The Procrastination-Energy-Time Continuum

Procrastination-Energy-Time Continuum Here’s a rambling story about my Sunday that culminates in mysterious diagram I’ll call Productivity Time and Space. It sprang from a note I scribbled down early: “as one approaches a task near the do-ability event horizon, resistance-over-time increases exponentially”. Or something…I wouldn’t take it too seriously :)

The Lost Morning

I was trying to get out of bed, and I kept falling asleep. One reason is I haven’t slept in a bed for months, and I think the novelty of plush comfort conspired with low blood sugar to entrap me well past noon. As I walked to the bathroom, a handful of possible projects for the day flitted across my mindscape, distracting me with the beauty of possibility. And before the urge to act on them could ripen fully into action, they fled too far away to catch without effort on my part. I automatically consoled myself with knowing thoughts of what might have been more difficult to act on; many beautiful ideas are ultimately pointless in the long run, right?

Of course, I was lying to myself. But I had to go to the bathroom.

After my shower, I went downstairs. In the span of the next 15 seconds, I noted that the house had already begun to get a little unkempt after Dad and his foster son had left. The floor needed vacuuming. The side table was piled high with clutter. Even the dining room table, which had been miraculously clean for two weeks, had started to develop a rich layer of junk mail and unwashed cups. I was pleased to see the new dining room chairs, though this reminded me I had to get the old chairs out of the basement and delivered to my friend Diane, who would hopefully upcycle them into something cool and offset my carbon footprint. I was now up to seven possible things to do.

This collecting of “things to do” continued unabated for the next 15 minutes until it filled all my mental capacity. Every one of them was doable, but none of them was easily doable. Or were they? Most of them required some effort of planning or physical exertion. Some of them required a bit of thinking on my part, which meant I needed to understand what the actual problem was. I knew from experience that they were all doable, but I felt a lot of “blah” inside. None of the productive choices I had triggered a sense of delight or anticipation the way that a gourmet chocolate cake from Boston or extreme new tool debuting at MakerFaire. And so I turned on my computer and looked at Facebook, then at Wired, then at Polygon, Massively, Cool Tools, Ars Technica, and so on. I read a few interesting articles, jotted down some bookmarks, and then got bored again.

What the hell is wrong with me? Here I was, wasting a perfect sunny day. Why was I not self-motivating? Why did I stop myself from working on something cool?

Fingering the Source of Discontent

First, it was that voice in my head saying that it wasn’t worth it, or it didn’t have the necessary “starting information” (as in, “I don’t know where the broom is”). This voice doesn’t speak words, but it is supremely jaded and doesn’t want to do anything. While this voice, which I’ll name “Stupid Head” for the purposes of this article, doesn’t exactly say that he has no faith in humanity, but I suspect that’s the case. Stupid Head only will get out of bed for rare and interesting things, if there are no other pressing external responsibilities.

Stupid Head is someone I have to live with, unfortunately. I don’t know why I have this voice, because I don’t feel depressed or negative on the macro scale of Human Existence; I have nothing to complain about, and I feel I have control over how I further make positive changes. The main physical challenge is exercise, but I have accepted that it’s necessary and have done the gym routine before and LIKED it. What keeps me from going to the gym is more the feeling that I’m not getting enough done, which is because I’m not starting enough projects. I also increasingly feel that I’m blocked on big creative goals that require a lot of learning. It is here that Stupid Head also makes his presence known, derisively commenting on the poor level of instructional material available. Stupid Head has expectations that the very next step is clearly defined, laid out properly, and has a guaranteed reward. Stupid Head is perfectly content to wait for these conditions, too, before expending any energy.

Stupid Head is probably the same as the Lizard Brain that many others have written about. It’s a kind of fear, I think, that has learned to present itself as strength. It’s fear that has hung around my buddy Mr. Rationality long enough to speak the language. For example, what’s a good way of making fear look reasonable? Ask another question! It’s prudent to know the facts before moving forward, right? My counter argument is whether anyone can know for sure without trying something; if there is no danger of death or permanent injury, isn’t it better to TRY than to sit around speculating, waiting for the answer to present itself?

Ignoring the Stupid Voice

At this point I was in the kitchen, and I decided that I just needed to stop listening to Stupid Head. I shut off my inner monologue and looked at the dish basket. I didn’t want to clear it, as there was no immediate sensual enjoyment from it, but I just quieted my mind and did it. As I cleared it, I encountered other annoyances like a misplaced whisk in the cutlery drawer, the need to repack the food storage containers, a glass that needed rewashing, a utensil that didn’t really have a home in the kitchen…and so on. Rather than give power to the annoyance, I just did it. After it was all done, I’d washed the dishes and cleaned up the kitchen at the same time. And THEN I felt the reward of having accomplished something.

Since planning seems to invoke the services of Stupid Head along with Mr. Rationality, I decided to avoid making a list of things to do. Instead, I just walked around the house and let the tasks swarm around me. I applied fireman-style decision making: quick gut check to see if it could be started in the next 5 seconds, had a likelihood of success with no downsides, and then went for it. I went downstairs to get a shirt, saw a blanket that needed washing in the laundry room, and put it in the laundry. While I was in the basement I smelled the cat box, so I went to change out the litter box. While I was changing the litter, I saw one of the old dining room chairs that I needed to take to Diane, so I dug them all out from the storage room. This required rearranging a lot of boxes to even get them, but I didn’t allow Stupid Head to comment. I got them moved outside the storage room, and at that point decided to leave them there until I found a time to take them out. This only took about 30 minutes total, which I found amazing. If I’d written this down as a to-do list, it would have seen much larger and daunting.

It was at this point that I thought that maybe I was living backwards as far as being a productive human being was concerned. It seemed that tasks just in front of me were unpalatable, but after they were done their status changed to satisfying. I suppose it might be because I tend seek tasks that rewards the senses or my mind immediately; this kind of anticipation I can feel. The feeling of satisfaction at having completed something, though, comes from a different place. Perhaps it’s a failure of my brain to association work with achievement, favoring cleverness over physical labor. Or maybe it’s an inherent distrust I have in anything I can’t verify with my own eyes; projects that are completed in the future are not verifiable, and therefore suspect. My mental model of productivity doesn’t take the emotional drivers into account, at least not systematically.

Breakdown of the Failure Chain

From the above, I can distill the following observations.

  • Stupid Head is the voice of fear that has been juiced with rationality.
  • Stupid Head has also learned to use my distrust of anything that can not be verified against goals in the future.
  • I am motivated by immediate rewards that feed by senses, curiosity, or knowledge base.
  • I feel satisfaction at getting things done, but only in hindsight.
  • Planning creates resistance, as it triggers Stupid Head’s sensitivity to everything that is not known.
  • Resistance builds rapidly at the moment where I could actually be acting.

The post-it note in the photo is a representation of this. You can see these “shockwave lines” that become vertical, which represents myself in the moment. Just ahead of me are a lot of X marks, which represents a negative thought or annoyance. They pile up rapidly. In the far future are the big projects I want to get done, and between them and now are the little projects that make them possible. They are hard to see amongst all the negatives, especially the negatives that are right in front of me building up like a pressure wave. Beyond me are an ordered pool of accomplishments, and the remembered negatives float lazily away. The sketch is based on jet airplanes approaching the sound barrier, and I think the analogy of bursting through resistance fits it well. I want a sonic boom!

Diagram Slipping past the resistance barrier today required a few tricks:

  • I identified Stupid Head, and then chose to ignore his pointless yammering.
  • I disabled planning, and approached my tasks in a Roomba-like wandering way.
  • I applied fireman-style decision making, going with the first reasonable action after doing a quick gut-check on doability.
  • I didn’t let Stupid Head interrupt me. If I felt any kind of discussion start to form in my head, I shut it down and put my attention into what my hands were doing. The hands became the focus, not the head and its constant desire for excitement.
  • After the first task was done, the feeling of accomplishment (a mixture of relief and surprise) helped drive the next task that I stumbled-into.

This might be a good stepping-stone process; it’s not a habit yet, so I’ll want to focus on it. The big challenge is handling larger learning-based projects, those distant goals that require daily concerted effort to bring into reality.


  1. Marje 2 years ago

    Dave, this post is hilarious! I, too, put off creative projects that require learning. Your humor is a great release. And I wish I had slept until noon at least one day this weekend. Thanks for sharing! :-)

  2. Teri 2 years ago

    Nice post! I can really relate to a lot of sentiments that you have expressed. I also see a few potential traps that can stand in the way of making “living backwards” a habit.

    “… fireman-style decision making: quick gut check to see if it could be started in the next 5 seconds, had a likelihood of success with no downsides…” – sounds like a good way to have Mr. Stupid Head convey his ideas through Mr. Rationality’s voice during the calculation of the likelihood of success and the downsides. How do you know whether the downsides are real or created by your fear?

    Also, how do you avoid getting overwhelmed by the growing avalanche of tasks? How do you keep yourself motivated, when all you want to do is to run away from all these problems that you need to solve?

    This is a real challenge that I’ve been struggling with for years, so I would appreciate your insight and experiences with it.

  3. Author
    Dave Seah 2 years ago

    Teri: That’s a good question. When I’m putting the fireman hat on, this is the “action now” hat. I forget where I first read about this—it might have been in Csizentmihalyi’s “Flow”—but the idea was that a study looked at how firemen made decisions in crisis. The researchers had thought they would pick two or three courses of action, evaluate them, and then choose the best one, but it turned out that they just picked the FIRST course of action that came to mind. They then just did a quick checklist of whether there was any obvious downsides based presumably on their training, and then went for it. No second guessing or wondering if they were making the “best” choice. In applying this thinking to myself, there is only one downside that matters: “Will I literally die or injure myself physically if I do this.” In most cases of personal productivity, this is never the case, so that means I should go ahead and do it. Even in the case where there is the possibility of failure or embarrassment, I should go ahead and do it. I think what I forgot to say is that there is an opposite of Stupid Head, which I think of as “my best possible self”. That’s the self that wants to persevere and is supportive without being patronizing, my buddy that says, “let’s go!” when it’s time to go and tells me the truth even when I don’t want to hear it.

    As for avoiding getting overwhelmed with tasks, lately it’s been about refining the scope of my ambitions relentless. I also avoid zero-sum thinking, and count only progress toward a goal as what matters. I also see no sense in counting the NEGATIVE experiences; they’ve already exacted their pound of flesh if I’ve noticed them, so empowering them further in a post-mortem beyond mere acknowledgement is something I avoid. I can learn, and move on, and not feel bad. Why should I feel bad? I can’t think of a good reason. That’s not to say to ignore mistakes, but they don’t need to be emotionally entangled. On a related note, I try to de-emotionalize my response. And in some cases, I turn off my analytical brain…most of the act of doing, I find, doesn’t require a lot of analysis. I also try to put as many thoughts outside of my mind as possible when I need to work; I use Trello to remember the important things.

    I’m not sure what kind of tasks you have to deal with, but if they’re of the personal project type (that is, they are optional and not assigned to you) then the way I’ve dealt with them is to think not of a production line, but of a fruit orchard. An orchard of ideas/tasks that can grow by themselves until I’m ready to pick them is more relaxing than having to rush around and maintain a production line. Since my personal projects are not bound by a deadline, this is acceptable. I’ve allowed myself to believe that. If on the other hand your tasks are assigned to you by someone else, then I’ve dealt with them by planning in small phases and giving accurate time estimates based on my past work logs, using this data to negotiate how much I can do in a given amount of time at a certain level of quality. Joel Spolsky describes something similar: Evidence-Based Scheduling.

    These days, I think my reaction to the pile of tasks isn’t a desire to run away from them as it is frustration with the imperfection. I like to know how to do things before I start them, which is not a recipe for learning. Even when I’m learning, I want to know what I am supposed to learn and the theory behind it, and much material isn’t geared toward that or is bad. My frustration uses up all my resolve, and then everything grinds to a halt. I’m learning to manage this frustration so I can keep moving; that requires some faith on my part that it will all work out in the end, even though I can’t predict exactly what will happen.

    This is a pretty deep topic, but maybe it will give you some ideas. Feel free to ask more questions…perhaps some other people will step in!

  4. Thoroughly fascinating. I’m in a phase where my projects are a) either far away and dependent on slow flowing information and action from third parties, b) nearby, but without much purpose or projected gratification except for getting it done.

    I’ve been introduced to splitting projects into tasks, and task into actions, and I’m trying to delegate (i.e. not freak out over) external processes.

    This image of a swarm attack of chores and counteractive Stupid Head Lures, is very recognizable. However, I would be a very bad fireman and I tend to freeze up rather than act, but I must try the Roomba Drift.

    Obviously, I need to be aware not to see the actions I bump into as obstacles to work around (like a Roomba maneuvers around the objects in its path) but to implement at least some of the fireman hands-on approach. Maybe a street sweeper would be a better mental image for me. Less heroic but very useful.

    I interpreted the diagram differently at first, that is: I saw the circle chain as ideas condensing into ever sharper visions of the future, and the final state as a completed task with some lingering doubts and objections.

    Now I’m also imagining proton acceleration analogies. Two conflicting ideas crashing into each other, the resulting particles quickly decaying, the trace routes left over to examine and and try and make sense of. At least, that’s how things often stand with me lately. Bit of a mess yearning for some unified theory.

    Thanks for the great flow of thoughts here.

  5. Michael Villeneuve 2 years ago

    Hi Mr. Seah.

    I wanted to let you know that I’m a fan of your blog. I’m reading it religiously every day and I am seriously thinking of creating my own blog. I really like these types of article where you provide us with real life problem and you don’t pretend to have every answer. It help us (the readers) identify what’s going on in our respective life. Keep sharing the way you’re doing.

    Tought I’d simply leave a comment to let you know. Keep up the good work!

  6. Shaila 2 years ago

    I can certainly relate to this article. Ever since I started to be affected by anxiety, I also have a “Stupid Head” voice that would be content doing nothing. I should try the fireman approach you wrote about since the hardest part for me is just picking something to start on when I feel overwhelmed by various tasks. Thanks for the great article!

A message from Dave:

I really believe we all benefit when we share our own perspectives on common experiences. It would be great if you added your own anecdotes and comments, even if you don't necessarily agree with the premise of the post; that's just good conversation in my book. The house rules are "treat each other with kindness and respect" and "enjoy the flow of ideas!"

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