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The Painfully Obvious Productivity Advice I Guess I Needed to Hear

Photo: Don Carstens/Getty Images

And now, some fourth-hand advice: Years ago, a “wise older woman” supposedly told Elizabeth Gilbert, “You need to learn how to start saying no to things you DO want to do, with the recognition that you have only one life, and you don’t have time and energy for everything.” Later, Gilbert told this story at a workshop, where self-help author Amber Rae was in attendance. Rae then relays this same story in her new book, Wonder Over Worry, which I just read — and now, I guess, I am telling it to you, via Rae, via Gilbert’s workshop, via the wise older woman.

It’s a lot of steps to arrive at such an ordinary conclusion, I know. (So much of the book is filled with stuff like this, insights taken from other best-selling self-help books like Daring Greatly or Big Magic.) But if you, like me, are the type of person who has a habit of reading every #productivity #tip that crosses your Twitter timeline, maybe this advice is something you need to hear.

I would wager that those of us who are drawn to the getting shit done corners of the internet tend to be high in conscientiousness, one of the five dimensions of personality, according to the majority of psychologists who study such things. Conscientious types, as it’s been defined, love setting goals and making plans; they also tend to “delay gratification, and to follow norms and rules.” They are the kings and queens, in other words, of getting shit done. What they need help with, then, is figuring out how not to get shit done. How do you decide what not to do, when you sincerely want to do everything?

Wonder Over Worry, as skeptical as I was while reading the book, helped a little with that, by spelling it out (in boldface type, even!): “You need to learn how to start saying no to things you DO want.” Up until reaching this part, with the anecdote borrowed from the workshop, I’d been skipping the pages marked “Wondervention,” where Rae has drawn up exercises so that her readers might write away their worries. On this page after that Gilbert story, she asks you to make four lists, under these headers:

• Things I Want
• I Want More
• So I Choose
• And Will Stop

I filled out the little boxes, cringing at myself as I did so — but dammit if it didn’t help clarify the stuff I should finally, blessedly, quit doing, so I could focus my energy on my actual priorities. Not a bad exercise for those of us who are very good at doing things, and not so good at not doing things.

The Obvious Productivity Advice I Guess I Needed to Hear