Just Do The Work

Well of Bolonchen by Frederick Catherwood
[This post was originally intended for my personal blog, but I figured that folks here may find it useful]

I am well acquainted with the whoosh of deadlines, and I’ve just been overtaken by yet another; weeks, months, stopped in my tracks by Seasonal Affective Disorder and Bipolar Disorder (or perhaps I’m lazy and that’s just my excuse?)

My inability to complete work to schedule has bugged me all of my life, as I know it does many people. My bipolar disorder (of which I will say more at the end of this post) makes this particularly tricky. But, partly because of this, I’ve spent many years investigating different life-hacking techniques, and have a fair idea of what does and doesn’t work. A serial deadline-misser like me may seem to be the worst person to give advice on productivity hacks, but that’s what I’m going to do anyway.

First of all, and most importantly: Do The Work. The short and sweet book The War of Art by Steven Pressfied is very clear on this subject. Sit down, every day, and crack on with things. Do this regardless of whether the muse moves you or not. Treat every project like paid employment, and treat being there as an obligation. Even doing a few minutes every day will soon build into something worthwhile, and will result in in more Stuff produced over the course of week, a month, a year, a lifetime.
Which is all well and good, but turning up regularly can be difficult; sometimes just remembering to do the work is itself a job of work. Elastic Habits by Stephen Guise helps you to build the muscle that keeps you battling on. To build elastic habits, you learn to consider the smallest possible increment of work as something worth doing. Simply making sure that you Do The Work with regularity will, over the course of a few months, build a self-sustaining habit. Of course, you don’t want to always be doing the smallest amount possible: the system sets 3 different goal-sizes (and usually 3 different variations on the task, for variety) to help you monitor your achievements and stay on track.
For example, say I want to get fit. I could have three different activities that count towards getting fit, let’s say floor exercises, swimming, and running (doing any one of those in a day counts as Doing The Work). For each of them, I will set three different levels of difficulty. The first one has to be so simple that you can do it almost without effort: one set of floor exercises, swimming one length, running for a minute. The next level should be a little harder: 3 reps/lengths/minutes. And the next, quite a bit higher, perhaps 15 reps/lengths/minutes. Each day, you make damn sure that you either run, swim, or do floor exercises at least a tiny amount. You can adjust your goals as you go along – if you fail to make even the simplest level, perhaps you can simplify further: lie on the floor/get your bike out of the shed/visualise swimming. If you’re managing the hardest level every day, then make it harder.
Another book I’ve found helpful in tackling my own specific difficulties is Your Own Worst Enemy by Kenneth Christian. This book is aimed at “high achievers” who are not achieving. The premise is that those of us who do extremely well in school (or at least in the early years) start to assume that we can just coast through life. This turns out not to be true, and so we fail, and think of ourselves as failures, until learn how to put in the necessary effort to Do The Work. Again, this book mainly focuses on Just Doing The Work, as well as visualising future achievements (a well-proven psychological technique for bringing those achievements closer to realisation).
Speaking of getting things done, the book of that name is a classic of the productivity genre. Like most books in this field, it can be summed up in a few sentences. It employs three basic tools: a to-do list, a calendar, and a filing system. Many of us will have a pile of paper on our desk and/or an inbox full of unread emails and/or a bunch of vague ideas in our heads which serve (badly) all three purposes. We will also have an accompanying cognitive load and frequent moments of “oh gosh, I’m sure there was something I was supposed to do today, what was it again?” The premise of Getting Things Done is that immediately shifting each piece of paper/email/idea into one of the three buckets (to-do/calendar/filing) gets it off your mind and into a place where you cannot fail to have access to it exactly when you need it. I struggled with this system for years because I was never any good at to-do lists: I tried both paper and digital ones, but always found myself soon overwhelmed with too many items. But a few years ago I discovered Todoist, and suddenly everything fitted into place. Todoist’s flexibility – allowing you to use it as a basic list, but containing more advanced optional features such as due dates, projects, and labels – has allowed me to hack it into to a system that works for me, and that does not overwhelm me on a day-to-day basis.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, is accountability. In my case, accountability that is inflexible and dangerous. I have written about how I use the Book of Horkos to fulfil this role. Less perilous forms of accountability, I have found, are easy to sidestep (which I have done so many times that it almost comes naturally). The cost is that people will think worse of me and will trust me less, but in my darker moments I feel that I’ve probably lost all of their trust already and anyway, so what does it matter? For some people, simply by stating in public “I am going to Do The Work” (with the potential loss of face of failing to Do The Work) means that they will Do The Work. For me, it requires an immovable deadline and another person or people who will not only think less of me if I fail, but will themselves suffer some inconvenience. I hate letting other people down!
Due to the whooshing deadline I mentioned at the start of this post, I have today initiated a new harsh form of accountability. I have hired… I’m not quite sure what to call her, something between a PA and a life-coach. I pay her money, and every week I tell her her exactly what I will complete in the next week. Then we will look back on the previous week and check that I did in fact achieve what I said I would. The person I have hired to do this is my daughter because, not only is she as sharp as a pin, she is perhaps the one person in the world that I could never bring myself to let down. I know that she is going to be ruthless at her job, and I know that this is going to keep me in line.
I said at the outset that Bipolar Disorder makes my task a lot trickier. My specific flavour of bipolar disorder is BP-II. On the surface this appears far less severe than classic BP-I “manic depression”, but BP-II’s mood swings are far more frequent, and the disruptive effect this has on one’s life can barely be overstated (BP-II sufferers are far more likely to attempt suicide than those with BP-I, because of this frequent inability to function).  When I’m depressed, all bets are off, and everything falls apart. The frequency with which this happens means that habit-building is virtually impossible. People often say that to form a habit, you should do it at the same time as you brush your teeth. In 50+ years I have never managed to acquire the habit of brushing my teeth regularly. This inability to be consistent is known to cause many problems in the life of those with BP-II, in particular psychosocial impairment results from being unable to be consistent in one’s relationships (I was in my my 30s before I began to understand how one interacts with other people, and it’s only due to having an amazing and supportive wife that I’m able to function reasonably normally today).
And that, I believe, is why I’ve never quite managed to dial in those productivity habits that I know so much about for any real length of time (the longest I’ve managed is about 2 months). But that’s not going to stop me trying. And my next attempt starts today. Once I’m done, I’ll probably write a book on productivity hacks for bipolar folks.







3 responses to “Just Do The Work”

  1. maxcan7 Avatar

    I'm sorry to hear about your personal struggles. From some previous conversations we've had, you've alluded to such things, so certain things make more sense in context now.

    Personally, I have always hated the term "lazy". It is, ironically, a "lazy" explanation for what is often a much more complex behavioral circumstance.

    Likewise, the Nike-esque "Just Do It" advice in itself is not great, in that it ignores those exact complexities that keep people from "Just Do(ing) It" in the first place.

    That said, and the Iconoclastic Flow were just talking about this yesterday actually, there is something to be said for "Just Do It", so long as "Just Do It" isn't some specific end-goal, but a habit to form. Jot down notes as they come to your head, read or write a chapter a day, etc. Once you've built that habit, you can refine it, but it can be overwhelming to try to do both simultaneously. The idea of setting habits rather than specific end-goals is, I believe, a well-established "productivity life hack", we're hardly the first people to say it haha, but it's still good advice.

    I have thought about getting something like a "life coach" in the way you describe as well, especially as a single person with nobody keeping me accountable :(. Might be a bit outside my price range since I don't have a sharp child to leverage either haha but I hope that works out for both of you! I am comfortable saying publicly that I do see a therapist regularly and that helps, but I do resonate with a lot of the struggles you're discussing for whatever that is worth.

    In my case, I've found that if I pass a certain anxiety threshold, I will spiral out or shut down, so a lot of the skills I've developed over the years have been in keeping things from getting to that point in the first place, or trying to create systems or protocols for when they do happen so that it doesn't end with me losing everything I've worked hard for. I'm generally not too worried about losing everything anymore, or at least not the rational part of me, but ya, again I do very much resonate with what you're saying and I appreciate you sharing.

  2. dansumption Avatar

    Thanks! Things ain't so bad here – or, at least, I've had a lifetime of practice with this thing, and have learnt more-or-less how to ride it.

    I agree with you about "lazy". It just makes me think – lazy how? Lazy why? When I was studing psychology, a lecturer once told the class about an engineer who had been promoted to a more managerial position went through intense training to become a more sociable person. The lecturer used this example to say that "you can change anything about yourself, you just need to make the effort", or something along those lines. I stuck my hand up and asked "what if the thing you want to change is that you're no good at making an effort?" He laughed, the whole class laughed, and then he moved on to the next topic without answering me. It was a serious question.

    As for "just do the work", I don't think anyone is suggesting that this is easy, just that it is necessary. I would recomment The War of Art, it's a great and very quick read, even though all it really says, from what I can remember, is "do the work. And do it consistently. Otherwise you will not succeed". I notice that the author subequently wrote another book called simply "Do The Work".

    (And, yes, "do the work" is about the process, not about the end goal. It's not about a specific piece of work, just the act of turning up every day. It's a necessary, but not sufficient step towards achieving whatever your goal may be).

    Good luck in your own struggles! Like you say, it's about recognising what causes you not to cope, and putting in protocols to avoid or minimise the damage from that. In my experience, it's a lifetime's work, but one that throws up many rewards along the way, not least a better understaning of what makes you tick.

  3. Tobias Avatar

    Great post Dan, as real as ever. I like this: "Sit down, every day, and crack on with things." My commitment to the #doodlewash daily drawing challenge has made me do exactly that. I draw whether I am inspired or not. I am mostly not.

    Also love the daughter/personal coach thing. Clever. Looking forward to the sequel of this article 😉

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