(last updated on April 29, 2014)
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.
First I have to ask myself why I’m not I feeling that happy. There are two main symptoms:
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.
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:
- Gather all clutter into piles sorted by destination (cups for the kitchen, shoes for the shoe closet, etc).
- Yoss garbage, pick up small junk off the floor that won’t vacuum (pennies, etc)
- Move piles to their destination (this spawns subtasks)
- Prep the living room for unimpeded vacuuming
- Vacuum main floor
- Vacuum couches
- Vacuum edges
- 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!
- 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 :-)