Liveblogging The Productivity Doldrums, Part I

Liveblogging The Productivity Doldrums, Part I

SUMMARY: I was feeling very unmotivated this morning, but couldn’t quite figure out why. I decided to write out what I was feeling and thinking to see if I could self-diagnose the issue while getting a free blog post out of it :-) The end of the post shifts more toward the organizing principles behind various types of tasks, and the realization that if I know how all these pieces fit together I will be a better self-manager. It means understanding my own energy management, mental state, and how each task affects the system. I’ll be posting followup parts today and probably tomorrow.

[balance]: I had a textbook-perfect launch this morning, waking up as described in yesterday’s post about my [continuing adventures in search of work-life balance][balance]. Now comes the hard part, which is shifting out of manager mode and actually picking something to do. I have just realized I’ve been spending the past 15 minutes aimlessly clicking on NPR’s very cool 404 page not found links, dead in the water.

When I’m stuck in this pre-productive state of apathy, I sometimes will just pick something to do that at least will leave some kind of mark on the world; a lot of blog posts in 2006 got written that way, and the genesis of the Concrete Goals Tracker itself was the humble by-product of marathon procrastination session. So I’m thinking…why not stream of consciousness my way through the doldrums that are causing productive minutes to tick by, not accomplishing that which I probably should be doing.

Diagnostic Check

So how am I feeling? Kind of tired. A little wobbly-armed. I might be hungry. I am probably dehydrated too. My muscles feel un-energetic and my head is listing to my right side at a 30 degree angle as my eyes, the color of a cloudy bowl of onion soup, track this little cursor across my LCD panel. Only the clicky-clattery sound of my cherished Model M Space Saver keyboard evinces any sign of life here in my basement office. I pause to tilt my head to my left (for variety), and glance outside the walk-through basement door at the sunny day. I’d rather be out there, but it’s nice and air-conditioned in here. I can also smell the chicken wings upstairs that are baking for lunch. It is possible that they are done, though I haven’t heard the timer go off. I don’t smell anything burning, so I figured I can let them sit for a few minutes.

My mind feels a little fuzzy, and perturbed. It’s fuzzy probably because I’m sorta hungry, sorta bored, and my mouth is feeling dry. My shoulders are kind of aching too. I am a giant bundle of whiny muscle fiber, lax and unconditioned from sitting on my butt this entire summer and not doing any physical activity. The solution, if I were so motivated to engage it, would be merely to get up and stretch, check on the kitchen. Or better yet, do a little light cleaning upstairs. That doesn’t require any mental focus. That might be enough to kickstart some motion, but it is essentially a delaying tactic: I still have to do some serious creative work. I just am not feeling very creative.

Engagement with the Plan

It’s easy to extend my manager role for a few minutes and glance at the ETP form I drew this morning at Starbucks. It takes a few seconds for me to will my eyes to focus, and then another few seconds to force my brain to read and comprehend what I wrote. I am so not into looking at this, but then my eye catches the day grid, and I can’t help but glance at the time. It’s 12:15PM here, and my day started at 11. Actually, I’m not doing as bad as I thought. I know that I need at least one good four-hour push to get one of those creative tasks off my docket. One complication is that I had promised a friend that I’d help her family move, and I haven’t heard any confirmation since Saturday about today’s plan. I’d already left a message. Knowing that I might have to drop everything and go move some stuff makes me reluctant to start anything, and I’m feeling a little grouchy about being left hanging like this. I decide that if I do get the call, I’ll slot in the time after whatever creative chunk I’m working on (assuming I do start working on something soon) gets done or at least to a good stopping point.

Where was I? Oh, I was about to read what I had written down this morning.

There are a number of tasks that I’ve scribbled onto the day’s planning form:

  • I have to wire some money into a bank account, a loathsome task involving a lot of scurrying around after pieces of paper and the slotting of ATM cards at inconveniently-located bank branches. It’s at least an hour, it seems. I don’t even want to look for the account information.
  • There’s the press kit, business cards, and piano recording tasks for Angela, who is this month’s project buddy. We keep tabs on what the other claims to want to accomplish for the month, and provide a periodic and friendly nagging service. Business cards are probably the most pressing and quick to do…I file this mentally under as a “creative” task. The piano recording is a location-based event, and probably isn’t going to happen today. The press kit is a new project, which I’ve already done some research on to do it on the cheap. The next step for that is to just make a prototype…ANY prototype. The cards, though, are probably the most pressing. There is also a dependency that I haven’t written down: new headshots, which is dependent on yet another dependency: classical clothing that appeals to the parents of children who are seeking piano lessons. I could start calling people and pushing the project along, but it’s something I probably should confer with Angela directly about. I take the time to pull out a 4×6″ index card and write angela business card – 1 hour on it. The plan is to just make it, and get a reaction, rather than try to chase down all the little details that would go into the card. Easier to make, then modify.

I pause because I definitely smell chicken, and that means I should probably check the oven. Hey, I’m moving! :-)

The chicken wings are not burned, which is a relief, but they are too hot to eat. I dig out my KitchenAid digital timer (nice looking, but functionally somewhat lacking) and set it to go off in 15 minutes. I also receive a text message informing me that I’m no longer needed to help move my friend’s stuff, as some relatives have come through to give her a hand. I’m off the hook! Continuing on with the remaining things on my list:

  • I’ve got to check in on project 0152, a website for local businessperson Carolyn. I normally don’t do websites, but I’m exploring the idea of creating a line of simple website components that I can use to help out local creatives for not a lot of money. Rather than pursue a custom solution, I would provide very tasteful and minimal functional solutions that get the job done, are 100% approved by myself in terms of maintainability and robustness, and look nice. Anyway, project 0152 is waiting on materials from Carolyn, but I can probably do some light architecture for the website. This is not a burning concern today.
  • I also have Emergent Task Planner noted, which in this month’s context means launching an online store. I’ve already set up Amazon ProMerchant and Fulfillment. Now I got to get the new pads printed. I have new designs, but I now have to figure some stuff out for UPC codes and how Amazon needs the packaging made. Then I need to set up a time to meet with the printer and go over everything. Additionally, I have to work on a new website or subsite for the PCEO-related materials, since Amazon shoppers will like seeing that kind of thing; my blog, in its current state of navigational dishabille, just will not do. The next step is a clerical one: post an item on Amazon, check the Fulfillment option, and see what I’m supposed to do. Since I don’t know how long it will take, I will just assign this task 15 minutes and see what happens. Writing this down on my card.

Chicken wing break. Timestamp: 12:45PM. 30 minutes have been spent writing. I mentally weigh the cost of 30 minutes against what I might have gotten done if I just sat and tried to do something. Which wasn’t happening. I actually am feeling more energetic and focused, either from eating/drinking or from having written a little bit of continuity for the projects that are on my mind. Perhaps I should write a journal every morning, or blog it in a separate part of the website. It might be interesting to some readers, to see what the daily grind is like for a freelancer.

Remaining things that I wrote down, primarily as reminders: Scheduling dinner on Thursday with friends, working on a Flash-based photography website for my buddy Sid (again, part of the local artist website initiative), planning the roadtrip to Washington DC to visit a friend, designing a set of AdSense-friendly informational pages to build up that passive income separately from my main website, and checking in with project 0147, which is a design project that is currently stalled on the client side.

Sorting Tasks

As I look at the tasks I’ve picked out for the day, I am seeing that I should group them as follows:

  • Creative Tasks that require focus and solitude. The business card for Angela and the HTML architecture for Carolyn fall into this category. I have to still my mind, block out other projects, and just merge with the project work. It’s easy when I can block out the other projects, and knowing what they ARE as a result of this planning work helps me relax. Sure, I know I can spend the next few hours working and nothing is going to blow up in my face (that I can predict, anyway).

  • Squirrel Tasks that require a lot of scampering around to find buried nuts because I need to handle them now. Handling the bank wire transfer is one of those tasks, as is starting the scheduling process. I’m not going to be able to focus on the creative tasks until they’re done.

  • Simple Informational Tasks that make my creative tasks possible. Digging around on Amazon’s website and learning how to use their ProMerchant system to list an item for fulfillment is one such task. Reading up on HTML-related topics for Carolyn’s website architecture (in particularly, I’ve been meaning to look through JQuery) is another such task. It’s very easy to do the initial search for information easily.

  • Monitoring Tasks are ones that involve looking around to see what’s going on. Email, social media websites, hanging out by the water cooler, reading daily blogs, project management…these are all monitoring tasks. They tend to expand the number of things that you can do, which isn’t good for productivity focus or creativity.

  • Information Synthesis Tasks are the ones where I have to distill all the information and process I have into working knowledge. For example, I can read up on JQuery and get an idea of what it means, but I won’t have the detailed working knowledge that allows me to effectively use it. For that, I need to know what the best practices are, and how they map to my understanding of software development…this is how I learn. This is a significant challenge that is unpleasantly open-ended because it depends on the quality of information that I can find AND how adroitly I can grasp the concepts underlying the system.

  • Social Tasks are meetings with people for the unstructured synchronizing and exchanging of information, hanging out, and discovering new things together. These are the source of many new ideas. For me, talking about and showing people what I’m doing is also a good motivator, so it’s an essential part of my overall production process. However, I have to make sure I balance social time against creative time. Social tasks tend to interrupt the creative tasks, because I prefer to be around people than to be by myself.

  • Collaborative Tasks are meetings with people for the purpose of getting something done. The trick is to make sure that they do not devolve into unstructured, goalless discourse. If done right, they can be another way of getting those creative and information synthesis tasks done.


p>The productive tasks are creative and information synthesis, and they require uninterrupted solitude. Social tasks are less important than Squirrel tasks, which must get done. Both Social and Simple Informational tasks are easy to do any time, but they expand possibilities at the expense of actually getting something focused done. Collaborative tasks are useful for launching an endeavor that requires more energy than a single person can muster, and they can be used to anchor the beginning of a creative session. The idea of expanding versus contracting tasks again comes to mind; creativity requires both an expansion phase and a focus phase, followed by a production phase. That suggests if I classify my tasks and schedule them during the day to not fight each other, I may be more productive overall. Or at least, smoother running.

Launching into Action

It’s 1:15PM now, so I’ve spent an hour on this. That feels like it’s a bit excessive, but I got a blog post out of it so I am not complaining too badly. Quick self-diagnostic: I feel pretty good at having just written something. Essentially, this blog post started as a simple information task (stream of consciousness post), and ended up as an information synthesis task (making sense of it). This brings to mind a second element of the creative/synthesis tasks: they require energy. My mind has spent the past hour analyzing what I’ve been doing, and is tired. I have to allow for a new kind of task to recharge:

  • Brain Resetting Tasks are things I can do to relax my brain so it can re-energize and take on a new task. Creating and thinking takes energy! It might be a short nap. It might be riding the scooter. Whatever the brain reset task is, I have to be mindful that what I do will chain directly into what I am planning to do next. Right now, I’m thinking that I need to do the Squirrel Task, which is going to be somewhat draining and distracting. I should do it now, then take a brief rest.

Part of the brain reset also is the taking of a stand against too many squirrel tasks in a row. Once I have the shape of what needs to happen, I can make decisions with regards to what counts as “productive” and what is just management overhead. Most management overhead can be deferred, I find.

Ok, now I’m actually kind of tired and headachy from having sorted through all this, so I’m going to do that bank-related thing, probably veg for a bit and eat, and then launch directly into making something. More reportage later in the day.


  1. Rich 11 years ago

    Dave, you’re coming to DC?  When?  It would be great to get together for dinner or drinks or something, if our mutual schedules allow…

  2. Regan 11 years ago

    I’ve been struggling with getting started/motivation issues lately, myself. Your post reminds me of the connection between getting started and inertia (or to quote a children’s PBS science program “Things like to keep on doing what they’re already doing.”) Sometimes, you just need to get started on something, anything. Then once you’re in motion, its easier to keep going. So, in your case, starting to write instead of surfing 404 links, got you moving enough to start work. Or, in my case, starting any project related task even if it isn’t what I need to be doing *right now* is better than, er, those 404 links looked cool…