Last week was a long week.

I hesitate to call it a bad week.

I’ve had bad weeks, and this wasn’t one of them:

  • Bad weeks are the weeks when you get bad news about a family member.
  • Bad weeks are the weeks when you don’t know where you’re living the following Tuesday.
  • Bad weeks are the weeks where literally nothing happens as it should, up to and including your hot water connection in the middle of February during a cold snap.

That’s not what this was. This was just a long week. Here are some things that happened during this long week:

  • I ran into a wall at work, stymying my progress.
  • I picked up a new client for my small consulting practice, which was really exciting but still mentally taxing.
  • A half-abandoned side project suddenly picked up a bunch of steam. Again, this was super exciting but it reminded me that I needed to do a bunch of small things around it (setting up proper monitoring; improving the onboarding flow; etc.) that required a lot of mental effort.
  • Overall, I felt sluggish and just behind.

None of these things are really too out of the ordinary. None of these things are individually taxing, but the combination of them all sucked.

I like days that are fairly rote and frictionless, and when that stops happening I get stressed.

Being productive is literally the only thing that matters in life: a primer

People deal with stress in different ways: some avoid work, some overeat or overdrink, some just ignore it. I am the breed of person who responds to stress by collapsing myself into work: if having too much to do is the problem, my brain convinces itself that the solution is doing as many things as humanly possible. 1

I know exactly what levers I need to pull to make myself super productive:

  1. Close out of Slack, Twitter, and anything that might grab my attention.
  2. Remain as static and comfortable as possible: this means sweatpants, headphones, and a fairly gross pair of slippers.
  3. Eat whatever is frictionless. Sometimes this means protein bars and a very unadvisable amount of Diet Coke. Sometimes this means cheese sticks and La Croix. Literally whatever is closest and doesn’t require mental effort to consume.
  4. Listen to the same handful of albums on repeat. 2

Basically, I try to remove all variables except for whatever I’m working on. This is a generally successful technique in that I end up being very productive.

This is super unsustainable. The levers I pull to make myself productive have pretty obvious costs: I sleep worse, I don’t work out, I eat (and drink, because the only way I can unwind easily is with a drink or two) poorly.

But the non-obvious costs are just as bad: I become irritable and snappy. I lose my patience. I feel mentally and physically fatigued.

But hey, I’m productive, right? I got done what needs to be done.

How to actually spend a weekend without looking at your laptop (or at least a Friday night, because who are you kidding you’re still a workaholic)

So, flash forward a bit. It’s Friday evening; I’ve finished up my last bit of work for the week. I accomplished a lot, which is good!

But I’m still stuck in a mindset where I need to do more. I was frustrated with myself for wasting so much time at work without figuring out a solution, so I needed to make up for that ‘lost’ time by being even more productive.

I start writing down a to-do list for Friday evening; I’ve got some dinner plans with my partner, but I figure after that we can stay in and watch a movie and I can work on some low-engagement tasks like documentation or fixing some tests.

…Wait, what? Obviously, that’s dumb.

I’m pretty bad at working myself too hard, but I’ve grown better at catching myself when I do it.

I ban myself from my laptop for the evening. This is literal: I have a program on my laptop that bars me from access for a given period of time. It is fantastic.

Here’s how I spent my Friday night after a long week:

  1. I went for a long bouldering session with my partner.
  2. Then we ordered Chinese food delivery.
  3. Then we spent two hours experimenting with new cocktails (we ended up really liking the Scottish Orchard) and watching Easy on Netflix.
  4. Then I played Overwatch for ninety minutes. I think I went 4-3.
  5. Then I fell asleep, tipsy and drowsy.

Honestly, this is an atypical Friday night! I’m not wired to spend an entire night doing nothing super productive, and if I do it too often I feel just as gross as if I spend multiple consecutive nights working. I’m aware that makes me weird; I’m mostly okay with it.

But long weeks deserve nights off. I don’t want to spend every Friday night with my brain turned off — but sometimes you have to pull the levers that make you as productive as possible, and sometimes you have to push the levers back to where they used to be.

My goal is to not have long weeks. There are things I could have done better — I could have lengthened the onboarding schedule for the new client, I could have not worried about the side project. I need to do a better job of internalizing that work is just a thing that doesn’t deserve to bleed into other things.

I’m not quite there yet. I’m getting there, though. And in the meantime at least I know where my levers are.

  1. It’s important to point out that the things I’m doing are not necessarily the things that need to be done, because my brain is an asshole that only cares about the feeling of productivity. [return]
  2. Generally something along the lines of Nujabes or DJ Okawari. [return]
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