Lord, I’m alone here.” And God answered, “Liz, you are not alone. I am with you always. Lean on me for this. This isn’t something you can work up the strength to handle yourself. Lean on me please, Liz. Lean on me.”
Though she has believed in God for 35 years, Liz finds it amazing how she had to be pushed up again something hard to truly understand the beauty and security of faith. She finally understood. Cancer was a gift to her because her faith has now been tested, tried, and held up. The lesson Liz shares from this experiences is that when you encounter hardships, self-inflicted or not, consider it a time to search the depths of your beliefs and the deepest truths you’ve hidden inside your heart, and decide whether you really do believe them, and ask yourself if you can hang onto them and press forward.
What’s on the horizon for Liz?
Liz’s new book 31 Proverbs to Light your Path was released recently. Less than a month after she finished the book in May 2017 and sent it off to the printers, she received her cancer diagnosis. She feels like the research for the 31 Proverbs not only helped her write the book, but also prepared her heart for the new journey to come because so many of them were about planning for the future.
Before writing the book, she did a series of blog posts on favorite Proverbs by asking her followers to tell her their favorite Proverb. Proverbs have been around for about 3000 years, so they've stood the test of time and speak across faiths. The reason she asked her readers to choose them was that all of her choices would’ve been happy, positive, and upbeat, and she wanted a broader perspective in the book. Her readers, though, chose challenging ones. This helped her know that people are willing to wrestle with difficult things, and she then had to ask herself some hard questions.
Here are a few timeless Proverbs she shared:
Proverbs 16:16 “How much better to get wisdom than gold, to get insight rather than silver.” – In the end, money doesn't add to your joy or wisdom. In fact, it ends up adding to your troubles.
Proverbs 14:1 “The wise woman builds her house but with her own hands the foolish one tears hers down.” – Though this is a sad truth, it's worth considering. Think about what you are doing to build up your household, whether you are married or single.
She is grateful for having written this book because it turned out to teach her everything she needed to know to venture down a new path. She doesn’t have all the answers, but she invites her readers to join her on her journey.
Last thoughts on making a life that matters
The bottom line is always the people in your life, not the things in your life; not the tasks, but the people. If it comes down to having to choose between doing a task or spending time with a person, people matter most.
What do you think?
Connect with Liz
More about Liz
Liz Curtis Higgs has one goal: to help women embrace the grace of God with joy and abandon. Higgs is the author of more than 30 books with 4.6 million copies in print, including her nonfiction bestsellers Bad Girls of the Bible, The Girl’s Still Got It, The Women of Christmas and The Women of Easter. She has spoken at 1,700 women’s conferences in all 50 states and 14 countries. Her latest release, 31 Proverbs to Light Your Path, shows how thirty-one nuggets of truth reveal God’s faithfulness.
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