Productivity Reboot Day 4: A glimmer of hope

Productivity Reboot Day 4: A glimmer of hope

Yesterday’s post about sucking it up ended with a declaration of intent: I would wake up no matter what and start the day! And when I woke up, the alarm clock read 6:30AM, which was a little later than my target, but still early! Encouraged, I closed my eyes in contentment and then reconfirmed that it was indeed…1130AM? Apparently my body had a different idea about how much sleep I was to have, hijacked my motivation, and did me in. Bummer. But the day ended up taking a hopeful path.

Serial task switching

I had a 1PM appointment with my music teacher, Angela, for a mutual “project regrouping” session. We met at Bonhoeffer’s, a local coffee shop, where I was planning to work for the rest of the day. What was on her mind was her upcoming professional website, a distillation of her public identity as a music teacher to the most impactful essentials. What was on my mind was maintaining weekly continuity with my music education, despite my piano practice being shoved aside due to my project work.

I suggested that we ping-pong between our individual project discussion in 3-minute chunks, based on my thoughts yesterday regarding merciless time-blocking. In other words, she would get to talk about her immediate web site goals for 3 minutes, and then I would get to talk about my music lesson challenges. To maintain context between switches of topic, we each had a small whiteboard to write on.

Three minutes, as it turns out, is just about enough time to get a thought going and draw it to a tentative conclusion. It’s not enough time, though, to really go off on a tangent because you feel the time pressure. The resulting meeting ended up being rather exciting and dynamic, with excellent momentum and lots of passion. What was surprising, in retrospect, was that the discussion was not disjointed in the least; I would have thought that the “hard context switch” would prevent natural continuity from developing. Angela and I have similar conversational styles, jumping from thought to thought, so this kind of serial task switching may not work for everyone. I could see this working very well, however, in a group brainstorming session. Having the whiteboard to record where we left off was critical, and the dissimilarity of topics may have laid a foundation for creative random juxtaposition. It rocked.

Personal versus impersonal inspiration

When I mentioned to Angela that I believed I needed to close personal connections with people so I could focus on work, she suggested that I find inspiration elsewhere by going to a concert. This would be an intermediate form of human connection; I realized that merely seeing inspiration etched across people’s faces would likely uplift me as well. And there’s another advantage: time-consuming personal conversations are not required. Now, I love having long conversations with people about their lives and their aspirations, but it’s a big time commitment that occupies a lot of my mental reserves. It hadn’t occurred to me that I could draw energy from inspiring public events, and this reminds me of my good friend S, who once told me that she likes to go to noisy public events to “be alone”. It totally makes sense to me in this context; sometimes you need the external source of energy to feel what you need to feel, without having the commitment of a one-on-one human connection. In my case, I am energized by expressive energy, passion, imagination, and inspiration. In the past I’ve gotten that primarily by maintaining very close relationships with multiple people, but as I said there is a time cost.

Counseling the inner child

After Angela left, I settled down to do some programming. The problem was that I was hugely inspired by the quality of the previous communication, but rather less inspired by the world of Visual Studio and C#. I caught myself checking my email, Twitter, Facebook, and Flickr accounts—the automatic impulse to reach out for personal connections—and then stopped myself. The coding mindset requires an unusual clarity and singularity of purpose, and my mind was not cooperating.

I recalled what I had written in my last Groundhog Day Resolutions post about shedding my armor, which had involved a mind-clearing technique I’d made up. The technique had given me a significant bit of insight about myself…maybe it would help clear my mind so I could write the GUI base classes I needed to implement. I jotted down an impromptu process to follow:

  1. Close my eyes.
  2. Identify each surface thought, and then respectfully tell each thought to fade away for now.
  3. Find what feels like the center of my consciousness.
  4. Note pains, tensions, and other discomforts. If they are not 911-level emergencies, tell them to fade away.
  5. Try to count up to 33 after getting to this state. This was an arbitrary number I picked.
  6. See if anything interesting happens.

The experience was like peeling away the layers of an onion. The end result of identifying each thought was that I drew into myself. Once I’d tagged and cleared those thoughts, I was in my own mental space, and could then hear the little discomforts, pangs, and things going on in my body that I usually ignore. I determined whether these discomforts were life-threatening (which they were not), and dismissed them. I never did count up to 33, because I became aware of feelings and impulses that were unnamed and unknown. Strange denizens of the emotional deep, I imagined them, that usually do not see the light of consciousness. I listened.

The foremost emotion, I am almost embarrassed to say, was a desire to cry from an ambiguous feeling of loneliness and abandonment. The second underlying emotion was an unspecific fear of failure, a feeling I was not “measuring up” to anyone and everyone. There they were, wreaking havoc with my sense of self.

A couple of years ago I had the epiphany that I could split myself into a parent and a child. As adults, we’re used to thinking we know how to deal with the complexities of life in a responsible matter. We also crave being in comfort zones of competence and security; this is one measure of how “together” we feel our lives are. When faced with a challenge, we can cope by either telling ourselves a “look on the bright side” story or plan a “this is how I’ll get out of this” escapade. I have a good adult coping mechanism, but yesterday I came to believe that coping treats symptoms, not causes. To treat the cause is to treat all the symptoms with finality. The process starts by finding the root cause of the problem, calling it out, and dealing with it directly. In my case, merely naming these fears was enough. Once named, I could acknowledge that they existed, understand what they indicated, and move onward.

It’s difficult to admit to yourself that you feel like crying because you’re lonely and unconfident about the future. The common wisdom is that this makes you weak, but that’s only the case if you are whining like a victim. This is my situation, as clearly as I can express it:

The boat I’m rowing toward my grand vision is empty except for me, and it sucks because I realize that it’s been empty for a long time and I have no idea if and when the situation will change. My first response was the raw emotional one: the desire to hide and be sad. The optimistic response, however, is to recognize that even though I don’t know the future, that is no reason not to believe in something better. And unlike a child, I have the means and the experience to actually do something about it. All I need is the courage to choose, for myself and for people I can connect with in the future. Even if those steps ultimately fail, even if I’m sad and demoralized, it’s of utmost importance to me that I choose to act. To give up, throw in the towel, escape in personal indulgences, and so forth is to choose failure, and that is not the kind of person I imagine my best self to be. The stories we are all writing about ourselves should not end this way.

I closed all my browser windows and started writing code.


  1. Bill Busen 12 years ago

    Three minutes works great as a quantum of piano practice when your life is swamped with other things for the same reasons you mention – enforced focus, adequate time for learning, small enough to fit in several in a day.  Start by shooting for maybe four of those, if you can do it as a reward rather than as a distraction.

    Re: busyness as a defense against underlying abandonment issues.  This was my own mechanism for years – was why I chose my major.  Eventually, I found an arena of giving that was part of the healing of that, though.  That may be where you are headed.

  2. Dave Seah 12 years ago

    Bill: Hm, that’s an interesting idea: 3 minutes of piano practice at a time. The “do something for a reward later” mechanism doesn’t usually work for me.

    It’s certainly possible I am having “abandonment issues”, though this is probably such a broad category of woes that I would hesitate to give it a label. Receiving and giving are, I think, part of a healthy existence, so I have no doubt that this is part of my journey.

  3. Katy 12 years ago

    I don’t think you’re being as productive as you think you are with all this flitting between tasks.

    I read a book recently by Dave Crenshaw called “The Myth of Multitasking: Why Doing it all gets nothing done” in which he discusses this method of “productivity” – he calls it “SwitchTasking” – and shows quite well that it’s extremely inneficient to work this way (shameless plug – I’ve reviewed it in detail here)

    Essentially, what you’re doing is:

    Working on Task One
    .. Switch ..
    Working on Task Two (subconciously thinking of Task One)
    .. Switch ..
    Working on Task One (subconciously thinking of Task Two)
    .. etc ..

    Batching tasks – i.e. work exclusively on task one until it’s complete or a set goal has been achieved – would allow you to get more done more quickly.

    Mind you, this is just my humble opinion!

  4. Philip S. 12 years ago

    Kudos and thakns for writing honestly about your fears and worries.  As someone who is, slowly, learning to deal with my own, I find it helpful to hear how you are dealing with them.

  5. Dave Seah 12 years ago

    Katy: I can see how you might get the impression that I’m extolling switching between tasks when I talked about the serial task switching, but that was a brainstorming-style conversation in which it worked well. I’m actually trying to avoid being distracted by inner thoughts of gloom. I agree that multitasking is inefficient too; I’m trying to track down pesky internal interrupts that keep firing and pulling me away.

    Phillip: Thanks for your appreciation! I’m glad that you are finding my experiences useful for comparison with your own situation…that’s why I write them as openly as I can.

  6. Tal Ater 12 years ago

    Hey David,

    Much of what you write strikes a chord with me, but it’s your feeling of having a 27 hour a day cycle that I believe I may offer some good advice on…

    I’ve been having sleep problems since I was a teenager (about 12-14 years now), which have seriously affected my life and performance… and have probably led me to my current work-from-home status and never working a regular 9-5 job in my life. This has affected me so severely that when I was in the army, I used to volunteer for guard duty every night from 2-6 am, so that I wouldn’t have to wake up for the 6am wake ups.

    Just like you, I had a cycle that was about 26-27 hours a day, and each night I would go to sleep a little later than the day before, causing my waking-sleeping hours to be all over the place, and making me unable to plan anything in my life beyond today or tomorrow. Trying to force myself into a 24 hour cycle would just cause me to sleep too little, and suffer from something very much like jet-lag.

    Visiting a good Doctor who specializes in sleeping disorders has really changed my life… Turns out, this isn’t just me being lazy (well, not just that) or a “night person”…

    I’ve been diagnosed with having a Non 24-hour sleep-wake syndrome, a form of delayed sleep phase syndrome… Turns out, DSPS is much more common than many people realize, and there is very little awareness of it, even among doctors…

    Today I take a nightly melatonin pill. Melatonin is the hormone that the body of “normal people” releases in the evening to regulate circadian rhythms. This isn’t a “sleeping pill” or something like that… In the US it is actually available as an over the counter dietary supplement (it’s a powerful anti-oxidant).

    I’m still a night person, and not an early-riser… but this has completely changed my life.

    If sleeping is a part of your problem, it might be worth visiting a good doctor… Or just shoot me a mail, I’d be happy to share some more of my experience with this.

  7. Cricket 12 years ago

    Your meditation routine sounds similar to mine (put together after much online research, but not used enough to become comfortable). My uncle does Buddhist meditation, and I asked him whether I should stop and write down insights (a la GTD) or trust the process. Very clear answer: Trust the process. Your new perspective or idea, if good, will now be part of your subconscious, and reappear when needed. I haven’t confirmed it for myself, but it sounds reasonable.

    I often cry when stress changes—usually as it reduces, or with a new insight. As in, visible tears. Rather awkward for my coworkers, but as it’s usually the release of stress, I know it’s a good sign. In your case, I suspect it was breaking through a barrier that had been protecting you from fears, and it’s time to look on the other side of the barrier.

    I rotate melatonin and other sleep aids when I realize I’m feeling low and my sleep is disrupted.  Thanks for the web link! I noticed I’m weepier after using it, but wasn’t sure if it was caused by the melatonin or the low-level depression that occurs with the sleep problems. The article says 1/10 of the dose on the bottle works for sleeping, and more will disrupt things. Opposite the usual “Use more when desparate.” Will try less tonight.

    Three minutes of piano practice sounds interesting, but I suspect 5 or 7 might be better. I just started singing lessons, and need 3 minutes just to warm up so I’m in tune. I’m also learning pen shorthand, and need that long to set up a dictation passage. I could probably be more efficient. 15 minutes is great for housework.

    I, too, see the difference between alternating two brainstorming sessions, and something that requires sustained concentration. Brainstorming can benefit from shaking (but can also benefit from continuing down a path without interruptions).

    Today I’m trying a different approach. Usually, I do the breakfast dishes, put in laundry, and do a quick pass of the hot spots before anything else. Today I was going to start with shorthand, but opened the browser instead. Internet is where I really need that 3 minute limit!