I approached reporting this month’s article about how psychology impedes productivity in the way a hypochondriac might approach an article about medicine. Going in, I assumed everything that could be wrong with me, would be wrong with me. And so it was.
I am a structured procrastinator, who assuages her guilt about not working on hard stuff by working on easy stuff. Low-hanging fruit doesn’t last long on my branches. But hey, it’s not as though I’m not working.
I routinely turn an uncaring eye from the plight of Future Me. Blithely I will schedule 18 interviews in a single week--just so long as it’s not this week. As I add those appointments to my calendar, the dopamine kicks in. It feels soooo good.
I succumb to distraction. Social media doesn’t interest me much, but I constantly refresh my New York Times app in case something critical has happened, like a domestic terror attack or a decision handed down by the Supreme Court or David Lynch announcing additional cast for the new season of “Twin Peaks.” (Kyle McLaughlin is coming back! Hooray!)
Of course I didn’t recognize myself in all the odd behaviors I encountered while reporting the piece. For example, I had never plugged items into a to-do list after-the-fact for the satisfaction of crossing them off. But only because I hadn’t thought of it. I’ve started doing it now. I ‘ve also started adding unscheduled events retroactively to my calendar. That’s mostly for the benefit of my family members, with whom I share schedules. The busier they think I am, the less they’ll expect from me.
I recognized a true kindred spirit in John Perry, a Stanford philosophy professor emeritus who told me he makes himself feel productive by taking credit for every mundane task. He described his to-do list: “It says: wake up. That’s worth a check. Get out of bed. That’s worth a check. Make the coffee. That’s a check. Drink the coffee. That’s a check. By the time I’ve had my coffee I’ve done three things and I feel like a real effective human being.”
I’m not that bad. But over the years I’ve developed an elaborate, infinitely malleable system of points that allows me to feel good about my day irrespective (almost) of how much I’ve accomplished. Ninety percent of my job comprises five tasks: research, interviewing, transcribing interviews, writing, and editing. An hour spent on each task is worth somewhere between 1 and 3 points, depending on its difficulty. Research and transcription are worth 1; editing is worth 2; writing and interviews (because even after 28 years as a journalist I’m still kind of shy) are worth 3. Non-work-related tasks are worth half-a-point. By the end of each day I must have racked up a minimum of 10 points or consign myself to the fifth circle of Hell. (That would be Sloth.)
The system sounds rigid, but it’s remarkably flexible. For example, if the writing’s going slowly and I decide that’s because the subject is particularly abstract or nuanced, I’ll give myself another couple of points. If an interview that’s scheduled for an hour takes just 30 minutes, I take credit for the whole thing. If an interview takes place in person rather than over the phone I calculate travel time into my total. The only time I give myself demerits is if I screw up dinner and we have to order pizza.
If I haven’t earned my 10 points at the end of the day I can’t sleep. I will clean the living room or transcribe an interview in order to put it over the top. Did I mention I get double points for any tasks performed after 9 PM?
I used to think my behavior was pretty peculiar. I still think that. But after learning about how other people misunderstand and mistreat time, at least I feel less alone.
Writing this article took roughly half an hour. Eight-and-a-half points to go.