To Be More Productive, Be Your Own Best Friend

Why being kind to yourself actually helps you get more done.

Photo by Bart LaRue on Unsplash

I was raised to see what I could have done better, or what I didn’t get done, or what I got wrong or missed, rather than what I did well. No one person imparted this message to me; rather it was absorbed from a lot of different factors. It’s part of our American way of life, the flip side to our rugged individualism. We love it when someone pulls themselves up by the boot straps, but we also like to blame people who, if we looked closely, were given neither boots nor straps to start with.

That said, over the years (and mostly because of going to therapy), I’ve learned to shush my inner peanut gallery of negative voices. It took me a long time to get here, however, and partly that’s because I suspected that, if I wasn’t there to point out where I’d fallen short, who would? That if nobody was nitpicking my every performance, I’d become less productive, less successful.

On the contrary, I’ve come to realize that the nicer I am to myself, the more I get done. Partially, this is because I’m not dealing with the aftermath of feeling like shit for being hard on myself. But I’ve also given myself a new voice that actually focuses my creativity by questioning what I think I should be doing.

This voice is what I call my “best friend voice.” It is, quite simply, the voice I use to talk to my real life friends. This voice is supportive and kind, but it also asks good questions, like “do you really have to be doing this?” It’s not asking because it has an agenda, but because it’s curious about why this person it cares for is doing something that might not really serve them.

For example, if my best friend told me that she was going to quit smoking, start an exercise routine, and do a cleanse starting Monday, I’d say “wow, that’s great you want to take care of yourself. I’m happy to help you any way I can. But have you thought about doing just one of those big things, to start?” And so, when I think something I often do, like “A real workout takes two hours and I only have a half-hour, because I fucked up my schedule, and I’m bad,” I reroute that critique through my best-friend voice and it becomes, “A half-hour workout is great. If you get that done, you’ll have the whole day to work, and still get to bed early. Then you’ll have the energy to work out again tomorrow.”

When I was using my critical voice on this example, the result would have been either me not working out at all, or forcing the two-hour workout into my schedule, which would result in me overdoing everything and not wanting to do anything the next day. With my best friend voice, I’m reasonable and, in the long-term, more productive as I nibble away at my goals instead of choking on one, huge bite.

Here’s how to be your own best friends:

1) Have reasonable expectations

Just as you might tell your best friend they don’t have to be perfect or do everything all at once, remind yourself that. This voice tells you that a half-hour walk is exercise, that a half-hour writing is an accomplishment, and that sometimes we all eat ice cream for dinner.

2) Reward yourself like a best friend might

You’d reward your best friend by saying nice things, like “good job!”, so say them to yourself. You might give your friend flowers if they perform in a show, so give yourself little treats for your small accomplishments (go see a movie, text a friend, read a chapter of a book) and big treats for any big ones (a massage, a trip, whatever). If you’re struggling with being kind to yourself or you don’t have the time/energy/money for rewards, map your progress. I use a pretty coloring thing to map my debt-repayment progress, from mapyourprogress.com, and I track my exercise on an app. Seeing what I’ve gotten done is tangible evidence that I deserve praise.

3) Finally, be flexible and listen to your story

In the above example of a friend trying to make three huge changes at once, they might come back to me a week later saying, “I’ve failed miserably and I’m bad at life.” As a friend, I’d probably respond, “Hey, you’re not a failure. You just took a lot on. Why not do only one of those things. Which one is most important to you, right now?”

Do the same thing to yourself. Instead of canceling yourself out as “bad” or “a failure,” tell yourself that it’s okay. Life happens. You won’t hit every goal. But, there’s also a story here that you can learn from. Really self-assess. What went wrong? What could you change to try again? This might mean seeking out help, and that’s okay. We can’t do everything on our own.

And so, listen to your own stories! I’ve really been struggling the past year with keeping up a reasonable exercise schedule. I keep over doing it and then crashing out halfway through the week. But I know I’m so much happier if I exercise on the regular. So I listened to myself, finally. What I heard was that I needed something to keep me on a schedule, I needed to stop being a perfectionist and be more reasonable, and that this was important enough to me that I should probably spend some money on it. My friend mentioned she was doing My Peak Challenge this year, and I looked into it. Long story short, it was perfect for my needs: It was cheap, it was for a whole year, and the workouts looked fun, challenging enough, and sustainable. I’m on my second month and I couldn’t be happier that I listened to not only one of my real best friends, but also my internal best friend, to make this happen for me.

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