Reconsidering Productivity

looking through a camera lens and seeing the distance in sharp focus

I am going to begin and end this post with a story.

Many years ago, when I had my first child, my mother came to help. There were some complications, so she ended up staying with me for almost three weeks. When it came time for her to finally return home, I remember telling her that I didn’t know if I could carry on without her. How would I get everything done? In response, my wise mother told me that I had to start thinking in a new way. No longer was I going to be able to run through my to-do list quickly and efficiently. Instead, I should cultivate a new way to feel good about my output. “For example,” she said, “focus on every little thing you accomplish, and celebrate each one. Did you empty the dishwasher? Great! Did you get the bottles washed and set up for the next day? Terrific! Did you hold your baby and watch her gurgle peacefully for a few minutes? Way to go!”

Initially, this seemed kind of silly. I had never counted “emptied the dishwasher” as an achievement… it was simply a task I mindlessly executed on my way to bigger and better things. However, as the days wore on, I came to realize that this was a worthwhile mindset to embrace. It alleviated the pressure of needing to check all the boxes on a long list. From day to day, I never knew what might pop up. Rather than rate my progress against a prescribed list of tasks, I fell into a routine of waiting to see what the day would require, and then being content with whatever I was able to achieve under the circumstances.

As COVID-19 rages, many of us are finding our lives thrown into upheaval. For some, this means working longer hours than normal (thank you medical professionals and tireless grocery workers!). For others, normal responsibilities have come to a standstill. Those who have fallen ill are fighting to recover their health. Everyone is grappling with finding a new normal, and figuring out how to define a productive day.

Here are a few thoughts to bear in mind as you realign your thinking during this challenging time.

Planning ahead will be difficult.

It seems like each day is bringing more change than an average month. It is hard to know what will be possible tomorrow, let alone two weeks into the future. For the planners out there, this is stressful! Our inclination is to clamp down and try to figure out all the possible scenarios and how we might proceed. Instead, it might be better to simply see what develops and make a plan for the day that unfolds.

To-do lists should be shortened and prioritized.

If you are working from home, and especially if you are surrounded by children and household “noise,” you simply will not be able to accomplish the same amount of work that you did when working uninterrupted in a quiet location. This is a time to expect less of yourself and to be brutally realistic about what might be accomplished. During this season, focus in on the two or three things that matter most on a given day, and set the remainder aside for another time. If you can’t tackle your normal tasks, think creatively about what you CAN do, and make this your goal for the day.

Unexpected and difficult developments cannot be completely avoided.

Under typical circumstances, productive people are expected to be able to anticipate problems and plan around them. However, these are not ordinary times. We are walking through an experience that is truly new to everyone in the world. We have no rulebook to follow, no rubric for evaluating the news, and no experience to help us anticipate what will happen next. No matter how much we plan, prepare, shop and stock up, we cannot be prepared for every eventuality. All we can do is follow the recommendations we are given, to the best of our ability, on a daily basis.

We may not respond as we would under normal circumstances.

This virus is creating a lot of stress. Uncertainty, close quarters, financial pressure, unemployment… all of these put the pressure on. We may be having trouble eating or sleeping, and may find we are acting impatiently or unkindly. Unfortunately, all of these responses are normal. When tempers flare, the best course of action is to be humble and apologize. We’re all in this together, so let’s try to forgive and seek forgiveness when tensions cause us to behave badly.

Success will look different than it did two months ago.

As I pointed out in my opening story, you will probably need to reframe your definition of success. Rather than bemoan everything that is falling apart, find a way to intentionally focus on good news and accomplishments. Consider creating a tangible way to do this, such as a poster board where family members can record positive happenings. Or, since we may now be gathering around a family dinner table, ask each person to share something that has made them feel good during the day. Nothing is too small to celebrate!

You will probably grow in some way.

None of us will escape this journey unchanged, and while there will be many negative impacts, times of upheaval often result in increased innovation and progress. When we can’t do things “the same old way,” we are forced to try new approaches. For example, universities are expanding their use of simulated learning experiences and e-learning alternatives. Newscasters are learning how to broadcast from their kitchens. Pastors are reaching isolated congregants through live streaming. Most of us are becoming experts with Zoom and other online technologies. Furthermore, given that everyone is scrambling, there is an increased tolerance for imperfection as we ride the learning curve. It will be interesting and heartening to see the long term advances that will emerge when this is all over.


Now for my closing story. You may have heard it before, but it bears repeating at this time.

Charles Adams, grandson of John Adams, served as a US Congressman and Ambassador to Great Britain under President Lincoln. One day he took his fourth child, Henry Brooks, fishing. Upon returning, Charles wrote in his journal,

Went fishing with my son, a day wasted.

His son also wrote in his journal, saying,

Went fishing with my father today, the most glorious day of my life.

We don’t know exactly what Charles Adams was thinking as he penned his line. Perhaps he felt the day was a loss because they didn’t catch any fish. Nevertheless, I believe it is important to remember that a day’s worth, and our individual value, are not the result of our accomplishments. We didn’t choose this situation, but we may discover opportunities to invest in endeavors that pay larger rewards than our daily routine ever did.

Stay healthy, everyone!

29 thoughts on “Reconsidering Productivity”

  1. Aw, thank you for this reminder here, especially as we begin to homeschool tomorrow for the foreseeable future as I need to keep reminding myself that we need to take it all one step at a time at the very least. Thinking of you and hoping that you and your family are doing well right now.
    Janine Huldie recently posted…Disney Has A New Peter Pan And WendyMy Profile

    1. Good luck with the homeschooling, Janine. Remember that all the moms out there are going through this together, and that whatever you can accomplish is good enough. You are so organized that I know your children will thrive. They may not want to go back when this is all over! Wishing you and yours good health my friend!

  2. This is such a beautiful and uplifting post, Seana! Thank you for your gentle reminders that we are in this together and in uncharted territory. We need more kindness, patience, creativity, and gratitude…even more than we may already have.

    Your story of what happened with your first pregnancy reminds me of how I felt after the birth of our first daughter. As someone (like you) that always had a list and was efficient at “getting things done,” I felt like I couldn’t do anything after Allison was born. My energy and drive was gone. And the demands of being a new mom were huge. As it turns out, I also had a mild case of postpartum depression. Our pediatrician was helpful. He reminded me that Allison was the number one priority and that everything else could wait. He asked if we had an answering machine. We did. He said, “Use it. Your daughter comes first.” That helped me to prioritize.I know that now people are struggling with priorities and doing some reassessing.

    The other person that was so helpful during those early days of motherhood was my Lamaze instructor. She helped me identify that I had postpartum depression. She knew I had been a list maker and suggested that each day I make a list with two small things (not twenty like I was used to.) She helped me adjust my expectation. There was something so comforting about having a list of two. It was manageable in my fragile, sleep-deprived state, and it made me feel that I had accomplished something, even something small. It helped bring me back while I was learning to be a mom.

    All of this relates to now and the expectations we have for ourselves. The changes are happening quickly, but we will each need time to find our bearings in this new world, one small step at a time.

    Stay safe. Be well. Thank you for the inspiring words.
    Linda Samuels recently posted…How to Cope With Your Anxiety That Accompanies NextMy Profile

    1. I totally love the idea of a list with two things, Linda! This is the perfect mindset for times like these. I’m feeling for all the mommies and soon-to-be mommies out there who are feeling the heat of anxiety and responsibility. It is so good to stay connected (as best we can), especially as we are more vulnerable to depression at times like these. I feel we are still on the front end of this experience, so lifting up all those who need some encouragement today! Stay healthy sweet friend, even as we watch the sporadic snowflakes fall!

    1. Oddly, we will probably accomplish less, as we don’t have the time pressure that keeps us from “second guessing” our tasks. I believe there is truth to the old phrase, “Busy people get more done.” When we have time, we tend to avoid quickly jumping on tasks. Also, I believe we are probably underestimating the stress we are all carrying. It is VERY distracting. My daughter mentioned she is having trouble focusing on her studies, as all she can think about is COVID-19. Lowering expectations will help, and the knowledge that everyone – literally the whole world – is in the same boat is also comforting!

  3. What we know is that we have an amazing opportunity here for change. We can embrace and celebrate the opportunity to prioritize. We can celebrate the opportunity for time with our families and time at home. It’s all in how we choose to look through your lense above. I love this post and celebrating these new opportunities.

    1. Change is happening, and will continue to happen. I’m keeping a list of predictions of how life will be different when this is all over. Perhaps fodder for a future post? Stay healthy down there… sending love to all the Houston organizers:)

  4. My family is on Day 11 of ‘flattening the curve’ and I had high hopes to quickly blow through a list of tasks my husband and I have needed to do for a long time. We have accomplished some but, I quickly saw that between helping my two kids with ‘distance learning,’ cooking, maintaining the house and their schedules, I am not able to accomplish what I wanted to in my newfound ‘downtime.’ I am meal planning and making sure that my kids have video/phone interaction with others during this time–that is taking precedence. If they wake up and go to bed smiling during all this then I know I’ve accomplished what’s most important. Thank you for your words of wisdom!

    1. Hang in there, Stacey! I know you are doing an amazing job with your children and household. I completely agree that if everyone can smile, it has been a good day!!

  5. Great post. I have never heard the Adam’s story. Good lesson. Your message got me thinking. When I was home with my first baby I had to learn the same lesson you did. What I incorporated was a schedule, so I could give myself permission not to do more. What I mean is, I scheduled doing laundry on a certain day of the week. That’s when it got done. I gave myself permission not to worry about it any other day. I think I need to look at doing the same thing now. I feel like I am trying to fix things, when I know I can’t. I need to schedule what I am going to do each day and then give myself permission not to do anymore than planned. AND I need to schedule some self-care time.

    1. I think that is such an excellent piece of advice, Janet. We need to have a list for the day, so that when we have completed it (no matter how short it is), we can relax. Otherwise, we will perpetually think we need to be doing more!

  6. Great post. It is a time for adjusting our feelings and expecting different accomplishments. We all have just one day at a time for sure now with absolutely no idea what the next day will bring. There is comfort in supporting each other at times like this.

  7. That second story hits me hard.
    Productivity is so different right now. I was looking at my Google calendar in tears because of all of the fun stuff that was canceled. I also looked at it in relief because I’m still in the first trimester, and to be honest, everything I’ve done so far has been a struggle that I’ve been happy is over. So now I sit home and keep the kids somewhat regular and I take naps and it’s a whole new world for now. Probably one with lasting implications.

    1. I think sitting home and napping is just what is called for right now. Take care of yourself and sleep while you can, right? Maybe we’ll all look back at this time with a bit of longing.

  8. Magnificent, Seana, and I’ve always loved that Adams story. (John Adams is my secret presidential boyfriend, so anything even tangentially related to him delights me.)

    This is not normal times. I know and agree somewhat with what you said, but I think this is not even the new normal. It’s the “now” normal. (Oh, I should write a blog post about that!) Your advice is exactly what we need to get through these days, step by step.
    Julie Bestry recently posted…Paper Doll Says The Tax Man Cometh: Organize Your Tax FormsMy Profile

    1. I assume you’ve watched the John Adams miniseries? We loved it! You are definitely making me giggle with this comment:) Might as well laugh as we walk through these moments, one at a time!

  9. Super post, Seana! I think your John Adam’s story is exactly what is going on during this time. We’ll have conversations with our kids that we wouldn’t take time for a few months before. We’ll have time for some much needed rest that we wouldn’t slow down long enough to get a few months ago. This is our time to put life as we knew it on hold and grab some moments that we were missing with the people we love the most.

    1. I wonder if this time of rest, reflection and lower pace will have lasting impact. It occurred to me that some children may resist signing up for a “full schedule” once this is all over. I know the pets are going to miss having everyone around:)

  10. Fabulous post, Seana. ❤ Being the Type A person that I am, I’m a fan of finishing. I want to start and finish *all* projects and tasks all in one sitting. Lofty goals, I know. LOL

    I’ve learned over time (still learning actually!) that productivity comes in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes, I bask in “large leap productivity” and sometimes it’s more like “baby steps productivity.” It’s a mindset shift, but once the shift happens, it helps to put things into perspective.
    Deb Lee recently posted…3 Reasons to Dress Up When You Work From HomeMy Profile

    1. It seems like baby step productivity is a pretty big accomplishment these days. I’m all about a shorter list, and contentment with that. it takes time to become efficient in a new environment. That is both normal and acceptable, right? Wishing you good health, Deb!

  11. Seana,
    This is an absolutely beautiful article. Your mother sounded like a gem. Just look at how she helped you build courage as a new mother yourself.
    The world isn’t the same now and there wasn’t a dress rehearsal for what we are experiencing. Yet, I believe there’s much to learn from this. Perhaps starting with our purpose in the world and what’s important in life.

    1. I agree, Ronni. Our broader purpose helps put our smaller tasks into context. When external trappings and norms are stripped away, most of us are drawn to reconsider what that purpose might be, and how best to fulfill it. I think in many ways, simply knowing that we are “enough” is a good perspective to embrace. Then, from a place of contentment, we can step out and help others.

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