Self Sustainability

Self Sustainability

The past couple weeks have seen a lot of activity here on the home front. I’m hard-pressed to think of a time when I didn’t have so many interesting conversations going on simultaneously!

On the other hand, yesterday I was feeling stressed out from all this positive exertion. I think it’s a good thing that I’m getting “out there” and meeting more people, but it may not be maintainable at the current pace. That’s how I feel anyway…am I kidding myself?

If I think of my recent social activity as a system process, I would say that there’s some something out of balance that’s causing this stress. Maybe some of the same tools can help diagnose the problem.

Systems Thinking Lite

I’ve been thinking a lot about cash flow. A business is essentially an engine that, using money as fuel, creates more money than it uses…profit! I’ve also been going through weight loss regimen recently, which is essentially that process in reverse (net loss in calories = weight loss). Even productivity is a kind of system of loss, gain, and repeatable process.

If we’re talking about systems, I know that there are at least two ways to tune a system to get “more” from it.

  1. Reduce Friction — With less overhead / drain / wasted resources, you can get more with less. In other words, increased efficiency.

  2. Increase Input — More input means more output, assuming the system is capable of using the additional input in the first place.

If self-sustainability is also a requirement, then the system has to:

  1. Use Fewer Assets than are Created — For a business to be profitable, it has to spend less money than it brings in. Otherwise, it’s a liability. Most things we spend money on are liabilities.
ASIDE: As I write this I’m reminded of the impossibility of perpetual motion machines. For businesses, the extra boost of energy comes from the markup on cost, which doesn’t need to obey any laws of energy conservation. Maybe this actually just defers the cost to the larger monetary pool, a kind of “I’ll pay you today with money I will make in the future”. Head hurting…skipping train of thought!

Application to Socializing

What I like about socializing is that it gives me more information about the world, which enables me to navigate it more efficiently (which for me is more fun). However, I’m limited by the need to sit and process information by myself (“alone time”). If I don’t do this, I start to feel unbalanced. When the information has been absorbed, I’m ready for another round of socializing. This is pretty typical of the introvert type. Of course, I need to make money. Socializing helps with that by identifying new opportunities…”networking”, in other words. And a lot of times, just talking to people gives me an additional boost of energy so I go do something of value that helps my business; I’m pushing myself harder in this area is because of this observation:
The more people I know, the more good things seem to happen.
And I mean that as knowing the person beyond a superficial acquaintance level. It always seems to pay off for me, as either connections made (both informational and personal) or gained insight. The problem is that my information processing capability is hitting the saturation point, and this is causing me to waste the other commodity I have: time. I’ve got to fix the system.

How It Breaks Down

I recently came across Michael Flanagans’s post You Are Not Productive a few days ago, in which he asserts that “productivity systems” like GTD, LifeHacker, and even The Printable CEO miss the point. He sees the subtext of these approaches as “if you change your behavior, everything will be OK”. I think this is an assumption that a lot of people make, and he’s right to call it out. Flanagan goes on to say that you’ve got to consider the context in which you’re trying to be more productive; there are certain things that you do not have control over: family, boss, coworker requirements. Even if you have a gold-plated self-contained productivity system, the moment you toss it into a real live environment that’s when things go haywire. Sometimes you can’t change the system. You’ve got to work with what you have, and make the most use of it. I don’t think any of the productivity systems actually claim to a magic bullet, but I do believe we tend to see them that way. Perception is everything. Considering the broader context of application does matter. I can’t help but think Flanagan’s background as an IT Project Director gives him particularly keen insight into the nature of overinflated expectations in the workplace :-) In my case, the external pressure is to make money so I can keep going down my path. Making money for me comes from spending time attracting and performing billable work. Time and money…the classic resources! These are consumed by:
  • Surviving — having a roof over my head, food to eat, paying off debt as quickly as possible
  • Connecting with other creatives
  • Building useful software that I can sell
  • Making other assets that have revenue potential (software, print, or process)
  • Build a virtual community for mutual creative success, based on sharing practical knowledge.
  • Build a real community, company, or facility.
These are roughly in order of priority, and lower activities tend to be dependent on the success of the higher ones. From the perspective of “building stuff”, survival is the friction in the system, draining resources that could go into spending more time connecting with creatives, building stuff, and so forth. Yet, it is absolutely essential. If I want to ensure that the money-time-survival cycle is utterly self sufficient, I must take this into account. Otherwise the entire system is doomed to fail, and I will have to get a job working for someone else. Getting a job isn’t a bad idea—I’ve thought about this a lot recently—but it would be nice to figure out how this all works before I throw in the towel. Time is the essence, and that’s what I need to optimize the use of through increased productivity.

Tackling the Socializing Subsystem

Whittling down the scope of my problem, I’m seeing that the socialization aspect taking too much time, and it’s impacting my survival aspect, which causes stress. Going back to the guidelines I outlined, what realistic solutions come to mind?
  • Reduce Friction — Reduce the amount of time it takes me to unwind, increasing my ability to make better use of the time I have to devote to socialization. Or, find some other way to combine socialization with other time. Or, find some way to make money at socialization.

  • Increase Input — Get more time? This isn’t an option, because I have to steal it away from survival. I could also increase the pool of available time: sleep less but well by regularizing my schedule, being more commited in my focus, spend less time watching TV, etc. There may be ways of agregating “scrap time” that ordinarily isn’t useful because the chunks are regarded as too small to be perceived as useful…that’s one of the ideas behind the Task Tracker experiment.

  • Decrease Expenditure — Spend less time. Less time means that I’ll do less socialization, but then the amount of downtime I need to unwind also decreases, which frees up more time for making money / getting new business. I could also lower the cost of Survival, which is something I’m definitely in the process of doing.


p>Difficult decisions must be made. The success of any behavior change takes commitment and oftentimes sacrifice of one thing for another; anything that undermines that commitment creates friction on the system, whether it’s internal or external. It might be your boss. It might be the water cooler gang. The situation I want to avoid is engine seizure due to overwhelming friction in the system.

Productivity to me is creating a system that is as friction-free as possible, in both the mind and the real world. In the context of prioritization, it means reducing the number of moving parts to the essentials. Simplicity, again. Now I really like complexity, but before I can get back to doing that I need to discover simplicity.

This reminds me of the old masters in Painting. The early work tends to be meticulous and detailed, but as they get older they get more done with fewer strokes. What changes is how those strokes are expressed and how they work into an overall whole. Maybe this wasn’t a good example; nuance is hard to replicate unless you’ve already internalized it. Maybe that’s one of the keys to unlocking the productivity puzzle.


  1. Joey 15 years ago

    It’s possible that now may be for you a time to rock and later may be a time to roll.  It’s possible that social things are high right now, and they may not be tomorrow or next week, at which time alone time may be higher.  Things ebb and flow, come and go.  So it’s also possible that you may not necessarily need to do anything about it.  Because life isn’t the same every day.

    Maybe the too much socializing is too unbalanced. Then it may be a process issue for you.  Is it at this point a constraint that you need to create for the future?  Does it feel more like a process issue, or more like one of those things that ‘this too shall pass’?


  2. Dave Seah 15 years ago

    Hey Joey,

    It feels like a bottleneck, but it may feel this way because I didn’t have a bigger picture view of it. After writing that post I had a better sense of the balance might be (at least, I felt I had some options :)

    I’m also coming at this from the perspective that I need to regularize my schedule and time. They have always been HIGHLY variable, so I’m seeing a lot of things colored by that filter. Kind of like a lifelong alcoholic imagining life on the straight-and-narrow, I guess! That might be an interesting source for material.

  3. lee 15 years ago


    Your insghts always tickle me!

    I do best when I can combine social activity with something else that’s worthwhile. I’ve noticed that if something doesn’t have a combination of social + something else, then it doesn’t sustain in my life. This is an activity, not individual friends. For example, I do martial arts, but it only seems to stick if the instructor has taken the effort to build a community around it. The instructors who say, “you’re supposed to practice on your own with just one lesson a week.” are for other people. I need the social aspect to be there.

    My most recent combined success has been in finding FabLab here in Boston. It combines a ton of things that I haven’t found in combination since college. It’s intensely social. It’s chaotic and fun in a non-methodical kind of way. It’s doing something good for the world. You can take a completely non-technical person there and he or she can make something rewarding the first day – so it’s exciting for your non-technical friends. Instant, positive rewards are a big part of it.

    I get a lot of positive feedback in the creative area when I’m there. I’ve worked hard to develop a broad set of skills for making things and I’m realizing that there’s a lot that I do know. Not in the “I’m superior because I know this and you don’t” kind of way, but in the, “wow, that really is a useful and helpful skill that everyone doesn’t know. (registering utter surprise) I was really able to help someone with it. How do I teach it?” kind of way. Basic things like measuring in the real world are learned skills and there are a ton of tricks that I’ve picked up in the machine shops and special effects shops over the years. I’m constantly going ” huh, whoda thunk?” and realizing that I haven’t entirely wasted my time learning these skills. Collaboration is one of the most rewarding things in the world for me.

    I like that it’s a place where someone can come with a fledgeling idea and there are a lot of people there to help. It’s got a big playground atmosphere. It’s a giant sandbox – with the distinct possibility that this sandbox will solve a lot of problems for the world. The hope thing.

    I’ve gone on much more than I meant to. It just seems that there are a so many things I want to do, but don’t nearly have the time and combined things seem to work. I drag people to FabLab or I drag people X-Country skiing.

    The people I know who are successful creative freelancers also seem to go in cycles from social to relative hibernation. While my success is still in question, I’m in a non-social, work like crazy mode and socializing, unless I can combine it with something else like fablab or exercise, is just too stressful. I feel like it’s finals week and I’m out at a party when I have a big exam and a paper due the next day. I also know that I do better in a total immersion thing and I find work really really rewarding right now because I’m challenged in all the right ways and am learning a lot and am doing some really good work.

    And that’s a rare situation, too. So if I want to accomplish socializing, I need to bring in my friends whom I most want to spend time with from the outside and get them to work with me.

  4. Dave Seah 15 years ago

    Hey Lee, thanks for the awesome comment! A lot of it resonates with me also, as you probably know :-) Community building is something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately. It’s just a couple steps short of building a Company, which I think is the direction you’re heading in also with the freelance bring-in-your friends mentality you’re converging toward. It’s as easy as putting yourself out there and taking on the role because you want to. Maybe that’s the concise method for a successful life.