Michael Ekstrand

Work Management as Self-Care

Published on 20 Feb 2017 and tagged with productivity.

In my previous post, I described how I use a physical notebook to manage my daily and weekly work.

Getting things done is not the only purpose of this notebook, however. It is also an important part of how I maintain my mental health.


Grad school can be pretty discouraging at times. Even among people with pretty good mental health, it seems that going through a period of ‘why am I here and what am I doing?’ is common. When that combines with some form of depression (also common among academics, it seems), things get pretty bleak.

I would get particularly discouraged when it felt like I was not getting anything done; spinning my wheels with nothing to show for it. Planning and tracking my work has been one tool mitigate that problem. I think it helps in a few ways:

  • Writing down the things I do each day, even if they're little (‘e-mailed H to get the transmogrifier settings’), gives me something to look at and say ‘I accomplished something’.

  • Checking or crossing off tasks is viscerally satisfying. That satisfaction helps me keep going.

  • Planning a set of things to do today, and then accomplishing at least some of them, helps me feel like I'm making forward progress, not just doing things.

  • As I review, I have a basis to examine the things I have been doing and seeing whether they advance my overall goals. I am not very good at this part yet.

I find that it is not enough to be productive; I need to feel like I am accomplishing something, hopefully meaningful. My notebook gives me a built-in positive feedback loop that helps with that. I started using a notebook in part because I wanted to move past writing down and achieving three desired outcomes and have a more extensive record of what I accomplished each day.

I do not expect my rituals of work management to have the same benefits for everyone. As with productivity, you need to find the self-care that works for you. Try some things. Talk with friends, family, and perhaps mental health professionals or spiritual counselors. But my notebook seems to help me.

It's also important to keep work and productivity in broader perspective. I do not want my self-worth to be tied up in the things I do; for one thing, my religion teaches that one's worth is not measured in possessions or accomplishments, and that it is dangerous to fall in the trap of thinking that it is (either about yourself or others). It also caused problems for a certain rapping founding father — ‘you'll always be adored by the things you create’ while his family fell apart.

I also do have a tendency to overwork. However, in the context of a bigger picture of life, I find the productivity rituals I have developed to be a useful tactic for keeping my mind away from certain species of discouragement, and I do not think that they make the overwork problem worse; rather, at the times when I'm doing a better job of work-life balance, they help me make the most of the time I spend working so that I can take better advantage of rest and relaxation.