Liveblogging The Productivity Doldrums, Part IV: Social Thursday

SUMMARY: Another introspective journey into the details of Thursday, which was a very social day, and how I seemed to prioritize people over my own projects. Maybe this isn’t a bad thing. I’m starting to recognize what focus feels like, and think I’m finding a pathway to get to that state through some mental conditioning. We shall see on Friday.

Thursday. This is a day that I knew would be difficult to get anything done, because I would be spending most of it away from home on the North Shore of Massachusetts.

waking routine is routine

I woke up at 9:15AM, went through morning routine, then took the laptop and my planning notebook to Starbucks on the scooter. Planned out my day. I had to be on the road to the North Shore by 11:30AM to make a 12:30PM appointment at my favorite hair cutting establishment, En Vogue Salon in Danvers with Kim. The reason I drive all the way out to Danvers is because I actually like the way Kim cuts my hair (part of a self-improvement regimen I started several years ago), and it gives me an excuse to be in the vicinity of two old friends at least once a month to keep in touch.


I figured I had an hour to do some of the things I had intended to start yesterday. A mere 15 minutes of sketching would be required for a simple page layout of the new Printable CEO subsite, which is a critical piece in my online strategy for offering a new round of pre-printed Emergent Task Planner pads. Just as I was about to start, my friend Geri came into Starbucks, and I ended up catching up with her about her own exploration into creating a product. I love talking about people who are trying to start something like this, since I’m in the very same place, and we had a great conversation (I think) about my relevant experiences as I got to know more about her own goals. 11:30AM beeped, and I had to run back home and pack away the scooter, then head out. The productivity slump continues. I tend to prioritize people over my own projects, and this is what happens. I don’t feel bad about it, but I am making a mental note that work-life balance includes making separate spaces for people and project work. In fact, going to a coffee shop in the first place is motivated by the desire to be around people; it just is that usually you don’t know them so well that you immediately start talking.

a flurry of activities

I was 10 minutes late for my haircut due to road construction, but it wasn’t bad because I’d called to let them know I was running late. Then, it was to Eastern Cycle Ducati in Beverly, MA, where I picked up some replacement scooter parts from Randy, who is surprisingly accepting of scooters for a motorcycle dealer. This dealer happens to also sell the same brand of scooter alongside the luscious Ducatis. After getting my parts and getting some information about proper miles per gallon for my scooter (yep, it’s way out of tune), it was off to Salem to meet up with Duncan, one of my friends from high school. We also both worked in the video game industry, albeit at different companies, back in the 1990s, and some time after that we started working together at the same web agency in New Hampshire. We are now also freelancing and my latest initiative to make very simple websites because I like small companies is exactly what he’s doing too. Lunch is a great opportunity to ask him about his experiences with it and share some of my thoughts, and as a bonus he treated me to a Salem tradition, the “chop suey sandwich”, having read my tweet about craving bad Chinese food a few days ago.

Now I’m here in his living room, catching up this post on the day. It’s now 4:45PM. I’d spent about an hour writing up Part III of the “Liveblogging the Productivity Doldrums” series. I’ll be having dinner in Salem with Peter, who teaches a programming course at a nearby college, about the C# / XNA work I did for the Holocaust museum in Skokie. I’ve been wanting to package the knowledge I gained into some reusable form, and I figure that Peter might be interested in seeing what I did and offer suggestions on its use. We discussed the idea over dinner at Finz on the wharf and showed him the codebase. We discussed how it might fit into his syllabus, which is targeted at sophomores in Computer Science who have just had their first semester of C++. His two semesters, however, use C# as a foundation for learning event-driven and object-oriented concepts. Figuring out how to extract the relevant aspects of the codebase as a module that can fit well with his existing syllabus will be the challenge. Exciting!

After dinner with Duncan and Peter, I arrived home around 900PM and began the decompression process. Spending the day away from home and driving tends to put me into a quiet mood afterwards. In anticipation of Friday, I spent a couple of hours moving the older workstation to the main desk where my large monitor used to be (it’s now in the studio), so I can have a productive auxiliary workstation. This is primarily to have a more usable screen and avoid eyestrain. I’m feeling a little lost right now as far as project workflow goes. My main system is the laptop, and I have grown accustomed to keeping all my files on it. I now have to look again at synchronizing projects between multiple computers, which kind of sucks without a working central server. Then I finish decompressing, purposefully ignoring the mess in my house, until around midnight, when I fall into a fitful sleep.

productivity by chance

It occurs to me that although I’m far behind what I originally set out to do on my website for this week, I actually have been quite busy. Is it possible that I’m being productive doing exactly what I should be doing? The productivity trick, though, is to make sure I can do all this and make a decent living at it. I perceive the need to produce tangible works as the critical path to success, but the life I’m leading right now is actually in place. Again thinking of the “Manager versus Maker” debate I have been having with myself, the methodology I need to perform this trick is to block out enough time to make the creation of new assets possible. That is what moves me forward. And by “block”, I really mean that in the American football sense. It’s not enough to just designate some time to work, which is what I’ve been doing without much success. It’s wishful thinking. It’s active blocking the distractions to create a lane for running or a formation that allows passing; this is what moves the football forward toward the goal. A good manager does this for his or her team: blocks the distractions from other managers so they can get some work done. As a freelancer, I have to block for myself while carrying the ball. And apparently, some of what I need to block is of my own making as well.

So it appears again to come down to choice. I had chosen to spend the day doing social things, and felt bad about not doing what I had told myself I would do. This is pretty much the pattern of procrastination: more interesting, more social, more speculative tasks displace the ones that are harder to start. The very structure of my day largely favors chance social interaction. After the past few days of observing my own behavior, I am getting the impression that it is really that I am not all that excited about sitting in front of a computer and working by myself. The ideas are exciting, but the execution of the ideas into reality requires a mental stillness that’s hard for me to achieve with all the chatter going on in my head. However, I think I am learning how to recognize the feeling. If that is the case, I can train myself to summon it.

We’ll see how that goes on Friday. I’m actually writing this up on Friday noon, having gotten up late and gone through the same “blah, wake up, turn off brain” cycle I described before. I am skipping a trip to the Sharon Art Center and have 4 hours to do something before going to see the movie District 9, which I hear is pretty cool.

The focusing regimen:

  • Shut down the chatter in my mind. Don’t think anything, observe, comment, or tweet. Just listen to the sounds in the world and be aware of my place in it.
  • Select the work to do. This is important work. Intellectually I know this. But I need stillness to actually do it.
  • Don’t forget to be happy about it. It’s all for something that I believe is important for myself and the people I interact with everywhere.
  • Be still. No chatter.
  • Now, look into the stuff I have to block. Phone calls. Emails. Etc. If there is nothing pressing to do, just send a brief acknowledgment and know I’ll come back to it later.
  • It’s time to put all that manager think out of your head. It’s not as important as being in the state as being just ME with the WORK at hand.
  • Re-still myself. Don’t think anything, observe, comment, or tweet. Listen to the sounds.
  • I’m now in the room with the project at hand. What is it? What does it look like? Listen. Look. Find the first step.
  • Do it without commentary, expansion of thought, or chatter. I’m in a library! No talking is allowed. No monologues, either!
  • The expression of thoughts is always toward the project. Never toward me. Not me with relation to the project. Not me with respect to people who will like it. Just me with the project, which suddenly is kind of like a large horse that needs to be combed down.