I’ve just had a strange week. I had perfect circumstances to be highly productive — I rested on a weekend at the PwC’s (my employer) getaway; my wife started a new job and she was away from home between 10 am and 7:20 pm (she is one huge distraction when at home); I had dealt with the urgent minutia of my business and had brain power to spare on the bigger-picture tasks.
Yet, I fumbled through the days barely doing anything. I took a couple of naps practically each day. I wasted my time on news websites and social media chasing a dopamine high. I did household chores. Basically, I distracted myself to oblivion.
I just didn’t feel like working, and I could do nothing about it. I felt helpless.
The Mental Struggle
To add insult to the injury, I totally failed to remedy the situation. In fact, I made it worse.
I wasn’t productive, so I tried to force myself to do something, usually to no avail. Then, I felt guilty about my actions and my inability to improve. The guilt trips sent me chasing after anything that could give me a dopamine high — reading books, reading news, and watching funny videos. But all those activities actually wasted my time, so I felt even less productive. I beat myself even more, my guilt increased, and I was chasing for another dopamine boost…
Have you ever been caught in such a vicious cycle? You are a human; I bet you have been.
I wasn’t my usual productive self, nicknamed Mr. Consistency. What the heck happened? Well…
You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.”
— James Clear
The above quote is from the Atomic Habits book, in which James Clear argues that our environment has much bigger influence on our behaviors than we care to give it credit. We overestimate the influence of our willpower and motivation and severely underestimate the influence of the external factors.
I examined my week and found several external factors dragging my productivity down.
Lack of accountability.
My daily accountability partner went for a 3-day vacation.
Change of a daily rhythm.
My wife stayed at home for the last few years. She usually was waking up between 9 and 10 am, when I was already engaged in work. This week, she was on her legs at 8 am, so when I finished my morning ritual, I engaged into interactions with her. It delayed the moment of starting my work. I’m the most productive in the morning. I felt like I was catching up with my workload for the rest of the days.
The older I’m getting, the more influence the weather has on my physical wellbeing. I don’t know if it has to do with my volatile circadian rhythm or with my ultra-low blood pressure (110/70 is my norm and it can get even lower). This week the weather was terrible, gloomy, dark, and we had a few rapid air pressure changes. It surely contributed to my aptitude for naps.
One day, I had my car’s check-up in the morning. Then, I recalled I haven’t paid the tax for it yet, and I spent a couple of hours on chasing the IRS with all the legal mumbo-jumbo.
Give me the good fiction book and I will sit down and read it to the end. Thus, I avoid them. However, my wife asked me to return her books to the library when she was at work. While packing them, I opened one of them — a Jack Reacher novel… and you know the rest of the story. Two hours were gone.
The same happened a few times a day with my favorite YouTube series and with reading news websites.
Apart from the coma attacks, I suffered other symptoms — brain fog, mental exhaustion and unusual hunger pangs. It might have been my system fighting off COVID — I experienced similar symptoms in the recovery phase — or just the symptoms of overall exhaustion. I do try to take care of myself, but if I err, I err on the overworking side of things.
So, it appears a lot of external factors coalesced together, and their alliance went through all of my productivity routines like a hot knife through butter. I was caught off guard. I simply had no chances against my environment.
Avoid the Vicious Mental Cycle
I have several ideas, but the most important is this one. All the others practically come back to avoiding a mental meltdown and self-beating. I know it’s easy to say and much harder to do. So, let’s get over some things you actually can do.
1. Summon Help.
Lack of my daily accountability was the crucial issue for me. And it is for most of us — well, it’s more crucial to most than me! As far as I know, I’m on the extreme side of the introversion spectrum. I like being alone, and I’m pretty good at dealing with a multitude of tasks with sheer willpower.
Yet, my productivity went down the drain without my accountability partner. And I know it’s not an accident because he was on a longer vacation at the end of August, and I experienced a drop of productivity as well.
We are social animals to the core, even the introverted ones. This is a fact. Accountability works for us, period.
I had a mastermind call on Thursday. My buddies asked me about my output, and I admitted my struggles. They asked me some follow-up questions. Thanks to that interrogation, I was able to logically think about my lack of productivity instead of being stuck at beating myself up. My accountability partner was back on Friday, and the last two days of the week were much better for me than the first four.
When you feel stuck, when you feel low, summon help. Talk to your spouse, friend, mastermind — anyone. Just get out of your head. When you are alone, it’s incredibly hard to get the perspective.
2. Be Gracious to Yourself.
Again, I’m in the extreme camp here. I judge myself very harshly. And I draw way too much self-value from my output, so when my productivity decreases, I tend to be even harsher.
Of course, giving yourself some grace works better when you are too harsh to yourself. If you have been a lazy bum for most of your life, it won’t do you much good. But for self-tormentors like me? It’s golden.
So what, I had a weaker day? There will be the next day? So what, I felt worse than usual and napped more? When you hit some real limits of your body, you’d better pause and take care of yourself. A breakdown, whether physical or mental, will have much more serious consequences than a lost day or week.
I’m always, and I mean ALWAYS, more productive when I take five to fifteen minutes in the morning to go over the list of projects and tasks in my mind and write them down.
I haven’t done it in this ill-fated week. It is so powerful, I should do it even at 2 pm, or whenever I had realized I’m not my usual optimal self.
If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail.”
— Benjamin Franklin
Plan. Planning shaves off 20% of the time spent on long-term projects. If you set your intentions first, you are much more likely to follow up with them than when trying to just power through your day.
Planning doesn’t have to be very elaborate. What works best for me is just jotting down a few tasks in my notepad. Then, I cross them off as I’m going.
4. Be Humble.
Part of being gracious for yourself is a deep understanding — and accepting — that you are just imperfect, like all the human beings. Don’t believe in the curated reality of perfect Instagram photos. Nobody is perfect, it only looks like it.
If not my pride, I could recognize so much sooner that I was too weak to face my environment. Instead of self-beating, I could have engaged into self-compassion, or just give myself internal permission to indulge for a few hours. But I didn’t, and I simultaneously chased the dopamine and chastised myself for doing it.
You are a human being. You will have some weaker days. Prepare for that. Accept that.
Hide your pride in a pocket. Summon help. Plan. Cut yourself some slack, when it’s needed.
Just don’t beat yourself up into a pulp. That’s the least productive thing you can do.
Originally published at Medium.