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What Anne Lamott Can Teach Us About Productivity

You’ve felt it. So I have I. The dreaded wave of panic that comes when you sit down at the desk to start the day, completely overwhelmed by what’s in front of you.

Is that you? Just admit it. It’s okay. I’m not here to judge you.

All the projects, emails, phone calls, and random tasks have mounted into one big pile of mess.

MERCY! we cry out.

If you’ve ever been there (yes, you), I’m going to teach you a little trick I use to get some momentum going. I borrowed it from one of my favorite authors, Anne Lamott. It’s called “Short Assignments” and it works.

Lamott gives beginning writers the task of focusing on small tasks to prevent overwhelm. One paragraph here. Another 500 words there. ”Short Assigments” works by confinement.

The genius of the whole method hinges on the one-inch picture frame Lamott instructs students to put on their desk.

“Fill the frame,” she tells them as they write.

Focus on writing the one-inch portion of the story that needs to be written. Those smaller portions will weave together to form the larger narrative. Voila, you have yourself a book (or whatever). It’s a simple exercise, but it works.

Lamott explains this procedure in-depth in Bird by Bird, her book on becoming a better writer. But I’ve adapted it for my personal productivity routine. Here’s how you can use it:

1. Give yourself something small to focus on.

I used to paint houses in college. One project had me painting all the baseboards in a million-dollar house. The contractor, seeing my astonishment, asked, “How do you eat an elephant?” Bizarre question, but he had me interested. “One bite at a time,” he said. “Short Assignments” work the same way. Take a large project and break it down into small, manageable “bites.” Fit it in the picture frame. Actionable.

2. Make your activities time bound.

Lamott used the picture frame as a metaphor for limitation, but I’ve found great success in setting time boundaries for productivity. I’ve shared my affinity for Pomodoro, simply because it works. It’s Parkinson’s Law 101: a task will expand to fill the time allotted to it. Limit the time, complete the task.

3. Batch unpleasant tasks. 

No one likes to do tasks they don’t like. But part of being a grown-up is doing things we don’t want to do. That’s why I suggest lumping as many unpleasant tasks into one time-bound “picture frame” block. Call it your “Grinch” block (that’s what I call mine) and throw the tasks you can’t stand doing into that frame. Mine include anything to do with updating, math, or details. I’m more apt to do unpleasant tasks if I know they won’t go on forever. Yes? Don’t drag them out. Batch the sucky tasks and get it over with!

4. Quit while you’re ahead.

This is going to be tough for some of you. But if you accomplish the tasks you’ve set for yourself, you may want to consider switching to a different project or just stopping for the day. At the very least, you need to take a break and give yourself a rest. Lamott shares how she can actually regress in her writing if she pushes past her limits. You need to be mindful to not do the same.

As I’ve explained before, I’ve adapted some of these methods out of necessity. Maybe you don’t need to be as structured as I do, but anyone can benefit from focusing on small, achievable goals.

As my high school writing teacher used to say, “Inch-by-inch, it’s a cinch!” Now, get focused and go get ‘em!

What are some of the methods you use to accomplish overwhelming tasks? Let me know in the comments below…yo.