• Daniel Kephart

Expect the Expected: Why You Are So Unproductive

How can we be successful if we don't know what success would be?

I am a chronically anxious person at bedtime. Generally, that's because of a sense of laziness. I feel, deep down, like I haven't done anything worthwhile during the day.

Which wasn't pathological, actually, it was usually true.

In discussions with teachers and mentors over the years, I often heard that I was a bit too much of a perfectionist. Which, if you're a bit of a narcissist, is a very reaffirming thing to hear in a sick, twisted kind of way.

If you enslave yourself to your work, you can create something that is perfect.

This is, of course, a lie--and an especially dangerous one. A truer statement would be: "If you enslave yourself to your work, you can create something very, very impressive." Nothing is perfect.

When we enslave ourselves to our work, however, we're rarely happy with the result. Even if the product is very, very impressive, we know that we were sacrificing a more meaningful and fulfilled life on the altar of one task. Done once or twice, this is a poor but usually contained problem. As we resort to this habit of "perfectionism" more and more, though, it becomes extremely toxic. The demands of each project become bigger and bigger, and we actually become worse and worse at actually producing something truly worthwhile.

The reason is that we are creative a narrative of exhaustive sacrifice that simply cannot sustain itself. You and I are not strong enough, mentally, to give our 100% to every single task during the day. So our minds turn to cheap thrills--binge-watching TV we don't enjoy, listening to self-improvement texts we never act upon, and spending excessive amounts of time engaged in destructive habits.

We do this because there is no way to "win" the day. It's like we're playing a game without any rules.

We all know we want to have a "great" life. Many of us would like to experience the hero's journey. Most of us would like to confront the evils present in the world.

But these tasks are so big that we don't know where to start. And, since our experience has taught us that we have to all but destroy ourselves to produce something impressive, we begin to become fearful and cowed by the immensity of each day. We go to bed unsure of what we accomplished and daunted by the day ahead of us.

Fortunately, this simply isn't necessary. We can win the day. But only if we know the rules we need to play the game by.

This week, set a consistent time in the morning (no less than 10 minutes) every day to have a glass of water or cup of coffee and write down the three most important things you need to accomplish during the day. You may even wish to give them deadlines. Here is a sample of what that might look like:

1) Clean fridge and wipe down components.

2) Write 3 pages for McCantaugh report by Noon.

3) Read 40 pages of The Unfettered Mind by Takuan Soho.

Notice how none of these are huge goals in scope. Nor are they vaguely suggestive of finality. None of them say "finish ____." Almost nothing is ever really finished until, by accident, we found out that it is.

Instead, these sorts of goals create a very reasonable set of criteria for having a good day. They factor into larger ideals (cleanliness, productivity, wisdom) but are focused enough to be completed in one day. The goals are also not so large as to be made impossible by most daily interruptions.

If all three items are accomplished by the daily deadline (bedtime, dinner, whatever the case may be) then you have won the day.

But what about emergencies!? I can't respond to the sudden things that come up if I'm leashed to a to-do list!

The funny thing about realistic expectations is that they are ultimately an immense help in dealing with emergencies. After all, losing one day of the week isn't so bad if you've won the past six (or six hundred) in a row.

What is pretty bad, even unbearably bad, is living in a constant state of confusion about whether your days are being "won" or "lost" by your actions.

You are unproductive not because you lack the capability or motivation (usually, there are always exceptions) but because you don't know what "productivity" really means. But you could. You could even define the meaning of productivity for yourself.

And then, if you knew what you needed to do, there's no telling what kind of ways you might be able to find to do it.

So expect the expected. Make some goals for the day.

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