I was raised in a home and school environment that delivered the message that every waking hour should be productive. No, that’s not a healthy message, but it’s the message I received and sadly it became ingrained in how I think.
Fast forward to today and even at age 65 that message still resonates constantly all day long, every day of my life. I consistently struggle with nagging feelings that I’m not doing enough. When I do more, it still feels like it’s not enough. It’s never enough.
That’s not good. I know that intellectually. Viscerally it’s not so easy to shake my programming. So, over the years I’ve tried different strategies to blunt the impact of productivity stress.
As I’ve talked to friends, many report these same feelings of being stressed over not accomplishing enough, and often they can’t articulate what enough means.
Research has shown that some stress is beneficial to productivity. Too little stress in our lives can turn us into couch potatoes and chronic underachievers and underearners. That’s not good either.
There is something known as “The Yerkes-Dodson law” that suggests performance increases with some physiological or mental stress but only up to a point. When the level of stress becomes too high, performance decreases. I contend that while this law is referencing performance it also applies to productivity. I know performance and productivity aren’t the same thing. They are however both indicative of forward movement in completing goals or tasks we wish to achieve.
The trick for me is to create enough positive stress in my life to nudge me forward toward progress while not overwhelming myself with too much on my plate, and that’s often what I do. I create life plans, both short and long term, that seem entirely within my bandwidth and reality and they turn out to always be best case scenario plans. Nothing in life is a best case scenario.
I came up with the concept of minimum daily requirements (MDR). MDR in this case isn’t nutrients for which the phrase is often used. Rather, MDR for me is the minimum milestones or goals I must hit each day in order to not feel stress that I haven’t done enough.
It turns out the concept of minimum daily requirements isn’t unique to me. I randomly stumbled upon an article by Susan K Perry Ph.D. titled Minimum Daily Requirement for Creativity which suggests much the same MDR idea as I propose here.
This approach is only successful with one important thing though — a personal pact. You must make a pact with yourself that when you accomplish what’s on your MDR list you’ll accept that you’ve accomplished enough, at least enough to not trigger any sense of stress due to lack of productivity.
MDRs aren’t supposed to be highly ambitious goals or tasks. They are indeed supposed to be minimum, the least one can do while still feeling that enough has been accomplished. Set the bar low. Most of us overestimate time, bandwidth, energy and the inevitable twists and turns of life.
So, what might a daily list of MDRs look like? Well, for me it might look something like this.
- Exercise for at least 30 minutes.
- Write for at least one hour.
- Hang with a friend for at least an hour.
- Spend at least 30 minutes cleaning and organizing the house.
Were I to do those four things, I would have made a pact with myself that I will consider that a good day and anything else I might accomplish is a nice extra.
Your MDR list doesn’t have to be the same list every day. It can change. I recommend creating your MDR list for the next day at night before bed or upon waking.
Does this always work? No. I still struggle. But so far this is the best way to manage those feelings of lack of accomplishment. It works for me. Maybe it will work for you.