Working through the Maelstrom

I’ve been absent here for longer than I usually am. I won’t lie. I’m struggling to figure out what I should do in a country that just elected Trump president. This is not a blog about politics, so I won’t belabor the point in this post. If you want to know why I’m struggling, send me an email and I’ll try to answer. The short version is I have many friends whose safety I am worried about, and I am concerned about the conflicts of interest already on display. I will also say that this isn’t just sour grapes about being on the losing side of an election. I’ve been there before. I’ve never been this scared about the future direction of my country before.

But despite all of these emotions, I have to get work done. My household bills do not care if I am feeling sad and worried about the future. So, I’ve been working. A friend of mine in the offline world asked me how I was managing to get anything done in the midst of this maelstrom. After I answered her, I realized that the answer would make a good blog post, thereby contributing to my goal of actually getting things done. Bonus!

There are two key aspects to my plan to produce meaningful work despite the distractions: (1) Expect myself to continue to work, and (2) Accept that I’m distracted. These two things may seem to be in direct opposition to each other, but I was able to balance them such that while last week wasn’t a stellar week in terms of productivity, I did move forward on my goals. I plan to continue doing this going forward.

By expecting myself to continue to work, I mean that I relied on all the aspects of my system for organizing my work to direct me to what I needed to do. I looked at my calendar to see what deadlines I had approaching. I looked at my kanban board to see what I have in flight and need to finish. And then I wrote myself a to do list for the day. Since I knew I was distracted and didn’t really want to work at all, I used one of my tricks for getting myself to do things I don’t really want to do: I broke the tasks for the day into the smallest possible increments when I wrote them on my list. This trick works on me because I can look at my list and see something so small and easy to do that I feel ridiculous not doing it.

I have been doing these things for years, so I had a lot of habit and previously validated tricks to fall back on. My friend who asked me how I managed to get any work done did not have this. She wondered if there was anything she could do to jumpstart herself now. I recommended setting up a kanban board and instituting a limit on the number of things she could have in process. A kanban board is very easy to set up. Take a piece of paper (or a spreadsheet) and make three columns: To Do, Doing, and Done. Write the things you have underway in the Doing column. Write the things you know you need to do soonish in the To Do column. Look at the list in the Doing column. If it is longer than about five things, I almost guarantee you have too much going on at once and are suffering from that. Don’t let yourself start anything new until the number of items in the Doing column falls below five. This helps keep you focused and nudges you to finish things, not just start them.

The kanban board I use is a bit more complicated, but not by much. I have a Prioritized column for the things I want to do next and a Parked column for things I was working on and couldn’t complete for some reason or decided to set aside for awhile. If you’re curious, you can read more about my full system. But if you’re trying to give yourself a jumpstart, just focus on the Doing column at first.

The second aspect of how I stay productive is perhaps counter-intuitive. I acknowledge that I am distracted. I think I am distracted for a good reason, in fact. And so, I set aside time to take action on the things that were distracting me. I wrote letters and made phone calls to express my concerns. Having done that, I was better able to turn to my work and focus on it. I will continue to do this. I am also guarding my time for exercise as best as I can. I took my usual Friday afternoon rollerblade this week, and it helped my mood more than anything else I did all week.

The thing I am struggling with most is how to handle the news. I am trying to figure out a containment strategy. I have never struggled with social media as a distraction before, but I am struggling now. Right now, I am trying to flag news items I need to read and only read them at designated break times, not as soon as they cross my consciousness. Part of acknowledging my distracting is to recognize that I, as a citizen, need to stay informed. I need to balance that with my needs as a human not to be overwhelmed with news and to be able to work on the other things that matter to me, because those things pay my bills and make me happy. This strategy is a work in progress. I’ll report back in if I figure out a better approach.

We’re entering a period in which I think it will be hard to stay focused on work. To be honest, I suspect there may be times when I will think I shouldn’t stay focused on work. That is all the more reason to make sure I’m getting work done when I can.


  1. Autumn said:

    Definitely a useful topic. I’m never more thankful that I took time to develop good organizational habits (love my To Do lists!) than when I’m distracted. Sometimes the hardest part is just getting going, so to motivate myself I’ll often start with something on my ToDo list that doesn’t require too much thought, like sorting through my Inbox. Just going through the motions tends to sharpen my focus. But I like that you give yourself time to try to sort through the distraction. I’ll have to give that a try.

    November 23, 2016
    • Melanie said:

      I have never been so thankful for the mindless tasks on my to do list than I was right after the election!

      November 24, 2016
  2. Melanie S said:

    Melanie, would love to share this post (it’s ‘other Melanie’ from Twitter 🙂 ). Remember the days when we were just writing and tweeting about time management, and now, it seems the world has been upended. Am glad you combined time/productivity and the election into a post – helpful to me and I’m sure to others. Thank you!

    December 14, 2016
    • Melanie said:

      I’m glad you liked the post. Feel free to share it widely!

      December 15, 2016

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *