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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