A Conversation About Work, Productivity and Not Walking Into the Sea

Close-up of female hands on laptop keyboard

Ashley Kowalewski is the managing editor of 29Secrets and Anne T. Donahue is a writer. They are also very good friends, having cemented their friendship when on a work trip and Anne felt super sick and Ashley didn’t judge her for popping Pepto Bismol and Imodium like she was being paid to. (She wasn’t.) Today they are feeling tired and unmotivated. That’s why they’re going to have some real talk.

ANNE T. DONAHUE: So here we are! It’s Tuesday morning and I’m drinking cold McDonald’s coffee and I have work to do but I’m very tired and would very much like to read on a bench outside all day. How are you doing over there?

ASHLEY KOWALEWSKI: Slow start to the morning. I’ve had no less than two massive coffees and contemplating walking over to Starbucks and getting a third because it’s so so sunny today and I want to play outside like a little kid. Also, I’m wearing a shirt with pineapples on it and that is distracting me because it’s the perfect selfie/#ootd shirt. Or something. How much coffee is too much coffee before noon?

ATD: There is no such thing. Minus the other day I drank about five coffees throughout the afternoon and felt like Michael Scott on Pretzel Day. But here we are. So here’s the thing, though: you are one of the most productive people I know. You’re like a cross between Rory Gilmore when she’s still likeable and Betty Cooper from Riverdale (with much better hair). How do you stay on top of your work when you would literally rather set fire to your laptop in a parking lot?

AK: I try to start with fun(ner) tasks that would need to get done anyway like sifting through new beauty products to put together stories and Instagram posts–that usually inspires me to start writing at the very least. If all I need to get done are really boring tasks (like transcribing interviews, the glamorous task no one talks about), I bribe myself with candy or coffee. Like, Okay, Ash, if you transcribe for 20 minutes straight with no interruptions, you can go get a fancy coffee. For you, though, it’s different. Even though you have projects you need to get done, you’re not bound to a 9-to-5 office schedule. How do you push through?

ATD: Oh, that’s so nice! I think I’m meaner to myself. In fact, I know I’m meaner to myself. You’ve hung out with me and know how I love a pep talk that’s borderline terrifying. (GET IT DONE, GIRL.) Basically, I look at my list of things to do and think, If you don’t get everything finished you don’t deserve any more work. Which is something I’m working on — like, not hinging worth on productivity. I’m getting better at it, I think! But also I like having a lot to do and I like being like, I have to do this, this, this, and this and then crossing them off my life. So maybe it’s the guilt of letting people or myself down that pushes me to get things done? Which actually isn’t great either. But is probably why I run on anxiety a lot of the time. Not that I’d ever put those expectations on anybody else, though. Anyway, I’m working on it.

AK: I think you bring up a really good point, though. When you’re feeling just generally unmotivated or a little tired or sick or whatever, it’s easy for those imposter syndrome thoughts to creep in. Like, this is why you maybe aren’t further along in your career than you’d like to be or don’t get as many projects as so-and-so. I’ve also found that, since coming back to working in an office full-time, while it’s got its pluses (social interaction, close proximity to good coffee and restaurants), there are downsides such as not being able to build your own work flow the way that suits you best. When I was working from home last summer, I knew that I had to get stuff done, but I also knew if I hit a wall at 3pm, I could stop and pick up again later when I was feeling more inspired. But maybe not limiting yourself to work hours isn’t a healthy way to be productive. I don’t know.

ATD: No, I think you’re onto something there. I like the idea of work hours but some of my favourite pieces were written at 11 p.m. when I was like Fuck it, I’ll just sleep in tomorrow. But then you do sleep in and feel like you’ve missed the whole morning and then you feel like you’re wasting time, and I’m very not good with the idea of wasting time. It’s such a delicate balance. Some weeks I’m like, I’ve got this! I’m working outside on a blanket in my backyard! I’m going to read in the afternoon and write an essay at night! And then others I’m like BUT I SHOULD DO WHAT EVERYONE ELSE IS DOING. Even though — and again, I say this with you knowing me — we know how much I hate the idea that everyone’s careers have to look the same. It’s almost like that little voice in your head (that only comes out when you’re tired and hungry or coming down with a cold) is like, Everyone will think you don’t work hard unless you’re not working in the morning like everybody else. But also, no one has ever thought that ever.

Basically, this whole conversation has gone down the road of why I’m seconds from having Keep your eyes on your own paper painted over my desk so I can remember not to be productive for the sake of keeping shit-talkers at bay. Also because shit-talkers will always be talking shit.

AK: It’s so hard not to compare yourself though, but I guess, like everything else in life, you just have to learn how to control those creeping thoughts. Because, truly, if I let it consume me on a daily basis, I’d really get nothing done. I suppose being a ~*grownup*~ means sometimes you just have to buckle down and get shit done, even if you don’t feel like it. And, like, even if you have to bribe yourself with candy or something, right? Going back to the list thing (I’m also a list-maker), do you find sometimes it’s really just an extra thing that you have to do in the morning? Like you spend five minutes making a list when really you don’t have those five minutes to spare? Some days I get resentful of my lists like they’re mocking me with their stupid little colour-coordinated checkboxes.

ATD: Oh, I love writing a to-do list. But I’m bad at keeping actual lists and really good at writing everything I need to do on the date I’m at in my planner. And I just bought a new planner five weeks ago so I’m trying really hard to stay on top of shit because I don’t want to disappoint it. (Yes, the planner.) Also, then when everything’s done, it’s done. I never look ahead to the next day or the next week — so in that way, I’m very good at staying in the moment or on the day. I used to look ahead to the next day and the next week all the time and honestly it made me so anxious I couldn’t enjoy anything. Like, everything was tinged with Oh, but tomorrow you have X and you have to be up at this time for X and blah, blah, blah. But now that’s done and I no longer want to walk into the sea. What about you? Do you ever abandon your list completely? Or do you ever say fuck it to a really busy week? Few things bring me joy like turning to a week and realizing I have basically nothing dire and I can bake bread one night.

I really am fun, I promise.

AK: I’m really bad with looking at the week ahead, but I think that’s also because I generally have a few events a week, so it helps to know when I’m in and out of the office and which nights I won’t be home for dinner. But you make a really good point about trying to be more in the day and moment. There are definitely days where I don’t even bother with my list because I know that there’s something that is going to take precedence (usually branded content because there are always five people waiting on me) or if I know I’ll be in and out of the office, so I’ll likely only get the everyday tasks done, such as editing and posting your daily piece and getting all of our daily content up on social. It just seems frivolous to waste a piece of paper to make a list for that. HOWEVER, I used to be really good at making my list the afternoon before so that when I get in, I don’t have to spend time thinking about what I have to do, I can just get down to it. I found that really helpful. Why did I stop doing that?

ATD: I don’t know! But sometimes the last thing I would rather do anything but think about what I have to do tomorrow. Like on Sundays. I used to get everything ready for Monday on Sunday night like I did when I was in high school but that started bumming me out so I just sort it all out on the Friday before or leave myself a shit-ton of extra work on Monday morning that forces me to be a person.

That said, my advice is to never make plans on Sunday. Minus like, very chill dinners, I refuse to be a social person.

So we barely talked about work which is bananas. Which means it’s time for me to ask you what you like best about your job? Because reading back on this, we both seem like beautiful basket cases. I mean, I am, but for the record: I do love what I do very much.

AK: Oh gosh, you’re right! I really like what I do as well, though there are (obviously) parts I like more than others. One thing I love that I don’t get to do as much anymore: writing about beauty products. I could write about beauty all day, every day. I also really like the editing and planning side of my role. While it doesn’t sound like it based on the above convo, I am actually pretty organized, so getting to plan out our content for the month ahead and then cleaning up copy and scheduling it gratifying in the nerdiest of ways. I could definitely do without filing and going through old press releases though. Not. Fun. What about you?

ATD: My favourite thing in the world is having an idea that I’m kind of scared to actually write about. Sometimes I’ll come up with an idea that I’ll be super stoked on and then I’ll pitch it and then it’ll get accepted and then I’m like, Oh fuck me, how am I actually supposed to write about this? I mean, I always do write about it, but that afternoon leading up to the hand-in is defined entirely by me wanting to do anything but. Then I finally get down to it and it’s this battle between me and my own fear (defined entirely by what ifs) and I morph into a version of myself I really like: a tough bitch who gets her shit done OR ELSE.

Also, in general, I love writing. I really love it — even when I don’t want to be doing it and just want to see something published, which happens sometimes — and when I come up with a sentence or a joke that ties a bunch of other shit together, I nerd out bigtime. I also really like getting to talk in-person about things too (which sometimes my job lets me do), but writing something I’m proud of can carry me through a shitty week. Even though, like, two days after it’s published I’m all, Okay but now what?

You’re a good editor, by the way. I like writing for you, and also I like that you said yes to this piece. Tell me it’s not because you’re afraid I’ll use my GET IT DONE voice on you.

AK: Oh, I’m 100 per cent terrified you will. (And, thanks!) I think, especially when you sort of work by yourself (I work with a large team, but I’m the only one who works on 29S content day-to-day), it’s easy to get stuck in your head. And trying to explain things to people who don’t understand it just really don’t get it. This conversation is nice because you get it! Also, you don’t judge my coffee addiction.

ATD: I would never judge your coffee addiction! Are you judging me that I’m typing this in a t-shirt I got for free from a place I used to work at? Don’t answer that. I know you’re jealous.

Tags: Anne T. Donahue, career, productivity, topstory, Wellness, work

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