One of the most common refrains in the productivity space is this idea that we all have the same 24 hours in a day. If you’re disabled, or if you’ve ever even had a temporary disability like a broken arm, you can see right through that lie. If a shower takes a non-disabled person five minutes and someone with postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS) two-plus hours then how can we possibly claim that the disabled person is going to be able to make up that time debt without serious cost to themselves?
So, why does it keep perpetuating? To me, it all boils down to one word: ego
None of us start with the same baseline when it comes to time. Even if we ignore for a second symptoms of disabilities like time-blindness and low executive function, no one day is the same. And you know what? That’s fine. The issue is when we prescribe our understanding of time to other people.
For example, when I primarily made my living as a theatre artist and arts administrator, I was most often the face of shows I was in for media appearances. Why? Well, it wasn’t primarily because I was the most articulate, creative, or even the right person to talk to. At least half the time it was because I was the one who could physically get up early in the morning and I am ambulatory so I could navigate inaccessible physical spaces. It wasn’t a moral failing of my colleagues, it was about privilege and learned adaptions within my own physical body. That’s it, that’s all.
The key to the story isn’t that I could manage my 24 hours better, or that I had unlocked the secrets of the universe to get on a morning TV show, it was that I happened to be the right person at the right time. And here again, the traditional narrative of this type of story is ego, a belief in oneself as superior when it comes to things like conquering time management. Spoiler alert: you’re not better than another person—even if you have identical disabilities—just because you are more comfortable or productive in the hours that you get.
So, if the last four days are anything to go by, this is where I break into some pithy bullet points about how to decrease or increase your expectations of yourself and others when it comes to what you can do in a day. I’ve spent a lot of today’s email downplaying productivity gurus when it comes to a 24 hour time frame, but there is one line, paraphrasing from multiple creators, that actually does feel as if it has some echoes of disability community within it:
“We radically overestimate what we can do in a day and radically underestimate what we can do in a year.”
I’d like to propose a slight shift, “We radically overestimate what we can do and what others should be able to do in the short term and radically underestimate what our community can do in the long term.”
Now, I’m not here to give you some time-honoured set of tasks that can help you decrease your expectations on yourself and others while still holding space for the building of productivity, but here are five strategies I use that I’ve found helpful.
Pick Three Things
This is an adaptation of The One Thing concept made popular by Gary Keller. TLDR: Pick three things you have to do, three things you could do if you had the energy, and three things you’d love to be able to do (another way to think of this one is like a stretch goal). Write those down—whether that’s physically or via a digital system— and check them off. Once you are done with your three things then you are done, end of story.
Now, these list items can be complicated, but when I first started using this system it was during a six month period where I went off on two mental health leaves. I could not get out of bed. My three tasks in the must do column where, eat at least two meals, take pills, play video games. One note of warning: do your best not to turn your three things into high school math questions. In other words, don’t make each thing have 47 parts.
Make Space for Grief
When you’re not able to do something that you typically can, or you overshoot what you’ll be able to do on a given day, it’s very similar to grief. There is a sense of loss (like a much more insidious version of opportunity cost) when you can’t do what you expected to do. The feeling I get when I don’t achieve something that would normally feel simple is almost identical to when I have a high spasticity day and I need to ask for help doing something that would normally be very easy.
Making space for grief also means allowing yourself to quit. We don’t often think of quitting outside of work, particularly as adults, but here’s an incomplete list of things I’ve quit or given up on in my personal life: driving, tying my shoes, getting on a scale. Quitting something can mean putting something on a backburner, but if getting rid of a task is going to give you a small amount of relief—like ordering groceries for delivery even if you have misgivings about the gig economy—then you should do that. Think of quitting like an access need. You’re unlikely to decline a mobility aid once you’ve come to grips with you identity as a disabled person. Some days, Uber or Amazon are just access needs.
Find an Accountability Friend for the Simplest Things
This one probably took the longest for me to learn. Sometimes your own accountability system is going to crash and burn in a Michael Bay movie sort of way. You’ll start out with the best of intentions and—often through not fault of your own—it will feel like you’re watching one of those old school Mythbusters explosions.
One unlock for me is to make a point of asking friends and family for accountability. I had this perception that accountability partnering needed to be about work. Finish X task by X day, for example, but actually it’s been most valuable when I’ve asked people to check in about booking a doctor’s appointment or ordering groceries. We often think of this mutual accountability practice as not disappointing the other person. That’s not the point at all. You should be trying to orient yourselves towards that person playing a part in you building your productivity muscles in the same way a gym partner can be really helpful. You are building a routine, even if that routine is focused on how to fail softly and kindly to yourself.
That’s enough blabbering for one week.
I've decided to shift CRPL to a 5 times a week newsletter about productivity as I am fascinated by the topic, am in the early stage of writing a book about it, and want to have a place to think, and write, and create work about this vital area of thinking. Click below to join the daily newsletter and/or to help financially support this project.