Adult-Onset Productivity Responsibility Syndrome

Adult-Onset Productivity Responsibility Syndrome

I have not been feeling productive for the past few weeks, which is strange because actually it has been a pretty good run: I got a load of client work done, cleaned my living room, took some junk to the dump, had half-a-dozen insights, and even went dancing. Nevertheless, I still feel unproductive, which triggers feelings of inadequancy and depression. Feeling productive is really what’s important in this case.

I’ve only just now become consciously aware of this, it’s time to do another self-diagnostic to find out what’s wrong. It has something to do with being an adult, but maybe not in the way you think.

The Symptoms

First I have to ask myself why I’m not I feeling that happy. There are two main symptoms:

Feeling Disconnected

This is essentially a sense of isolation. I can break it further into the feeling of not feeling understood, and the feeling of being out of sync with society.

I believe all these issues are a side effect entering hermit mode six weeks ago, which made my sleeping schedule highly variable. While the short-term results were positive—increased productivity and focus—my level of “socialization” diminished because my frame of reference was focused entirely on myself. Just the other day I was talking to a good friend on the phone, and I realized I hadn’t really used my voice for a couple of days; it was like I had forgotten how to talk. Weird! And I’ve been noticing a feeling of unease in public spaces as mundane as the supermarket checkout line. Even weirder! It’s like I’ve started to become feral, like an abandoned cat.

Feeling Behind

I know there are tons things I should be doing: creating products, building my network, chores, accounting, sales, getting regular checkups, vacuuming, mopping, sorting my paper mail, reading, creating business plans, exercising, dieting, and so on. I have made some headway on all of them, but it is a giant mound of things to do, and my motivation level has been low. It’s a vicious circle.

I know that “just do it” is what will get me through this, and I even know that David Allen probably has a few good things to say about this, but let me work this out first:

  • There are so many things that I feel my energy drain away before I can even spark.
  • Getting things done helps, of course; having the sense of fulfillment is an important part of being productive.
  • Complicating matters is my stubborn desire to self-diagnose rather than just implement an existing system.

While this is the way my personality is wired, I’m starting to recognize that it’s perhaps a little childlike too. More on that later.

Deconstructing My Productivity Engine

Now that I’ve identified how I’m feeling, I need to consider what I know so far about myself.

It is a fact that I’m energized by results that I can share, and that there is a certain activation threshold that is triggered by collaboration with passionate people. In general, the more work required of me, the greater the activation threshold. Without that external input, the activation threshold is never reached, and I just go around soaking up information from random corners of the Internet. This isn’t a problem, usually, with client work, but when I’m working on my own projects or chores, the activation threshold becomes a significant hurdle.

There is one exception to the third-party activation rule: I like sharing information and processes; the activation threshold for this is correspondingly low.

Diagnosing “Feeling Isolated”

It’s pretty obvious that if I have a people-activated motivation threshold, then I need to be in contact with people; being a hermit doesn’t help with that at all. This also means that I need to bring myself back in sync with the rest of the world, which means that I have to get back onto a regular sleep schedule and figure out how to do that like, er, clockwork. I tend to have terrible insomnia, so going into free sleep was a good idea at the time. The long-term side-effect, however, is that I lose motivation. So from now on, hermit-mode will be reserved for sprinting in time-crunched situations.

I also have to actively resocialize. It’s not enough to be waking up at 7AM and sleeping by 11PM; I’ve got to reacquaint myself with the rituals of civillization.

Diagnosing “Feeling Behind”

I have to admit that “just do it” is the answer. It’s also true that I’ve always hated this answer when presented as-is, because it isn’t particularly helpful to someone who has yet to figure out why it hasn’t worked for them. It’s like telling someone with financial problems that earning more money and spending less will help them out. DUH. THANKS A LOT, PROFESSOR! GIVE MY LOVE TO CAPTAIN OBVIOUS! While the advice is sound, the lack of specific steps is what makes it lame.

So Maybe I Just Don’t Know What I’m Doing

Is it as simple as knowing what I needed to do? I made the Task Order Up series to provide scaffolding for this insight; I don’t really need a To Do list, I need no-brainer List of Steps. The inspiration for this was the Sumerian notion of me, as I understand it from Neal Stephenson’s seminal cyberpunk novel Snow Crash. The protagonist has this conversation with a librarian, who explains what me are (emphasis mine):

[…] Apparently, [me] are like algorithms for carrying out certain activities essential to the society. Some of them have to do with the workings of priesthood and kingship. Some explain how to carry out religious ceremonies. Some relate to the arts of war and diplomacy. Many of them are about the arts and crafts: music, carpentry, smithing, tanning, building, farming, even such simple tasks as lighting fires.” “The operating system of society.” “I’m sorry?” “When you first turn on a computer, it is an inert collection of circuits that can’t really do anything. To start up the machine, you have to infuse those circuits with a collection of rules that tell it how to function. How to be a computer. It sounds as though these me served as the operating system of the society, organizing an inert collection of people into a functioning system.”

My first thought: systems like The Printable CEO fit the bill, but it’s a task meta-system: they help you organize tasks, but don’t actually help you perform the task. Maybe that’s where I need the help. I’m not as expert as I thought.

Some of the things I’m behind on are daily household chores:

  • Vacuuming the House
  • Balancing a Checkbook
  • Doing the Dishes
  • Cooking a Meal

These are everyday tasks that everyone knows how to do…right? Maybe not. If I make a distinction between knowing how to and trained to, then there a difference in level of efficiency and mental effort. Sure, I know how to cook a meal, but it comes out different every time I cook it. Sometimes I forget ingredients. The way I’ve compensated is by adopting cooking principles which allow me to at least get good-tasting if inconsistent results. That’s find for the occassional meal, but not good enough to be a caterer or restaurant chef. I can shoot a gun with speed and accuracy, but not consistently on the move; I’m unlikely to survive a firefight against a veteran soldier. Likewise, when it comes to managing a household full of kids, the first diaper would do me in.

This isn’t about being competent; it’s about being trained to do something efficiently. While changing that first diaper would likely disrupt my entire day due to the sheer trauma of it all, doing it repeatedly will make it automatic. It becomes part of my bag of tricks.

Reframing household chores as training much more interesting, and it becomes a small-scale learning challenge. Don’t know where to start? Here’s a list of steps, my personal me. Since I already know what’s supposed to happen, it should be relatively straightforward to shape that insight into discrete, readily-executable steps. I had never given thought to actually training myself in my day-to-day routine, because I have trouble learning by rote. I need to have the insight and the “why” provided, otherwise I can’t actually remember the steps no matter how hard I try. Inefficiency and error results.

Here’s an example of the very first Task Order Up card, which detailed the directions for cleaning my living room:

  1. Gather all clutter into piles sorted by destination (cups for the kitchen, shoes for the shoe closet, etc).
  2. Yoss garbage, pick up small junk off the floor that won’t vacuum (pennies, etc)
  3. Move piles to their destination (this spawns subtasks)
  4. Prep the living room for unimpeded vacuuming
  5. Vacuum main floor
  6. Vacuum couches
  7. Vacuum edges
  8. Have a cookie!

This was surprisingly helpful despite its surface silliness. I had previously approached the chore in a haphazard manner, with predictably slothful results. Writing the process down in an efficient, don’t-have-to-think manner actually produced motivation and focus (well, at least it has the two times I’ve vacuumed since I tried this).

So basically what I’m saying that one approach to taking the just do it challenge is this: learn how to do it, then train yourself. Maybe you just need a little guidance. It also helps get your mind off the “choreness” of the task.

Or Maybe I Just Need to Grow Up

Last weekend I was visiting some friends with two energetic school-age kids. As the kids bounced around the house, I took note of the constant stream of parental guidance that shaped the environment. Their kids were safe, loved, and made aware of the consequences of their actions without being patronized…very cool! There was one point when one of the boys was sent to the bathroom to wash his hands before eating. I realized that I hadn’t washed my hands either, but I kept this to myself as I thought they were clean eough.

I was also secretly pleased I had gotten away with this.

The next day, I was contemplating the mountain of chores, business activities, and social engagements that I needed to juggle in the coming weeks. I wryly thought to myself that I was turning into an adult, and remembered the whole “not washing my hands at dinner” affair from the previous night. And then it hit me: I still have a LOT of childish behaviors. I am still indulging in all the things that I wanted to do when I was a kid but couldn’t:

  • Buy the toys I want, price be damned!
  • Eat the food I want, fat be damned!
  • Stay up all night playing video games!
  • Put off doing the chores!
  • Drink soda right out of the bottle!

My reasoning, if you could call it that, is that as an “adult” I was completely capable of balancing everything such that I would have a satisfying life. However:

  • Now I have credit card debt, which drains my resources for nothing in return!
  • I’m fat!
  • I have insomnia!
  • My house is a sty!
  • I can’t share soda with house guests, which makes me a bad host!

Ok, I stopped buying soda a long time ago, but still things obviously aren’t quite going to plan. While things aren’t bad per se, I’m paying the price for my past impulsive transgressions. I’m prevented from moving forward unencumbered, and that is very irritating. That I have somehow slept through the part of life that tells you how to be an adult is an alarming revelation, and it ticks me off because it’s entirely my own doing.

There is a difference between becoming independent and becoming an adult. I’ve been doing an OK job on these adult qualities:

  • Self-control – restraint, emotional control.
  • Stability – stable personality, strength.
  • Independence – ability to self-regulate.
  • Seriousness – ability to deal with life in a serious manner.
  • Responsibility – accountability, commitment and reliability.
  • Method/Tact – ability to think ahead and plan for the future, patience.
  • Endurance – ability and willingness to cope with difficulties that present themselves.
  • Experience – breadth of mind, understanding.
  • Objectivity – perspective and realism.

As a single adult, I think I do find with these in the abstract, but if I compare myself to a parent there’s a critical difference: having responsibility for a family. A parent has a highly-interactive training mechanism (i.e. the child) that sharpens all those adult qualities. A parent is quickly motivated to find what works when their children are hungry, injured, or unhappy. They’re rewarded with smiles.

Another admirable quality of a parent is the desire to create security for the family: financial security, housing, food, community life, and family support. This is also true for a committed relationship between partners, and that desire to create this state of being for the entire family is incredibly motivating and productive.

Since I’m not in a relationship like this, I really only have myself to work on. I need to have the same responsibility and commitment to myself. And, I have to recognize that I am in a lot of ways the same child I was years and years ago; I just have more credit cards to hurt myself with. Don’t make me take them away!

In Summary

  • I’m going to reconnect with society because apparently I need it to be productive. I also have to be mindful of regular sleep, diet, and health, because being in good physical condition makes the quality of my personal interactions that much higher, and therefore more energizing.

  • There are many things to do to get out from behind the 8-ball, which has been getting me down. Getting stuff done will feel good! As I’m actually not very skilled in doing a lot of the chores I’ve been putting off, creating process for even very mundane tasks is an opportunity to train myself in some life skills. It’s a mental trick.

  • The big insight is that I’ve not taken responsibility for my adult existence, and instead have been rather more indulgent of my childhood impulses that I’ve realized. And while I’m not a parent, I can perhaps repurpose the mentality to create my own “sense of mission” toward myself: create stability, security, and sanctuary. It’s also good practice for being a parent someday.

  • Now that I know that I’m responsible for “being my own parent”, this clarifies a lot of the decisions I need to act upon. It’s kind of a round-about way of taking responsibility for myself, but as someone who prefers the no-bs perspective of a child, it may just be the best way for me to integrate those adult sensibilities into my life.


p>I know…I always have to make things harder for myself :-)


  1. Katy 18 years ago

    I completely agree with everything you’ve written here. Sometimes I feel as though I’m stuck in “Student Mode” with no responsibilities and someone who’ll be there to pick-up after me.

    One thing I did to get me out of this rut was to schedule certain things that I knew I had to do.

    A lot of people are against hard scheduling but I have found it invaluable. For years “Hoover (or Vaccuum for you non-UK people!) downstairs” was hard-coded to 2pm saturday on my calendar. If I was due out that day I made sure it was done before so I could leave. Now, a couple of years down the line, it’s no longer written in my calendar but it’s always done on a saturday – a bit like Pavlovs dogs I guess!

  2. Dean Johnson 18 years ago

    You are actually suffering from “Productivity Narcosis”. Its alot like it nitrogen brethren, except its after a fit of productivity. Sometimes the untrained body doesn’t handle the excess effectiveness in the best possible way. Rather than let it dissipate, use it, work your way through it to lasting effectiveness. It’s like handling G’s (as in gravity) knowledge and diligence can up your handling capacity and be a real positive overall.

  3. Gavin 18 years ago

    With everything you do you can think “how can I do this better AND/OR more efficiently AND/OR pass on what I learn”. It can get a bit much sometimes! But it seems you haven’t thought about how you can do better at housework because it is just a chore and not a challenge or game.

    Regarding being an adult… I have to say my girlfriend (now wife) sorted a lot of those issues out. Any that were left were quickly removed when we got married (like the “My Money!!” attitude) :D


  4. Josh DiMauro 18 years ago

    Man, I started writing a comment to this and ended up with an essay.

    Posted it here.

  5. Dave Seah 18 years ago

    Katy: hardcoded dates! good idea! I need to fix that “waking up at a regular time” thing too, but maybe it’s not necessary…

    Dean: Heh…an excellent perspective! I may be mature enought to accept it now, but a related thought is that the narcosis may cause permanent smugness of the brain :-)

    Gavin: Yep, never mastered the chore aspect as a chore! I would argue that your wife has made the chore into part of the overall game, because SHE has become the feedback mechanism. When you do the chores, you’re expressing your love :-)

  6. Dave Seah 18 years ago

    Josh: Great essay…you’ve clarified a lot of things I was trying to say. Excellent!

  7. Bill Busen 18 years ago

    One phrase that leapt to mind reading this is from a Meyers-Briggs type description for my type (INFJ) – the nicely paradoxical description “affiliative introvert”.  It’s maddening to be the type of person that spends all his time thinking about his friends and never initiates contact with them!

    One trick (from GTD) for me is to keep Agendas for everyone, so in hermit mode, when you think of something for Theresa, you write it on her Agenda list before going back to whatever you were doing.

    The life-balance problems you describe after a productivity sprint are vividly analyzed in books by Jim Loehr (Stress for Success, etc).  In a nutshell, linear rest or stress in any of the dimensions (physical, mental, emotional) is debilitating – those areas all need to cycle, and if you intelligently “train” in those areas (like training for running), you build up capacity.

  8. Alvin 18 years ago

    Yeah Dave, you do seem to make it hard on yourself! :)

    Give yourself some credit…I’d love to see a post where you list all the stuff you’ve been kicking ass lately at.

  9. Brian 18 years ago

    Great article Dave!
    It sounds like you and I have a lot of the same habits, and one thing you said really resonated with me:

    “I am still indulging in all the things that I wanted to do when I was a kid but couldn’t.”

    GOD… That’s ME!

  10. Dean Johnson 18 years ago

    Just wait until you start living through your children. ;-)

    Thankfully my Son is truly embracing things that I would have loved to do as a kid, but for a variety of reasons could not. It takes lots of experimentation and a whopping amount of patience, but eventually they find their “thing” and I am happy that it is something that I can not only enjoy, but embrace as well. Of course it has to be something that requires a continuous capital infusion to give the illusion of progress. What is fundamentally different here is that he has offered to spend his money on his new activity, namely lacrosse, and not videogames. When he would forgo the newest videogame to help finance a new stick, I perceive that as progress, atleast in terms of passive versus active physical activity.

  11. Dave Seah 18 years ago

    Bill: That’s an interesting observation! I’m INTJ, though the T and J are very weakly expressed. I’m more INFP when I’m mellow, but if there’s stuff to be done INTJ snaps to attention. The idea of agendas is very interesting…I actually do this automatically! I thought of this as “maintaining state” or “maintaining continuity” for all my friends and associates. Whenever I come across something interesting, some part of my brain automatically picks out the people who I know would be interested in it.

    Alvin: That’s an interesting suggestion. I probably would be too embarassed to do that, because it seems boastful! That’s something I’ve always had a problem with.

    Brian: Heh, I’m glad I’m not alone :-)

    Dean: I’ve thought about what this might be like. Part of me is very curious. I was just wondering if part of my productivity problem and tendency toward distraction is that as a child, I was often bored or off-balance. Though I’m no longer subject to the situations that bored or made me nervous, I am in constant fear of being BACK in that situation. Realizing that now, I can deal with it, but it’s a realization that has come rather late in life.

  12. Dean Johnson 18 years ago

    Dave, a nice thing to do to exorcise past childhood demons is to re-address them in situations where you are either assured success or not expected to succeed. Scrimmaging in lacrosse with my son’s team has sort been that for me. As a kid I was too skinny and too clumsy to be competitive in team sports, especially the ones that I was interested in. I happened to pick sports, like hockey, that our area was known to be top notch in. With lacrosse, I am playing against middle school kids, who have less experience with lacrosse and are a foot and half shorter and 150 pounds lighter than me. The problem is that I am coming off two decades of being sedentary. On one hand I am a big fat old guy playing with a bunch of kids, thus I can’t be expected to succeed. On the other hand, I have a big height, weight, and skill advantage, so I almost can’t help but succeed. I got my bases covered and am happy for that. The upside is that I can get healthy, albeit more than slightly bruised, by doing the activity. Its fun too and supports my son’s love of the sport.

  13. Amy 18 years ago


    I think you need the fly lady…

    You will enjoy flying.


  14. Bruce 18 years ago

    Adult-Onset Productivity Responsibility Syndrome, huh? And I’ve just written a rant about the medicalisation of life’s problems! I realise your “diagnosis” is in jest (well, I hope so), but it’s been interesting to follow your self-critique. If more people turned their thoughts inward—and stopped looking externally for others to find and solve their problems—the world would be a better place. So you’ve got an action plan, and you’re taking responsibility. The prognosis is looking favourable.

  15. Dave Seah 18 years ago

    Dean: That sounds really wonderful…embracing failure (or just not caring about it as much) is something I’ve been trying to reset my mind to do. It’s actually not hard; the trick is to get my physical body into the situations where I am in the learning environment and CAN fail. Glad you found a way to do it!

    Amy: Thanks for the flylady link! I’d seen her site before, and think it’s pretty cool. The support-group aspect of it is pretty neat.

  16. Dave Seah 18 years ago

    Bruce: My diagnosis is partly in jest—I thought the title would be funny—but as your gut is telling you, there’s a bit of truth in it too.

    I just scanned your article on medicalisation…yeah, I agree with its many points. It goes far beyond medicine, of course…I think it’s safe to say that we’re born to fiddle and troubleshoot, to figure out any way of “gaming the system” to make our lot better in life. Business consultants, for example, diagnose problems to which they can offer up some kind of program of treatment.

    It’s useful to diagnose, isolate, then treat the symptoms by backtracing to the suspected cause. We’re born to do it. Where it gets a little fuzzy when you isolating brain chemistry from intention, and intention from action, which this medicicalisation you’re talking about seems to come into play. Where do you draw the line? It would be great if we considered all our actions along these lines: weighing desire vs conflict of interest, forming intention, initiating action, ethics, morality, accepting personal responsibility and social responsibility. These form an implicit contract we have with society, and these days we just don’t have the clarity that we used to. Reminds me of that line from “3 Days of the Condor”, with the old cold-war guy saying something long those lines. This also reminds me of a study of how having lots of choices doesn’t really make life better, though we like the idea of choice, but now I’m going off on a tangent.

  17. Bruce 18 years ago

    “…having lots of choices doesn’t really make life better, though we like the idea of choice”. Hmm [contemplative look]… I’d recommend that you take the Blue Pill, Mr Seah.


  18. Dave Seah 18 years ago

    Bruce: Thank you for the recommendation, I think :-)

    I was just thinking about this…why do we like having choice? I’m looking for a new cheap cell phone provider, and am a little overwhelmed with the number of choices and the lack of transparency regarding the capabilities of phones and suitability of plans. The world of telecommunications offers us awful choices, with very little to distinguish between them other than accepting them on their word, which are just small truths wrapped in a thick layer of deceptions. When did marketing become the art of toe-ing the line between lying and truth? Or am I thinking of sales?

    I just want to have choice so I can feel I can live optimally the way I want. That IS the blue pill (looking it up, it’s the “stay in the imaginary world”, instead of “go through a world of painful realization”)

    The question is how far do I want to push myself for truth? In a way, accepting relative truth is like accepting the blue pill.

  19. Scott Brison 17 years ago

    It would be great if we considered all our actions along these lines: weighing desire vs conflict of interest, forming intention, initiating action, ethics, morality, accepting personal responsibility and social responsibility. These form an implicit contract we have with society, and these days we just don’t have the clarity that we used to.