Productivity and Newton’s Laws of Motion

Productivity and Newton’s Laws of Motion

As you may have noticed, my blogging output has dropped dramatically over the past few weeks. I could attribute this sad state of affairs to many things related to work and life, sapping the bandwidth that ordinarily goes into blogging. However, the most interesting I’m not blogging is that I’ve been trying to muster up the energy to write articles for various online magazines, and I have been procrastinating on this for months. My latest brainstorm, born a few weeks ago, was to repurpose new blog posts into article submissions. It seemed a brilliant idea: I seem to have no problem writing reams of stuff, so why not just make blogging part of the writing pipeline? I patted myself on the back, confident I had solved the motivation problem.

It’s a few weeks later now, and (perhaps predictably) my sudden drop in posting is suspiciously coincident with my attempt to kill two birds with one stone. I’ve since caught myself starting several articles, only to reflect how I probably should save that one for an editorial submission, and then I’d invariably move on to something else “more pressing”. By converting my blog posting activity from “fun diversion” to “work”, I’d inadvertently killed my entire blogging process; writing an article now competes with “making a living”, and there are other activities that always seem to require more immediate attention.


This is not an excuse, mind you…THIS IS A LAMENTATION. My constipation is not limited to writing articles, as there are many other things I should be doing that would yield the bounty of increased exposure and revenue. For example, I could be working on my AdSense-friendly series of targeted content pages to generate much-needed passive income. I should also be working on the Online version of the Emergent Task Timer. I need to write up service descriptions for my offerings and mail them to local agencies to drum up business.

As I wrote down my lamentations, I noticed the following pattern:

  • Each task is a course of action is comprised of multiple steps.
  • Each course of action requires one or more creative decisions to be made
  • Each decision requires the collection, analysis, and synthesis of information.
  • The amount of time that the collection, analysis, and synthesis of information will take is unknown.

From a “feeling” perspective, each of these tasks is a brick standing in the way of my ambitions, emanating a Ghandi-like ability to subvert my will to act. There’s nothing actively stopping me from doing these things except for the lack of surety; the moment of decision is hamstrung by my uncertainty of the time it will take to collect and analyze the supporting data. For example, for the AdSense content pages, I need to pick some topics based on keyword hits, and then design a shell around it. How much time will that take? No idea. For the Online version of the ETT, I need to learn how to create a webservice that will talk to a Flash app with a certain database schema. I’ve been researching this on and off for a while; best practices elude me, so I continue to backburner the proejct. As for writing up my service offerings, I need to figure out who I should be targeting, what I’m offering, and where I can find those people. I’m still not sure, though, what it is I want to offer.

I am confident that I can solve all these problems, but until now I hadn’t realized that I was not engaging them directly and taking steps to settle them. The only thing in my way is my desire not to waste time doing something that has an unknown time and energy requirement. That’s enough of a downer for me to put those tasks aside for another day.

Two Ways of Battling Inertia

Newton’s First Law of Motion goes something like this:

Objects at rest stay at rest. Objects in motion stay in motion.

Up to now, my strategy for battling procrastination has been to realize that “tasks in motion tend to get done”; the trick is to make it possible to tell when you’re in motion and when things are getting done.

There are four main strategies I’ve employed in the Printable CEO tools to address that insight:

Underlying this strategy, however, is the large assumption that you know how to get moving in the first place. We’re faced again with the Brick of Inaction, which is a task firmly at rest. We need some kind of FORCE to change the state of the task, which corresponds to Newton’s Second Law of Motion if you really like stretching analogies.

So what is this force? I think it’s the elimination of unsurety. Taking direct action to eliminate the doubt and uncertainty is a key, and it’s actually easy to get:

  • It can come from your boss; you don’t have to think about it, you just have to do it.
  • It can come from making an arbitrary decision and seeing what happens; extreme programming and rapid application development seem to be inspired by this “try and see” approach. And things get done.
  • It can come from experience. If you’ve done it before and know how long it takes, then there’s not much you need to wonder about.
  • It can come from the decision NOT to think about it. Just do, as they say.
  • It can come from conviction and confidence that the task should be done.
  • It can come from acceptance that you’ve got to do it.

In short, it’s the decision to make a decision that is the primal force. This has been preached to us by go-getters from the very dawn of human history, I’m sure. Although i can only speak for myself, I think it’s overcoming the unsurety of the task—that is, an unbounded and open question—that prevents me from feeling that it’s doable right now. And that’s enough of a downer to keep me from taking immediate action.

Dave’s Laws of Productivity (Working)

Let’s try these on for size:

  1. Tasks with unresolved decisions tends to stay at rest. Tasks with decisions made, however arbitary, tend to be in motion.

  2. Tasks in motion tend to get done, if the motion is observable.

  3. If you trust that the task is worth doing, you will feel productive.


p>This may be the general framework I’ve been looking for to link productivity and procrastination under one system. Everything I’ve been stuck on seems to have some area of uncertainty that creates the false impression that it can’t be done right now, which makes me put it off. By making a decision—any decision—that takes out the element of uncertainty, I suspect I can unblock at least some of my tasks.

So how will I apply these laws to my article writing conundrum? First, I will no longer wonder if the article is going to be good before I write it; that eliminates the uncertainty on the immediate task, which will allow me to put the task into motion. After that, I trust that I’ll work it out with the editor. It should only take a few hours; to further remove that uncertainty, I will just allocate one hour of writing as my first step on this multi-step project, and worry about nothing else. So long as I keep this task in motion, it will get done.


  1. Mike 18 years ago

    I don’t know if you are familiar with William Gibson’s blog but assume you are familiar with his writing. Back when he was working on Pattern Recognition (I think that was his latest)he blogged about how he found he had limited output. He either had to blog or he had to write. He couldn’t count on doing both well. It sounds like you too have hit the Gibson Paradox.

  2. stampf 18 years ago

    Dave, on the problem of starting things so put them in motion… how about coming back to what GTD states: what is the FIRST CONCRETE thing that need to be done on what clearly looks like a project (2 or more tasks linked). Get that first concrete action (now!) and put it on your Next Action list.

    Go on, do it now !

    Did you follow David Allen’s advice and plan some time during your week to review your WaitingFor, Projects, Someday/Maybe lists? What about your Inbox? Do you empty it regularly

    On the Inbox topic, I try to do it once a day at least when @work. The trick (for me) is to get used to it. As I’ve read elsewhere (43 Folders?) it takes 21 days before something is expected to turn into a new habit. Before that, why don’t you print the “workflow diagram – advanced version” from (this PDF is free) and stick it next to your computer screen ?

  3. Dave Seah 18 years ago

    Mike: Pattern Recognition is one of my favorite books. The idea of limited output is interesting…it’s something I have not wanted to accept, thinking that there is loads of untapped productivity waiting to explode into stuff. Rationally speaking, I know that there IS a finite amount of energy I have, but until you mentioned it I didn’t realize how much emotional investment I have in believing there’s more if you know how to tap it. Thanks for the comment! You’ve given me much to think about!

    Stamf: All excellent suggestions, and a good reminder that I haven’t been following the GTD methodology because I haven’t believed it solved the project management side of things. The key word there is BELIEVE, which for me is related to the whole “Faith versus Reason” paradox I face when it comes to motivation.

    I suspect this is an example of useless hairsplitting, but the GTD methodology is a “what to do”, whereas my motivation problem is a “why to do”. I’ve always been wired in such a way that I need to come up with a reason why something works before I’ll do it. I’ve made strides in recent years to try things before I totally buy-into them just for the experience, but the reason I do this is because I know that I’ll distill the “why” out of the experience. I probably enjoy the “why” part of things a lot more than the what, and perhaps I should consider splitting my productivity into two parts:

    <li>WHAT I DID … Concrete achievements you can see or hold, which I would say might be what we think of as the byproduct of “productivity”. This is the type of “doing” I feel behind on; what you can make concrete is the major way the world interacts and evaluates you on the broadest level.</li>
    <li>WHY IT WORKS … This is the thinking/investigating/expressing part of me, which manifests as blogging and conversation with people about what they want to do. I measure this in terms of one-to-one connections.</li>

    Anyway, back to GTD…I don’t think it’s the GTD methodology that “cures” lack of motivation or starting up. It addresses the SYMPTOMS, which is lack of output. That’s not the same thing. Of course, if you follow GTD to the letter, the lack of output problem goes away because you are, after all, getting things done, and this masks the underlying ailment. I’m interested in addressing the root cause of my lack of motivation, or at least understanding it, so I can effect a more holistic treatment.

  4. judyofthewoods 18 years ago

    Dave, as for a reason to write: you dance with words, it is like watching a ballet on the screen (or paper, if I were to read your work in print). I eagerly anticipate your posts, regardless of content (which, by the by, is usually excellent too), just to watch the performance. If you can’t decide whether a piece of writing is best for a blog post or for an article, why not just write, and decide where it fits in better. If you do decide to make it an article, please let us know where we can read it.

  5. John Ballantrae 14 years ago

    Dear Dave:

    About being a capacitor, you might like this from the author of The Black Swan:

    Do nothing most of the time, then workout like a nut as intensely & unpredictably as possible.


    Be a flåneur, lounging most of the time; then work as intensely as possible for a maximum of one hour; never work at low intensity –the 4-Hour Workweek.