My productivity: How I’m staying sane when things get really tough

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Be Happy, from Flickr Creative Commons (Carissa Rogers)

Two months ago, I wrote an article about how “wasting time” helps someone stay sane and allows for more productivity. I wrote this in the context of creative activities, like writing, but since the article went live, I’ve had a lot of readers from all types of careers respond positively to the ideas in the article.

In the article, I talked about how the brain works better when it’s not always in that clenching state of mind. Research indicates that we have our best moments of insights when we step away from the issue we’re trying to resolve than when we force a solution. Although there are many instances when sticking with a problem can lead to a new solution, it’s often a good idea (especially when really stuck) to go do something unrelated to work. For me, that’s usually a walk or some outdoor activity that kicks my brain into gear. Other times, it’s a matter of leaving certain things for the next day and moving on to another project or idea, or simply sitting or meditating.

Although I’ve been thinking about my productivity for a while, it’s only been in the last two months that I’ve practiced this idea of getting away and wasting time when stuck. In the article from August, I mentioned some strategies I’ve put in place based on this idea and another book about productivity, The Power of Less by Leo Babauta. Here’s what I’ve done to keep myself sane:

  • Set realistic daily goals, with one main objective and no more than three smaller tasks
  • Don’t do “real work” past 8 p.m., with a goal to get this down to an earlier time, like 5 or 6 p.m.
  • Set aside 2 times a day for e-mails and spend only a short amount of time responding to each (and only respond to those most important)
  • Set aside at least 20 minutes each day for low-stakes writing and another 20 minutes to work out or walk
  • Know when it’s time to set things aside and move on (this has been a challenge, but I’m getting better)

Before I go into my progress on all of these, let me first explain what my schedule is like to give some context. Right now, I teach four college composition courses at two separate universities, tutor at a college writing center, work part-time evenings and every other weekend at my local public library, and do some freelance writing and editing on the side. On top of this, I write on this blog and have started writing fiction (or more like try to, it’s not ready for the world to see quite yet).

While I enjoy all of these jobs, I end many days feeling overwhelmed with all of the stuff I have to do each day. I do fall behind easily on basic tasks and have, in the past, felt so much burnout that it has led to anxiety and other problems. I knew that when this semester started up, I needed a smart plan in place to keep sane and productive.

So far, this plan has worked: I’ve managed to keep my work and personal lives balanced enough to maintain this schedule. But these past few weeks were tough. Midterms just finished up, lots of essays and assignments needed grading, and I’ve had to adjust. I’ve had to say no to some people, even for projects or tasks I’ve wanted to do. I’ve also had to do a lot of work early in the morning in order to maintain my commitment to my wife that I wouldn’t work past 8 so that we’d have time together each night.

Here are some of the ways I’ve adjusted in order to stay sane. When I can’t get away to do something fun, I keep these ideas in mind to balance my objectives.

1. Redefine fitness goals. Here’s my problem: when I start something that matters, I tend to go all in. This is good in some cases, but a hindrance in others. Also, if I don’t meet some unreasonable goal set by myself at the beginning of starting something new, I tend to give up quickly. This happens with my workouts. I try to add miles onto my run that take away from my time to do other meaningful things. I have to remind myself that I’m not training for a marathon. Instead, the goal is to maintain adequate fitness and to take advantage of the happiness and productivity inducing brain power a decent workout provides. I make sure I have at least 15 to 20 minutes of something: a short run, a brisk walk with my dog, or a couple minutes on the bike. I don’t spend a lot of time on this, but enough to where it’s beneficial to me.

2. Learn to say no. Another problem of mine: I tend to take on too much at once because I have a lot I want to do. I’m also lucky in that I know a lot of people who need help with projects and who want to help me out with mine. But lately, I’ve had to turn down some exciting freelance opportunities because I know I just can’t do it all.

3. Unplug and detox from the internet. I’ve picked a couple days out of the last few months to get off the internet. This is an idea I’ve written about before, and I recommend it as a way to gain more focus.

3. Minimize my time spent preparing for classes I teach. I am confident enough in my teaching strategies at this point in my career, so I don’t feel a need to add on to what I know works. I also let my students know that if they need help on an assignment outside of the time I’ve already set aside to help them, they’re on their own, or they need to use campus resources like the Writing Center for any further help. The key is that if I’ve set aside an hour for office hours that day, I need to do what I can in that hour, and everything else will have to wait. Basically, this is a matter of knowing and acknowledging the boundaries I’ve set.

4. Keep long-term goals in mind all the time. One of the reasons I write fiction, maintain this blog, and write and edit for friends and colleagues I trust is because my long-term goal is this: I want to be an independent writer. Teaching writing is great, and in many ways, it helps writers pay the bills while freeing them up to spend time writing every day. But teaching is just a means to an end, in my opinion. Maybe I shouldn’t write that (keeping in mind that current and future employers are hiring me to teach), but that’s how I feel.

The key is that it’s important to prioritize those long-term goals each day. Spend a solid amount of time each day focusing on doing whatever it is that gets you to those goals — if you don’t, you’ll allow short-term, less important goals get in the way of your higher potential.

I’ve had some setbacks in the last few weeks, but I’m hoping this re-focus, and keeping up with the things that matter most, will get me through the rest of this semester and the next few to come.

With this in mind, what are some strategies you take in getting through each day? How do you maintain focus on what matters most to you?

Kevin Eagan (@KevEagan) is a freelance editor and writer living in Central Florida. He edits book manuscripts and articles for local and national publications. Critical Margins is his place to share his interests. You can also check out his professional website,