I’m lucky this global pandemic didn’t happen three years ago. I would be totally fucked.
Fortunately, I’m now well-versed in staying productive, even when my life is a flaming pile of garbage.
Why, you might ask, would anyone give a shit about productivity when they’re being eaten alive by piranha? If your work gives you meaning, staying productive can be the thin thread that keeps what’s left of you from falling into the abyss.
Over the past two years, I had two personal catastrophes in my life. During the times they happened, each was easily the worst thing that had ever happened to me in my four decades on Earth.
In the midst of the global shitshow of the COVID-19 pandemic, I know many people are struggling to stay productive. If you don’t give a shit about your work, then good. Just watch Tiger King, eat Cheetos, and maybe re-think your life choices.
But if staying productive will help you stay sane: Here’s what I’ve learned about staying productive when the world is burning all around you.
1. Have a sense of humor
In 2018, I invested a significant portion of my life’s savings to qualify for an investor visa in the country I call home. My visa was then rejected — which meant I could no longer live in my home.
Thanks to one mishap after another, I took a total of five emergency trips out of the country over the next six months. I sometimes had to flee with as little as 24 hours notice.
I spent a total of two months away from home, including spending the last six weeks of 2018, at age 39, living with my parents in a retirement community in Arizona.
The number of things that went wrong, despite my diligence, was hilarious. For example, after my visa was rejected yet again, I fled the country yet again, and ended up in an Airbnb visibly crawling with bedbugs.
It was horrible to live this experience. But as it was happening, I was still laughing at the situation. It was like sitting at a broken slot machine, that kept going bust.
Sometimes you’re going to have bad luck, and bad shit is going to happen to you. The nature of randomness is such that sometimes those instances of bad luck will come in a string, one after another.
You’ll swear you’re that cartoon character with a thunderstorm raging only over his head. Randomness feels that way sometimes. It’s nothing personal, that literally is life. To not have bad luck is to not be alive. You have to laugh at it.
2. Go easy on yourself
In July 2019, I had to make another emergency trip. This time, my mother was in a coma. An abnormal blood vessel in her brain — which nobody knew existed— suddenly burst.
As we waited by her bedside for a week, the prognosis got worse and worse.
The experience was a lot like this coronavirus pandemic in that each morning, I’d wake up, and things seemed normal. Then I’d vaguely remember having a horrible nightmare. Only it wasn’t a nightmare — it was real life.
My family and I were devastated. But it kept me sane to keep writing. I had previously tried to write 1,500 words a day on my book. But during this crisis, I cut it back to a modest 250 words. I had to lower my expectations.
Something is better than nothing. Just have a NonZeroDay.
3. Find the gold
As Megan Devine, author of It’s Okay That You’re Not Okay says, “There is not a reason for everything. Not every loss can be transformed into something useful. Things happen that do not have a silver lining.”
Be that as it may, your horrible reality is still your reality. You might as well make the best of the things that you can control.
As I was on traveling to my mother’s bedside, it seemed like a waste to spend the entire twelve-hour journey being the grown man inexplicably sobbing in 23B.
So, I opened up a scratch file and started typing. I wrote, beat-by-beat everything that had happened thus far: The call from my brother, frantically packing, rushing to the airport, just barely making the last flight of the day. I wrote about what fears and worries I had, how I hoped things would work out, and how I feared they would end up.
It was gibberish, but it was therapeutic, and it also informed my work.
As Marcel Proust said, “A writer’s works…mount to a height which is in proportion to the depth to which suffering has penetrated his heart.”
4. Make space to think
After returning from a trip abroad that was supposed to fix my visa troubles, only to be told I had to turn around and leave the country again, I found myself hiding out in Panama City.
In nine days, I would return to the country I call home — Colombia — to apply for my visa for the second time.
I had no idea how it would turn out, but I knew that once I found out, I would have to make extremely-high-stakes decisions almost immediately.
So, I made a lot of space to think. I wrote a bullet-point list of the various scenarios that might occur, and under each bullet point, what actions I might take. It wasn’t clear at first, but through revisiting it over and over, I was able to gain clarity.
Because I made the space to think things through, I wasn’t quite as blindsided when my visa was rejected a second time. I already had my contingency plan in place.
If — instead of ruminating about the future — you instead make the space to think through how things might play out, you can calm your nerves, and have a plan of action. You probably won’t plan on bedbugs, but still.
5. Trust your system
When your world is falling apart, it saps all of the energy you would normally use in order to make decisions. But if you build systems, and follow them, those decisions are already made for you.
While waiting for my mother to wake up, I agonized over whether or not I could keep my podcast going. It sounds ridiculous, but again, if your work brings you meaning, it can be the one thing you can control in a world that is spinning out of control.
Fortunately, I already had a system in place—a system I had developed because of the pressure-cooker that was my visa nightmare.
I just mindlessly followed the todo items I already had set up. Thanks to the process I had built, I didn’t miss an episode.
Even if it’s something as simple as your morning routine, what you’ll wear every day, or what you’ll eat, having a system helps in a crisis. As James Clear says, “You do not rise to the level of your goals, you fall to the level of your systems.”
6. Do the 10-minute hack
Sometimes, you can’t even begin to focus. These are the times when I use the 10-minute hack. (Remember, in a crisis, you need to lower your expectations, so maybe it’s the five-minute hack, or the two-minute hack.)
Here’s how it works: Pick a task. Set a timer for ten minutes (or two, or five). Work on only that task until the timer goes off.
When you set a ridiculously simple goal, it’s much easier to stay focused for that short amount of time. Yet once you get started, you often keep going. Dr. Robert Maurer wrote his book by promising himself to write for 90 seconds a day.
In case you’re wondering, I did get my visa issue cleared up. Unfortunately, my mom never did wake up. I held her hand as she succumbed to her injuries.
There was nothing good about these experiences. I think Hemingway would call them “damn awful.” And like getting kneed in the face, while hunched over from getting kicked in the family jewels, they came one after another.
But the only thing constant in life is change. Change doesn’t always look so good.
When your life is a dumpster fire, might as well make s’mores.