The secret to making productivity tips work for you

I spent the morning going through my file of links that people have sent to me over the week that looked good to read. I have seen enough productivity advice to know that I should not leave links in my inbox. David Allen says everything needs to be dealt with now or filed for later. Leo Babauta says you should clear out your reading folder each week so it doesn’t hang over you. And I want to be productive, so I’m following all the rules.

But something happened on the way to the bottom of the reading folder and I ate a box of cookies after I read Mike Maddock’s list of Resolutions Successful People Make and Keep. I am upset about the list because I assumed I’d click on the list and be like, “Oh yeah, I’m great. I do all those things.” But the list is killing me.

High performers don’t eat a box of cookies.

Two things Maddock writes are  “spend more time on the not to-do list” and “essentials first, email second.” These are both related in my mind, because I play my inbox like it’s a video game. If I have less than ten emails in it at all times then I’m a winner. All day I shoot down emails like I’m trying to level up.

I never do, of course. There’s no winner of the inbox game. There is no reward for being an ace of emails except people who tell me they can’t believe how fast I respond and my kids telling me I’m addicted.

So I made a game with myself that I have to write a blog post before I can answer emails. That didn’t work. Then I made a rule that I could buy something if I wrote a post. That worked: Look at all those posts in January.

But I must be the world’s top candidate for crack addiction or something because with my new game, I keep getting more and more expensive stuff. And today, for one second, I was looking at the $10,000 stove I have been coveting for years, and I thought, “If I write my post I can buy the stove.”

Then I bought a book.

It’s clear to me that not doing essentials first is killing me right now. But what’s really killing me is that when I don’t like what I’m doing, I obsess about it until I do something else bad, like eating the cookies. It’s okay to recognize that you have an area where you are sucking. It’s not okay to distract yourself from that by sabotaging another area.

It’s not what you do it’s who you know.

But that’s not even the part of the Mike Maddock’s post that is upsetting to me. It’s the part where he says, “Think about who and not what.” Do you know why I hate this? Because I am not good at doing work. I’m good at making decisions and having other people do work (sweet spot for all ENTJ‘s). I used to be a great delegator, I used to write posts where I scream about perfectionist lame-0’s who cannot trust anyone to help.

But I’ve become a person who does not delegate. Not because I’m a perfectionist (I’m the opposite) but because I can’t make decisions fast enough. I read that poor people have to make so many money decisions that they end up having no energy to make big-picture decisions that will get them out of poverty. The term for this is decision fatigue.

And I am pretty sure I have this for dealing with kids all day. My son says he has a headache. Do I let him skip gymnastics even though we drove an hour into Madison for the session? It’s a million moments like that one creating decision fatigue and then I am not making big-picture decisions like, should I promote my Myers Briggs webinar on my homeschool blog? (The answer, by the way, is yes. There is no bigger help for a financially stable, educated parent than knowing their kids’ Myers Briggs score, which is evident in grade school. But did I announce it on the homeschool blog? No. And now someone is gonna be pissed that the discounted rate is ending tomorrow and the homeschoolers didn’t get it.)

What I need to do is make decisions and then pass them off to someone. I always tell people that if I run out of ways to make money from this blog, I’m going to start being a headhunter, because I have a huge list of rock stars I’ve met through this blog. And I could be hiring them to do stuff I think of. If I could just think. So today the essential thing that is not on my to do list because I am not a slave to my to do list starting right now is that I’m going to make three big enough decisions so that I can pass work off to freelancers. Good. I feel productive already.

Go to your safe spot.

There are a lot of things I suck at, but my ability to come up with ideas is like my security blanket. I have it no matter what. Even when I was supposed to be going to the mental ward but I was breastfeeding and they wouldn’t admit me and the baby, I had the idea of staying in the emergency room indefinitely. And then went for it: I’m an idea girl.

Do you know why I am good at being creative? Because I love things messy. Not a messy inbox. Of course, and not a messy house (in fact, I think I’m whatever the word is for the opposite of hoarder. Everyone hides stuff from me so I won’t throw it out.) I am comfortable with messy in my head. I like it. I don’t get scared that it will go somewhere bad, which is what the Harvard Business Review reports is the key to creativity: no fear of the mess, and being okay having no idea where you’re going..

And believe me, I’m on the cusp, right now, of things going bad. Like, if I have to throw this post away because my editor says there is nothing new here then I will have to sulk all day and go back to playing inbox Asteroids. It’s a possiblity. It’s hard to say something new in a productivity post. Especially after I’ve written a post about how all the productivity gurus should shut up and try taking care of kids all day.

Creativity is about tenacity, according to Ira Glass, King of  Fun at NPR. It’s not enough to have good ideas – you have to push them and work on them and not let go when it seems pointless.

For me, the key to being productive is being creative. Your own version of productivity will be related to where you are strongest. If you are a put-things-in-order person, (ISTJ) then you will feel most productive when you’re doing that. If you are a connect-with-people-emotionally type of person (ESFP) you’ll feel productive going out in the world and making people happy – even for just a few hours.

Productivity advice works best in the context of your personality type. 

Productivity looks different depending on our strengths. Advice about productivity is only good if it relates directly to what you know about your personality type, (which is why you should sign up for my Myers Briggs webinar) “Clear your inbox” isn’t good advice for save-the-world types (INFP). They won’t feel like they did anything. And the advice to delegate to get more done is only exhausting and draining for someone like my husband (ISTP), who likes the joy of doing things efficiently and doing them himself.

So, really what I should do is pay someone to sort through my inbox. And now it starts to make sense that when people say to me, “I’m so surprised you answer all your own email.”

If you don’t know what you should be doing, listen to other people. It’s so much easier to see how to run everyone else’s life. So hard to run our own.


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  1. Yuse Lajiminmuhip
    Yuse Lajiminmuhip says:

    “For me, the key to being productive is being creative.”

    That’s how I am too. If I don’t write music, a blog post, or paint a picture I feel like I wasted my day. I also feel productive when I am able to check off things not from my to-do list, but from my calendar.

    For example, I put due dates, bills, and meetings on my calendar. Even though paying off a bill is sort of a given, it feels so darn good to be able to actually switch it from DUE to DONE. Sort of what they say about paying off credit card debt — sometimes its better, emotionally, to pay off the little ones first so you feel like you are accomplishing something.

  2. Satya
    Satya says:

    No wonder you haven’t emailed me back. Now I’m torn because I’m rooting for you to blog and feel productive, but I’m selfish and love our correspondence. Anything we can do to help? (Besides stop emailing you, because that’s not going to happen.)

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Oh, I really love answering the emails. Mostly it’s full of interesting commentary and fun opportunities, and the email that sucks always sucks in a big way, so that I can forward it to someone for a laugh.

      To be honest, though, my favorite missives to read are the comments on my blog. I love the party aspect of getting comments that we all read together. It’s my dream-come-true party where everyone talks about what I want to talk about, and if I get tired I don’t have to make up an excuse to go home and read a book.


  3. katie
    katie says:

    I have been wondering why you suddenly had so many posts this month!! mystery solved :) this post is really well written, I love it.

  4. lynne whiteside
    lynne whiteside says:

    I’ve always listtened to other people tell me what I should do. Nudge me in a direction, open a possibility to me. this usually happens when I’ve run out of my own ambition, – self-motivating all the time is fatiguing,

    just a whisper in the wind and if it feels right, I’m there!

  5. Molly Goossens
    Molly Goossens says:

    It took me an hour to get through this post because of all the links, which led to other links, which led to a greater understanding of myself. Which is exactly what I came for in the first place.

    By the time I got to the comments, I forgot what the original post was about anyway – productivity? I feel productive when I’m learning something about myself (I’m an INTP). Bam! Success.

  6. 3rd Millenium Men
    3rd Millenium Men says:

    “I play my inbox like it’s a video game. If I have less than ten emails in it at all times then I’m a winner. All day I shoot down emails like I’m trying to level up. I never do, of course. There’s no winner of the inbox game. There is no reward for being an ace of emails except people who tell me they can’t believe how fast I respond and my kids telling me I’m addicted.”

    Amazing. Absolutely love it!!!

  7. Ashley
    Ashley says:

    I think productivity certainly has a lot to do with having a to-do list that you want to accomplish. Which probably relates to building a life you want to live.

  8. Angele Style
    Angele Style says:

    So glad you are a shout out for MBTI. I took the class in college early 80’s and 35 people signed up. It changed my life. First class we were asked to bring something to the next class that represented who we were and be prepared to say why. Desperate not being able to choose something to the last minute I saw a picture of a princess being carried on a carriage by 4 men. I cut it out pasted it on a piece of cardboard and wore it around my neck. I told the class I think of myself as a princess with no idea why. When the test results came back I was in shock. An INFP and the first line of description said…”Likes to think of self a princess”. I was hooked. Your seminar sounds GREAT!!!

  9. Kay
    Kay says:

    I’m an ENFJ. Is one of the ENFJ traits that we don’t like being told what to do? Is that a good thing?

  10. Mike Maddock
    Mike Maddock says:

    I am flattered and inspired by your post. Thanks for sharing my Forbes article with your friends. Thanks too for thinking so deeply and sharing your journey with the world. My bet is that you’ve always been the person that says what the rest of the room is thinking. What a wonderful gift. Smiles to you–Mike

  11. Karen
    Karen says:

    So that’s why struggle with my inbox . . . I’m an INFP! My goal today was to empty the piles of paper on our home office desk and reboot my GTD to-do list system – but instead, I’m reading posts and internet articles about clearing clutter and productivity. It’s so much more fun to read about it than actually do it. GTD sometimes works well for me, until it doesn’t. With this last breakdown in my system, I realized that it’s full of someday/maybes that I will never do. So, I’m starting some new lists (things I should do, but probably won’t, someday/maybe: dreams, someday/maybe: soon) that are outside my regular system so I can concentrate on what I actually need to do.

    Bu right now, I think I’d rather get a root canal than go through the lists and clean out my inbox! Wish me luck that I get some of it done this afternoon!

    • ru
      ru says:

      Lol, agreed. Off topic but as an infp, this is why I have not yet taken out my wisdom tooth, after 3 months of deliberation and various prompts to decide every time I walk past a dentist office.

      It’ll get done.. one day.

      • Simone
        Simone says:

        Rolling on the floor laughing!!! I am an INFP too and have a tooth the dentist told me needs to be extracted. I’m going on two weeks now and the pain keeps getting worse and still haven’t made that appointment with the oral surgeon. What the hell is wrong with us?

        Good thing I signed up for Penelope’s MBTi seminar so I can find out.

    • Joyce
      Joyce says:

      Good luck! I do that too. I find that when I’m supposed to be studying, I usually spend half the time reading articles on the internet and downloading free books. Yesterday, I realized that if someone gives me a deadline, I will likely finish it on time. Today, I was more productive because I only spent a third of the time on the internet. I find that blogging helps me learn more from my everyday life. Maybe someday it can help others too.

  12. eleanor
    eleanor says:

    How come the test says I am ISTJ when I am so untidy? I am good at sorting stuff out when necessary but I don’t see the point in staying on top of it if it means I have to neaten up all day long. The rest is spot on though. Also I am finding it incredibly unhelpful in deciding on a career (am currently a stay at home mum). Is it not just a bit horoscopey?

  13. Rebecca@MidcenturyModernRemodel
    Rebecca@MidcenturyModernRemodel says:

    **start of rant** Let’s talk email shall we? I think email is the biggest waste of time. And it irritates me that employees now think they are working when they sit in their offices and read their email. Drives me f-ing bananas. I went to GTD and really believed in the zero inbox theory … but when you are in I.T. and running a team and they are melting down in a few projects, your email quickly outpaces your ability to stay on top of it BECAUSE you are getting between 500-600 emails a day. Tip: you can tell that a project has melted down when the team members start managing it via email vs having meetings and task lists. And, my MOST favorite cold call line is when I pick up and they say “I am so and so, from such and such, did you read my email?” I think to myself “seriously?” and then I think “reminder, never answer office phone unless you recognize the number/caller.” **end of rant** I know I feel better.

  14. downfromtheledge
    downfromtheledge says:

    I keep hoping to see “INFJ” thrown in there one of these days. ha;)

    The more things you can turn into a routine (what food to eat, what clothes to wear, what time you check your email), the less exhausted you’ll be by all the other stuff we have do deal with in 21st century life.

    Decision fatigue makes sense in the context of depression. When you realize that even getting out of bed is a choice to make, the energy drain of deciding whether to get up, or brush your teeth, or leave the house…sucks away the ability to make any actual life decisions!

    Conversely, the routine I have now seems to play a big role in keeping my depression at bay. Go figure.

  15. Becky Castle Miller
    Becky Castle Miller says:

    Speaking of productivity posts, did you read the HBR one about being more productive by walking away from paper notes? Reading the comment thread was like watching a train wreck! (I actually liked the post, and I said so, then people attacked me for liking it.)

    I’m glad you don’t usually have horrible trolls in your comment threads. I feel pretty safe commenting here.

  16. Laura
    Laura says:

    Ha!! Trying to come up with a word that’s the opposite of hoarder, since I walk around the house gathering things and tossing them in the garbage, and my husband trails me and then fishes stuff out. How about “ridders,” from “get rid of”? Hoarders and ridders. We make the world go ’round.

  17. Dusti Arab
    Dusti Arab says:

    Goddamnit. You know what I do when I’m not being productive? Reading you.

    But I justify it because you teach me things I know I should implement and integrate.

    So question – why isn’t Melissa vetting your emails? You shouldn’t be answering all that crap anyway. If Melissa is too scattered, get someone from Zirtual.

  18. Heather
    Heather says:

    Great post! This more than ever convinces me how alike we are. My family hides things from me so I won’t throw it out and if something is missing the first question is “Heather, did you throw it out?” I’m also exhausted by the end of the day after all the decisions I have to make. Three active kids, work, school (Yes, I’m doing that MBA that you say is not worth it. I agree with you, but I think it’s what I need right now.) But back to the decisions – my God, it’s exhausting!!! I’ve been working more on my to do list these days and ignoring my emails. I also treat my emails like a video game and I’m winning when the number in my inbox gets smaller.

  19. Dannielle Blumenthal
    Dannielle Blumenthal says:

    Penelope, yours is probably the only blog where I actually take the time to comment both on the writing style and the content. Somehow I know you’re reading this so it makes the time spent worthwhile.

    As far as the writing style I don’t mean to be rude but this one was not as engaging as usual. When you quote a lot of other people it makes you seem like you don’t have anything to say for yourself. I realize that you do this because you do a lot of reading and research and you want to share. But frankly your take on things is more interesting because it’s gut-level, counterintuitive and usually right.

    (Also your life stories and dilemmas are more interesting than your advice.)

    Maybe I’m disengaged for my own reasons. Sometimes I have difficulty reading other people’s thoughts because reading is like listening for me. I am not a great listener. This is because of something you taught me. I am an ENTJ – great leader, bad listener.

    By the way I’d like to thank you as I am working on my listening skills as a result of reading your blog and realizing I’m an ENTJ. Every moment spent on that is extremely worthwhile. Thank you for enlightening me about that.

    Hope you’ll spend more time writing about your personal journey. It’s absolutely fascinating reading.


  20. Skweekah
    Skweekah says:

    I wonder if most readers of your blog would be classified as “extroverts” via the Myers-Briggs test. Im an “introvert” (didnt really need to take the test to find that out) but am really into reading your stuff. Just thinking out aloud.

    I really love “Especially after I’ve written a post about how all the productivity gurus should shut up and try taking care of kids all day.”

    Yeah. Kids can do amazing things with your desire to be productive. But, that said, my son is the most productive person Ive ever known! He’ll do about a thousand things a day, each of these activities being something which he wants to do!!!

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  22. Tara
    Tara says:

    I love your blog. Having never heard of decision fatigue, I know now what’s holding me back, although I suspected something like this!

  23. Tara
    Tara says:

    P.S. I personally really appreciate all the links although I have been criticized for “over-linking” myself so it was interesting to read the previous comment!

  24. Andrea Wade
    Andrea Wade says:

    This post is like validation for me. I am a “messy” “do-girl” who works for a fortune 500 blue chip corporation who thrives on execution and could be better at reading e-mail. Any time I try to sort my inbox I get decision fatigue. (am a fan of archive and search). I figure if it is important enough someone will talk to me about it. I love relationships and happen to be an INTJ. Not many of us out there, either, and would love to hear any of your insights on what myers-briggs calls the “mastermind”. (can I help it if my ego likes the nickname)

  25. Eleanor
    Eleanor says:

    I can’t wait to read that book! Saunders is brilliant.

    Also, I am not being productive by reading and commenting on your blog, but I can’t help it. (ESTJ)

  26. Esther
    Esther says:

    I wonder what the Myers-Briggs types of productivity gurus tend to be? Do you think there’s a J in there somewhere? Ha ha…

    Thanks for this post. It made me realize that productivity tips are not one-size-fits-all no matter how persistently gurus (and my dad, the ENTJ, the one throwing out everyone else’s stuff) try to shame us into them. As an INTP, I don’t know, is there a type that would care less about to-do lists? Maybe? But maybe now I will feel less like a productivity nitwit when I eschew the to-do list in favor of other tracking methods. Thank you!

  27. Caryn
    Caryn says:

    This is important:

    “It’s okay to recognize that you have an area where you are sucking. It’s not okay to distract yourself from that by sabotaging another area.”

    Thank you.

  28. Paxton
    Paxton says:

    1) The first link about the Teavana tea was hilarious

    2) Your analogy of your inbox as a video game was hilarious

    3) Keep buying stuff for yourself, you deserve it; i.e. I very much enjoyed reading the impressive amount of posts from your blog and homeschooling in the past few weeks.

  29. Emily
    Emily says:

    Hi Penelope —

    I really appreciated this post, and your argument that what constitutes good productivity advice will differ based on the type of person (and presumably the type of position) resonated with me. I read Getting Things Done several years ago, and while I enjoyed it, it didn’t feel like the right approach for me — too much emphasis on keeping an inbox empty, where my 7500 email inbox isn’t something that makes me feel overwhelmed… And too much emphasis on a single next step actions when the projects I work on often have multiple next steps that are not depenent on each other. Do you have suggestions for other productivity gurus / systems that take a different approach, and might help with organizing work that is less linear? I’m an academic, and need to find some way to organize the many scattered threads of ideas that occur to me throughout the day, along with providing some broader framework for the many projects I’m working on at once…

    Many thanks for any suggestions,

  30. laure
    laure says:

    Just when you thought everything had been written about productivity, Penelope comes up with an original, humorous angle to it! How do you do it? Thanks for making my day productive today.

  31. Larry Lewis
    Larry Lewis says:

    I remember the days when i was being told what to do and when to do it. Chear instructions of where my priorities were to lie. I felt like a robot. When i realised i knew what i wanted and only i could determine what the best use of my time would be did i see my life lift of. And i think that’s the key, only when you really know, without a doubt what you want can you determine the best use of your time. Sistractions then seem to disappear, or maybe you control your use of this limited commodity, time, so much better.

  32. Sarah Day
    Sarah Day says:

    I finally have a name for my day-to-day angst – “decision fatigue”. As a person who used to delegate for a living I could never comprehend why I couldn’t do the same at home. But this captures it. Thank you!

  33. Peter
    Peter says:

    Wow your stringing personality type to productivity has made my day. Because i see all this blogs on productivity recommending waking up early- setting a giving time without considering the fact that not every body system is wired to wake up at that time. One for am more productive within the early hours of 2-3am it is when my brain seems to be ignited. At this point i am able to dream up great blog ideas and do quite an awesome amount of research. That is why your article is quite timely

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