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Getting Things Undone

I’m starting this blog post with some ideas bouncing around my head and no idea how, or if, I’ll finish it. Here we go!

We live in a society built from industrialism, an ecosystem of factories connected to other factories, all within larger factories. Our school lives and our work lives revolve around the clock. Our schooling is mostly centered around being productive. Most of our jobs are centered around being productive. (I remember a McDonald’s commercial that ran while I was an undergrad, where an actor playing a McDonald’s employee says proudly, “At McDonald’s, we say if you’ve got time to lean, you’ve got time to clean.”) The unemployed, people on welfare and other social assistance, are demonized as being “unproductive” members of society. The business world has produced books, videos, self-help lectures, webinars, blogs, etc etc etc about increasing your productivity, and this has spun off into the creative world, home life, school. We’re wasting time doing things that don’t help us be productive, so we need to be better at managing our time, better at prioritizing our projects, better at getting things done.

ADHD brains are not industrial brains. Trying to live around the clock is endlessly frustrating for me because my brain is mostly based on Now and Not Now and I have little sense of how long it will take to do things. Managing time can be like trying to fold a fitted sheet. School was fun for me when it involved working on interesting projects and having interesting conversations, but demoralizing when I was scolded and penalized for not finishing assignments I’d gotten bored with or was late to class because I was chatting with friends and didn’t realize what time it was. In my work life, I’ve been chastised and punished for not getting projects done, for not doing enough work (“enough” being a goal set for me by other people), for forgetting about duties I’d been assigned. (Plot twist: I hadn’t necessarily forgotten about them, they just didn’t excite me and I didn’t want to do them, so I didn’t.)

Even before I was diagnosed with ADHD, I tried to get more organized and productive. I started reading Dave Allen’s Getting Things Done and tried to implement his system, but I got bored with the book and I wasn’t getting any more done than I had been before. Recently, despite some skepticism (inspired by Austin Kleon–

I’ve gotten a handful of tweets recently asking me about “productivity systems,” which is funny to me because it assumes I do any thinking at all about productivity. Productivity is pretty low on my list of cares.

–SO THERE!), I started a bullet journal, although I was adamant that it wasn’t about being more productive, because fuck productivity! But let’s be honest, I did start it with an eye towards being more productive, completing more things. As I’ve been using it for the past couple of months, though, it really has mutated from “more organized and more productive” to “breaking things I want to do into short-term goals and habits and trying to do them fairly consistently.” It’s not about getting things done because there is no done, there’s just doing. It’s about the process of living a life of habits in line with my values and the person I want to be. It’s not about being productive.

Earlier this week, I was reading some articles online about how to be more productive when you have an ADHD brain. And I started feeling anxious and cranky. Something was making the insides of my eyelids itch and it wasn’t my allergies (although my allergies have been pretty bad this week, thanks for asking). I tweeted:

Confession: Sometimes I don’t want tips on how to be more organized or how to get things done better. I just want to be told that having ADHD means I won’t be organized & I won’t get things done & THAT’S OK.

Maybe getting things done is overrated. Maybe half-assing things is better than no-assing things. Maybe if you die & leave behind a lot of unfinished projects, you still have as many Victory Points as people who finish their stuff.

Obviously there are instances where finishing what you start is important. If you’re going to build a bridge or a house or a public library, you really should do it completely. If you want to be a published novelist, you kinda sorta need to start writing a novel and finish writing that novel. (Unless you’re Franz Kafka, I guess, but if you are, you’re not going to be happy no matter what you do.) If you’re the kind of person who feels fulfilled when they finish their projects, hey, keep it up. You do you. There are certainly things I would like to start and finish.

However…if you’re the kind of person who loses interest partway through doing something and you want to abandon it, I have news for you: the odds are good that nobody will die if you don’t finish what you start. It’s not worth beating yourself up over. There are more important things than being productive. Take a walk with no destination in mind. Have coffee with friends, or have coffee alone and make new friends by striking up conversations with strangers. Listen to music and lose track of time. Take a nap. Daydream, but don’t write down any ideas you come up with, just let them go. Paint half a canvas. Write one verse of a song. Write three chapters of a novel. Start writing a blog post and don’t finish it. Or write a blog post that just kind of peters out when you run out of things to say. Whatever.


  1. Emma wrote:

    This is beautifully said. Thank you.

    Friday, April 20, 2018 at 12:02 am | Permalink
  2. josh wrote:

    Thanks, Emma!

    Friday, April 20, 2018 at 6:56 am | Permalink

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