Adrenaline and Action

Adrenaline and Action

I’ve been thinking adrenaline and focus, after reading a comment by CricketB in which she describes how she gets things moving with her kids. It had never occurred to me that perhaps that there was a lack of adrenaline in my daily routine. I ticked through the relevant data:

  • The recent project experience (pressure and stress and excitement) ended up being very productive, so there’s one point in favor of adrenaline.
  • Usually I strive for peace and quiet. The entire life-balance thread is an attempt to formalize some of those elements; my assumption that with better balance, my productivity tubes will unclench and glorious things will happen. This may be mistaken. Result: feeling of well being. Non-Result: big hairy projects remain unshaven.
  • I have bursts of enthusiasm with people, and it is in the context of this excitement that things tend to move forward. Could this be…ADRENALINE?

After a visit to Wikipedia, I learned that “adrenaline” is actually called epinephrine, and it does all kinds of interesting things that enhance our ability to survive dangerous physical situations. I hate the idea of tinkering with my body chemistry through drugs, so I am not thinking about ingestion or injection of any substance…I don’t even like taking aspirin! However, there might be a way of generating “adrenaline” (whatever that means) that could be added to my anti-procrastination toolkit.


I’m reminded of that old saying, “Smile! You’ll feel better!” that is backed up by research in neuroscience; apparently, the physical act of smiling by itself has a positive effect on your emotional state. I keep forgetting how closely tied the body is to the mind. Perhaps physical and mental exercises that raise my stress levels in a challenging way will lead to a similar effect on productivity. I’ve heard of other people using games and deferred rewards to accomplish the same thing; in this case, I want to feel the raw energy.

Starting Conditions

I tend toward calmness and reflection. I enjoy sitting out in the sun and idly thinking about whatever happens to be in front of me. Ordinarily this sounds like it would be relaxing, but it has a big downside: when I have a great idea, the initial burst of excitement at its novelty lasts only as long as it takes for me to outline the major elements that need to be done. Then I lose interest and file it away as a “would be nice” thing to do. The result: I’m generally happy, but not accomplishing anything that I think would make me more happy.

To generate “adrenaline”, I’m really talking about generating “attention”. The mind, wandering by itself on a sunny day, is easily convinced to flit to another thought. The body, however, could force the issue by actually doing something. The mind, however, is responsible for telling the body to move in the first place, but it’s too busy thinking of fun things or being distracted. The three measures I use to deal with this are:

  1. remove or flee the distractions
  2. be near someone who is being more focused than me
  3. be responsible for the well-being of someone other than me

I have associated a detached professional demeanor as appropriate when doing work, something I probably absorbed from other focused people I’ve worked with. This is a calm demeanor, designed to quell fires and panic. However, it probably isn’t necessary when I’m working by myself. I need to generate some excitement and fire!

The Experiment

So yesterday, instead of calmly sitting at my computer and wondering why the heck I wasn’t actually getting anything done, I first berated myself for being lame. And did I want to be lame? HELL NO.

I let the displeasure and anger build, which increased my heart rate. I let myself breath deeper and more rapidly. I tensed muscles and balled fists, as if the task itself were a burly antagonist daring me to take it on. I paced back and forth, telling myself that I was not living up to my own ideals or taking my own medicine, and that made me a candidate for being a loser and a hypocrite. I let myself get angry. Then I told myself there was just one thing I could do to break the curse: finish a project

It seemed to work. I got a long-standing personal HTML/CSS project done, finally. Woo hoo!


I don’t know if this approach would work again, but it’s interesting enough that I will try it in moments where I’m being distracted.

I have that bunch of task cards that I’m whittling down. We shall see if another one falls today. DAVE SMASH! WAAAARRGH!

A few side notes:

  • As I was browsing Wikipedia’s entry on epinephrine and other neurotransmitters, I came across a mention of a subtype of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) known as Predominantly Inattentive. This subtype lists many symptoms that I could ascribe to myself. Whether I have it or not, there are drug-free regimens that are used with kids to help them cope with their attention deficit. I’d love to know what those exercises are.
  • I’m not suggesting that people should beat themselves up emotionally, particularly if they’re already feeling low. I think it may work for me because I already have a value system in place that says making stuff and showing it is the foundation to everything I want to accomplish. There is no alternative path; I’ve explored the ones that I’ve seen, and the conclusion I have now is there’s no avoiding the messy work.

Anyway, I thought I’d share the experience :-)


  1. katrina 13 years ago

    O. K. … I am purposefully using a squeegee to remove that image of you as the hulk … yikes!

    What I am thinking is that what is needed is either an incentive or a motivator that acts like your “energizing self talk” but does not trigger the voices of derision.  The voices of derision are those voices that cripple, censor, critique and abuse one’s self-esteem and self worth.  For some of us, that form of self talk you used is something we have spent all our adult lives trying to silence.  So I am not inclined to use it as an ongoing technique.

    I too prefer a calm, yoda-like, vulcan exterior … but I can get pretty pumped up when I need to—just ask my non-techie friends, apparently I can get quite scary when I am totally immersed. 

    When I was in engineering school (and working full time as an electronics technician), I used music—rock music for calculus, funk/R&B for physics and dance music for writing—the right music kept me going even when things got rough.

    Now it seems that the only thing that turns on my laser like, borg hive mind is hard deadlines and/or when others are involved.  I too have thought of joining a shared office.  For my web design work, I acquired a “partner”, another freelancer with whom I collaborate.  We often meet in a local coffeehouse we call our HQ.  I also recruited an administrator for my school.

    If only I had a collaborator/administrator for my housework … or my book …. or my personal web sites … sigh. 

    My current experiment is going okay at the moment … I guess … but I too am struggling with this energy thang.  Hmmm

  2. Elliott Bennett 13 years ago

    Funny you mention the “Smile! You’ll feel better!” thing…I just came from, which pointed me to, where there’s an article about how exercise helps mental development:

    “What is especially surprising is the powerful link between physical activity and mental acuity. Staying fit helps us keep cognition more robust as well.”


  3. CricketB 13 years ago

    Glad you found the idea worth exploring. Mind if I do more brainstorming?

    “I hate the idea of tinkering with my body chemistry through drugs.” You do realize that caffeine is a drug, right? and

    (Yes, I drink it, but try to be aware of the context—if I “need” it to stay awake, then I need to get off it.) Even sugar is a drug—load a kid up on it, with no carbs or protein buffer, and watch the moods swing.

    Moving the excitement (yep, adrenaline is too specific) isn’t about not being calm. I use calmness and reflection times (aka daily planning) to build anticipation. I can’t do it in the evening, because then I can’t sleep, even if I’m not thinking about it. (Don’t think about all the thinks I want to accomplish, but will be too tired to do.)

    I suspect the people you see as calm while working actually have fire, just not the type you recognize. What music do they listen to? What do they plan to do? I love being “in the zone”.

    Hey, ADHD books are where I get my ideas from! (My son has it. So do many high-acheivers in my family.) No poaching! (grin) Hallowell’s Driven to Distraction is still my favourite, even though it’s fallen out of favour. His Delivered from Distraction has case studies of how people turned ADHD traits into benefits, but possibly a defeatist attitude about traits that can’t be changed. Also, most of the books advertising “ways to treat without meds” concentrate on the anti-meds message rather than useful tools. Try re-reading the time-management standbys (Covey, Allen, FlyLady) with ADHD in mind, looking for focus, energy, excitement and momentum management.

    It’s interesting you chose fear of being lame to get you moving, rather than joy of accomplishment. Negative emotions are stronger and more addicitve, but I found too much of that led to depression. I like the idea of the task being an opponent to be conquored. (Idea: Draw an opponent and pin task cards to him.)

  4. Emily Seah 13 years ago

    Funny, I was just talking to my coworker about how my fury at a different, incompetent coworker today mysteriously displaced the headache and nausea that had been tormenting me since Sunday. After finally working through all the problems this person had caused today and as my rage ebbed, I suddenly realized I felt better physically. We joked about setting up an “anger spa”…perhaps it’s not unlike having a sauna. :D

  5. Dave Seah 13 years ago

    Katrina: Hulk like what you say! :-) It also sounds like you are plenty energizing when it comes to other people, but when it comes to your own projects there’s a void. I’m the same way; I can be very encouraging with other people, but the mojo doesn’t quite work the other way. I think there may be something to adopting a ROLE for yourself, weaving a story around your daily actions…my self-talk experiment is kind of like that, creating a “dramatic moment” when the protagonist (who I presume we’re all rooting for) makes a decision: be a spud, or get off his butt.

    Elliot: Dude, thanks for the link to the SciAm article!

    CricketB: Oddly, I don’t think I really feel any joy in accomplishment. I mostly feel joy in feedback. There are so many things that I see as prerequisite engineering stages that it’s hard to celebrate. But then again, maybe I have never TRIED celebrating accomplishment.

    Emily: Heh, anger spa! That’s awesome :-)

  6. Amanda Pingel 13 years ago

    ‘ERE WE GO! ‘ERE WE GO! SMASH! Do you read PS238?

    I certainly think excitement is critical—there’s no point in doing something that doesn’t excite you.  Zen Habits has a series on doing something Amazing that I think is relevant here.

    But I don’t know if this kind of excitement generation is sustainable.  I think your calm work-life balance approach, although it will create less of a instant-results drive, will serve you better in the long run.

    The question is, can you generate that kind of excitement without having to get an epi-high?

    I realize this sounds kind of lame, but I have 2 techniques for doing so:
      1) I write down my Most Important Tasks the night before, so they’re already there in the groggy, uncaffeinated morning.  I try to make sure they’re tasks that are, if not Amazing, at least Cool; then just reviewing them is enough to get me smiling and looking forward to getting them done.
      2) Each evening I share with my boyfriend what I accomplished.  We have an unspoken agreement that ANY finished task is automatically jump-up-and-down exciting, so I get to share my accomplishments with someone who helps me celebrate them.

    I find that those two things are enough to get me really working every day, although I admit I never get the fun of a full-out adrenaline rush.  :)


  7. Krystl Campos 13 years ago

    Hi Dave,

    I found your blog and Printable CEO downloads today. My immediate reaction was, “Oh, thank God!” In order to tackle big projects, I need everything in front of my face and handwritten, and I absolutely need to allocate time in units.

    Why? Because one of the ways my inattentive ADD manifests is that, without an egg timer, I sense very little difference between fifteen minutes and two hours. is really useful for tips, and a good book to check out is ADD at Work: On-the-Job Strategies for Coping with Attention Deficit Disorder. That one has a really well-done list of symptoms because it describes what ADD actually looks like. I’ll type it up and e-mail it to you.

    Another good one is The Gift of Adult ADD. To say it was helpful in the it’s-ok-to-be-me department would be an understatement; I came out of that book feeling like I’d just won the lottery. It encourages ADD adults to work with their weaknesses rather than fight against them. That definitely means they’ll be marching to the beat of their own drummers, but seeing as their strengths are just as unique, they were wont to do that anyway. The only difference is that they’ll be giving themselves permission to enjoy it.

    Pret-ty inspiring!

    I’m really grateful for your post because earlier I was panicking over thinking I had any business launching into freelancing with ADD, but seeing all you’ve done (whether you’re ADD or not) reminded me that I’m ideally suited to it.

  8. JoshuaC 13 years ago

    Interesting post. I really love the emergent task planner. I use it all the time. Have you read the book “The power of less”. The author talks a lot about wandering thoughts, and how they negatively impact productivity. Basically it seems to me as though there is a time for relaxing and wandering thoughts, but it isn’t during work time. If you haven’t read the book, I highly recommend it. It’s helped me put quite a bit with productivity. If you have, let me know what you think. It would solve sone of the problems you are having now.

  9. Willa Jean Dooley 13 years ago

    You know, half-way through your post I began to wonder if you had considered ADD.  There are some really excellent books mentioned above.  Check them out of the library, then buy the ones you want to re-read so that you can underline, draw pictures, squiggle in the margins, whatever.  Try minimizing distractions when you need to sit still and concentrate.  Play music without lyrics.  (Try Mozart’s horn concertos.)  Sit facing a fairly plain wall, not looking out the window.  If you need to, put up some sort of side barrier, to make something like the study carrels in a college library.  Use a timer and take regular breaks… see how long you can concentrate.  20 minutes?  Then take a break.  Take a longer break every hour or so.  Promise yourself a reward when you finish a project.  Something you really want.  Watch a movie?  Sit in the sun for an hour with no guilt?
    And you might just consider giving meds a try.  Some people are able to take them on a part-time basis, say, just on the day of a big meeting or a presentation, and they get amazing benefits that way.  Don’t dismiss the possibility without really looking into it.
    Above all, cut yourself some slack.  This has nothing to do with willpower or motivation.  It’s brain chemistry, pure and simple, and you can learn to work with it and work around it.

  10. Poojan Wagh 13 years ago

    A lot of athletes (and traders in the financial industry) use visualization (Creative visualization – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia). That makes me wonder if some sort of interval training (between light or short-intensive excercise) and informational work might be worthy.

    I haven’t finished it, but “The Now Habit” covers a lot about procrastination. It details very well _why_ we procrastinate. (I haven’t gotten to the section about how to stop it yet. I swear to God I’ll do it sometime soon.)