Stumbling Toward Productivity

Stumbling Toward Productivity

I’m rather sad to report that my post-SXSW attempts to get back to the early schedule have fallen flat. Or rather, I’ve fallen flat on my face. It’s classic purge-and-binge behavior: for two weeks, I could do it, but without the followup two weeks to hammer it in, I was perhaps doomed to bounce back.

However, the time hasn’t been entirely wasted. I’ve had a taste of what it’s like to wake up early in the morning, and know what it can be like. The question is how badly I want it. That is, what are the benefits? And are my goals still in alignment with them?

After SXSW

I was in Austin for about a week, doing my best to capture my thoughts and experiences. I ended up with about 24 pages of blog posts, and 32 pages of notes which I am just now starting to look into in-depth. Inside those notes are the keys to something important to me; I know that there’s a path worth following in there somewhere.

I was looking forward to getting back on The Early Schedule once I got back, rarin’ to get going on all these new plans, and have instead found myself facing the same issues:

1. There is so much to do, I feel like I need to stay up

I think the cause of this is that I keep thinking I’m not as productive as I should be. And one reason for this is that I’m too willing to believe what people are “telling” me based on their impressions. An impression is not the same as side-by-side daily shared continuity. Since I work by myself, this is an important distinction to realize, and it’s me who has to be firm about what is moving me forward and what is not. So it’s up to me to feel good about that. I would say the same rule applies to the workplace: oftentimes, our assessment of a situation is done through sporadic sampling and chance observations; it’s extrapolating 100% of the reality from 1% of the observed behavior. It is time to break the cycle.

2. Unfortunately, there are only about 10 productive hours in a day.

I was at the coffee shop and made a list of everything I thought I needed to be doing. I broke this down first into a general list of “streams”, and whether they are “energy generators” or “energy consumers”.

  • Blogging Stream – Generating this stream of thoughts and ideas is critical to me. If I don’t write, I lose clarity and focus. Also, creating original content through the blog continues to bring me in contact with other people with similar interests, which creates energy for everyone involved. This is a long-term energy generator; what I put out now tends to build my cache of ideas and principles, and it feels good to put them out there.

  • Business Development Stream – After SXSW I have a clearer idea of the kind of design agency / business / whatever I want to create, and getting to the point where I can “launch” is very much on my mind. Because the business side is still largely a freelance / services model, getting to that next step is going to be an energy consumer because I need to create new process and new content. And I don’t find business process (like, registering an LLC or finding a good accountant) particularly exciting.

  • Product Stream – I’d like to shift from services to products, and to do that I actually have to make some things and get them out there. Blogging is a first step, because it is the source of many concepts. Building something up takes time; projects like the Online Emergent Task Timer, writing a neat book, and creating a new information section on the blog have taken a back seat to client work. I need to put in the time every day to make this happen. So right now, it’s an energy investment and therefore a drain on available sources.

  • Social Stream – Face to face contact is something that I’ve recognized is very important, particularly day-to-day shared context. This is something I’m lacking very much at the moment, and therefore I’m putting more effort into finding more friends outside of work to yammer with on a daily basis. In the meantime, Twitter is filling in the gap. I find that day-to-day social interaction is an energy generator, but one-time social events tends to be an energy drain.

  • Veggie Stream – I need some downtime everyday, because I spend too much time in my head. Watching TV has been my most accessible venue for vegging out, though I tend to watch shows that get more more excited than calm. Doh! This isn’t really an energy generator or consumer; I’d say it’s more like “brain maintenance downtime”.

  • Chore Stream – I’ve got to keep my house clean. I’m not that good at it. If I spend an hour a day, I should be able to keep up, but hours seem so precious. Energy drain, though afterwards a clean house makes me feel good. Maybe I need to focus on that.

  • Health Stream – The mindful practice of personal hygiene, eating right, exercising, scheduling regular appointments with the doctor. These feel like chores. This is also where having a buddy helps.

After figuring out this was where my time tended to go, I outlined a bunch of activities that I needed to do. First, I calculated my daily overhead:

  • sleep: 8 hours
  • personal/eating/vegging: 4 hours
  • social: 2 hours (includes emailing)
  • biz dev: 1 hour (mostly talking to people)
That’s 14 hours, which leaves me with 10 hours to allocate:
  • exercise: 1 hour
  • blogging: 2 hours
  • project work: 6-8 hours, ideally, includes administration
  • products: 2 hours? 4 hours?
That’s already over the limit, so I have to start paring things back. Add to this special events that involve driving to some place (losing 2 hours of drive time), meetings that run long, surprise calls from people, and so on, and the day goes poof. Having written this down, I can see that realistically I have to accept that I’m just not going to be able to get everything done at the same time on a daily basis, and that I shouldn’t feel bad about it. Weekly productivity measurements, as I actually have in the Concrete Goals Tracker, probably are the way to go.

3. Maybe it comes down to external metrics afterall…

This is ironic, but I think I need to start hitting the Concrete Goals Tracker again. I haven’t used it in quite some time, instead using an older day-to-day Excel tool and a regular text-file todo list:
  • The Excel time tracking tool is more job-focused, and as I have been focused on client work these days it just seemed more suitable; I can cut-and-paste the rows into a spreadsheet just for a particular client, which I then use for invoicing.

  • The text-file todo list allows me to keep my stream-of-consciousness intact, as I will often write out my next steps before doing them; it helps augment my memory and clarify sequencing.


p>These are both detail-view tools, but lack the “big picture” that the Printable CEO™ Concrete Goals Tracker provides. It has been good to just put my head down and work—this needs to happen if anything is to get done—but I have not been providing myself the necessary oversight. And I think I’ve been seeking more social contact with people because it helps get me thinking outside of myself and about other people, which gives me perspective on what I’m doing and where I need to go.

Maybe what I need is a PostSecret / Twitter mashup, where I can share my goals in a twittery social context.

The Takeaway

Having written this out, here’s what I think I need to do:

  • Accept the weekly timeframe as the default unit for assessing growth in the larger business-dev/social/product sense. Days are too short and unpredictable, so focusing on maintaining momentum during the day may be the more useful mindset to have.

  • Bring back the CGT, create weighted goals based on my “stream list” that are more difficult to do. For example, I wouldn’t put eating and sleeping on my goal list…that already happens. Creating content, building tangible product, and establishing day-to-day social contact, though, should be worth something.

  • Continue to use the Excel timesheet for time tracking, until I can get some of those tools built to take it over. The ToDo text file is working fine for me right now.


  1. Ian Muir 17 years ago

    Maintaining momentum on projects if definitely an issue for me to. When I run out of time, I just use a trick I learned while at the engineering department at UMaine.

    if(SleepTime < 8)


  2. Fred 17 years ago

    Gotta tell ya, it’s a little funny we all use the progress trackers you’ve made, and you don’t!  Hah!

  3. Dave Seah 17 years ago

    Yes, it is! I need to take a poll or something and find out what people are using them for in what contexts. Maybe there is some UBER TOOL that needs making!

  4. JL 17 years ago

    What you describe is exactly what I go through sometimes. Just not enough hours to do all the stuff that I want to do!

    So I’ve started to break my work down based on how much energy I have at the moment.

    For example, networking is really draining for me, so I need a lot of energy to properly do that. So on days that I feel really energetic, I’ll group my networking tasks (e.g. calling people, meetups, etc.) together.

    Other days I feel really, really lethargic and I don’t want to do any “work” tasks. So I have this “productive procrastination” list that I’ll tackle (e.g. checking my cars oil, fixing stuff around the home).

    I also have routines that I do everyday—like morning walks and answering support emails—but after I do that, I’ll work on the tasks that I’ve designated for that day.

    These are the some of the most common “days” that I use:
    + Networking – meeting new people and catching up with old friends

    <li>Reading – I spend the whole day reading things. This is usually when I get finish all my RSS feeds and books that I’ve been wanting to read.</li>
    <li>Small tasks – Here I try to tackle all those small, single action tasks, like checking my cars oil, taking notes on an article, updating my invoices, etc.</li>
    <li>Old tasks – I have a bunch of old tasks that I want to do but often more urgent tasks get done first. So on these days, I do the oldest ones first. And sometimes, because they’re so old and no longer relevant, I find out I don’t actually need to do them! (And that’s the power of procrastination :)</li>

    An added bonus is that because my days fluctuate, I don’t get bored with a set routine.

  5. Bill Peschel 17 years ago

    “Maybe there is some UBER TOOL that needs making!”

    Here’s mine. I built this form because I was trying to handle your CGT, plus my “Getting Things Done” Next Action List, and plan my day ahead of time. This used two or three sheets on my clipboard.

    I modified your CGT for something that kinda, sorta works for me. (The links is to a GIF file on my Web site).

    The new sheet has four parts:

    <li>At the top, your CGT, with my goals plugged in, thanks to your handy-dandy form.</li>

    The bottom 2/3rds is divided into three columns.

    <li>The right-hand column is narrow and has lines for the day of the week (M-F), 10 a.m., 11 a.m. and noon. I try to plot the hourly task ahead of time.</li>

    3.There are three sections for tasks that go through several procedures. For example, I write book reviews. Each review goes through the same process: read book, compile notes, write 1st draft, write 2nd draft, post on blog, post on Amazon. I have the same tasks for my novel and for blog posts. This week, I have two book reviews, one that was due on the 22nd, and one on the 29ths. (The line on the right hand side of each line is where I put the due date).

    <li>The “One-Time Tasks” section holds exactly those jobs.</li>

    So far, it’s sorta kinda working, but at least filling out this form each week gives me an idea of what needs to be done and forces me to reconsider what I have to do.

  6. Lynn O'Connor 17 years ago

    Dave: If it is any consolation, I lapsed in the very early to rise project too. Now I’m getting up at 7:30 AM, which is early for me anyway, and I’m going to be closer to midnight or 1 AM, and I’m NOT making myself stay up all night if I am up past 2am. The regime was exhausting me, I wasn’t use to getting up early and going to bed early, and when I stayed up two nights in a row, and I felt like my whole body had caved in the next morning, I knew something had to change. So I lapsed, and its a good thing. I’m more relaxed about it all now. I can’t get everything done, I’m swamped and i can’t make myself do things I really don’t want to do. Clean the house? Thank God my husband does most of that, I’m notoriously non-domestic though I do everything at home, my office is at home, I have some of my smaller classes at home, I see clients at home, But I am not good at cleaned. I cleaned the bathroom today however, because I wanted to, because it was filthy. Its just the one me and my husband use. THe other one has to be kept more respectable. I should be reading articles that are being assigned to my students in my 60 student clas which starts in less than a month. I don’t want to. I’m fooling around (thanks for getting me back on twitter, it is a lot of fun and I’m getting it, checking in on occassion.

    JL: very cool form. I’m printing it out and I’ll see what I do with it. I haven’t yet figured out how to take David’s forms and make them “unique’ to my needs, and they are pretty perfect anyway. I did take one edible goal tracker form and translate it for dissertation students, with items like “Work on literature review” “Check out Google Scholar” “Write human subjects protocol” sort of major milestones and minor steps in the right direction. I meant to send it to David but haven’t yet. I’m eager to see yours up close after its printed.

  7. Britt 17 years ago

    Keep in mind that you might be a night person over a morning person. I know sunrises are beautiful and what not, but give me the stillness of night any time. I can function in the morning, as needed, but I’m truly not pleasant until at least 10, even if I’ve gone to bed at a decent hour.

    And also consider how many new habits you tried to establish in a short amount of time…give yourself permission to re-evaluate and customize without seeing it as “falling flat.” This approach, at least for me, keeps the experiments to improve my thinking and my actions from ever feeling like failure.

  8. Dave Seah 17 years ago

    JL: Thanks for the detailed writeup of your energy management strategy! It sounds like you’ve decoupled yourself from the idea that you need to do thing at a fixed time, but are disciplined at doing things IN THE NOW when you know when you can do them. Very interesting!

    Bill: Thanks for sharing your task form! I really need to put up some kind of community sharing place for PCEO-derived and related ideas. Any ideas on how best to accomplish that (anyone can answer :-)

    Lynn: Thanks for the perspective. I’ve visited Early Morning Land, and I guess while it’s nice to visit, maybe I don’t really want to live there (as Britt also points out). I actually do like going to sleep earlier, and “pacing” my days out better. I’m actually about to go to sleep now so I can get a good jump in on tomorrow (or, optionally, get enough rest…I’ll be on the road mostly).

    Britt: The stillness of the early morning is also very nice…that’s what I like about it. I’ve been thinking that the WAKUEP regimen is what counts, not so much the actual time of waking up. And also, that I’m not undercharged on sleep. The idea that I can actually control this to some extent (rather than letting the body autopilot itself into my current state of restless obesity) is rather new.

    I’m not concerned about falling flat on my face, but thanks for the encouragement…I appreciate it. I know I learn by failing, or at least being surprised by what happens.