I'm back in New York City for three months so, of course, I'm "catching up" on doctor's appointments and prescription refills. After an appointment-filled week, I now feel like I need to "catch up" on client work. Not to mention "catching up" on rest.
All of which has made me realize that, except for this past summer, I can't remember a time when I haven't been in a state of "catching up."
Why on earth am I perpetually trying to "catch up"?
Just Give Me 20 More Minutes
One of my most infamous personal sayings is: "Just give me 20 more minutes."
I've said to colleagues. I say it to family. I say it to Marco all the time.
It's my way of saying: "I'm not quite done with this project but I can actually see how to finish it and have the momentum to do it."
Of course it's never just 20 more minutes though. It's 35 minutes. Or an hour and a half. Sometimes I say 20 more minutes and end up working for THREE HOURS. Or more!!
But usually, if I'm really in the flow working on something, my best bet is to keep going. Because if I put it aside, who knows when I'll have that same combination of focus, vision, and momentum again?
Take this blog post right here. I was doing a writing sprint with one of my online writing groups last night. I finished editing for a client at 4:50pm, and our sprint was going until 5pm. I figured why not take 10 minutes to "catch up" on my blogging.
Well, all of a sudden I starting thinking about what it means to "catch up." I started writing this post and got really into it. 5pm passed and I was on a roll. 5:07pm came and I knew I should stop because I'd worked late the night before and I needed a break. So, trying to be responsible, I jotted down notes for where the post should go, logged off my writing group, and settled in to hang out with Marco for a few hours.
Now, here I am the next morning, and it's almost like starting from scratch. I have to figure out what I actually meant to say. If only I'd just taken 20 more minutes last night to finish...
My Five Factors for Productivity
If I really break it down, there are five variables that affect what I can do and how much I can get done on any given day (or any give hour). Specifically:
Pain and neurological function level: Neurological impairment or brain fog is one of the most frustrating migraine symptoms I get. It's like someone swaps out my brain without warning. I never know which brain I'll wake up with, though I have figured out the type of activities I can do based on the different brains I have to work with. That means always being ready to adjust my work focus for any given day.
Time: Obviously, we all need time to get things done. For anything that requires learning or creativity, I work best when I have a feeling of expansiveness, rather than "business," in my day or week.
Vision: This isn't about eyesight. It's about whether I can visualize how to approach or finish a project. As a writer by trade now, I've learned to take the time up front to figure this out. Otherwise a project takes much much longer.
Mood: Yeah, I've had depression (medication helped, thankfully). Plus mood changes and depression are also big migraine symptoms for me. And when it comes to depression as a migraine symptom it can be really severe and disabling. Because it can come on quickly with a migraine, it's also disorienting and a bit scary. So I've learned to make sure I identify it while it's happening and text my best friend to say, "Bad migraine depression but I know it will pass." Luckily, when a migraine lifts so does the depression.
The work itself: I get really exciting about all kinds of projects, whether my own or for clients. Sure, sometimes I don't feel like writing one more grant report. But I do it anyway, and I inevitably find parts I enjoy. I'm also not afraid to try new kinds of work. My motto as a freelancer has been: Say yes to everything. Who knows, maybe I'll try the work and like it. Overall, though, the more challenging or new a type of work is, the more that vision part above becomes important.
Here's an example of how the five factors play out in practice:
This past Friday I finally had a day without doctor appointments. Yay! I figured I would get soooo much done. But of course I woke up at 6am with a mild migraine. It took a few hours, but thankfully it responded to treatment. I also knew to take the morning slow, which meant less looking at words on screens.
All of which meant my "day" actually started several hours late and I had to push planned work into the future. I figured I could "catch up" over the weekend. Sigh...
Is Doing Less an Option?
To be frank, I commit to more than I should. But for good reason at the moment: I love the work I'm doing. And by "work" I now count both my personal writing and client writing.
I also know that I love doing things. I love the days when I am functional enough to actually do stuff, whether it's work for clients or for myself. As people with chronic illness will tell you, those days are exciting and amazing!
So when I have those days, I will inevitably channel all that incredible energy and those ideas into doing stuff. Take this summer, where for two months I didn't even have clients yet (or know I would have them soon). What did I do? I started two blogs. This one and a blog about our adventures buying and living in A House in Sicily. Now I think and say things like: "Oh, I need to catch up on my blogging."
So, yes, in the next 2-3 years my goal is to take on a bit less client work. But as long as I'm functional, I'll keep filling the space with work that matters to me.
What if Being Caught Up Doesn't Exist?
What if there is no perfect state of "being caught up"?
Yes, being caught up has the same allure as inbox zero or any other million productivity habits out there. But what if the issue isn't only time or project or task management, but also mindset? What if productivity is a process not an outcome?
What if "catching up" isn't even a goal?
Bear with me here. What is it about being caught up that is so compelling?
How do I feel on the times I say I'm caught up? I feel accomplished. I feel like I've done a good day's work (or week's work or month's work). I close the book on one project and open it on another. I have mental space to think through new challenges (or important challenges that have been on the back burner). And I tell myself things like, "Wow, I'm all caught up, isn't that great."
Of course I will always have deadlines to meet, and sometimes it may be a crunch. But what if I could channel that same feeling of "being caught up" into my daily life without actually achieving that mythical caught up state?
I could aspire to progress instead. I could tell myself, "Wow, I made forward progress, isn't that great."
So I'm going to give it a go. From here forward, I'm no longer "catching up." I'm "in progress."