Where My Insane Productivity Comes From

(Do not) try this at home.

I need to confess something to you: June 2018 was, by several orders of magnitude, my most devastatingly accomplished month yet. It was also plenty surreal. We’ll recap a few highlights, because narcissism.

  • I spoke more Spanish and Portuguese in the past 30 days than in the rest of my life combined — in real conversations with real people.
  • I did so, largely, by calling voters nightly in a certain congressional district.
  • That congressional district? Well … it was NY-14. Something fairly extraordinary happened there. Like, the biggest U.S. political upset of the 21st Century, propelled by a platform that skews farther socialist and Egalitarian than any in recent memory.
  • *whispers* I helped write that platform.
  • And some other things for her.
  • And now I’m doing it for someone else, too.
  • I wrote a brand new “about us” page for both a $75B conglomerate and a 75-kid non-profit preschool.
  • I’m also on the board of said preschool, as the secretary and interim marketing chair.
  • I recorded the four most listened-to episodes of my podcast with my two friends in New York, including a three-episode arc where we argue over which World Cup country has the best food.
  • I entered into a little partnership with curio.io
  • I started full-scale branding work for a local Artificial Intelligence startup.
  • I crossed 20,000 followers on this platform (long-form post about that forthcoming), and also published 10 new pieces to add to the canon. (It was my third-best month ever, according to page views, which, who cares.)
  • I played three shows as a singer-songwriter, and recorded a new song to boot.
  • I hit the four-day Austin Television Festival with a press pass.
  • I watched every World Cup game.
  • I ran 18 times for 79.5 miles. I also took up tennis and furthered by yoga practice. (Which, wait … what?)
  • I went on, if we’re playing fast and loose with the definition of “date,” a dozen or so of those. (With only four different people! I’m focusing!)
  • I also spent an unreasonable (yet very rewarding!) amount of time talking on the phone to people who are very geographically inconvenient but are great people I met on this platform and yes I know you’re reading this and yes I am talking about you
  • And, by the way, I haven’t even mentioned my day job. 40 hours per week. Monday through Friday. 9–5. Writing words at a very large global technology company.

Whew! You tired yet? That was June. It was incredibly rewarding, and I ended the month feeling happy and fulfilled.

People always, but particularly lately, ask me: “How do you do it all?” So, naturally, I’m going to tell you my secret, but first let me tell you what I am not doing.

Commonly Given Productivity Hacks I Don’t Do

Sleep eight hours. Have a morning routine (beyond coffee, writing and running, so okay maybe that is a morning routine). Write down my priorities for the day. Make a to-do list. Make a “stop doing” list. Set goals. Meet goals. Lift weights. Batch tasks. Delegate. Read books. Monitor my progress. Check email. Say no. Think too hard about how I do anything. Read success blogs. Have a “system.” (Okay, I do, but more on that later.) Adjust room lighting and temperature. “Make the first hour count.” “Eat the frog.” “Avoid the number seven.” Organize. Turn off push notifications. Make a “vision board.” Make contingency plans. Keep a detailed calendar. Use any sort of productivity app or software. Break up large goals into smaller goals. Maximize my “peak hours.” (I know them, though, they’re 10–11 a.m., then 8–9 p.m.) Throw things away when I’m done with them. Limit “screen time.” (All my work is done on a screen, so.) Eat breakfast.

Wait, so …

I have two types of tasks : 20-minute tasks, and 50-minute tasks.

20-minute tasks are little administrative things: Tidying up. Practicing a foreign language. Phone calls. Non-writing work.

50-minute tasks are things that can’t be done in 20 minutes: Writing. Running. Deep cleaning.

If I’m not out or in the company of others, I literally just ask myself: “What should I spend the next 20 (or 50) minutes doing?” And then I do that thing. No-frills time management.

Some astute observer’s going to tell me, “John, that’s the Pomodoro Technique.” Yes, you would be correct. That’s my productivity hack for you. Decide on a task, give yourself 20 or 50 minutes to do it, and then do that task. If you can’t finish it in 50 minutes, don’t worry, there’s another 50-minute block of time laying around somewhere. (This piece is on its second 50-minute block.) End column, right?

The Major Underlying Truth

Of course not. Listen: A lot of people bucket their time like me, or are, at the very least, aware of how to bucket their time like me. But they don’t accomplish half as much. Why? I’ll let you in on my deep, dark productivity hack: I fucking hate doing nothing. I’m incapable of being still — unless in a guided meditation format, where I am, again, still doing something — without my mind speeding toward dark places.

I become extraordinarily lonely, anxious and depressed when I am alone, or in a situation I cannot escape. I work to quiet the abusive inner monologue. I work to fill an irrepressible void. I work to atone for the guilt and shame I’ve felt most of my life. I work to be “enough.” I work to “add value.” I work to make a difference. I work for a sense of purpose and belonging. I accomplish all these things to distract myself from who I am and distance myself from who I feel I used to be. But that’s not even the whole story.

I don’t work for a result — the work itself is the reward: I spend most of my days doing things I love, or at the very least enjoy. I get high from it … I am, by that definition, a workaholic. I’m addicted to learning, making, doing and sharing things. Why? Because in those moments when I am learning, making, doing and sharing things, I feel euphoric.

The Dark Side of This Approach

Guess what I don’t do consistently? Boring shit.

  • Clean
  • Put things away when I’m done with them
  • Pay bills that aren’t already auto-debit
  • Call/text people back
  • Invite people over
  • Invite people out
  • Sleep
  • Eat at a reasonable hour
  • Run errands
  • Renew the registration on my car

Remember when I said “extra can never be enough?” I wasn’t lying. These are the “enough”-type tasks. I find them boring as hell. Instead, I err on the side of “extra.” Here’s why:

I am, candidly, afraid of doing the truly mundane things I know I need to do, because to do them requires me confronting my own inner sense of worthlessness, and leaning into my own guilt and shame for being the type of person who doesn’t do these things regularly, or who has no real interest in doing them. The process generally looks like this:

  1. I avoid doing the small thing I need to do.
  2. I distract myself with a larger thing I like to do.
  3. That larger thing just happens to be productive AF.
  4. The day ends. I am alone.
  5. I stress over having not done that small thing.
  6. I think of other small things I have not done.
  7. I feel guilt and shame, tired and unmotivated.
  8. Back to Step 1.

It’s a self-feeding cycle and one that I’m fully aware of … but being self-aware and being self-motivated are as different as having a smoke detector and being a firefighter. (Which — let’s table this idea for another day.)

My output is very high. I eat well. I drink enough water. I don’t indulge in (too many) vices. I run a lot. I go to therapy. I meditate. I yoga. I am in touch with my “feelings.” Yet there is something patently pathological about the way I live. I know I’ve talked before about finding and feeling “peace,” but, even then, I was in Miami. Or Seattle. Or Memphis. Doing nothing while on vacation is still doing something. I can sleep well in a hotel room, actually taste (and savor) my food, and laze about on a beach, because I’m detached from my day-to-day reality.

So Now What?

Well, now you know what I’m capable of. Now you know how I do it all. Now you know why I do it all. And now you know the downside of doing it all. “So now what” is, in fact, a great question, and one that I don’t really have time to answer. I’ve got a fun day lined up for me: Some homemade pasta, deep cleaning, Spanish practice, a morning run, yoga, website updates for my political candidates, some marketing work for my school, followed by a relaxing evening of pub trivia.

Meanwhile: I forgot to file my taxes this year, and it looks like I live in my car. And, tonight, when I’m laying awake on my couch because I’m too afraid to fall asleep, I’ll think about both those things, and my unpaid toll tickets, and wonder how and why I’m so damn lazy. Irony.

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Essayist and storyteller on life, liberty and the battle for happiness. Several million served. Words at Human Parts, Forge and PS I Love You. IG: heygorman