On Conflating Skinny and Productive

It’s a long story, and, while crucial background, it’s not the main point of this post, so to give a quick summary: I’m schizophrenic, I’m a fiction writer, my line between character and self is a fine one, I kind of absorb my characters’ traits with time, I accidentally absorbed one of my characters’ anorexia.

(That was a lot. I know. Bear with me.) 

Seeking support, I joined a few online communities for people with eating disorders. One discussion topic I saw posted really got my mental gears spinning: 

Why do you really want to be skinny?

Because eating disorders aren’t really about food. 

The answers held all kinds of insights. To be desirable, or even lovable. To feel in control. To make their struggle visible. To be special, or good at something, or have an identity as the skinny friend. To prevent aging. To fit in with their gender identity. To self harm via starvation. To cope with prior food insecurity. To take up less space in the world. 

And what does skinny really represent to me? 

Productive.   

I wasn’t the only one, either. It’s not too hard to see where the idea comes from. 

My romanticized toxic ideal was the workaholic who’s too busy for meals, who happily gets wrapped up in work and forgets to eat, who’s a little nauseous with stress and excitement and caffeine, who turns to long walks or runs as moving meditation and to burn off nervous or excited energy, the tortured artist who self neglects. That imagine is common in media. Even I’d written that before.  

And I fell into that somewhat organically. But when the organic level only took me so far, forgetting to eat in a fit of inspiration became “forgetting” to eat. I chased the external look anyway. Fake it till you make it mentality. I wanted to be that. I knew it wasn’t entirely healthy, but most tropes come with both pros and cons, and the pros were things I’m a sucker for: extreme productivity, psychosis influenced creativity, passion on the verge of obsession. 

But the cons were big Catch-22s. It’s hard to be productive when you’re hungry, when all your energy is going to re-counting calories and exercising, when you’re scrolling eating disorder memes to cope. 

And if what skinny meant to me was productive, could I lose the obsession with skinny by focusing on productive itself? By telling myself I needed to eat in order to be productive, that productive was the important part of skinny? 

Kind of. That’s been my most convincing thought process when I need to reconnect with why I’m recovering. I’m not sure if that’s the word, but at least mostly trying to turn down the urges for disordered eating. But eating disorders—especially ones born of psychosis—aren’t quite that simple. 

And the skinny equals productive image is still out there. I recently threw myself back into productive—not just being productive on my actual projects, but reconnecting with my passion for productivity itself. I drafted and taught a webinar on the subject with great results, and got some fresh reading material on productivity. 

But something keeps catching my eye in the productivity books I’m reading, genre standards. When talking about goals, weight loss keeps coming up as an example. Creating a habit of eating healthier, or less. Exercising more. Even routine weigh ins seem to come up constantly in morning routine lists, food logging in information system ideas. The idea of eating sweets only as a self reward. 

All things I’m mostly trying to do the opposite of now, because I’d gone too far. 

And why do these need to keep coming up? Why is the assumption that someone reading a book on productivity wants to lose weight, eat less, exercise more, weigh themselves more, think about food more, treat food as a reward? There are so many other ways to be productive. Can people who are already in a healthy place—or too far down the other end of the spectrum—not be interested in this book on productivity?

I’m using the techniques these books teach to do the opposite of their examples, and eat. To stop losing weight at a rapid pace and stay in a healthy range, to stop exercising before I pass out, to not hop back on the scale every thirty minutes, to not count calories, to not think of food as a reward for starvation. 

Why can’t the go-to example be anything else that’s actually tied to productivity for people in a normal, healthy place?  

Then again, normal and healthy aren’t necessarily the same in this case. Just look at the stats of the average American’s weight and how they feel about it, versus the ideals. I get that, and the books may be targeted at normal. And, given that many of these books are also classified as self help, they may assume that there’s some kind of problem. Still, there are other examples like that out there. Why must we continue subtly conflating skinny and productive?

Things to think about.

Values Based Productivity/How My System Works

I build my productivity system from my core values up, in four main layers: core values, areas/spheres of life (priorities, roles), goals and projects, and tasks (habits and events). This is written as a guide to building such a system.

Values

As mentioned, we start with values.

  • Values First. A crucial point commonly overlooked in many productivity systems is the question not of how to get your things done but why. Out of anything in the world that you could do, why these things, and what will motivate you to get them done? How do you determine what earns a place in your system and your life? This is why we begin this system with values.
  • Make Your Values List. Take a piece of paper, a word processor document, a typewriter, a whiteboard—any tool that makes you happy—and start listing your values. At this stage, write down everything that comes to mind. We’ll edit later. For now, just brain dump. What’s important to you at your core? My list includes things like creativity and innovation, constant growth and self improvement, and being a part of my community.
  • Narrow It Down/Grouping. Okay, now you can start filtering yourself. Eliminate things from the list that you don’t really care about that much. A lot of values out there sound good—are good—but that doesn’t mean they are your personal mission. Pick your battles, pick your values. You might do a little more tweaking of this list in future steps. Also, for ease of reference, start grouping like values, similar keywords, and synonyms together. Your bullet points don’t need to be catchy; they just need to make sense to you.
  • Tweak/But Watch It. Over time, people change. Values change. It’s okay to tweak this list now and then. But if you’re constantly overhauling all of your values, you really need to think about what truly matters to you. Before adding things, consider: has this mattered to you for a long time? Do you think it will matter to you for a long time to come? Is it a consistent part of who you are and what you do, not just something generally good? Would it spring to mind if you asked someone else close to you what you value?

Areas of Life

From values, we go to areas of life.

  • Spheres/Roles/Priorities List. Via roughly the same process as above (brain dump, narrow it down/grouping), make a list of your areas of life. These are areas/spheres of your world, roles, priorities. They should be pretty general and high level, but should be actionable. Some of mine include writing, being a housewife, being an alternative sexuality educator, running Las Vegas TNG, being a butler school student, etc.
  • Must Serve A Value. Each of your spheres must serve at least one of your core values. Otherwise, it probably doesn’t deserve a place on the list. It may serve more than one value, but if a sphere serves multiple values in different ways, consider if it might be better split into multiple spheres. (For example, separating “generating income” to keep your projects going, and your actual passion for your field, if those things could be separated in your ideal world.)
  • Can’t Contradict A Value. None of your spheres should contradict any of your values. If you value stability, settling down, homesteading, starting a family, being close to relatives, etc., then one of your spheres of life probably shouldn’t be globetrotting. You don’t want to contradict yourself. Of course you can take a vacation now and then, but that might be better put under self care or something technically left out of the system.
  • Most Values Should Be Represented. Most of your values should be represented in your spheres. Some may not be—they may be an approach to a sphere. But most of them should probably be represented in actionable ways—otherwise, do they really matter to your life in particular? This can vary between people. For a business owner, “honesty and truth” as a value may mean transparency with your customers and employees as an approach. But if you work or volunteer with a social justice organization, this may map directly to a sphere of life.
  • Values List For Each Sphere (Optional). It may make sense to reframe your values in terms of a sphere, to clarify how that sphere serves your values. For example, I have a values list for writing as a sphere. Any writing serves my core value of creativity, but for it to serve other values, it needs other qualities—ones I list in my writing values list. For example, a commitment to diverse casts of characters, exploring certain themes in fiction/writing education based nonfiction (learning and growth), etc.
  • One Sphere: You. One sphere should be you. You cannot accomplish anything in any of your other spheres without taking care of yourself. One sphere should be a commitment to your physical and mental health, and pieces of life that enable other spheres to happen, like your home environment and finances.

Goals/Projects

From spheres, we go to goals and projects.

  • Clarify Projects/Goals. These are like your sub-spheres. Start clarifying goals and projects you have within the above spheres.
  • Must Fit Into A Sphere. Each goal or project must fit into one of the spheres above. This system builds upon itself—values, then areas of life, then goals/projects.
  • Sphere Might Not Have Projects. Some spheres may be more of a maintenance game. For example, my health and housewife duties involve doing a lot of the same small tasks over and over again, rather than having projects and goals. Some spheres may not have a project or goal—or might not right now. Don’t worry about it. We can get back to those in the next step. At this stage, you might also realize some “projects” are better off as spheres, because they’re a maintenance game rather than something that ever gets completed. Make adjustments as necessary.
  • Don’t Contradict A Value. This shouldn’t be an issue at this point, but it’s worth triple checking that no project contradicts any values you’ve listed. You might confirm if it does serve a value directly—especially if it’s in a sphere you made a sub-list of values for. It may or may not, and that’s okay—but most probably should.
  • SMART Goals. Not everything at this level needs to be a SMART goal. If not, it’s probably a project—like a sub-sphere. But goals should be SMART. What does that mean? SMART goals isn’t my original idea, but it’s something I subscribe to. S stands for specific. Your goal must be specific, so you can know when it has been reached and what it is. M stands for measurable. There must be some clear metric—maybe a number—that means a goal has been reached. A stands for achievable. If the goal isn’t realistic, it’s not going to work. R stands for relevant—why this goal? By starting with values, this should already be taken care of. T stands for time bound—there must be a deadline. Otherwise, goals can sit around forever, never to be reached or reevaluated.

Tasks

Now we get into that list we really look at day to day.

  • Habits and Events. I try to make every task into one of two things: a habit (recurring task) or an event (calendar item). Now, it’s not perfect—sometimes, things just come up. But I try to keep everything possible as a habit or an event. This may require some adjusting. For example, a daily habit may be taking time to work on a specific project, and that project may have information systems that tell you what to work on, with once off tasks that actually get checked off forever. I like the habit system even for things like that because I can more clearly see what a habit adds up to in the long run than a list of tasks.
  • Backwards from Sphere or Goal/Project. To create those habits and events, we work backwards from spheres, or from goals and projects.
  • Every Task/Event Must Serve Project/Goal or Sphere. This means that every task/event/habit must come from a project/goal or a sphere directly. Otherwise, what is it really doing here? Let go of the nonessential.
  • Every Goal/Project and Sphere Gets Done (Via Sticking To Recurring Task List/Schedule). If you stick to your habits and events, every sphere should be seen to, every goal/project completed, automatically. You should not need to frequently revisit goals/projects or higher levels directly, thinking vaguely. Eye on the habits/events, and those things should handle themselves.
  • Can’t Contradict A Value. Quadruple check: you’re not contradicting your own values, right?
  • Assigning to Times. Events probably get assigned to at least a specific day, and probably a specific time, by nature, in whatever calendar system works for you. Your habits should get tied to a frequency. My list has daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, annual, so on. Within those, you may get more specific if it helps. All of my daily tasks are grouped and tied to times, to make them easy to track and remind yourself of, instead of keeping track of tons of habits and setting tons of alarms per day. All of my weekly tasks are assigned to a day of the week. Some monthly tasks get tied to a day of the month—like the first or last—because it makes sense, while others simply sit on the “monthly” list to get done when it most makes sense. That doesn’t exactly need to be your system—the point is, assign things more specifically where it makes sense or keeps you on track. But otherwise, give yourself the flexibility you need.
  • Alarms/Reminders. Each day, creating a task list should now be simple. Every night, I check my recurring task list and my calendar to generate my list for the next day, which I create via setting alarms. Things that actually are time bound get alarms set first, while others get alarms set semi arbitrarily, where they fit, to remind me to do them when I have the appropriate amount of time.

And that’s pretty much it for the system itself. Just wanted to share this as a guide and reference to my system.

The Origins of “A Productive Hannah”

It’s hard to trace where my interest in productivity really began.

I was always the kid with a million extracurriculars and projects, and I always needed a way to keep track of it all—plan to get it all done, ensure it was getting done, prioritize. 

Really, though, I think it might have begun with writing. I decided when I was about three that I was going to be a writer. And I got pretty much right on consuming resources about writing. And a lot of these incorporated elements of productivity. Since writing is, for so many people, a passion project or maybe a side hustle, squeezing it in around the demands of a day job—or school—was a common theme, not to mention handling any eye rolls at trying to prioritize time for the liberal arts. 

I remember, even in elementary school, trying techniques out, like waking up early (before school) to write (still not good at this part, I now blame sleep meds), or grabbing at bits of spare time when I finished assignments early in class or was waiting for an extracurricular to start (I stand by this, as it translates to my adult life). I could be found tucked in a corner at any family gathering or in any vacation hotel room, head down, notebook in lap; that was my trademark. That, and I brought cookies. Still true. 

I tried focusing on making my writing needs as mobile as possible, able to be done on the bus (handy), I tried color coding mixed writing and school tasks by priority (eh), I tried hanging giant pieces of butcher paper up in my bedroom with plot outlines and plans (still guilty), I tried one index card per chapter on my corkboard (eh, kind of a hassle), I tried a chalkboard (now a whiteboard person; the chalkboard was also painted directly on a textured wall, eh), I tried study groups (hit or miss depending on the crowd), I tried working in the library after school and taking the late bus (hassle, it didn’t come for three and a half hours after school, and it took another two hours to get home). Bullet journals (yes). Kanban boards (yes). Just about every productivity app (meh) and book (yes) known to mankind. Accountability buddies (yes). You name it. 

Productivity definitely started for me as a means to an end—which it probably should, and it is. Eventually, though, I really became interested in the process itself. I think that this interest in productivity as its own thing rather than as a means to whatever end I was interested in at the time actually came about when I realized I had a knack for it, within the last year and a half or so. I was getting things done—consistently, well, on time, prolifically. I self published six full length books in sixteen months, including two in one week. In that time, I also taught dozens of webinars, maintained several online writing postings, hosted dozens of events, managed a rental property, worked on butler school coursework, and was a full time housewife. Among other things. (Still letting a lot of that sink in.) 

And so, after wrestling with it for a long time, I didn’t really think about my systems too much anymore. I still drank up productivity books like water, but just because they were still interesting, not because they frequently gave me much to change. But then people started asking me for advice. My inbox became filled with questions, or, Have you considered writing/teaching on this? Friends came to me when they hit a roadblock. Off to the whiteboard. My wife, once my productivity mentor of sorts, came to my productivity webinar and wanted followup: back to the whiteboard. 

I am sometimes slow to accept when I might be good at something—it has taken me most of my life to let it sink in that people other than my mother actually seem to enjoy these words I’m posting on the Internet—but once I do, my first instinct is to share it. Write. Teach. Consult. 

Besides passion and skill, some people have pointed out to me that I fill a few niches in the productivity world that have openings. Among an important few: I do creativity based work, I’m in a full time alternative sexuality relationship/am a childless housewife, I have paranoid schizophrenia among other mental and physical health challenges. Others: I’m not straight, I’m a woman, I’m under twenty-five, I’m essentially a high school dropout. I definitely realize that happy and productive doesn’t look the same for everyone, and that everyone has unique challenges to getting there. 

So here I am. 

More than just the how, I’m also interested in the whys and philosophy of productivity. What is productive? How does society shape our idea of what productive means? What do we associate with productivity, and is it correlation or causation? How does privilege play in, and how does it not? How do you choose what to do? Why is it important to be productive? What are the correlations and the trade offs between productive and happy? How can a challenge also be an advantage? Things like that.

So that’s a little about me and the angle of this blog (there’s more on the About page if you’re interested). 

Let’s get to it.