Stress-free Productivity

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Sometimes when I try to make myself work, the anxiety is just too much for me to deal with. I need time off or I can’t be productive. I often wonder about the people – especially those who are self employed – I hear complaining about working 16 hour days. If I did that even once, I would be completely dead the next day. I probably would not be able to get out of bed or do anything at all mentally demanding for at least two or three days. Working your ass off for a ridiculous number of hours every day is not the answer to the question, “How can I be more productive?”

Don’t get me wrong. I get a lot done. I have a “day job,” I have written a book a year since 2004, I have a new column coming out on Knitty.com and I am a regular contributor to Piecework magazine, I teach weekend classes at least once a month, I tweet, I blog, and I babble on Facebook, I answer email, and I knit for pleasure and for publication. That’s not everything I do, either. But those are probably the work-related things that are most time consuming for me on a regular basis.

I used to feel stressed most of the time when I was thinking about or doing work. But lately I have stumbled onto a process that has provided me with several weeks running of stress-free productivity. I want to tell you what’s been working for me, although to be frank, I’m a little afraid that if I write about this, my streak will end. So, knock on wood, here goes.

First, I take a lot of time off. It’s not usually in big chunks. I rarely take a week or more off. Even when I travel, I usually have some writing or knitting with me, and I check my email and turn on my work Skype account every day. Sometimes I take a whole weekend or a whole day off. But more often it’s an hour here and a half-hour there. I walk to a coffee shop every day, and do some of my morning work there. I go the pool for a swim at lunch time. I go to a bookstore or run personal errands in the afternoon, and I almost always take time off to talk to my friends when the opportunity arises. I never set the alarm clock any more. I go to bed when I’m tired, and I wake up whenever I wake up.

Because I take a lot of time off and I get plenty of sleep, I have a lot of energy for my work when I sit down at my computer or with a notebook and pen.

I don’t multitask, except that I knit while watching TV. I used to multitask all the time, and I was proud of my ability to be able to keep track of many different tasks at once. Now I focus on one thing for as long as my attention holds. When I feel drained or my mind starts to wander, I move onto something else.

I write everything down in lists. And I read, review, and revise my lists regularly.

I only answer work and business email once a day, except for a few messages that are important to me.

I don’t answer the phone unless I have a pre-arranged conversation or conference call scheduled.

There are only two things I consider urgent: having a heart-attack or accidentally cutting off a limb. Nothing else requires an immediate response or an adrenaline rush.

I don’t beat myself up if I miss a deadline. In the end, it won’t make any difference.



If a deadline is stressing me out, I call in sick (metaphorically since I work from home). I learned this from two previous co-workers, Joe and Eddie. At the time, I was trying to be a type-A workaholic and they both drove me nuts with their low-key work ethic.

I work in different locations. Sometimes the coziness and familiarity of my office/studio suits my mood. At other times I feel the need to get out of the house and I’ll take my phone, iPad, or laptop – depending on the task at hand – to a coffee shop. In nice weather, I like to do some of my work outside.

I find balance in my own way. Sometimes I work really hard for a week or a month, then I focus the next week or month on my health or relationships or travel. I don’t even try to get everything done every day, or even every week.

I think the most important stress-reduction technique I’ve discovered is not to kick myself in the head when things don’t go according to plan. I’m learning to be flexible and to trust myself. Somehow, eventually, everything on my to do list gets done and I find that I’m working on an entirely new list. So I take some time off to celebrate the accomplishment.

Will my system work for you? I doubt it. Your job, life, business, family, health, and dreams are undoubtedly different than mine, as are your internal clock and energy levels. You will have to find your own path to stress-free productivity. Just remember that you probably won’t find it in a time-management book or even in your own past.


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  1. Donna

    I love Writing Down the Bones. I bought an ebook copy and carry it with me on my phone now. It's classic!

  2. Thanks for the book suggestion. I have heard of the book, but haven’t read it yet. Maybe it is time to buy a copy and move it to the top of my reading pile.

  3. Donna

    I have 6 published book and I’ve never written every day. I don’t knit every day either. In fact, sometimes I go a month or more without writing or knitting.

    That said, if you’re learning how to write, I definitely suggest writing every day even if it’s crap. Have you read Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg? She fills notebooks of writing and most of it is garbage, but it’s practice. I did that for years too. Some people focus on practicing writing some dialog, or scenes, and Writing Down the Bones has great, and very simple, exercises in it to help you “keep your hand moving”…. other people do what Julia Cameron calls “morning pages” which is just writing 3 pages of whatever garbage comes to your mind to help clear your head. It’s worth spending 15 minutes a day.

    Here’s to stress-free creativity! Go for it and remember rules are made to be broken!

  4. Thanks you so much for writing this blog post. You have no idea how much I needed to hear this perspective. After years of raising a family I have finally been able to focus on my writing. The thing is, I just can’t write every day. Yet all the advice from successful writers seems to say that you should be writing every day if you expect to get published. I find that I need chunks of time off to let ideas percolate, and then when I do sit down to write I feel like it is with a fresh voice instead of a stale one. Trying to push myself leaves me feeling super stressed, and honestly it seems to me that life is too short to move through it feeling stressed about self-imosed deadlines. I often wonder when I read about self- employed people working 16 hours a day as well. What are they doing to their health? It seems like a rather joyless existence.

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