Productivity is about finding space

I have often thought that we choose to marry someone who has something we don’t have, but we wish we had. So it makes sense that now that I feel secure in my relationship with the farmer, I am going to tell you what he has that I want: Photos for my blog.

I’m so bad at taking photos of the farm, and he is great at it, so I stole one of the photos he took to document the mud. He says March is the mud month.

I have tried a few times to take pictures of the farm. I am in love with the farmer, but also, I am in love with the farm. And the farmer will never let me put a picture of him on my blog, so I decided to show you how beautiful the farm is. But I am realizing that photos are like writing: You can only show a fresh perspective of something you know very well.

I remember when I taught creative writing to freshmen at Boston University. The first month almost every student wrote about sex. I went to my advisor and asked him why I am getting twenty stories about having sex.

He said, “Are all the stories terrible?”

I said, “Yes.”

He said, “That happens every semester. When you love something, you want to write about it. But you never know enough about it to write it in an interesting way until you know it closely enough to hate it as well.”

The farm is too new to me. I take cliched pictures of cows like my students wrote cliched stories of passion. Fortunately, the farmer takes really good photos.

I like this one because it shows how quiet and desolate the winter is. When I tell people I’m moving to the farm, they say, “What will you do in the winter?”

In fact, I love winter on the farm. I love that it’s dead quiet. I love that we get snowed in from time to time. I love that the fields are freezing but the house is warm and cozy. Mostly, though, I love the farm because there’s so little going on. If you look closely, there’s a lot, of course. The farmer once told me there are millions of different minerals in every handful of dirt; he can see infinite action on the farm.

Compared to other places I have lived, the farm gives me space to think. My head is always swimming with ideas, I’m always writing or reading. Even when I’m sitting still, I’m writing sentences in my head and battling with myself if they are good enough to get up and get a pencil before I forget what I wrote.

Jason Fried is always talking about how get a clear head so you get more done. In a video I can’t find, Jason explained that his business partner used to live in Holland. And Jason lived in Chicago. And his partner moved from Holland to Chicago so they’d get more done together. But they got less done. Because you need long stretches of uninterrupted time to get things done.

Jason recent book, Rework, is about counter-intuitive ways to be more productive (here is a hilarious ad for the book). Rework full of stuff he learned as he grew his company, 37 Signals. I love the book because the advice is short and true — like have a short to do list so that you can actually get it done. And make tiny decisions so that you can keep moving instead of doing nothing while you make a huge decision.

The book is timely for me because Jason forces us to see that productivity is really about slowing down to focus on doing something real, instead of moving really fast but doing a lot of nothing. But Jason doesn’t let you off the hook by telling you to do nothing; he gives you tips for continuing to move forward, but in a very smart way.

I am doing that on the farm. Slowing down. Making space. Not letting myself do things that should never have been on my to do list anyway. But the tradeoff, when you slow down to get focus, is that slow is scary because you have to face what you're really doing.

Making space to do something that matters is scary because something has to give, and I am figuring out what that means for me. In the process figuring out how to slow down enough to see but still move forward to reach my goals, it’s taken me so long to finish this post that the farm has changed, and it looks like this:

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    • Casual Surfer
      Casual Surfer says:

      Thankfully, not Doocing it up :) Penelope’s comments don’t require you to be a member and aren’t filled with fawning admiration of every hiccup. Dooce got boring once everything became about her fabulous children, husband, and adorably perfect life.

      I may not always agree with Penelope, but you gotta admit she doesn’t sugar coat her life or write about it through a soft-focus lens.

  1. Ivy Lane
    Ivy Lane says:

    I am still trying to make some space in my brain to figure out what the heck I am supposed to be doing in life! and you are right on…something’s gotta give!!!

    Great post! Hey..when’s your birthday?…give yourself some photography lessons so you can “capture” the essence of the farm!

  2. ReadmyList
    ReadmyList says:

    As someone of generation Y, I definitely fall victim to overstimulation and trying to do too much at once. I’d say achieving a calm focus is one of our main challenges.

    • Alice
      Alice says:

      I believe so. Focusing on one act could mean better outcome. Its really a disaster when we do things out of our impulsive thinking and decision.

  3. Alex @ Happiness in this World
    Alex @ Happiness in this World says:

    Lovely photographs and post, Penelope. Though ideas for becoming more productive have been done to death, both on blogs and in print, we never seem to tire of hearing them because they’re so difficult to carry out. Here’s my own take, one that mirrors your self-admonition to not let yourself “do things that should never have been on [your] to do list anyway.”

  4. Anita Junttila
    Anita Junttila says:

    When I first saw your picture I thought ‘where’s the colour? The glamour? The hot farmer? Looks so desolate and cold’ Obviously I have been reading wayyy to much Pioneer Woman porn. March is mud month. O.k. Way to be straight and right on about what it’s like to live on the farm (I live in Abbotsford, B.C. a mennonite farming community. My small town to ‘those’ that live in Vancouver, the big city, 80km away, Abbotsford is: ‘you live way out there?’ followed by the hairy eyeball and the forehead wrinkling cringe)

    One more thing: That is the one thing I don’t like about living on the West Coast not enough snow ever to get seriously snowed in. Give me a fire, a hot coffee and three feet of snow outside for the perfect winter day.

    I can see why you love it out on ‘the farm’ so much. Wide open space and quiet. How wonderful is that?

  5. Regina Twine
    Regina Twine says:

    Sounds like a wonderful place for you and your kids Penelope! The Farmer’s pictures are great. Please post more of them. Maybe that’s something you guys can focus on together.

  6. Jan Hogle
    Jan Hogle says:

    Ah, yes indeed!! A wonderful post! Thanks. Silence, peacefulness, snowed-in, reduced chaos. Space on the calendar — nothing scheduled. All of that increases productivity, no question. Also helps to be clear on your one or two priority objectives; absolutely clear. Then you need the space to realize them. Love the photos!

  7. Jen
    Jen says:

    Great pictures! The farm seems so serene. I definitely struggle with moving too fast and trying too accomplish too much, always on the go. There is definitely something to be said for being able to slow down and focus on what is real and meaningful.

  8. greeze
    greeze says:

    great post-
    i had to move to a farm a few years ago myself. it drove me nuts at first, but i’m finally learning to enjoy and appreciate what we have- at least while we have it.
    good luck on the farm!

  9. Jorge Lazaro Diaz
    Jorge Lazaro Diaz says:

    Glad to see you posting again. It’s been a while. Hope your farmer “thing” goes well.

    I find that when I fail to slow down, I work a lot harder and deal with a lot more stress. I also reduce my productivity. Ironic – huh? Not really.

    I wrote about it in my “Fender Bender’s a Clear Sign I Need to Slow Down” (see and “Tolle’s Book Offers a Cure for Mental Clutter” (see

    Thanks for writing about this. It helps remind me how close I am at any moment to falling back to my old ways.

  10. jacqjolie
    jacqjolie says:

    Not that I think you should / shouldn’t keep on “working on yourself”, but one resource you might check out is:

    I grew up on a farm, and there’s something that being on a farm gives you – it’s about observing the passing of the seasons, focusing on essentials, getting away from the noise and rush and seemingly important things that clears your head like nothing else. And the farm is a labor of love, you are building something for the generations, something that lasts so it prompts a long term perspective.

    City people seem to try to simulate this by going out into nature, but it’s not the same. Thoreau knew that – he didn’t just visit Walden on weekends, he immersed himself in the experience.

    Perhaps something you could do right now is to look at everything on your to-do list that you rewrite every day and ask yourself “will this matter 10 years from now?” If it won’t, then why is it there?

  11. csts
    csts says:

    Love it, Penelope — thanks (especially the reference to Jason Fried’s book on slowing down to get more done).

    And it’s terrific to see you so happy!! CONGRATS. Best to you and to the farmer, and may you have a lovely non-wedding this week.


  12. Siddhartha
    Siddhartha says:

    Thanks for sharing your life with us, and thank the Farmer too. You put a lot of personal stuff out there which is hard to do but it’s what makes this blog so valuable to the reader.

    It gives us someone to identify with and follow through the messy process of living. It gives us some sense we’re not alone in our failures.

    And I love the picture of the farm (I’ve always wondered what it looked like).

    Not the calf though, that’s gross.

  13. Sherry G
    Sherry G says:

    When I was working full time in an office, I used to love getting in early or staying about an hour after everyone left. I got so much done in the quiet. Now that I’m working from home, I look forward to times when I am alone.

    And thanks for the picture of the new calf. It’s a beautiful reminder that life keeps moving on.

  14. Kimberly Togman
    Kimberly Togman says:

    What a great post. So nice to see another meaty one from you…I’ve missed them.

    I’m sitting with the slowing down to get things done concept (and have now added Jason Fried’s book to my to read list…). I too find it to be challenging not to just fill the time.

    I also subscribe to creating short lists. Especially when I’m stuck. Each day I make a list of three things to accomplish (on the really stuck days that can include things like having a healthy lunch) and at the end of the day revisit. The next day, I start over. You know, lather, rinse, repeat. I call it starting a virtuous cycle.

  15. Kate
    Kate says:

    Those are some seriously effective farm pictures. I find myself wanting to stand around cows more :)

    I like what you say about winter. I love the blankness of winter in an open space. It feels like it isn’t trying to be anything. Definitely a good space to think in.

    Thanks for this.

    • Casual Surfer
      Casual Surfer says:

      I also like the blankness of winter. I think that might be why I love going to the beach in the dead of winter. Sand, water, and not much else. No people, no music blaring, no one selling anything. It’s so serene & desolate at the same time.

  16. Michael Alexander
    Michael Alexander says:

    Yes, nice reflection on settling. Being social beings we need others around us to get our bearings, to show us what’s important in our their and our lives. A farm is a great place for this. A farm is also a great place to hate if you are too isolated,spend too much time paying for it and realize you can visit a natural area and get allot of the same perks. You are lucky that his farm is paid for. This gives him peace of mind and grounds him to it.
    Farmers can deal with their anxietys/mania through work, growing and nuturing and having aromas every day that calm and please the senses. Add in a willing partner and viola!
    As Nick Englebert said ” If a man can’t be happy on a little farm in Wisconsin, he doesn’t have the makings of happiness in his soul.”.

  17. Mneiae
    Mneiae says:

    Sounds like moving to the farm is the right choice for you. I have yet to take a creative writing class, for fear of peer feedback, but I imagine that is probably what it’s like universally. When you are a college freshman, you learn about what it’s like to be a sexually active adult. Yes, sex is present in high school, but college is when most people seem to engage in it regularly and without fear of reprisal.

  18. Deanne
    Deanne says:

    Nicely said Penelope! I grew up on a dairy farm, aside from the business stressors, the lifestyle is awesome. Spring is messy, hope you and the boys all have good boots!
    I now find my think time in the car on my commute, but would trade that for a front porch anyday.

    Good luck to you.

  19. Rasha
    Rasha says:

    Hi P,
    What a great post and pictures. I personally found that taking time and space, clarified things 100X more than when we are in middle of them. Once a year, I take a weekend alone to meditate,away from the city and everyone. I usually emerge always a happier person, with better understanding and vision of my goals.
    I also have a friend who take 3 days train ride from Austin, TX to San Fran, CA, alone, just to think through things and how to accomplish his goals.
    PS: Love the cows and the farm.

  20. Roberta
    Roberta says:

    Have always loved pics of moms and their babies and this one is expecially darling. I’m a stickler about having my space and mine is the open ocean so I can relate. Lucky you..beautiful farm, beautiful life! I’m so happy for you. xoR

  21. John Bardos - JetSetCitizen
    John Bardos - JetSetCitizen says:

    I have a stupid question.

    I have just been travelling around central Canada and noticed that there are less and less traditional farmers that let their cattle freely graze. Most have sold out because it is too hard to make money without using growth hormones and antibiotics for corn fed cows.

    I thought the US was racing to huge factory farms. Can US farmers still make a living raising cattle like that?

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I think that the smart farmers are able to figure out how to support themselves doing the farming they want to do. But this is a hunch. I’m still learning.

      By the way, one of the things that is so exciting to me about the farm is my learning curve — I love how much I’m learning about something I knew nothing about. It reminds me of my favorite times at my favorite jobs.


    • Casual Surfer
      Casual Surfer says:

      Pockets of the US are racing far away from massive factory farms. Words like “Locavore” and “free-range, grass-fed” are becoming more common.

      I drive about an hour once every 3-4 months to buy beef from a farmer who uses rotational grazing. Yep, it costs a little more but the taste difference is AMAZING between grass fed (happy) cows and grain fed (feedlot) cows. It’s like the difference between a hothouse tomato and one you picked from the garden. It’s that big. Farmers who can do a little marketing & sell into that niche market can do well. The farmer I buy from has a 18m waiting list for sides of beef (which is why we buy from the farm freezer).

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Both. And you know what? You have to love both. Because they come together, and there is no separating them. Something I learned the hard way, of course….


  22. Jessica
    Jessica says:

    Im a writer as well and I was cracking up when you said “Even when I’m sitting still, I’m writing sentences in my head and battling with myself if they are good enough to get up and get a pencil before I forget what I wrote” because I do the same thing. Its nice when I hear tendencies from other writers that normalize my process and experience with it.

  23. Beth Nerbonne
    Beth Nerbonne says:

    I am the typical overstimulated Generation Yer and I have found in the last 6 months of baking and knitting and reading, that those are my favorite times. I feel like I’m missing something when I’m not plugged into NPR or the thousand RSS feeds or Twitter, but I actually feel so much more creative when I’m doing something slowly. I get to process all those things that sped into my brain earlier in the day and then when I’m doing something zen like knitting or cleaning or just sitting with my cats and husband, everything starts to work itself out in my head. It’s a wonderful thing.

    And Rework is a book I ordered for the library that just came in last week or the week before and it’s on the top of my reading list. I’m very much looking forward to reading it.

    And gorgeous photos. Just gorgeous.

  24. Alexis Martin Neely
    Alexis Martin Neely says:

    And sometimes life forces you to slow down. That seems to be happening for me and yet I find myself fighting it. My mind says it’s okay for you to slow down because you’re “there”. But, not for me. I’m not “there” yet and I must keep moving quickly so I can get there before it’s too late. Lies. Damn lies. Or maybe not.

  25. Brenna
    Brenna says:

    The farm looks beautiful!

    In a related note, I am disappointed I will never get to see a picture of the farmer… you’ve got to work on that!

  26. Isao
    Isao says:

    “When you love something, you want to write about it. But you never know enough about it to write it in an interesting way until you know it closely enough to hate it as well.”
    Terrific line – so true, thanks!

  27. Bryan Curry
    Bryan Curry says:

    Rarely have I read the right article, at the right time. Rarer still that I read it when I was in a mood to really internalize what I was reading. That happened to me today. I have had a crazy day both at work and personally. So many things to accomplish, so many ideas to work on. Your post about the farm and how sometimes you have to slow down. Make time to do a few things right and let some things slide either completely or until you have more time to spend on it.
    I have been going through an exercise over the past 2 months attempting to simplify a lot of areas of my life that felt like “clutter”. Some of those activities have yielded real tangible results and others not.
    The impact it has had on my life has been very beneficial but I caught myself over the last week saying, “hey, I have de-cluttered my life and now I have all of this time to do a, b, c, d, etc. Your post came at the perfect time to remind me exactly why I went through the steps to simplify things. Not so that I could take on additional projects but to allow me to focus more on the projects that I kept.
    Thank you so much for this article, like I said, right words, right time, thanks.

  28. Morgan Jones
    Morgan Jones says:

    Penelope, I get a lot out of the stuff you write but I must say this line resonates with me so much right now: “He said, “That happens every semester. When you love something, you want to write about it. But you never know enough about it to write it in an interesting way until you know it closely enough to hate it as well.”

    I know you were remembering it, but I have to thank you for remembering it. It’s a good one! It puts words on an issue I often have when blogging or writing in general. I can see it with pictures too.

    Congratulations on the move and the new man. You sound calm and happy.

  29. neko
    neko says:

    Excellent: pics on blogs are awesome! (IMO, dooce’s crazy-ass pix are the best thing about her blog & add a nice touch to her stories. Also, even though I dont really dig little kids, even *I* can appreciate her photographs of her incredibly & insanely photogenic daughters.)

    So: bring ’em on: pls post more pictures of the farm & any other various random things that help capture/convey the essence of your random musings on Life !

  30. Jonha
    Jonha says:

    I think it is both flattering and insulting for Penelope to be compared to Dooce and Pionner Woman but I guess it is more of the former. Your previous commenters were right, this post is a little different that I almost felt I was not reading Penelope’s blog. But I feel for you, this must be something you really wanna do. Something not so you or people are used to, something more casual but Penelope, you don’t have to try to be like Dooce and Pioneer Woman, I like your posts just the way they are. You’re upfront, you’re frank, you’re genuine, you’re real. That’s what keeps me on coming back.

  31. Louise Thompson
    Louise Thompson says:

    This is the second post i’ve read today on the importance of small steps forward, rather than losing yourself in planning/indecision on the bigger stuff and never making progress (first was from Chris Brogan – It’s a crucial point, but one that often gets overlooked as we rush to claim immediate and everlasting victory in every area of our lives. Penelope, thanks for the reminder that time and space are essential components of a life well (and productively lived).

    • Beth Nerbonne @bethazon
      Beth Nerbonne @bethazon says:

      Louise, loved that post from chris brogan. Thank you so much for posting it :) tweeted it with a hat tip to you and penelope.

  32. Brandy Brown
    Brandy Brown says:

    The most absolutely bizarre thing about finding your writing when I did is that I am in love with my own physical scientist – who will one day also own a farm in central Wisconsin (it’s in his family – he plans to inherit/purchase it eventually)… and I find that since my first visit (2 years ago now) the farm inhabits a corner of my mind always. The space, the silence you can always find, and the everyone-pitches-in simple-no-nonsense-productivity (with no procrastination and no whining) is… infectious. I think about it more than I do the beach now – which is saying something. The beach was the calm in the storm of my life for 22 years. The farm is now in competition. And those same things I found in the farm I found in the man who was raised there. I’m just as addicted to that…. I’m so happy to have all of them – your writing, the farm in my reach, and my farm-born scientist. Thank you for sharing your life like this – it has helped me appreciate and figure out just WHAT is going on within me when it comes to my farmboy and his farm.

  33. Shannon Coffey
    Shannon Coffey says:

    Photos? Yes! And with Spring gearing up, the farm is going to look amazing. But don’t worry, you’ll get better at shooting all the way along. Just soak up the work of photographers you like, shoot tons of photos, and you’ll be surprised how quickly you develop your eye. Can’t wait.

  34. A Campbell
    A Campbell says:

    Yay! Welcome back, Penelope!

    This post means that you get two box ticks:
    -Posting pictures on your blog; and
    -Finishing the kitchen…?

    I hope your clear head means more writing to come.

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