Recorded with a milestone in mind, this episode features a few thoughts about what it means (to me) to live a productive life–and how that's changed over time.
A Lifetime of Learning Productivity
Milestone dates–the beginning of a year, an important anniversary, etc.–can be useful triggers to pause and evaluate your life and goals. Because my birthday is near the middle of the year, I use it as a milestone. I take time to look at how I’m progressing toward my goals, and what adjustments I want to make in my approach for the remainder of the year. It’s a time for reflection about my life and what contributions I’m making to the world around me.
Like other milestone times, I find myself reflecting on the past, evaluating my progress and growth, and recalibrating to make sure I stay on track in living a life consistent with what I value most.
For this episode, I thought I’d share a few of the lessons I’ve learned so far in a lifetime of studying productivity and trying to make a life that matters to me.
What I used to believe about productivity
I’ve always been a bit of a productivity geek. I can remember reading articles and books about time management as early as middle school. They didn’t call it productivity in those days; it was always time management or organization. I loved checklists, charts, and calendars, and I did a lot of studying, reading, and testing things out, even at an early age.
In young adulthood I began to develop ideas of what it meant to be productive. I used to believe that it was about efficiency for its own sake — making lists and checking things off the lists. The goal was getting the most stuff done. I believed if I could just find the right system or tool, I would be more productive.
As I look back to those early years, I realize now that I was disappointed a lot. I would try a lot of different things thinking, “This is what it will take to get me organized,” or to accomplish all these amazing things I would see other people accomplish. It would work for awhile, and then it would taper off, and I wouldn’t always get the results I wanted.
I thought if I moved on to the next new tool or planner, then I would be more productive in the sense of accomplishing things I could be proud of. I measured my success and my worth by how my home looked, how my children behaved, how much I checked off my lists. This is what I thought productivity looked like back then.
Systems & tools I tried
I loved notebooks and sizes and different arrangements, like tabs or different colored notebooks and sections for different areas of my life. For a while I followed The Sidetracked Sisters' “Sidetracked Home Executives” system, which they wrote about in several books, starting with Sidetracked Home Executives: From Pigpen to Paradise. They developed a system for organizing their lives using 3×5 cards. Their system became a basis for the approach taught by the very popular FlyLady.
Over the years I read countless books on time management, organization, and life planning.
Some of my favorites include Julie Morgenstern’s books, Time Management from the Inside Out, and Organizing from the Inside Out. These are both about understanding who you are, and organizing your life and space based on your unique personality.
I also liked Alan Lakein’s How to Get Control of Your Time and Your Life.
Then of course, eventually, I read David Allen’s Getting Things Done. He talks about capturing and processing information, and then actually doing the stuff.
I've learned from every book I read and every tool and system I tried, but the most important lesson I learned is that I can’t just take someone else’s system and import it wholesale into my life. I've learned to take different pieces of various systems to create something that works for me.
My view of productivity has changed even within the past 139 episodes of The Productive Woman podcast. Preparing for a new episode each week, and hearing from listeners about the issues they're facing, have changed what I originally thought about being productive. It was about efficiency for its own sake, it was about getting lots of stuff done, and finding the right tool or “magic pill” to solve all of my imagined productivity woes. I don’t believe those things anymore, and I don’t talk about those things as much anymore.
What I believe now
Productivity is more than checking things off a list. I think productivity is about managing your life; not just about doing lots of stuff — it’s about doing the right stuff, so it starts by identifying what the right stuff is for you. I believe now that you can be very, very, busy without being productive at all.
Productivity is the result, not the process. For me, back in the day, productivity was about the process. Now it’s about the results. How do I know if I’m being productive? If I’m actually accomplishing the things that really matter to me. (That might be one thing in a day or even one thing in a week.) The productive day isn’t the day you got tons and tons of stuff done. It’s the day you got the thing that mattered most done.
I believe now there is no “right” productivity system or tool. I have shelves of books about time management and organization, and I've tried a ton of systems and tools (playing with productivity tools is entertainment for me!) but I don’t believe there is any one right system. We are all unique individuals with unique personalities and ways of being in the world, and the system we use needs to be just as unique. The productivity tools we use need to be able adapt to us and who we are, rather than us changing who we are to adapt to the tools.
One of the most important things I have learned recently is that the most productive thing you can do is learn to manage your own mind. How I feel about my life has nothing to do with what happens or what other people do, and everything to do with how I choose to think. There is much in life I cannot control, but I can always control what I think, and therefore how I feel.
You may have heard of Viktor Frankl. Dr. Frankl was an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist who in the early 1940s spent time in 4 different concentration camps, and later wrote about his experiences and observations and what they taught him about human nature. In his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, he said, “…everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” What a profound truth. We can always choose our own attitude no matter the circumstances we are in.
Dr. Frankl continues, “Man does not simply exist but always decides what his existence will be, what he will become in the next moment.” We decide that. It is in our power to choose what our life will be like, because we choose the attitude we bring to it.
A life that matters doesn't just happen to us. We make a life that matters. By the actions we take or the decisions we make or don’t, we can choose the experience we will have in our life. I wish I had learned this a long time ago. When I was younger I sometimes felt like I was a victim of my circumstances, and I couldn’t accomplish certain things because of something in my life. What I’ve learned is we can always choose. What has happened to us in the past informs and shapes our thinking, but it doesn't need to define us.
Life is long; there's still so much to learn
As I get older, it sometimes feels like time is moving faster. Weeks, months, and years fly by, and I can feel a little panicky, like I’m going to run out of time before I accomplish everything I want to. I have to rein myself in and manage my mind. I remind myself that the average life expectancy of a woman in the U.S. is close to 80 years, so barring the unexpected illness or accident, I probably have more than 20 years left — time to do many things.
What lessons have I learned about making a life that matters that I want to share with you?
- Don’t take life or time for granted; make the most of each day.
- Take care of yourself, so your body will be able to do the things your heart is drawing you toward.
- Try not to waste time or energy on things that don’t matter–like anger and regret.
One advantage to getting older is you become (hopefully) a little more self-aware; you recognize what matters most to you. You begin to pay attention to your priorities, so you can live more intentionally.
BUT you don’t have to wait until you’re older to do that. You can become self-aware, and watch yourself, and learn what matters to you. Learn what your priorities are now, and live intentionally, and build your life around those priorities. That's how you make a life that matters.
What do you think?
What does productivity mean to you? What are you doing each day to make a life that matters to you? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below or in The Productive Woman Community Facebook group, or email me.Click here to discover my favorite apps!
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