Tired of falling victim to procrastination, writer Marisa Bate decided to pay a visit to a productivity coach - this is what it taught her about success
I’m at my kitchen table and Karen Eyre-White is sitting opposite me. She takes out her notebook and opens it up, smoothing down the centerfold. I can see she’s already divided the page into categories, with different headings. My name is underlined at the top. She’s used a reassuringly thick black pen, one that seems specific and expensive. At that point, I know I’ve found the right person.
I came across Eyre-White in an ad in a local paper. I hovered over the words “productivity coach”. I know about life coaches, executive coaches, confidence coaches. But I hadn’t come across someone specialising in productivity. And when I did, it felt like a bit of a Eureka moment because three years into a freelance career, productivity is still my elusive holy grail. Without the boundaries of a manager breathing down my neck, or other individuals relying on my share of the work in order to do theirs, I’ve become a bit adrift and my productivity levels are increasingly plummeting. And it’s not through lack of trying. I have my to do list written out, I’ve bought my new diary, I have a silent, empty flat, I make sure I have shoes on (a tip a freelancer friend swears by). I’m all ready to go and then… nothing. Hello 90 minutes on twitter. Hello New Yorker long read. Hello…Where did today go? Why haven’t I achieved anything? Meanwhile, my ambition feels fiercer than ever. I have a long list of creative projects I’d like to tackle. I have career goals scribbled in notebooks. I feel like I’m only just beginning and yet it’s like I’ve already run out of steam. I take a picture of the ad in the paper and send her an email.
“We think it’s easy” says Eyre-White, a former senior civil servant and chief executive, who, after the birth of her daughter, decided to quit and start her own company. “We are presented with these quick-fix solutions but it’s not that simple”. According Eyre-White, who is now a member of the UK Association of Professional Declutterers and Organisers, we can’t just buy some new stationary and immediately take on a new approach to work. We have to investigate how our current habits have formed and why. Like a life coach, Eyre-White will explore with clients what success looks like, what their values are, try to uncover truths that need coaxing to the surface. As a productivity coach, she then will offer instructional tools, guides and exercises to help people work in the way that best supports those values and ambitions.
For some of her clients the remit is very specific: “They want me to help me manage their inbox, and organise that better.” she says. Others are paying to be held accountable. Checking in with Eyre-White every week is enough to keep them on track. For me, it was more ambiguous. Like a broken down car, I felt I needed jump leads – yet wasn’t exactly sure of the where or the how.
When she arrives at my home, (early, of course) I make tea. After reassuring me this was a non-judgemental space, we began to talk, and soon it felt like therapy. The conversation is easy, flowing, her questions are open, straightforward and the words come tumbling out. Quite quickly, I feel relief. It feels good to admit productivity is something I’ve been struggling with instead of just chastising myself internally, existing in almost permanent state of guilt for my inability to get more done.
Over the course of an hour and a half, we explore my feelings of laziness and how that narrative sits next to the fact I had my first job at 14 and would work three jobs in the summer at Uni. We explore the guilt I have of being freelance when my boyfriend battles with late trains every day. We talk about how social media fuels the belief I should always be doing more, more, more. We consider how I miss the buzz of a long day at the office, the creative collaboration with others. Mostly, I confessed, I miss feeling like I’m working really, really hard. I talk of my friend Tom who is in the early stages of launching his business and is working so very hard at the moment. I want to do that so why aren’t I? I describe myself as a rocket trying to take off. But instead of shooting for the stars, I splutter, stall, topple over. From our meeting she’s deduced that it is very clear that I know what I want to be doing but I don’t know how to get there. She sets me homework and starts by suggesting working from home is not great for me – no boundaries, too lonely – and so I should look for a co-working space. She tells me to mull over the “fantasy” of being lazy.
Four days later, Eyre-White and the super-organised notebook are back at my kitchen table. We talk some more, and I find myself wondering aloud if a perpetual fight with my boyfriend about housework might be related to my ideas around myself being lazy, not my actual work. I also come to the realisation – thanks to Eyre-White – that long, unplanned empty days aren’t particularly motivating. I confess to what is perhaps the reason it’s taken me so long to admit I had a problem: more guilt. I had guilt I might need a productivity coach in the first place. “Just get on with it, for heaven’s sake!” a mean voice in my head often jeers. Yet talking with Eyre-White it is apparent how psychologically and emotionally loaded the way we choose to spend our time is. Issues of identity, success and failure all are woven into the decisions we make about how to use our time. This is why Eyre-White loves her job. “I’ve always had a strong interest in time and the value of time, and what it tells you about people. I’m fascinated by how people choose to spend it. And how to spend it in meaningful ways”. I hadn’t given it much thought, other than how inefficient I am. Now, it’s as if she’s taken that reassuring black pen and started to (neatly) join the dots in my life.
Together we plan out an ideal week based on the things I’ve said. There’s earlier starts, more structure, routine and leaving my home, separating my life from work. We schedule in the gym, and time to clean the bathroom, as well as planning time for the week ahead. The printed A4 weekly schedule looks so simple yet behind it has been nearly four hours of conversation, covering all aspects of my life. It seems clinical and functional and yet, this arrangement of time is made up of ways to combat some of my biggest anxieties and vulnerabilities. That A4 sheet was far from a schedule; it was the fuel to get my rocket going.
When I approached Eyre-White, I thought I’d discover she was part of a trend whereby we’re seeking organisation and control in our life in troubled times – from Marie Kondo to Mrs Hinch. And in some ways she is. But she’s also much more than that. I had no idea that my productivity – and lack of – could reveal so much of myself.
The following week I put the schedule to the test. It takes a blow thanks to the arrival of heavy cold that leaves my head feeling like a bucket of fog but even despite that, I can see Eyre-White’s work at play. Every morning I embark on a 30 minute round trip to buy a coffee, offering me a sense of commute and starting my day. I divide my time up as we talked about and because it is planned there’s no indecision over what to start next. And even though I’m in sinusitis hell, working from home and not the co-working space as planned, I’m productive – crossing off my to do list and sitting at my desk for longer. It’s as if she’s hit the refresh button. I feel in control, I feel productive and I sure as hell don’t feel so guilty. In fact, I feel rewarded because I’m working hard even when I feel so lousy. I knew my hard worker was in there somewhere.
Feeling unproductive? Here’s three Questions to Ask Yourself
What are you aiming for? Knowing what you’re working towards will keep you motivated and help you to make decisions about what to do and what not to do, in a world where it’s impossible to do everything.
What would your ideal week look like? Pull up an empty week on your electronic diary and start plotting it out. You might not be able to implement it straight away, but aim to move closer to it over time.
Who was influential in shaping your ideas about work and achievement? The expectations of parents and bosses have a huge impact on how we think about ourselves and being productive. Understanding our learned behaviour is key to changing it for the better.