The Surprising Way to Grow Your Productivity

For a long time, I felt like I wasn’t going anywhere. I had big goals as a writer, but I had a hard time actually getting any of them done. I kept looking for a mentor, thinking this would get me where I needed to be—but I didn’t even know where to find that kind of person. I felt lost.

I think that we introverts often want to solve our problems on our own; we keep them “in-house” as psychologist Laurie Helgoe writes. If I had an idea for a story or a great website, I had no trouble gushing about it to a friend. But when the story stalled or I got stuck, I would tell no one. I’d just sort of stop mentioning the project until it was forgotten.

That was before I started a simple habit with a trusted friend. To say this new routine changed the way I work is an understatement. It’s changed the way I live.

How it started

Brandon, better known as B. T. Newberg, was not my closest friend. We hadn’t even lived in the same state for several years. But one day, we decided to catch up with a video call, and I was shocked to hear that Brandon, a fellow introvert and writer, was facing the same frustrations I was. We both had ideas for creative projects we didn’t know how to start. We both struggled to keep up healthy practices in our lives (exercise for me and meditation for him), and neither of us seemed to make good use of our time. Since Brandon dared to confess some of these problems to me, I went ahead and did the same. By the end of the call, I felt about 10 pounds lighter.

Of course, we hadn’t actually fixed any of the problems yet. But I also noticed we were really good at coming up with solutions for each other (not for ourselves!). When I complained about not having enough time for my creative work, Brandon asked what my morning routine was like. I had to admit I didn’t really have one, other than reading over coffee, and that I tended to oversleep. Brandon gently said that he had started getting up earlier to get more writing time. I was already learning.

We were barely off the call before I fired off a short email:

What do you think of doing a weekly email check in? We could talk about our goals and give each other moral support or advice when needed. Essentially team up a little bit?

Little did I know that this one germ of an idea would lead to one of the best years of my life.

How it works

Every Monday, I start my week by emailing Brandon. We check in about everything we’ve done the week before—goals met and missed, major successes and spectacular failures, even tiny things like whether we meditated or not.

Brandon and I break our emails into categories. Anything goes, and the categories have ranged from Productivity to Drinking Less to Self-Acceptance. Often, we’ll set specific goals for ourselves, and we’ll check in on them each week so we can evaluate progress. Sometimes, we give advice if requested, but most frequently, we just listen.

This arrangement is a form of having an accountability partner, but it’s different in some key ways. For one thing, Brandon and I never meet face to face. This is more comfortable for both of us because we’re both introverts. The idea of seeing a gym buddy might spur some people to get out the door and sweat, but it would make me want to stay home.

And Brandon and I don’t limit our emails to one topic like working out or advancing our careers. In many ways, my weekly missive to my friend is almost confessional: I can tell him about the difficulties I faced this week, the things that had me down, the crazy argument I had with my girlfriend, and my bumbling attempts to make it better.

We also share our victories. When Brandon got the score he needed on the GRE test, I cheered for him. When I lost 10 pounds, he did the same for me.

In a loud world, having a pen pal is more valuable to me than having one more guru, coach, or weekly meeting. For introverts, I think, simply writing down our thoughts—and knowing that someone cares—is a powerful practice. And it’s one that got results:

  • Within two months, I had created a new daily work schedule and was able to finish all the short stories I was working on.
  • By the fourth month, I had a system for keeping track of my social drinking and reducing it for health reasons. Over a year, my alcohol consumption dropped by 60%.
  • My daily life transformed from a messy, procrastination-filled rush to something I actually enjoy. I’m more disciplined, which means I have free time for once, and every day, I work to get closer to my personal goals.

How to do it yourself

Brandon and I have a lot in common, but we don’t have any special magic. It was the practice itself, the act of talking about our goals with someone who cares, that created change. And I believe that’s a practice anyone can do, whether you’re an introvert or not.

You’ll get the best results if you’re conscientious about how you set up this relationship. The specifics will be different for everybody, but here are guidelines that have worked for me:

  • Choose a friend who is committed to goals of their own—even if they’re a long way off. If you both have a desire for self-improvement or a vision for your life, you’ll have a reason to be there for each other week after week.
  • It helps to choose someone with similar experiences to yours. Brandon and I are both writers, but neither of us have kids. If I had needed support and encouragement as a parent, I might have chosen someone else.
  • People who stress you out don’t make good weekly pen pals. Consider approaching someone you admire or would like to build a closer relationship with.
  • Be flexible about your weekly email (and your response time). Brandon and I call our exchanges our “Monday Notes,” but sometimes they happen on Tuesday or Wednesday. Don’t turn your check-in into another obligation—treat it as something you look forward to, and do it when you’re able.

This practice may seem small, but it’s profound. All too often, we introverts keep our ideas to ourselves, in our heads. But without external feedback, we start to feel lost. Simply having someone invested in you and attentive to your ideas helps you sort them out and make changes.

Nowadays, I don’t think of my life as a mess, but rather as a life lived with intention. I can’t give all the credit to my pen pal, but the clarity and purpose I’ve found in our emails are my guiding light. If anything, the biggest outcome of this arrangement isn’t any one specific achievement. It’s the fact that I now have a life that’s organized and healthy, and someone is rooting for me to succeed.

Do you have someone like this in your life? How often do you check in with them, and how do you do it? Who helps you keep moving forward toward your goals?

Share your thoughts.

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  • Bonnie B Lawson

    I love this and have just shared it with three friends! I’m hoping to incorporate this into my life. 🙂

  • Ina Rønning Johansen

    Love the idea, I’d love to try this out but I don’t have anyone I feel like asking. I’m a 29 year old graphic designer, would love to find someone similar to me. Please reply me here if it sounds interesting.

  • Steve McGraw

    Great article. I have long wanted to collaborate with people similar to me but have no time for coffee house meetups. Now just need to find that like-mind out there with shared goals.

  • Sathyanand S

    Writing – conversing in paper is something that introverts could wield as a powerful therapeutic and productivity-building habit. Thanks to Andre for sharing this concept. Though I don’t have a pen pal, I have been practicing ‘freewriting’ or writing to myself over a year. I have written 200+ pages on a word doc with more than 100,000+ words. It helps me let out, let go and let in. I recommend this to every introvert around the world. http://sathyawrites.com/three-reasons-why-should-write/
    – Sathya

  • Jean Moats

    Thanks for this article. I had read about the benefits of having someone to be accountable to about goals and such. I like the idea of checking in by email. But, I need someone to partner with. I am a librarian who is single and lives with five cats. For me, going out into the world every day is very tiring . When I get home, I ignore the fun things that I want to do. If anyone wants to meet by email, then my address is [email protected]

  • Thank you, Andre, this is such a powerful but overlooked method for making and keeping commitments. I’m so lucky to say that, Yes, I do have one of these relationships! We met in a social network for introvert business owners, after I posted about how MBTI can help us in client relationships. I feel ‘penpal’ diminishes the significance of this relationship – the mutual support, insight, and accountability has made a world of difference in both my business and my life. As introverts we often share more in writing than we may ever in spoken word, so I disagree with your statement about there being ‘no magic.’ I’ve yet to meet my friend face to face, yet she is as familiar as a life long friend. While this friendship happened organically, for those seeking something similar, I suggest signing up for a workshop/class in line with your aspirations, and look for study groups and accountability partners within that environment.

  • Mon

    This is a great idea, but as many here it’s difficult to find these buddies in a busy world.

  • I’m in desperate need of doing this.

  • Delancey

    I’ve been doing this for a while. It seems simple yet it is strikingly profound in its results. Thank you for sharing an excellent idea in detail for the benefit of all of the introverts 🙂

  • Stefany C.

    This article is such an eye-opener for me. I shared this article to my long distance best friend and we decided to try this out! We are in the process of creating our game plan in doing these weekly reflections. Any advice is greatly appreciated! And thank you again for creating this article. It really resonate with me, and make me feel hopeful of increasing my productivity.

  • Nikki Kumar

    What if you tried this by yourself and kept account using a journal?

  • Salsa Chick

    I have wanted to do something like this with another writer and introvert. Publishing is just around the corner for me but with my work and other activities I find I keep putting off the the things I need to do. If anyone is in the same boat and wants a partner for encouragement and feedback, drop me a line at [email protected]. I’ve done grad level workshops and am knowledgeable about the whole process, just need to outline a plan and stick to it. I’m a non-fiction and poetry writer at the moment. I get a little overwhelmed by all the opportunities the internet provides, along with traditional print venues, and don’t know where to begin!

  • Great article! I think I may have someone like this too but we haven’t “formalised” our being accountable to each other. It’s time to take the next step.

  • Nakul

    its nice to have someone like this.

  • Marrica

    Exactly, What we need is to just let our ideas and feelings out, then we can sense them and deal with them better.

  • It is very hard to find a text friend. Even wife is easier to find. Alas.

  • Cyndi C

    I have been looking for that someone as well to share accomplishments, set backs, and just ideas regarding all facets of life. Thank you for sharing as my search continues…ciao

  • Judy Goldman

    Junie, my name is Judy and I like Andre’s idea, too. I’m 56, live in San Diego, am struggling with depression, weight loss, and carving out a new career after a divorce two years ago. I’m also politically progressive, which I mention because these values are very important to me. If you think we might be a good fit, my email is [email protected]. Thanks!

  • Marlana Sherman

    Great idea to improve productivity. I do not have someone like this but it would be nice to have that.

  • Nate

    Great article Andre! I talk every two weeks with a good friend I met in design school. We live thousands of miles away now, so a call or Google Hangout works best. Our careers are usually the first topic of discussion, but it soon moves to other areas. He isn’t an introvert, but he seems to get a lot of value out of it. It has made the last two years so much easier : )

  • Søren Olsen

    Thanks for sharing your great story. It’s a confirmation to some thoughts of my own – you just put in words, so much better.. I’m still looking for a “wingman” as I prefer to call it.. and I know, I’ll find that person.

  • Marion

    Thank you! … for giving me a useful tool. I’m tired of “waisting” my time and getting little done, because I really want to do so many things.

  • Karin Dancy

    I love, love, love this idea. What most resounded for me is the fact that so often we’re so willing and able to help others improve their productivity through gentle advice, etc. – but get stuck moving our own needles in the same way. That’s me. Your suggestion seems so simple at first glance, but it’s actually not. Rather, it’s a pretty profound chunk of wisdom for us introverted writers. I’m game – giving it a go pronto here. Thank you for sharing, 🙂

  • Brandon Newberg

    Nice write-up, Andre. It’s weird to see this thing called out for how much it’s accomplished for us. Still feels strange that we’ve been doing it for over a year! 🙂

  • Good luck with it Junie 🙂

  • Shannon Richmond

    Really good ideas here, thanks Andre. Over the years I have had different mentor/mentoree arrangements. I think they change with the season we find ourselves in. Right now I am co-writing a book with a friend who lives in the Netherlands (I am in NZ). It has worked really well, we have planned the book via Facebook messenger and send each other drafts as and when they are finished. It has been two years since i saw my friend in person but we will get together this Christmas when we hopefully have a fairly good handle on where the book is going and when it is likely to be ready. I love the freedom of being able to work by myself but have another person to give input and to input into, without regular scheduled face-to-face meetings that are often pressured and artificial.

    • Exactly. it’s that combination of working on my on but getting input that make it so valuable. Thanks for this, Shannon.

  • Junie

    I just thought of something that could work! Let me look for an email buddy right here. My name is Junie Sihlangu, I am a 30 year old lesbian from South Africa. I work as a freelance graphic designer, but also dabble in running a small upcoming business. I’m looking for an open-minded person, a great listener, no kids preferably and very artistic. Someone who’s still finding or grooming their passion. Anyone who thinks we could be a great fit, please feel free to reply here 🙂 Thank you.

  • Great idea. I’m productive, but I have no sounding board for ideas at the moment. I’ll find some one to buddy with. Thank you.