Productivity Reboot Day 2 and 3: Sucking it Up

Productivity Reboot Day 2 and 3: Sucking it Up

After the mixed success of day 1, the second day of my productivity reboot fared only slightly better in terms of raw hours worked. I got up early as I had the day before, and hit the polls at 6:15AM to cast my vote. Unfortunately, my late-night epiphany about the need for more mirth had tired me out, which led to an unplanned 2-hour nap in the middle of the day. The day, then, was lost to random socializing and following election result coverage late into the night. On Wednesday, I helped accomplish something critically important for my project that I hadn’t planned. This was good, but it was irking that the rest of the day was not directed.

Disentangling what I want from what I must do

A big part of this productivity reboot is about finding my work groove so I can reliably jack into it. On the surface the “solution” is simple: hunker down and do the work. That’s what my Dad would do! However, there is this nagging feeling that my “work” should be “my life’s work”. In other words, being productive isn’t just about self-discipline, it’s also about finding meaning in what I do. My assumption is that once I find the meaning, I can design my future so I can have the freedom to do that. So far, my best guess is that I want to create sustaining connections with people that I care about, and have this somehow be what I do for a living.

Thus far, my productivity reboot has failed to power up, and this is due to procrastination. Looking a little closer, however, I realize that what I’m doing to procrastinate mirrors my long-term goals:

  • GOAL: I say that I want to create sustaining connections with people I care about. By sustaining, I mean that I get something out of the relationship that gives me energy. By connection, I mean the means through which we interact: common interest, desire to share knowledge, and the other benefits of good friendship. I think this will be the foundation for productive happiness.
  • PROCRASTINATING MIRROR FORM: When someone that is already a good friend contacts me, talking to that person feels like the goal is already achieved. The connection immediate and visceral. Even when I’m surfing the web, I’m looking for tidbits and inspiration that I can apply to the next conversation I have with someone; in all likelihood, I’m surfing the web based on something someone said to me earlier.


p>This desire to immediately cash-in on existing personal relationship does NOT help me in my short term responsibilities. It’s a short-circuit to immediate pleasure, just as addictive as indulging in ice cream to keep your mind from sinking into a funk. I tell myself that talking to friends and acquaintances on the Internet is actually a good thing, because it helps me see exciting new ideas and opportunities. In this case, however, it’s a distraction; there is important work that must be done first, and there’s no making it go away.

I think most “normal” people happily split their work and personal lives in two separate halves, but for some reason I’ve never been able to do it. Possibly, this is because I’ve never had a “normal” 9-5 job. I’ve worked primarily at startups and game companies, and now I freelance. My parents were also missionaries, and their work was their life. As a freelancer I am the single room in which all decisions ultimately get made, and I think it will be necessary to compartmentalize further. In other words: create unbending structure and forcing myself to adapt within its confines. The trick will be to create the right structure and maintaining my physical well-being so I can follow through with it.

Overcoming the mind’s desires

The first takeaway is that I actually have to live in isolation for a while, or figure out some practical way to balance work with life. My ideal of balance is that it would be X hours of solid, uninterrupted work followed by Y hours of quality social time, something like an idealized 9-5 schedule. However, my personality tends to goes against this schedule. My mind likes to run and jump around from thought to thought, exulting in the interplay between incompatible ideas, crashing them together and challenging their underlying assumptions. I could attempt to squash that impulse, but am I fighting a losing battle against my nature? It would be far better to create a productive system that uses my “weaknesses” as strengths…but this is for the future. For right now, I do need to put aside my desire to have conversations and focus on doing some hardcore programming and website redevelopment.

My Office The second takeaway is that I probably should remind myself constantly that I do have good friends. I know I say it a lot, but when I’m in my basement by myself it’s hard to remember. While I was talking to my friend Jenn online about my depressed state, she mentioned it was difficult to imagine because my buddy icon is so positive looking. I joked I should probably print it out so it would remind me that I am happy. Hm. The buddy icon photo was taken at Barcamp Boston 3 and is probably the best photo I have of myself. I went and bought a whole bunch of frames and filled them with pictures of friends and family, everyone smiling, and hung them behind my monitor (see photo below). My house has nothing on the walls at all, so this was a good thing to do. I immediately felt a little less isolated.

Overcoming the body’s desires

Two other problems are sleeping schedule and diet. I have a tendency to stay up late because my brain keeps racing until it is tired. My natural day seems to be about 27 hours long, so if I indulge my desire to stay up I quickly go out of sync with the rest of the world. With no morning commute, I can also sleep in. It’s pretty draining, now that I think about it, to constantly be in and out of sync, so committing to the schedule means ignoring my impulse to stay up AND having a reason to get up at the same time. It might have to be some kind of early morning class at the gym or something.

As for diet, I have not been drinking enough water, which makes my head a little cloudy. Sugars, breads and starches also make me very sleepy, as does quantity, so I have to eat much more mindfully. I have a tendency to turn off my brain when I’m eating, and therefore the portions and type of food tend to be unregulated by common sense. Maybe I need to sacrifice yummy food for those meals in a can; if I know meals are going to be yucky, I’ll just get them over with as soon as possible. Am I willing to trade off a few moments of foodie pleasure for 90 minutes of clear thinking, so I can get my productivity groove going? Probably.

Keeping the pace

Having a schedule might help. Maybe I need some version of Adult Kindergarten…THAT might be a fun Coworking experiment. My schedule is completely arbitrary and flexible, which is what I thought I wanted but it is starting to drive me crazy. It’s very tiring to have to be responsible for all the decisions all the time, especially when you are completely by yourself.

The problem with keeping the schedule is that I have tasks that are difficult to predict. I tend to want closure and completion on my work, so I work until things are done. Invariably things take longer, and when they do other things fall off the to-do list. It may be necessary to apply a time limit to how long I am “allowed” to work on any single area, mercilessly switching to the next scheduled task. If they don’t get done, so be it; I’ll pick it up again tomorrow. It would be possible to schedule more precisely if the exact nature of the task is blueprinted, but that requires more up-front planning. The Task Progress Tracker is designed somewhat around this, but I don’t believe I actually have a form that is designed to enforce time without the requirement of completion. It’s an intriguing idea, with a different set of context and continuity management challenges.

A corollary to the “work strictly with the allocated time” approach is committing to feeling tired. I tend to sleep if I feel sleepy, reasoning to myself that if I’m tired I’m not going to be able to do the work anyway. Perhaps I should really just drink a Red Bull and keep moving instead of sleeping. That will tend to put me back into the schedule, maybe, though I don’t like the idea of chemically sustaining my mental processes.


Thursday is another day, and I’ve already blown my “go to sleep” window, but I will apply the “just stay up” approach. That means waking up at 6AM and pushing through. Unfortunately my experiment will be interrupted by a trip out to San Jose this Sunday, where I’ll be holed up for my project with the rest of the team.

There are decisions to be made at every step of the way, and I am feeling the desire to design some kind of tracking / process form that handles all these problems. It would be something like the ETT, except what it would track decisions made in the face of dizziness, tiredness, lack of motivation, etc. However, if you choose to use a “cheat” to get by, or you decide to bail, the form would be able to tell you what you need to do to get back into synchronization and suggest appropriate recovery techniques over the next 24 hours.

Anyway, that’s how the reboot is going right now. I wasn’t expecting this much angst when I started it, but it feels like I’m addressing some previously hidden resistances to my productivity.


  1. Daniel Nicolas 14 years ago

    Instead of “meals in a can”, you could spend one every 5 days cooking 5 “lunches” that are delicious. when re-heated, having the portable finger food that you can munch on while working (without making a huge mess) is a huge help for productivity for me.

  2. Mike 14 years ago


    Hello there.  I recently discovered your blog.  I am interested in learning more about information design.  I like the work you have done in this space.

    In reading this post I wondered if you have read the books:

    – Now, Discover Your Strengths (NDYS)
    – The Power of Full Engagement (TPOFE)

    I have found NDYS a very valuable book.  It helps you discover and name your strengths. Will this knowledge you can work to put yourself in more strength-based-situations.  This is where you will find flow and meaning – or at least that is the goal. ;)

    The second book, TPOFE, has great ideas on managing your energy.  It comes from research work done with professional athletes then applied to “corporate athletes.”

    Keep up the great work.


  3. Katrina 14 years ago

    I too am finding it hard to structure my free flowing life.  You mention the separation between your work and personal sides of life. 

    Imagine my difficulty separating <ul>
    <li>my web design work from …
    <li>my writing from …
    <li>my teaching from …
    <li>my spiritual counseling from …
    <li>my personal life.  </ul>

    I have tried rigid barriers and structures, but they just do not work for me.  When I have the writing muse flowing, I truly need to write.  Trying to do web design during that moment is totally non-productive.  And when I am filled with algorithms, code fragments and sql statements, it is a waste of time for me to try and meditate till I write them down somewhere.  I tend to be able to switch into spiritual counseling mode on a dime because if people need me, I am highly motivated to care for them.  But for almost everything else, going with the flow is far more effective.

    My biggest issue however is how guilty I feel when I focus on web design versus almost every other part of my life.  It is as if the techie muse is not supposed to be satisfied.

    I have been working on giving myself longer periods of concentration in each area each week.  This way, I can give each a place in my life.  And which ever one I am concentrating on has to definitely match where my juice is in the moment more often than not.

    I am still working on this, so I am really looking forward to this continuing conversation.


  4. Emily 14 years ago

    Heh, I like the idea of “Adult Kindergarten”…I kind of view going to the gym and playing on all the equipment as “Recess” (I imagine some people view it more like P.E. though, heh heh). And instead of doing meals in a can, why not use a classic cafeteria style tray with compartments? It’s total food organization, and you can get cool trays. :D I also like the first commenter’s suggestion of cooking 5 meals ahead of time that can easily be pre-heated and eaten. (You can even glop them onto your cafeteria tray with an ice cream scoop…and no passing through the line a second time!)

  5. Marina Martin 14 years ago

    I spent years trying to fit into a schedule, wake up at 5am, yadda yadda. Now, I sleep when I’m tired and wake up when I wake up. Does this mean I’m on a very odd schedule some days? Yes. But it also means I’m always well-rested and yet sleep the equivalent of six nights a week instead of seven. I believe very, very strongly that there’s no reason to conform to society’s 9-5 schedule if you don’t have to.

    As for diet, I use Cron-O-Meter (a free program from to design a nutritionally-balanced daily food plan, print out a checklist with all the food on it for each day, and then graze according to the list. I’m not a foodie and don’t particularly care if every meal is delicious – I just want fuel without having to think about it. This also allows me to know exactly how much food I’ll need for the coming week and have it delivered.

  6. Dave Seah 14 years ago

    Daniel: That’s a good idea about batch-preparing a number of meals. I am afraid though that I would be tempted to eat it all the first day…yummy leftovers don’t last long in my kitchen!

    Mike: I haven’t read either book, though I had read “First Break All The Rules” back in 2000. My working definitions for talent and passion come from that book. I’ll have to flip through them next time I’m at the bookstore…thanks for the recommendations!

    Katrina: Like you I’m highly motivated to have compassion for people when I have something I can do for them, but I also tend to maintain a certain distance to avoid being consumed. This is a defense mechanism that arose when I realized that I was being sucked dry for no return; I’m selective now about who gets access to my personal store of energy. That need is expressed is not enough anymore for me. The movie “The Magnificent Seven” comes to mind as an example of need versus return…it is a slightly mercenary attitude I have, but sometimes people do ask for a lot. But I digress.

    It sounds like we’re both aware that it would be nice if we could “turn what we need on” on demand, but find it difficult to do so. I have wondered if an “artistic business” is possible, but business sort of assumes that there is a certain reliability factor involved in delivery, timeliness, quality, and guaranteed satisfaction. While this might be possible for selling packaged products, I suspect it is impossible to meet this expectation for work with significant customization and identity work without charging a lot of money and burning a lot of time. And yet, it is the standard for web design and development.  That would be an interesting article in itself.

    Emily: I like my cafeteria tray, but it’s a pain in the butt to wash! Cans you can just recycle :-) Banning the “second serving” is a good idea…hm. Maybe that would work. I could be less impulsive :-)

    Marina Martin: The main reason I am trying to conform is because of social interaction, which tends to fit into a certain time period of the day. When I get out of sync, I don’t see anyone for weeks. I’m no longer willing to play the hermit. We hates it, yesssss!

    Cron-O-Meter sounds cool. I’ll have to check it out. Adopting the “food is fuel” mentality might work for me, but I’m more like Remy in “Ratatouille” and the idea of eating that way is tough to swallow.

  7. Rotem 13 years ago

    I used to have that problem of staying up late (in spite having to wake up early), until finally I formed the habit of stopping my activities earlier, and getting into a “getting ready for sleep mode”. You know – turn off the PC, dim the lights, set the alarm, prepare clothes for the morning…

    This could go on for up to two hours, but when you start it early enough, you go to sleep at a reasonable time.

    Even if I’d watch TV on that time, I would do it while lying on the couch with eyes half closed, gradually relaxing my body, feeling heavier and heavier and so on.

    You see, I’ve found that everything in my life – my attitude, my productivity, my decisions, the way I respond to people and challenges and so on – it all depends on my energy level, and particularly on my sleep.

    In short – I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s better to get a descent night’s sleep than another hour or two in the day (for work, fun or whatever).

    I warmly recommend it!