Finding Your Best (Productive and Motivated) Self

Monet, "Grainstack, Sun in the Midst," Minneapolis Institute of Art. 

Monet, "Grainstack, Sun in the Midst," Minneapolis Institute of Art. 

One of the things I’ve learned about being as career-driven as I am, is that I need to refine my personal productivity. Being productive, for me anyways, means either getting the time to work on articles and conference presentations or getting the time to discover who I am and who I want to be. You know—the kind of work that gives you meaning, satisfaction, and joy. My intellectual and personal happiness means having time to research, read, write, and think.

But how do I harness the best time of the day or time in my week to be productive?

When I was working on my dissertation, my university’s graduate academic support center offered dissertation and thesis boot camps. Basically, a graduate student would sign up for a 40 hour a week commitment or a 20 hour commitment on the weekends with the goal of getting as much research and writing completed. In order to keep the motivation going, the boot camp staff had short writing activities at the beginning and end of the day, and staff were always available to discuss ideas, look at drafts, or troubleshoot. I signed up for seven of these week-long boot camps—the most boot camps anyone had followed through with at the university. And I learned four important things about myself that significantly impacted my productivity, and, as a result, made me a happier writer and thinker:

1. Although I’m a night person, I did my best thinking and writing from 9:00am to noon. Regardless of how hard it was to get out of bed to be on campus by 8:00am, and regardless of how many times I silently asked myself how I was going to get through the day, I always had my best ideas and most productive writing before lunch.

2. Developing the habit of journaling my tasks before starting the morning and after finishing the day helped me process my work. In the morning, I wrote down what I wanted to accomplish that day, or at least by lunch time, and then at the end of the day, I reflected on what I accomplished as a way to celebrate what was accomplished (a sure-fire way to stay motivated) as well as note what new questions or ideas emerged.

3. I learned to multi-task between multiple projects when my brain was tired. While the boot camp organizers didn’t want us to fill up the time with checking email, grading students’ assignments (if we were teaching assistants), or doing research for professors (if we were research assistants), they encouraged us to have multiple back-up assignments in case we got stuck or bored of the dissertation or thesis work. So, I would come prepared, each day, with at least three different kinds of projects I could work on to cycle through if I felt bored or stymied in my dissertation work. Having multiple projects to work on allowed me to treat each boot camp like the 40 hour a week job that it was. I don’t think I’ve been as productive since.

4. Being in a space with people focused on the same kind of goal—a steel will to complete as much work as possible—kept me motivated. There’s something about being in a space with 10-15 other people who are all wanted the same thing: to be productive. There’s a buzzing energy that happens in this kind of space. Coffee shops and collaborative workspaces provide similar kinds of energy, which is why aside from writing my dissertation during the boot camps, I lived at one coffee shop, Satellite Coffee on Carlisle and Central, the rest of the time. That particular coffee shop was a satellite office for many professionals, and over hearing the work meetings or phone interviews or seeing the projects people were working on also kept me motivated. 

My current challenge is replicating those ways in which I’m most productive. Because I teach in the morning, and because I’m still a night person, I’ve found it impossible to wake-up at 5:00am or 6:00am to have time to write. And I also haven’t found a coffee shop that provides the motivational and productivity buzz that was at Satellite Coffee. But my goal is, each and every day, to try to make it happen. And maybe finding that productive space is a never-ending battle. But I’d really like to find that sweet spot, once again, that I had in writing boot camp and at Satellite Coffee. And every day I’ll continue to look for it. 


Let's talk! What roadblock are you dealing with right now? Or, what did it take to get to know yourself enough to know when you'd be most motivated and productive? Let's connect on Twitter @GeneseaC or on Instagram @CattingWithAlice.

Hack Your Productivity With More Me Time

Staircase, Belize

Staircase, Belize

So, I’m currently on a Facebook break. This is mostly because I felt compelled every day—and multiple times a day—to check in and see how everyone was doing. But I realized that I was starting to get Facebook envy—who published where, who bought what, who was going on a tropical vacation—while also feeling disconnected from my hundred or so friends. I decided that I needed to separate my life from the online world that seemed real but often wasn't. I needed to return to my #nofilter life. (Ironic as the above picture is filtered. Hey, some things are better with filters.)

Facebook wasn’t the only problem. Email was also a problem. The constant notifications ringing on my phone, my feelings of guilt at not checking email as soon as I woke-up, and not knowing how to properly filter emails into folders in my Mac mail program all ate up emotional energy and time. In short, my mornings were getting derailed, and my motivation to do the stuff I wanted to do was, somehow, non-existent.  

But I realized that my anti-Facebook and email feelings were only symptoms of my lack of motivation and productivity. I was annoyed with Facebook and email because they seemed to interrupt my will power and efforts to carve out me time.  Facebook and email weren’t really the problem. My productivity was; or, at least my efforts to be productive were.  

I realized all of this after listening to an interview with John Lee Dumas, the host of the award winning podcast Entrepreneur on Fire, on Dr. Jesse Chappus and Marni Wasserman’s The Ultimate Health Podcast (episode 096). I’ve been listening to health and wellness podcasts for a few years now, but in my search for work/life synergy, I’ve started listening to podcasts on entrepreneurship. Being an academic is a lot like being an entrepreneur in that academics have to be self-motivated to keep our careers afloat: namely, we have to write and research (that is, publish articles or books and present at conferences) to keep our jobs and earn promotion.

With over 1200 entrepreneurs interviewed, Dumas has learned a lot about goal setting and productivity. He’s boiled down productivity to what I’d call “hacking me time,” or, essentially, making sure that you have enough me time so you can work on the things you want to do. In summary, four actions that Dumas recommends to increase productivity:  

1. Plan your day the night before. Create a list of what you want to accomplish in a journal, so you won’t spend precious energy and time thinking about your plan in the morning. Use a journal daily, detailing your daily objectives and then reflect. 

2. Don’t wake-up and start with the emails (or social media unless you’re Mark Zuckerberg). Starting your morning with email or social media means you’re putting other people’s needs first. Instead, start your morning focused on you and your own needs: meditating, working out, meal prepping, reading, doing laundry—whatever you need to (and want to) accomplish.

3. Use the first 4-6 hours upon waking-up to work towards your goals. Beginning the day focused on meeting your goals, whatever those are, will will increase your happiness and motivation because you’re doing what you want to do. If you can’t devote 4-6 hours to me time, carve out 15 minutes, 30 minutes, or an hour in the morning. Setting aside me time at the beginning of your day will improve your mood, help you work towards your goals, and provide an overall feeling of satisfaction. If you just don’t have the time in the morning, find time during the afternoons or evenings to work on something you want to do. Of course, a consistent schedule generally helps with motivation, but if you can’t have or keep a consistent schedule for whatever reason, don’t beat yourself up about it. 

4.  Get eight hours of sleep. Sure, Shark Tank’s Robert Herjavec may only get three to four hours a sleep a night, but he also admits that he’s tired all the time. Figure out a sleep schedule that’s right for you. And don’t buy into the myth that you have to sleep four hours a night if you really need eight. (I generally need between eight and nine to feel my best. I don’t regularly get that much sleep a night, but I’m working on developing a consistent bedtime because I feel so much better—and happier—the next day when I do.) I realize that ability to get enough sleep ebbs and flows, but if nothing else, try to schedule a consistent bedtime. 

It may sound counter-intuitive to suggest that carving out me time can make you (and me) more productive. But it’s not. When our days are run by other people’s needs, agendas, and activities, we become less motivated and determined to work on the projects that really fulfill us. And then the self-defeatist attitude sets in. You know, the one where you tell yourself or others that there’s “no point” because you "don’t have time” or “it won’t ever happen.” I know those feelings well. 

Since listening to the interview with Dumas, I realized that my biggest roadblock was not starting each morning with me time. I’d wake-up, check my email or the news, and then start thinking about everything I had to do. I actually thought I was being more productive by focusing on everything I had to accomplish for work. And, perhaps not surprisingly, I consistently woke-up with a bad attitude. Like, with a serious grumpy face. So, this last month I’ve worked hard at carving out me time by spending the first few hours of the day on me. Yep. Me. And it could be anything, really: blogging, outlining an article, taking a walk, listening to jazz music, whatever. Carving out me time at the beginning of the day has helped me feel connected with myself. And, it’s shifted my attitude about the rest of the day. Total shocker, but I’m now waking up with a smile on my face—which goes a long way to improving my outlook, my motivation, and my productivity. 


Let’s talk! What do you do to hack me time? And if you try any of Dumas’ recommendations above, give me a shout out! Let’s connect on Twitter @GeneseaC or on Instagram @CattingWithAlice.