5 Steps to Depression-Crushing Productivity

zero day cover

If you are pursuing a dream, what is the single piece of advice everyone gives? Do it every day. And you wish you could, because doing That Thing makes you feel accomplished, valuable, and happy…. But life isn’t cut and dry, and we all have unreliable schedules and a lack of free time.

Below, I’ve outlined a few tips for increasing your productivity in writing or other pursuits… while also improving your self-esteem. These worked for me, and if geared to your lifestyle, I’m sure they can work for you too!

Step One: Break It Down

According to this famous Reddit post, the key to success is to stop having “Zero Days” – that is, days where you accomplish nothing at all. Even doing a teensy weensy task toward your future is enough to square you for the day. Author Anne Lamott calls these “short assignments.” So begin by making a general list of assignments which would determine a “Nonzero Day.”

Of course, our lives are very segmented – so start with main categories. For example, a writer who is also a parent might have a list of categories like this:

  • Be a Good Parent
  • Work on Author Website
  • Work on Book

From there, the categories can be broken down further. For example:

Parenting: Homework Help, Have a Sit-Down Meal, One-on-One Time
Website: Write Blog Post, Format Site, Network on Other Blogs
Book: Write, Upload to Wattpad, Outline Sequel, Make Starter Cover

Bit by bit, break down your tasks into categories. This will help you feel less overwhelmed; seeing “the trees through the forest” will make your dreams feel less insurmountable.

Finally, throw in a few other minor, but important things… like exercising and cleaning. You should always give yourself credit for them – even if you consider them to be only “the basics.”

Then make a list of all the things you’d like to see yourself doing in a day – including main categories and minor tasks. Below is my list (the bolded words are my main categories):

  1. Post to Twitter or Blog
  2. Network on Twitter and WordPress
  3. Work on a Book task
  4. Work on a Branding task
  5. Work on a Business task
  6. Clean one thing
  7. Exercise

Now decide which of these things would make a Zero Day into a Nonzero Day. For me, it would be performing any one thing under a main category. Don’t make it too hard on yourself!

Step Two: Make It Tactile

Now that you have a list of things that will decide whether or not you have a Zero Day (and again, make sure you’re easy on yourself), we have to make this list a physical reality. Print it off where you can see it – and then hang the list beside a Productivity Board. This can be a bulletin board, a wall of sticky-notes, a calendar, or my personal favorite, a marker board… whichever works best for you. Below is mine:

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As you can see, you have to break down your Productivity Board into categories that work for you. In my board, I broke it down into check-marks (for Nonzero Days),”W”s (for taking walks), and small hash-marks for waking up within two snooze alarms (this is very hard for me). And the magnets (uh-oh!) mark my Zero Days… with a note as to what my last Zero Day was.

You’ll notice that the list is interactive. This is absolutely essential. You must have to perform a physical act to declare you have done a Nonzero-Day… because it will make you feel good to mark them off, and to look at the filled board.

If this looks too complex for you, check out Mark Rafidi‘s productivity board of sticky-notes:

markrafidi_productivity

Remember, use what works best for you… as long as it is tactile, you’ll be golden!

Step Three: Reward Yourself

Often, people resort to beating themselves up rather than commending themselves. This helps no one. Therefore, you must use your Productivity Board to reward yourself. Each check-mark or torn-off sticky-note should come with a further reward, even something small.

For example, a very, very busy friend of mine rewards herself with  “an hour of relaxation time” or, even better, with “tasty treats” and  This last reward has the added bonus of helping her to eat better:

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You’ll notice, too, that my board has a dollar amount in the corner. When the board is filled, I give myself fifty cents for each W, check, and hash-mark… which becomes a budget I can allow myself to use on buying books. This not only helps me become a better author via reading, but also contributes to the industry I one day hope to make a living in. My reward is thus a further Nonzero Day factor in my productivity… and something I’ll enjoy deeply.

And remember – never punish yourself for having Zero Days. Punishment has been proven to be ineffective in changing behavior. It will be enough just to see them staring at you from your Productivity Board… driving you (we hope!) to see a lot less of them over time.

Step Four: Keep a Record

This one is small and optional, but imperative if you are one of those masochistic people who can never feel good about themselves because “What have I even really accomplished this past yearNothing!” (even though this isn’t true).

The problem for authors and entrepreneurial spirits like us is that the things we accomplish can be hard to quantify… so I created this little baby:

productivityscreen

It’s a small paper strip which I fill out every day, and file away in a box. I will write anything I’ve accomplished that day… how many words I wrote, if I also went to a wedding, if I merely networked on Twitter and exercised, whatever. It’s all work.

Just writing my accomplishments down daily staves off depression – and if you get in a slump later, you can look through the old notes and see just how many things you’d gotten done the past month or year.

Again, this will be different for everyone. You could add it to your journal entry, or keep a running daily word count at the bottom of your WIP… whatever works for you!

Step Five: Get A Buddy

This one is as simple as setting an alarm on your phone to tell you every Sunday to “Text Jeremy and ask what he got done this week,” in which text you can also tell Jeremy what you did this week (make sure Jeremy agrees to all this). This will cost you almost no time or brainpower, but will turn Jeremy into your own personal cheerleader, and you into his. And who doesn’t need a personal cheerleader?

Even better, if you have children, you can create a similar Productivity Board for them… for homework, chores, an allowance, etc… and you can champion each other along the way!

 

My Last Zero Day: Eight Ten Two Thousand Fifteen

This week has been a strange one for me. Let’s just say I’ve been suicidally, job-walk-outedly, resentfully unhappy for weeks now, being forced as I am to “bring home the bacon” for two people with little more than a “have a good day hun” to sustain me.

But I just sort of snapped this week. Crick, snapped. And I became a dick.

I found myself weirdly disconnected from everything. I looked at success in a new way and I thought of what success meant to me. It means hard, too-hard, over-hard, and ultimately-paying-off work. It means getting up at 7am, writing for 1-2 hours, going to work, coming home, writing again for an hour, showering, reading for an hour, then sleeping. It means no time for bullsh@$. Two hours tops of time actually for my own personal enjoyment each day. Everything else: earmarked for the future.

But, the weekend after, I’m actually happier. My boyfriend got the crap end of the stick with my distance and caustic attitude, poor guy. And it’s going to stay this way for a while. BUT, I regret nothing of the past week.

This Monday will be my last zero day.

Do what you thought you could never do for a week. Succeed how you never thought you could. And then over the weekend, see how you feel, and ask yourself: do I do this again?

How NOT To Feel Like a Failure, or, “Curses Upon Ye, Writer Mothers of Three”

Write every day.

That is the number one, most constant piece of advice I have seen for writers.

It has also been the number one phrase to make me feel like a failure.

I would read tales of mothers with a 9-to-5 and three kids who still managed to write every day, and ask myself, “Why can’t you do the same when all you’ve got is a 25 hours work week?” Then, when I moved in with my boyfriend and started an 11-to-7 at 40 hours a week, I thought it would be the end of all writing forever.

Instead I started writing daily during the weekdays.

To each his own.

How does that make sense? Everyone has a productivity system, and everyone is different. So many ills in life come from not understanding this very simple fact. I couldn’t manage a writing schedule as a server because I needed a consistent, reliable schedule, something waiting tables does not provide. That mother of three could get by without that – and probably with less sleep than me, too.

An why do I suck at weekend writing? Where some people write daily to get their word counts in, I go in planned-out hyper-spurts – like the 3 Day Novel Contest – and kick out months of daily work in three days.

Granted, as of now, I am a failure still, unpublished and working in customer service; but at least I don’t feel like one anymore, and this is much less destructive!

Off-Time Character-Building, or, “That Baggott Girl’s Gonna Crash”

During my time at Michigan State University, I was only able to meet one invited author and two poets (having to pay your own rent in college makes it hard to find time for these things). The author, Julianna Baggott of Puresaid something that stuck with me: she imagines how her characters would respond to various stimuli – words, actions, etc – while she is driving.

Even now, this seems unsafe to me, but I was looking to economize at the time – to fit my writing into my everyday life. Unable – thankfully? –  to partition my mind while driving, I felt like a failed writer. Then I realized I’ve been finding me-time for my stories since I could count my age on two hands. Every night before falling sleep – ever since I was a kid – I’ve been concocting stories, and even now I use that twilight time to come up with new scenes and new sub-spaces where my characters can teach me about themselves, even if the scenes never make it into the books. Then I have the benefit of sleeping on them, and we all know how advantageous science has proven that to be.

Like so many other experiences of mine, this has taught  me that all writers are different. Where Julianna Baggott’s mind can operate smoothly and safely on two levels, mine requires dedicated focus, and even then my thoughts scatter all over at the slightest touch, which is both a strength and weakness. What is important across the spectrum, however, is that a writer experiences his or her works in their everyday lives. Even if making rent gets in the way of our daily writing, the presence of our stories is what makes us writers – although unless you are as badass as Julianna, I’d suggest keeping your eyes on the road.