Praise, Criticism, and Self-Reflection: Productivity Lessons From a Simpler Time

Note: This post is adapted from an essay I wrote in a much simpler time (2010), but the lessons learned from this self-reflection exercise are still relevant and may help others who flounder in these uncertain times.

When my daughters were little, I composed letters to their new teachers before each school year. They were a CliffsNotes of strengths, weaknesses, and quirks, offered in the hope of sparing said teacher from puzzling these things out for at least one kid in their class. My goal was to simply inform and then get out of their way. Though I made no requests for special treatment, my older daughter’s teachers invariably offered to let her have assignments early during Nutcracker season. My younger daughter’s teachers were glad I warned them that she’d hold a silent but profound grudge if ever told to “move her clip” for something she had not done.

One year, after composing the letters, I wondered what might be said about me if I were the one headed back to school. I turned it into a writing prompt. My first (2010) letter was meant to be silly yet felt uncomfortably accurate. Same with a revision in 2014. Below is my 2022 version. Pretty sure I’d now qualify for an IEP.

Dear Teacher,

Kim will be in your grade 44 class this year and I thought you might want to know a bit about her before the first day.

A messy desk or sloppy work is a clear indication of boredom. Boredom often leads to doom-scrolling, which leads to tears, rage, and devouring articles about the most welcoming countries for American refugees. You have my total support if you choose to confiscate her phone during the school day, though you may want to offer an alternative fixation.

Assigning a hundred-page dissertation on some obscure historical or literary figure would work—she’d love that—though I suspect her peers might feel differently. Her focus can be astounding when she’s interested in something, like when she (for fun) spent a week feverishly reading and transcribing a stack of letters from the 1840s. We won’t talk about the blog post she was supposed to be writing.

Too many numbers frighten and overwhelm Kim. If you replace said numbers with x and y she will claim she has COVID the next day. Please warn me of any upcoming algebra units so I can stock up on home tests and call her bluff.

Other than for higher level math, expect she will be top of the class academically. She always has been.

Kim is an introvert and not prone to disruptive outbursts unless the volume of noise in the classroom rises past the point where she can hear herself think. That level is much lower in Kim than in the average middle-aged adult and, once crossed, will lead to agitation. Any complaints about itchy tags or lumps in socks are Real and a Big Deal. If possible, allow her to stay in at recess and read on those days. She’ll require no supervision.

Snacks are always good. A hungry Kim is a hangry Kim.

It has been a disruptive couple of years with the pandemic, hormonal changes, family health issues, an impending empty nest, impossible-to-meet deadlines, the loss of bodily autonomy, and an upcoming trip to Prague that she fears won’t happen in this airline hellscape. Sitting still is a challenge. Insisting she write 100 words before leaving her seat may motivate productivity. Tying her to her chair is also an acceptable solution.

Good Luck!

Kim’s Mom

Why did I waste five minutes of my life reading that? How could this possibly help me?

Imagine for a moment that you are not you, but rather someone who knows you well, loves you, and has your best interest at heart. If that person were to honestly describe the good, the not-so-good, and the uniquely you to a stranger, what would they say? What praise would they give? What traits would they claim hold you back? What quirks delight or annoy them and why?

Here’s why that’s important.

Naming your strengths reminds you they exist

It is easy to focus only on the things we fail at, especially in times of high stress. We gained ten pounds on our “diet”. We fumbled a presentation at work. We didn’t sit down to write once in the last week.

My fictional ‘mom’ poked fun in that letter, but any stranger reading it would get that I am smart, sensitive, and can have a tremendous capacity for focus. I don’t know about you, but I rarely receive verbal complements as an adult, let alone written ones. There is something powerful about seeing the praise in print and hearing the words in your head as you read them. It reinforces the positive, which in turn can increase confidence and productivity.

Our challenges may have an explanation—and a solution

Most of us are aware of our shortcomings but may not have given much thought as to how or why they developed. If there are triggers that can/should be avoided and how. Writing as a well-meaning parent allows you to view yourself from an outside and forgiving perspective. One that honestly wants you to thrive. Weaknesses are identified, possible explanations are offered (stress, hormones, family issues, political terror). Harmful patterns are identified (doom scrolling, procrastination). Possible workarounds are presented.

Do I know that putting my phone across the room might prevent me from interrupting my work to scroll through Twitter for a minute or ten? Of course. Do I take that simple step much of the time? Not even remotely. Do I feel called out seeing my ‘mom’ point this out? You betcha, perhaps even more so because ‘mom’ is really me. (As I type this, my phone is well out of reach and I’m staying more or less on task.)

Repeating the exercise periodically may be especially illuminating

I’ve been acutely aware of focus issues for the past few years, but had convinced myself that stress and age-related hormonal issues were the cause. Then I re-read what I’d written in 2010 and 2014. Both include references to alternating bouts of hyperfocus and having the attention span of a gnat. The 2014 letter actually ends with this line: No, she doesn’t have ADHD. It just seems like it sometimes.

I didn’t know ADHD presents differently in women back in 2014. I do now. This exercise inadvertently armed me with proof of long-term patterns that may help me receive an appropriate diagnosis and treatment. It may also help me let go of the shame that comes with the compulsion to read a novel instead of write one when a deadline looms. I’m not lazy. I’m not unmotivated. I don’t lack self-control. I just have 42,576 tabs open in my brain and must shut some down to function.

Obviously, individual epiphanies will vary, but if productivity issues can be traced to negative patterns of thought or behavior, it is bound to be helpful to shine a light on those patterns, to identify and confront them. Maybe the secret to getting words on the page is obvious (turn off phone notifications) or practical (set a schedule and stick with it). Maybe it’s medical. Maybe it is as simple as starting the day with coffee and your novel instead of coffee and Facebook.

Sometimes ‘Mom’ really does know best.

Over to you: Have you ever done a self-reflection exercise that proved especially helpful? If so, what was it and what did you learn from it? Have you identified and changed patterns of your own behavior or thought processes that helped productivity? Do times of uncertainty paralyze or motivate you creatively?

About Kim Bullock

Kim (she/her) has an M.A. in English from Iowa State University. She writes mainly historical fiction, though has also contributed non-fiction articles to historical and Arts and Crafts publications in both the United States and Canada. She has just finished The Oak Lovers, a novel based on the rather colorful life of her great-grandfather, landscape painter Carl Ahrens.