Setting Limits

Setting Limits

Ok, I’ve cancelled cable TV, gotten my GTD system off to a start, started exercising and eating right, and have even cleared out my in-box. Nothing standing between me and ULTRA SUPER PRODUCTIVITY!


Most of yesterday was spent surfing the net and writing six (yes, six) blog posts that have been queued up for the next four days. That’s not even including this post.

Writing blog posts wasn’t quite the plan I had in mind, and this confirms something I’ve suspected for a while: clearing away distractions doesn’t really help procrastination. There’s plenty of things I should be doing businesswise, like creating a business-related section of this website to help people understand how they can work with me. I could have also spent time drawing spaceships like I said I would a few weeks ago. I could be creating new versions of the Printable CEO; there are two new forms on the design board. Instead, I surfed all my RSS subs, researched cell phones, and then went to Target to stare at them. Didn’t get a whole lot done.

I think the problem is a lack of limits. This is what I was moving toward, I think, when I realized that I needed to take active steps to rein in my Inner Child. I forgot to think about that today, and so I must renew my resolve. I also need to have a clearer sense of where my motivation is broken.

Elements of Procrastination

Although I was hopeful that GTD would kick off a major wave of productivity, that didn’t happen. Eliminating distractions like food and television (surprisingly easy) has increased my available time, but hasn’t done anything for my motivation and energy. Getting to sleep earlier helped with energy, but I’m finding that my schedule is starting to crumble again because I’m feeling…restless. I’m relaxed about what I need to do thanks to GTD, but I’m stressed because I’m not actually getting up and DOING it. All those projects on the pending list are staring at me.

So I need to create a new system around my busted motivational circuitry. I think the following are what I need:

  • Bounded Time — I can determine what the “appropriate” amounts of time to spend on a certain kind of task. For example, blogging is a kind of task. Business development is a kind of task. Chores are a kind of task. I’ve been tracking time with the Emergent Task Timer for several weeks, so I have a sense of how long it takes me to do things like write a blog post and design a screen.

  • External Triggers — These are events that push me toward action. They are also people. I think it’s important that these triggers are directly tied to the types of tasks I want to do. Business Development tasks, for example, should be triggered by some kind of need to have that stuff ready for, say, a trade show. Deliberately going out and finding those needs (making promises, for example) are critical to making these triggers meaningful. If I can hit a “snooze” button on a trigger, it’s not a real trigger.

  • External Reporting — Once I’ve accomplished a task, I need to tell someone about it. Otherwise it doesn’t feel real, and I don’t get the sense of reward. The Concrete Goals Tracker is a good surrogate actually, but one of my other goals is just to be in touch with more people, so I’d also like to call some people up and chew the fat.

These are all elements that I think will help kick my productivity into gear. However, I need to think about how these elements are applied. I wish I could JUST DO IT, but it’s hard to do that in a vacuum when it’s hard to see that you did anything at all. Anything meaningful, that is.

Immediate versus Deferred Reward

I was just thinking about what Daniel Gilbert said in his SXSW podcast: our brains are wired to pick the immediate reward over the deferred reward. Naturally, this brings to mind my favorite Demotivation poster: “Hard Work Often Pays Off After Time, But Laziness Always Pays Off Right Now”. It’s so true. Reframing Gilbert’s studies slightly, I postulate that our brains are wired to seek the most immediate and tangible payoff; if the payoff is not immediate and tangible, our brains will seek out something that is. Hence: procrastination. It’s not that I’m not doing anything, but that I’m doing something that feels more tangible. Procrastinators of our type are weird because we want to be productive, but our own brains are messin’ with us. So cleaning your office pays off immediately. Starting that two-week project does not. In video game design, it’s important to make sure that long-term goals can be expressed in terms of the short-term goals. For most games, the short-term goals are direct path to long-term goal fulfillment; if this is not obvious, the player will eventually feel gyped. Otherwise, why do them? The beauty of this is that the player doesn’t ahve to think about long-term goals all the time, with its distant payoff. The short term goals pay off right now, with happy sounds and visible metrics adding on to the player experience. Before I apply these insights to my broken motivational system, I need to first define my long-term and short-term goals.
  1. What am I doing?
  2. What am I doing it For?
  3. What is the immediate reward?
For No. 1 and No. 2, I can substitute any one of my numerous subprojects; I have no shortage of those, and I even know how they play into my overall life strategy. It’s No. 3 that’s sticky. If I don’t have an immediate reward, or if the reward is too abstract, I will not create the addictive self-energizing loop I’m seeking. And without self-energizing properties, I require additional inputs from people; the system isn’t self-sustaining, or I end up working in spurts. Ideally, I would be making many small steps instead, like leveling a character in World of Warcraft. In the first 20 levels, leveling happens as a byproduct of participating in the very rich game world…you don’t think about it until you “ding” and see the level-up animation effects.

What is the Reward?

I already have part of the mechanic in the form of the Concrete Goal Tracker, which serves as a scoring mechanism. The CGT doesn’t provide a reward in itself, but it provides a visualization from which you can derive one. By virtue of seeing what you’re doing via points, and how you’re doing over time, you get the missing view of how your day-to-day actions are playing into your broader strategy. That’s the trick. It may be enough just to re-implement the CGT in my daily routine, but I’d like to have a separate system to back it up. Going back to my three system elements:
  • With bounded time, I will set a limit on the number of hours I blog. I will set a minimum number of hours where I have to work on new business development.

  • With external triggers, I would volunteer or commit to events that forces me to take action along project lines. I’m not sure what these events might be, but they would have to be hard deadlines with hard consequences. Entering contests, perhaps? Participating in local events where I have to present something? Or it’s a friend of mine that needs something from me by a certain time; motivating myself on the behalf of friends is much easier.

  • With external reporting, I will have to find some people to talk to about what it is I’m trying to do. The forums perhaps could be used for this. Or I could join/set-up something like a diet and exercise support group, except oriented toward productivity and freelancing. A proper support group would provide the necessary positive feedback to keep my motivation circuit engaged.

  • There’s another category of trigger that I’ll call the living the dream. That’s when you do something and you get immediate feedback because you’re being the person you want to be. Then, you do it naturally. For me, that’s probably a mix of teaching/managing a group of highly-motivated and creative people toward fulfilling their own dreams…I love that feeling. Or, you are doing what might be considered some rather menial and repetitive tasks, but you know that they are part of what it takes to be an Astronaut or a Firefighter. You know, like “wax on, wax off” in the Karate Kid. Do your katas! Feel the burn! It’s part of the identity of the role you want to assume; your imagination fills in the short-term reward for you. “Parenting my inner child” is an example of this; Hey, look at me! I’m a responsible adult! See? See? This is also one of the main draws of the video game experience, being able to live by proxy in another world.

Putting the System in Place


p>I have to pick the roles so I can establish long-term goals and “live the dream”. I’ve been thinking about this for a while, so I can choose the following professional roles:

  • workflow / information design expert, working with Flash actionscript
  • real-time graphics application designer / programmer
  • productivity wonk
  • writer/teacher
  • product designer

These five roles are an additional constraint on my Concrete Goals Tracking list, which goes like this:

  • 10 – life-sustaining billable work
  • 10 – signing new business
  • 05 – publishable code…ship it!
  • 05 – sharp visual design…show it!
  • 05 – concrete planning / accounting!
  • 02 – self promotion
  • 02 – new blog article
  • 02 – social / biz development
  • 01 – maintaining old relationship
  • 01 – making new relationship

Remember that the points don’t mean how IMPORTANT they are; they are designed to incentivize the tasks that I tend to slack off on, or to de-emphasize tasks I already do all the time. If you are at the point where you need to meet more people and get new business, then rank those tasks higher.

The five professional roles I listed are another filter applied to every one of those 10 point-gaining tasks. If the task does NOT contribute toward increasing 1. tangible work or 2. reputation in any of those fields, it’s not worth doing…professionally speaking, that is. It may seem like I have too many professional goals, but after skimming Barbara Sher’s book Refuse to Choose, I am comfortable with the idea of being a Scanner and no longer am worried about “narrowing my focus” to a single set of skills.

System Initialization

While I talked about creating an immediate, tangible reward structure for my motivational system, that’s more difficult than it sounds. The subprojects I have are not really all that compelling to me for the sake of doing them, so I have to include actual people in the system. I like doing things for people, not just for myself. In the course of doing things that I think benefit people, I invariably learn something new and become more skilled; this is the feedback loop I’m talking about.

I am thinking that I need to form a peer group. We would get together, work out our goals and priority tasks, and try to move forward by reporting to each other what we’re planning, and what we got done. I have no idea if it will work, but I figure if I can find one person who’s willing to stick with this, we both will prosper. I probably will implement the group within the forums. Any freelancers out there trying to get their act together with me? Drop me a line.


Here’s the laundry list of what I need to be firm on:

  • Set limits on my inner child’s wanderings.
  • Accept that I need tangible, immediate reward to feel motivated, because that’s the way my primitive brain is wired.
  • Accept that I need tangible, immediate reward to come from actual people.
  • Pick the professional / personal development targets, and then arrange for events and people to be the triggers for the right kind of projects, so I can move toward greater fulfillment.
  • Live the dream.

If that doesn’t work, at least I got another blog post out of it :-)


  1. karmatosed 17 years ago

    I’d be up for it being a person who tends to find ‘things’ to do and make lists that too often don’t get done. Freelance is good but sometimes you just need to be accountable to your time spent dawdling.

  2. James Rifkin 17 years ago

    Recently, I’ve been thinking about Roles, myself, and how to make them manifest. In “Meditations”, Aureleus talks about Man as the social animal, and insists that it’s the actions we take for our family and our tribe that have real value. So, when you say “[you] like doing things for people,” I nod in agreement.

    The connection between immediate payoff and stagnating projects I hadn’t seen before, but it is very obvious now.

    Something I’ve been doing recently, to overcome procrastination—and it’s been working pretty well—is to consider exactly who I’m doing a task for, and focus on fulfilling that need. Usually that pulls me out of the browser and back into the text editor.

    So, now I’m going to go back to those personal projects and identify someone to report to or who could really benefit from the intermediate stages.

    So, to help out, I’d like to see one of the new PCEO forms soon, Dave.

  3. ørsting 17 years ago

    Interesting thoughts, as usual! I see a paralell here to the debate between those who seek true love (equals your term “passion”) and those who settle for regular love (=liking). Hmmm … being the scanner I am, does that mean I’ll have to settle for regular love?

  4. Mark 17 years ago

    You know, I’ve found the real trick is not so much clearing away distractions—although that is a part of it. But rather, getting to the midset that this activity that you want to do, is really something you want to do.

    For instance, your best friend got tickets to the world cup, NBA playoffs, or some great event you’re really wanting to do. You will, no doubt, find a way to ignore the distractions and clear your schedule to do it. Surfing the web, scoping out cellphones, going to Target…will not get in the way of going to the event with your friend—why? Because it’s something you really want to do. For whatever reason, you have assigned some pleasure benefit to this occassion.

    To really GTD then, I think the trick is to assign a “pleasure” benefit to those others things you’d like to get done.

    You’ve used terminology here such as “tasks” and “goals” “concrete” “reporting” “projects”…not that any of these terms are bad or negative in and of themselfs, but they are heavy and burdensome—if you know what I mean. They all have some meaning tied to them that equates to “oh bother, what a pain in the a**”

    Compare this to—“Hey Dave, I’ve got primo tickets to the NBA Finals in 2 weeks—wanna go?”

    Even though this event is in the future, (there’s no immediate payoff) your response is still a resounding “YES” You’re excited for the coming of the event, you’re now focused on watching the games so you’ll be up to speed on the events leading up to the game you’re going to, you’ll be reading all the information you can get on the teams, NBA, players…you’ll be totally focused on what’s going on. It’s doubtful, however, that anything synonymous with the terms “tasks” “goals” “concrete” “reporting” “projects” will have entered into the picture regarding this event, however.

    I hope that made sense, just kind of wrote it off the cuff—free flow as it came to me.

  5. Dave Seah 17 years ago

    karmatosed: yep, accountability to yourself…that’s something that I’m trying to do more of.

    James: “it’s the actions we take for our family and our tribe that have real value” … that’s something I suspect is true. The “tribe” aspect in particular is something I’m missing.

    ørsting: I had a realization recently that there are things I thought (or wanted to) be my passion, but they were things that I merely liked. This was before I read about the idea of scanners; I might say now that having the multiple interests THEMSELVES is the passion. In other words, is it possible that scanners are passionate about MAINTAINING the MULTIPLE INTERESTS themselves?

    Mark: THat’s very insightful…getting to the mindset. Your example just made me realize that this is indeed the problem, and why looking for an external motivation is so important for me right now. There is NOTHING I CAN THINK OF that I really really want to do. Partly it’s because it’s all interesting, but not something that just blows me away with desire. The best thing I can think of right now is to keep plugging away at things to make myself into a better individual, but I have been doing it for so long by myself, I have lost a certain idealism about finding fun things to do.  It may be that I’ve never had it either.

  6. Karl Whealton 17 years ago

    Great Post!
    The fact that you are making your experiences with GTD public is giving us all some good insight.

    I think that GTD can be helpful for procrastination, but the main point of cleaning out your life is to free your mind to focus, and to enable you to be maximally efficient when you are motivated to work.

    The way that GTD helps with procrastination is by defining next steps well.  If the next step is immediately actionable, physical, and reasonably short, it goes a long way toward getting you moving.  But GTD is not the be-all-end-all of procrastination remedies.

    Your analogy with a videogame is spot on.  I am eager to hear how your system works.  Thanks for the great posts.

  7. Dave Seah 17 years ago

    Karl: Thanks! I think you’re right about the whole “next step” mentality being one of the keys to crackin’ procrastination. I sort of see GTD as lowering the resistance to productivity, but we still need some way of imparting energy to the system so productivity happens. That’s kind of where I’m getting stuck.