Productivity through Discomfort

Productivity through Discomfort

I’ve been trying an experiment for the past month, which is to take on more than I’m comfortable with. The idea of overbooking myself is one that I associate with forgetting things, dropping deadlines, and generally feeling harried…not good feelings at all. The idea of doing things that are outside my comfort zone is also an anxiety-inducing exercise in facing my own demons. Coupled with my continuing search for “creative and career identity”, all these negative associations contribute, I think, to a failure to really live up to my potential. And what IS that potential? By overbooking myself, slowly, I am finding where my cracking points are. As they say, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

Shaking Myself Up

When I try these kinds of experiments, I like to identify some working principles to make it easier for me to know when I’m “on the money” or not. The challenge is to overcome my natural tendency to play it safe, and to do that I’m applying these guidelines:

  • If you think you might be able to take something on, or can’t think of a concrete reason NOT to, then take it. Don’t let “maybe” tasks prevent you from booking the commitment right now.

  • If you can see both positive and negative aspects to the task commitment, don’t let the negatives keep you from pursuing the positives. Likewise, don’t let undefined fear be your reason for saying “no”. Say yes instead.

  • Trust that you will do the best thing you can at any given time. It may not be efficient or systematic, but trust that you will get it done because that’s who you are (or want to be).


p>If I follow these guidelines, I am guaranteed to put more pressure on myself, and I’m thinking this will give me new insights into my personal productivity. Already I am feeling the need to get off my butt and work some more on the Emergent Task Timer Online, as I could really use the extended features I’d like to add. I’ve felt a few projects slip away from me in a way I haven’t wanted because my attention has been split. I’m not worrying about it as much as I would have in the past, trusting that things will get done. That’s a positive step, kind of like having the GTD “relax” attitude without the benefit of a working organization process; the next step would be to not only know what’s going on, but being able to have the energy to do it at a moment’s notice.

Pushing Through the Resistance

Energy and motivation can be a problem for me. Sometimes it’s the amount of work that’s daunting, particularly if I don’t know how long it’ll take to get it done. The emotional responses I feel are, I realize, based on the expectations that arise from fear and uncertainty:

  • How many things will I have to do and find out and make? Emotional answer: It’ll take some time to figure it all out before you can start, otherwise you’ll mess it up.
  • How long is this going to take? Emotional answer: You don’t know, but it’ll take a while and there’s no way to predict how long it will take. You’re a prisoner!
  • Is there something ELSE that I should be doing instead? Emotional answer: Yes, lots of things, but you have to do this one and a dozen others because you’re already behind. You’re a prisoner!

There’s a better way to address these questions, and that’s by taking a more pragmatic view of how things get done. I tend to worry about everything in large, complete pieces. The antidote to that is to recognize that everything gets done one step at a time. In other words, believe in the process.

  • How many things will I have do and make? Start with the first one, and the first step.
  • How long is this going to take? At least 15 minutes. Just put one foot in front of the other for an hour and review then.
  • Is there something else I should be doing? Focus on what’s in front of you, and just do one thing at a time.

In other words, deal with the fear by trusting I have a process of dealing with each scenario. I have seen these mantras before, as I’m sure you have. But it took the pressure of having TOO MANY THINGS TO DO breathing down my neck to put me in the zenful state of mind to perceive it for myself, in the context of my own dillema.

Three Tasks a Day

So I have identified my challenge and have come up with a process of dealing with the challenge. What’s left is the definition of a daily metric so I can pace myself.

I’ve decided that if I can get three tasks done in a day, I will feel good about that. They may not seem like a lot of tasks, and having such a low threshold for achievement would seem to invite abuse of the system. Since it’s just me, I’m going to apply the honor system and just accept that if I write down three tasks and get them done, then I will consider the day a winner. After all, I got three things done that needed getting done! Keep in mind also that there are going to be other tasks that pop up during the day: conversations, email, maybe even surprise projects. I figure if you can get three tasks done on TOP of that (and that’s all I’m asking), that is indeed cause for celebration.

I also like that having three things on your todo list, as opposed to a dozen, seems much more doable. That might be the positive boost I need to just get started in the morning. And I’m thinking that if I get those three things done, there’s nothing stopping me from picking another three things to do, and get a DOUBLE SHOT OF GOOD FEELING out of that.

So those are my thoughts for the day. I haven’t yet thought of a form to use to track this…I’m just running this on scrap paper until the right design burbles into my consciousness.


  1. Phil Newton 18 years ago

    This reminds me something called the “Law of Forced Efficiency”, where you give yourself so much to do that you have to be efficient with your time.

    I’m constantly tweaking the systems I use to keep myself productive, and adding pressure seems to be quite effective. The only problem is making sure I don’t add too much, as I my productivity tends to drop completely if I’m under a lot of pressure as my brain just swills around everything it needs to do.

  2. Mark 18 years ago

    Sounds all too familiar, Dave. Let’s see, for the month of December:

    <li>12/31 deadlines for two major projects at work</li>
    <li>One freelance gig lined up, another taken on</li>
    <li>Kitchen cabinetry arriving from IKEA, necessitating assembly on my part, tear out of the old kitchen on my part, scheduling of contractor for install</li>

    And the holidays! Stay strong!

  3. Dave Seah 18 years ago

    Phil: Thanks for the reference! I’ll look that up! Yes, the balancing of pressure is what I’m exploring…much more succinct way of putting it :-)

    One thing that I’ve been thinking is that I should think less, but if you LIKE thinking, it’s such an accessible way to procrastinate. You can’t walk away from your brain like you could a favorite toy.

    Mark: Yeah, stay the course! :-) I forgot all about the holidays, too.

  4. Christopher 18 years ago

    This works in school as well. I think I had seen research done a few years back that showed that high-school athletes, all else equal except their free time, did better in school.

    In high school, and so far in college, I’ve been fine-tuning my “knife’s edge” of efficiency. Dropping or adding courses, and taking on enough extracurricular to really force my head down and into widget-cranking mode on homework, my job, and everything else.

    Here’s to that Forced Efficiency! Phil, like you, I’ve pushed it too far, and end up really doing poorly, but finding that sweet spot, and its limits,  was rewarding.

  5. Senia 18 years ago

    Sometimes I like to build incentives into the system too.  So for example, I’ll tell myself that I need to do “these three things” by noon today!

    And I say “by noon” so that I can then relax after noon and not feel the pressure of “there’s something I still need to do all the way up until midnight…”

    And then, I party after noon!  Or not really party, but do the things I most WANT to be doing.


  6. Do Mi Stauber 18 years ago

    Dave, one thing that helps me is keeping a detailed list of everything I accomplish. It doesn’t take long to type them in at the end of my planning file. This eliminates my common problem of getting to the end of the day and feeling as if I haven’t done anything. Instead I can look back at the list and see that I spent two hours on the phone sorting out health insurance, set up three freelancing jobs, answered three phone calls, daydreamed creative ideas about a future project, or whatever—the things that don’t register because they’re not “did six hours of solid work on an indexing job.”

    Do Mi

  7. Dave Seah 18 years ago

    Christopher: Interesting about the high school athletes. Always something to do, then there’s always doing?

    Senia: That’s a fun idea :-) I think maybe I’m still carrying the expectation that I’m supposed to be busy doing work at least 8 hours a day that “feels like work”, and subconsciously this probably means “stuff I should be doing that I don’t like”. So maybe I flip my list around: I write down three things that I don’t want to do on my list, and do them, and trust that the fun things I do (like work on this blog, learn stuff, etc, because I’m a huge nerd) will move me forward. Especially if I am using the PCEO list…hm, maybe it’s time to re-instate that!

    Do Mi: That’s a cool idea! I just started trying that. Normally I’m logging things that I shouldn’t have been doing (see the “work” comment above) and feel bad. But duh, I should be writing down those things a marking them as plusses. This might be a useful twist for the Emergent Task Timer. Interesting!

  8. Claire 18 years ago

    Wow, it’s amazing how often a post on your site taps into what I’m thinking too Dave!  I’ve been using GTD for ages, but I tend to find it all falls apart when I’ve got lots of different things to do.  I recently picked up a book by British author Mark Forster called “Do It Tomorrow” where he advocates making a short closed list (a list which you can’t add things to) of items the day before.  Anything that comes up in the day goes on tomorrow’s list, unless it’s truly really urgent (like having to go pick up your sick child from school). Most work things never get into this category, so it stops you getting distracted.  Using his method you set aside specific blocks of time for daily tasks (email, voicemail, filing, whatever) and the rest of the time you’re free to work on your list.  Sounds similar to what you’re doing, and it really does help with the motivation and making actual concrete progress.

    Oh and back-referencing a bit – glad you found the bookmark pens! They look fab in your photos! :)

  9. Sarah 18 years ago

    I’m a huge fan of incentives, like Senia. Trouble is that I often reward myself with the incentive before I get the job done.

    I know that’s not supposed to be the way it works, but strangely, it does. Maybe I feel guilty so it makes me complete the task.

    By the way Dave, I use you Emergent Task Timer everyday. Couldn’t live without it! Thanks!

  10. Bdizzy 18 years ago

    Okay, Dave, so since you’ve already got a bunch of comments agreeing with the ideas in the post I’ll be the counterpoint today. :)

    I’m a GTDer and after an expected “making the shoe fit” period of a few months have found that if I follow David Allen’s principles in the book properly, without making it too fancy, it works like a charm. Specifically, my experience has been the opposite of “GTD breaks down when I have too much to do.” I have found that when if that is true, the system is not being implemented properly. If you truly right down every next action idea that comes into your mind in the trusted system, then when you’re in the proper context, with the proper time and energy, you can crank through next actions in widget cranking mode and they get done beautifully.

    I tried your mentioned scheme of writing down a few tasks that I wanted to get done the next day above all else. Specifically I followed Alan Laiken’s scheme (amazon search will find his book). But I’ve found that the switches and interruptions associated with each day ruin that system. Plus that system didn’t seem to have a reliable way of tracking tasks that weren’t urgent now (or for tomorrow), but should be done before day x or y. For example, if my 3 tasks for the day involve being at the computer or at a particular office or desk, and for one reason or another I find myself elsewhere for a couple of hours with nothing but my Palm and my cellphone, I miss things I should do with those resources without an up-to-date @Phone or @Agenda list of tasks that need to get done as soon as it’s feasible.

    The bottom line for me is that when things get super busy and there are million things that I could or should be doing, I need, more than ever, to get tasks and planning out of my head. Without a complete next actions list, they stay in my head and I keep wondering whether the 3 that I’ve written down and am doing today are indeed the most important ones, and whether I’m missing anything. GTD for me solves these problems and keeps my mind clear so I can focus on doing instead of wondering or worrying.

    Good post though, and good discussion!

  11. Cameron Reilly 18 years ago

    I can highly recommend something we came up with by accident on the Productivity Podcast one night. We call it “the Productivity Buddy System”. You basically pair up with someone in your Skype list and keep each other on track. You report it to each oher on how you are doing with your tasks, etc.
    Listen to the show here:

    Cameron Reilly
    CEO, The Podcast Network
    Check out my full profile at

  12. Roy Carlson 18 years ago

    First I wanted to say Hello.

    Secondly, I wanted to say wow.  You are very creative and I can tell you get things done.  I am in the process of reinventing myself in order to alight who I am with how I see myself.  Being creative is definitely more in line with how I see myself.  I already know that your blog and work will definitely bring me inspiration.

    Thanks and good luck in all your endeavors!

    Roy C. Carlson

  13. Brandon Erik Bertelsen 18 years ago

    It almost seems intrinsic – the busier you are the more you get done. You would think the converse wouldn’t be true as well but it is. I’ve consistently noticed that when things are slow in life – my productivity goes down. When things are fast, my productivity goes up significantly.

    I thrive on being so busy I can’t even think of what to do next. Bring it on!