Feeling Unproductive

Feeling Unproductive

I’ve been swamped with projects, both personal and work-related. I also have been having to rebuild my blog and personal email system, so if you have sent me a comment via the contact form I haven’t had a chance to respond to it. Things are very good right now, but I’m very backlogged and trying to figure out how to swim my way back on top.

I don’t think there’s ever been a time in my life where so many possibilities have been open to me. Off the top of my head, there’s the printed ETP (they’re now shrinkwrapped individually, and I just have to write up a “how to” sheet to go with them and see if there’s a way to reduce the shipping cost for 2-3 pad orders), project 2010 (the goal to be completely mobile so I can work anywhere in the world and yet still feel “at home”), printable CEO updates and books, the freelance network, a year-long full-time museum interactive exhibit project that I just started this week, and various household improvements because Dad will be visiting for 6 weeks next week. And then on top of that are overall themes of building community, maintaining relationships, and perhaps even finding romance, all which take time and energy. And I also want to redo the website and transition to Expression Engine, which has been sitting on my plate forever and ever.

Just Doing It

Yeah yeah, I know:

  • Start small!
  • Great journeys begin with but a single step!
  • Do One Thing at a Time
  • Discipline!
  • Focus!

My automatic response: MEH.

My intellectual response: I know that if I work at something every day consistently, I will end up with something pretty awesome. However, I’m just not feeling it.

The problem (and this is the general problem from which all the various Printable CEO and related tools address) is seeing the big picture against which the piddling amount of progress you make every day can be seen, in a way that is both meaningful and realistic. When you have so many things you want to do, the amount of progress made daily versus The Mountain of Tasks is pretty darn demoralizing. This is where a system like David Allen’s GTD comes into handy, because when followed properly it enforces daily review and provides feedback through inbox shrinkage, and this contributes mightily to that feeling of, er, getting things done.

I think the reason that GTD doesn’t work for me is because I’m oriented not toward “getting things done”; instead, I want to “do things for the future”. I have dreams and schemes that I want to make happen; the last place my mind wants to be is on the tedium of what I want to get out of my way. The rational and responsible side knows that getting things done is a necessary chore, but I don’t like it. The system that would work for me is the one that focuses on making things and watching things grow, and this is perhaps the main philosophical distinction between the “Printable CEO” tools and GTD. GTD is not a vision clarification tool. It is a methodology that can be applied to a wide variety of different productivity challenges. I would rather learn to outsource the productivity challenge as much as possible.

Qualitative Measurements

In the meantime, I could use the blinders of productivity approach to focus on the stuff I want to do. I also feel like I should be creating a master map of my vision; if you can see it, it’s a lot easier to know what to do. This could be as simple as using a Mind Mapping tool, but I have never liked this format because it does not show progress in a directly-intuitive manner. Secondly, I think the metric that works for measuring this kind of productivity isn’t time spent or tasks accomplished, but energy invested into the system, and return on energy investment. This is a far more qualitative measure, but I think it might actually be doable if you track positive and negative feelings before and after you do a task. For example, I know I have to get off my ass and install the new multisite manager for Expression Engine to consolidate my websites. Feeling before: not looking forward to it, will be very tedious and irking. Feeling afterwards: I know it will be tremendous relief. I think that after tracking a whole bunch of these kinds of “I should but I haven’t” tasks, the pattern of seeing “dread” followed by “happy” will provide some reinforcement that “you know, I always feel better after getting those dumb things done”. I have no idea, but it might be a good alternate approach to creating a To Do list that lets you blow off some steam; it’s the power of whining harnessed for productive purposes.

I reckon that’s what I’ll do. I’d like to take the time to put out a new form based on this, but I am feeling so pulled in multiple directions that I can’t even focus on it. I need to remember that I don’t need to do everything simultaneously if I ensure that my business model can operate on its own timetable. Slow down, it’s OK not to be as fast as everyone else if you can make the numbers work in your favor.


  1. Britt Raybould 17 years ago

    I’m right there with you. I have literal piles sitting everywhere of things I want to do, but I’m mainly standing on the edges, picking off a few things. It leaves me feeling very dissatisfied.
    One solution that seems to help is making time to do one thing a day that has NOTHING to do with my business, whether it’s reading a book, going for a run, etc. I’ve noticed that it takes the edge off, making the other stuff seem more manageable.


  2. Nollind Whachell 17 years ago

    Like yourself, I’m driven by the future and the vision of where I want to be or what I want to achieve. However, I also stumble like you in procrastinating on things, especially if they involve having to figure out something new that will probably be frustrating and tedious. Usually if the work is very clear cut and straightforward then I get it done quite quickly. Right now doing research and design work for clients is where I stumble, whereas building the site once the unknowns are identified is extremely quick and straightforward (especially using Squarespace).

    It’s funny because I keep look at the World of Warcraft for comparisons to see what draws me to it in terms of getting quests done (GQD). For example, in Shadowmoon Valley there are some four or five part multi-staged quests that when fully completed reward you with a weapon that is great for getting geared for raiding bigger dungeons (i.e. Karazhan). Therefore, while starting the quest may take me a while to do, once started your progress actually snowballs until near the end you are rushing to get the final quest done because the reward is so close to becoming a reality.

    This is how I’d like my real life tasks (or quests) to be structured as well. In effect, I define the end reward and then create attainable multi-staged tasks that lead to it with rewards (of some kind, not necessarily monetary ones) achieved at each stage. The thing is though, since I’ll probably have multiple things going on at once, I like the WoW Quest Tracker approach in that I only like seeing the current quests I’m working on instead of seeing all of them at once. So if I have five projects with each having multiple tasks to them, I still only want to see five current tasks (one for each project). This prevents me from feeling overloaded as I would if I saw 25 tasks all at once (5 for each project).

    BTW this staged approach to achieving a task or quest is similar to storyboarding which I’m sure you know about. Just do a search on Google with “storyboard your life” and read the top result (on a Jolly, Socratic Science).

    You know though, the biggest thing that draws me back time and again to WoW though is the community and collaboration. It is logging on and being immediately able to interact and work with others in achieving a quest. That to me is my addiction, working with others, and that drives me more than anything when working on something (the camaraderie). And yet if I want to work independently, how do I achieve that? How do I create that feeling of logging on in the morning and immediately feeling like I’m part of a group so it can kick start my day?

    Again it’s funny, I’d love to have a unified interface similar to WoW to keep track of my work. So it would incorporate people (social), groups (guilds), and activities/tasks (quests) with things being sharable so that multiple people could be working on the same task (quest) like in WoW. In addition, it would allow for subgroups (subguilds) within a group (guild), as this allows more focused groups of people to collaborate more efficiently rather than relaying everything constantly to the larger group (guild).

    BTW taking this a step farther, I’d like this interface to have different spaces or communities that I can log in and out of (or be in both at the same time if I choose). So during the day, I may log in to my work community and see all the people and task activities associated with it. Yet in the evening, I may logout of my work space and log in to a family community space which shows my family members (people) and personal tasks as well as shared family tasks (i.e. Thanksgiving Get Together). Again this approach allows me to be focused on one space or environment at a time (just like walking around in real life environments), so that I don’t get overloaded with all of the multitude of things that I need to get done everyday (i.e. work, personal, sports, etc).

  3. Nollind Whachell 17 years ago

    I just realized something else. In effect, what I’m wanting is a virtual online environment something like a real world office environment like Workspace (abetterplacetowork.com). Therefore, while I may be working independently, I can still collaborate with others near me in a physical space (yet virtually online).

    No idea how this would be achieved, as the benefits of these real world environments is often the limitations set by them. By this I mean that an online virtual environment is not always a good thing because you could virtually have 100 of your friends (sitting next to you). You definitely don’t want that though due to the interruptions you’d get. Instead you just just want a few of these people to be near you, basically just the few people that you don’t mind if they interrupt your work to share and collaborate ideas with.

    BTW yes instant messengers do these things to a degree but they aren’t setup with communities of layered subgroups or tasks in mind. I think the closest thing I’ve seen to this would have been Groove Networks (which is now integrated with Microsoft Office) but it was a very proprietary product not something open and distributed like what I have in mind.

  4. Anneliese 17 years ago


    I have several comments. First,  I believe you are incorrect in your assessment of GTD. The entire goal of GTD is get all those niggling little things that you have to get done out of your head, just so that you can spend your time thinking about on a higher level, or, as you put it, clarifying your visions. This is addressed in Allen’s book, but I think since what you start with in GTD is training yourself to get the little crap out of your head, that is what gets the most attention on the web. But once you get your system in place and trusted, your thoughts are free for bigger, better ideas.

    Second, feeling meh about your projects is what can keep you from getting things done. Emotional intensity is necessary to get going on projects. Get excited about it! That brings me to my last point.

    You are predicting the future when you say that installing the new multisite manager for Expression Engine will be tedious. How do you know that? Don’t predict the future. Instead, get emotionally invested in making what you need to get done, while not letting yourself get bogged down in small niggling details.

    It’s a good idea to try to do just one thing every day that you feel is part of the bigger future, and not just do little things. You’ll feel better.

    At this point, I’d say installing the multisite manager is a bigger picture future type of task, so feel good about it and do it.


    P.S. I am not always successful at this, but I think it sounds good! :P

  5. Dave Seah 17 years ago

    Britt: I’ve been doing that too, though not on purpose. I think it’s because I’ve accepted that there is a certain rate of change I can actually produce, and it’s never going to be what I want it to be. And doing those other non-work things are a form of mental maintenance…everything else gums up if I don’t do those things.

    Nollind: I do like the quest structure in WoW; applying it to real life though would require some way of scripting the quests, which presumes we know what we want to do. For those of us who are defining a new future for ourselves and our peers, that means we effectively need to be the quest designers. And that means we’re back to self-management. Unless you find a pre-existing structure that allows us to focus on “playing the game” instead…this is kind of like following a standard career path.

    Regarding virtual office spaces: My cousin and I were talking about just that thing this weekend, setting up some persistent video connections to create the sense of a shared space, including ambient audio. Telepresence comes to mind. Being able to share two ambient sound spaces without audio feedback or annoying delay would go a long way to establishing a shared virtual space that felt persistent.

    Annelise: I’m glad you’ve pointed out that GTD is for getting all that crap out of your head so you CAN focus on what else you want to do (to paraphrase Allen, “so you can relax and not worry about what’s going on). That said, the mechanics of GTD is about the getting of crap out of your head. For it to really work for me, there needs to be an equal emphasis on the mechanics of establishing and following-through with a vision. Allen may have addressed that in one of his later books; I’ve only read his GTD book. The most likely explanation for me, though, is that I’m just being stubborn and difficult and don’t want to take my medicine :-)

    I really like what you’re saying about getting excited about projects. I am missing a certain emotional intensity here, and figuring out how to generate that is a gigantic nut to crack. I haven’t thought of really just trying to work myself up to it through synthetic means.

    I’m finding the last part of your comment interesting because it doesn’t make sense to me, which means that there is a different kind of logic at work here that I need to understand. My approach is, as you have probably surmised, somewhat opposite: I am pretty good at predicting the level of technical difficulty involved with doing something like installing multi-site manager and transitioning all my wordpress sites into the new system…it is doable, but involves a lot of grunt work that is difficult to get excited about UNLESS I think of the payoff, which itself is just a stepping stone to the NEXT foundational piece.

    I think this implies that I have been mis-defining my milestones, and probably need to front-load each one with more immediate bang-for-the-buck. That means letting go of my engineering mindset further.

  6. Katrina 17 years ago

    Hi Dave,

    Man, you sound so much like me.  I mentioned in an earlier comment that I had over 300 things on my to do list, and I shrunk them to about 25 using a GTD tool (OmniFocus) to focus only on next actions that are a priority to me.

    Just that shrinking process relieved a lot of the pressure.  However the next big relief came from taking two additonal steps.
    1. Accepting that I can only do so much at a time while maintaining a Radical Self Care focus in my life.
    2. Putting something squarely in the priority seat above all else.  I decided to put my book in the front seat.  And just by making that decision, I was forced to put a bunch of stuff in the back seat.

    So now, everyday, when I feel that sense of hopelessness creeping up on me, I just look at the progress I am making on my book, and it makes it all worthwhile.  I prioritize the remainder of work based on existing commitments and energy levels—and since radical self care is habit I succesfully integrated into my life, I stop working most days long before I am completely worn out.

    I just wrote a blog, where I name you as my hero, aboout some of the new habits I am creating in my life.

    I truly apprciate you and all you do to inspire those of us struggling to make sense of it all in this DIY kind of space.  Cuz even when you struggle, you lead by example.

    Thank you.  And keep up the good work!  ;D

  7. Carolyn Gillespie 17 years ago


    Dave, your words inspired me to reflect as I too have been in a bit of an unproductive mode.  I have had feelings before of being spread out in many directions, working on all of them, but doing none of them well! It’s challenging to not feel overwhelmed at times and to be consistently productive.

    However, I do realize the importance of creating a schedule that includes all areas in life for balance and to be more productive as when you feel better than great, it’s easier to get tasks done, even the less desirable tasks!  Plus, the creativity kicks in more easily.  Although I realize this, up until now, I haven’t followed through with doing this and it’s now time to create this new habit.

    Also, when we avoid doing things we know we should (like eating healthy, for example) over time the impact is harmful whereas if we practice good habits consistently, the accumulated impact is positive. I’m choosing to form better habits with a balanced schedule that fits in all areas of life. Plus, I want to be more focused on the belief in knowing that the positive, consistent, focused action will lead to the desired future that I’m designing.

    To be in the best frame of mind to help get started, I’ll think of things that I feel such gratitude for right now, then with a smile, I’ll move on to the next task at hand for the items that will create a “feel awesome” future too.

    A quote also comes to mind…
    “It’s Easier DONE then Said”  Ellie Drake.

    Make it a great night!

  8. Mike 17 years ago

    “My automatic response: MEH.”
    I’m so glad I’m not the only one here. I like that idea of recording ideas to check them off but I’m not sure it would provide any real value.
    I have to say that out of all the people I know who wish to be more productive, you do more to actually try and improve your productivity. Must of them rely solely on the power of whining.

  9. Laurie 17 years ago

    Would this help??  I found a TIME/VALUE matrix on the microsoft website—basically—” how important IS it in the big picture “

  10. Dave Seah 17 years ago

    Katrina: Thanks muchly for the kind words! I like what you’re saying with your 2 enhancements, about giving yourself permission to not get all you think you should be doing (really, who sets the bar?) and also daring to set a priority. Those are two things that figure heavily in my own approach. I wonder where that feeling of hopelessness comes from…is it the frustration of being able to see so much, and being alone in seeing it?

    Caroline: Hey, thanks for writing! Your comment about the slow accumulation of both good and bad things struck a chord with another thought I had this morning related to how slow change often doesn’t seem to be enough for me. I know intellectually that it will come to pass, but there is no immediate trigger. Packaging change of this nature is probably the biggest challenge: how do yo make it something that IS immediately noticeable? I really should finish reading Stumbling Upon Happiness, because the author goes into a lot of how our brains trick us. I keep loaning my copies away to people, though :-)

    Mike: Heh, I feel better too, knowing that I’m not alone in feeling “meh”. I don’t want to be MEH, though…I guess that might be the difference. The thought comes to mind that my activation energy level is higher than average.

    Laurie: That’s a cool template…I’ve seen stuff like this before. I think the thought around the use of this kind of prioritization tool is acceptance that we DO have finite time and energy. Perhaps my problem is I continually refuse to believe this…it’s a character trait that goes back all the way to when I was 6. There is a certain leap of faith I need to make, or I have to be cynical and tell myself, “well, you ain’t getting anything done, so might as well get the high-value stuff done. Slacker.” :-)

  11. Nollind Whachell 17 years ago

    I just realized something while thinking about this a bit more. This has nothing to do with task management (for me anyways). I don’t know about you but I usually do know what I have to do, it’s just getting motivated to start doing it that is the problem. Therefore, having a nicely organized task setup isn’t going to make one bit of difference to me if I’m not motivated to start anything in the first place. And actually, when I am highly motivated, most of the time I only need a very rough outline in my head to get started because I’m so excited about beginning.

    I’m going to keep thinking about this a bit more but for some reason I get the feeling that my environment plays a big factor here with regards to my motivation. For example, if I get out of the house and go for a walk or go sit in a coffee shop, I immediately start getting all of these ideas in my head and get excited. Yet when I sit down in my den, a lot of that excitement slowly fizzles out.

    In looking at my den, while I like the layout and simplicity of it (minimalistic layout with asian influences), I just realized it doesn’t really motivate me in any way or get me excited about my work (probably because I have none of my work or personal creativity displayed within it). In comparison, when I’ve been in cool studios in the past, I’ve found just being in the environment itself gets you motivated and lets your creative juices start flowing. Anyways, it’s something else I think I’m going to explore.

    Hmm, I just remembered something else. In the book “100 Habits of Successful Graphic Designers”, they recommend to “Cultivate a workspace with a specific look and sound”. I think this ties in with the idea of creating an environment that motivates you. In effect, the more creative work you create, the more you should surround yourself with it (as it inspires you to be more creative).

  12. Dave Seah 17 years ago

    Nollind: By coincidence, I wrote about something quite related to your comment. Looking forward to seeing what you think. It basically comes down to recognizing that I’m (1) impatient and easily bored and (2) unlikely to move my ass unless significant energy and pressure is applied to it. Wish it wasn’t the case, but that’s the way it is. Might as well acknowledge that and work with it.