The Mountain Strikes Back

The Mountain Strikes Back

SUMMARY: I’ve been feeling like I’ve had some setbacks recently, and this has made me question my working methods yet again. This week’s attitude adjustment comes from recognizing my limits and identifying the situations that tax them. Also, I identify a source of anxiety that comes from a clash of values between my engineering past and my present visual design focus: unknowns are avoided in technology, but are embraced in the arts.

Last week I was feeling really good about my sense of accomplishment, even feeling a bit cocky about it. “Everything’s moving along”, I said to myself in a smug, self-congratulatory tone, “I have named the demonic anti-productivity forces facing me, and they are exposed! Surely, their defeat is assured, and I shall rule my domain with an enlightened fist!”

Eventually, perhaps, that day will come. It didn’t happen this week. The act of naming demons, while useful as a coping mechanism so you can think clearly enough to act, doesn’t knock them out for good. I’ve already suffered a few setbacks this week, and after debating whether I should ignore the feeling and keep pushing, I’m taking the time to reassess my tactics.

Revenge of the Sitch

I named a few of the “resistance monsters” last week, and here they are:

  • Purity – The idea that the truly good things are free, and that I want to be truly good. Gets in the way of commerce, though, so the counter is to realize commerce is NOT bad if you’re delivering value.
  • Nakedness – The idea that people will point and laugh. The counter is to realize not everyone gets it, and to remember that the people who are on your side have your back.
  • Perfectionism – The idea that everything has to be excellent, and forgetting that excellence is a habit of process and follow-through. The counter is to remember iteration is the key to creating refinement.
  • Reason – The idea that everything has to make sense, and that the exercise of making sense of things is valuable. It is, but not when it gets in the way of action or puts blinders on. The counter is to pair reason with action as a conscientious habit.

There are two other resistance monsters that have struck back with force far more powerfully than I anticipated:

  • Guaranteed Frustration for Unknown Reward – this is the realization that I will find the work frustrating and I won’t know what will happen. Ideally I want GOOD things to happen. It’s hard to shake, and it’s highly demotivating.
  • The Hooky Monster – this is the mind thinking of things I’d rather be doing, in ways both obvious (“let’s go to the beach”) and non-obvious (“perhaps we should read a book first for inspiration”). And by writing blog posts…

The context of my frustration this week: progress is slow, and I am not sure who to blame. I don’t like blaming things, so I tend to judge myself harshly especially when the goals are clear. There are just two: getting to digital downloads for sale, and re-building a pipeline of paying client work. The latter I’m doing through soft networking and inside sales (people finding me, as opposed to me finding them) activities, and it’s starting to pick up very slightly. I am probably not pursuing the outside sales route (me finding sales), now that I think about it, because of the Nakedness Monster: I don’t feel I have my materials adequately prepared, because having awesome materials is one of my main values. Which is the Perfectionism Monster! THEY ARE EVERYWHERE, and THEY ARE MINE.

The Enemy Within

Yesterday I was waking up very slowly, despite knowing that there were several long emails that I had to process into projects in BaseCamp. It was one of those mornings that were incredibly difficult to start from the first moment of consciousness. In the context of the dark thoughts regarding my resistance monsters, I ran through a self-diagnostic process:

  1. Am I Still Tired? I felt tired, but it was a bit suspicious; I suspected it was the Hooky Monster hijacking my brain to prevent me from looking at those emails. I knew if I was legitimately tired, I could always take a nap later, but first I’d have to get out of bed. Impasse!

  2. Am I Dehydrated? Do I Need to Eat? I often forget to drink enough water, and if this goes on too long then I find that my brain has difficulty forming the intent to act. In a similar vein, I am sometimes surprised that I do need to eat something in the morning, otherwise energy levels are low. I tend to believe that I have enough stored fat to last a couple of weeks, so breakfast isn’t a priority for me. I can sense when I need to eat by focusing my attention on my forehead and my arms; there’s a particular fuzzy feeling that comes with the low blood sugar. In this case, all systems seemed fine.


p>At this point, I figured that it was very likely that I was just not looking forward to processing those emails, and that my body was conspiring with my brain to avoid doing them. I reasoned with myself, still in bed, that I’m pretty much addicted to things that ARE exciting and stimulating, but this isn’t a sustainable state of mind. “Oh yeah?” rejoined the conspirators, “Prove it! Until then we’re staying in bed.”

Temporarily stymied, my thoughts wandered onto a recent episode of Car Talk, where they read a joke about AAADD: Age-Activated Attention Deficit Disorder. I hadn’t heard it before, and I realized that I’ve never actually read a good description of what Attention Deficit Disorder was like as an experience. That’s because I’ve always read more medical descriptions on Wikipedia, assuming that they would be more authoritative. As it turns out, most descriptions of ADD or AD/HD I’ve seen on such sites are really wishy-washy; the joke is far more descriptive (excerpted below):

This is how it goes: I decide to wash the car; I start toward the garage and notice the mail on the table. OK, I’m going to wash the car. But first I’m going to go through the mail. I lay the car keys down on the desk, discard the junk mail and I notice the trash can is full. OK, I’ll just put the bills on my desk and take the trash can out, but since I’m going to be near the mailbox anyway, I’ll pay these few bills first. Now, where is my checkbook? Oops, there’s only one check left. My extra checks are in my desk. Oh, there’s the coke I was drinking. I’m going to look for those checks. But first I need to put my coke further away from the computer, oh maybe I’ll pop it into the fridge to keep it cold for a while. I head towards the kitchen and my flowers catch my eye, they need some water. I set the coke on the counter and ooh oh! There are my glasses. I was looking for them all morning! I’d better put them away first. I fill a container with water and head for the flower pots – – Aaaaaagh! Someone left the TV remote in the kitchen. We’ll never think to look in the kitchen tonight when we want to watch television so I’d better put it back in the family room where it belongs. I splash some water into the pots and onto the floor, I throw the remote onto a soft cushion on the sofa and I head back down the hall trying to figure out what it was I was going to do? End of Day: The car isn’t washed, the bills are unpaid, the coke is sitting on the kitchen counter, the flowers are half watered, the checkbook still only has one check in it and I can’t seem to find my car keys! When I try to figure out how come nothing got done today, I’m baffled because I KNOW I WAS BUSY ALL DAY LONG!!! I realize this is a serious condition and I’ll get help, BUT FIRST I think I’ll check my e-mail…

Wow, that describes how my mind works. Rather than dwell on the negatives, I’ll frame it positively: my mind jumps from possibility to possibility, and constantly sees things that can be fixed. In the right circumstances it can be harnessed.

I know from recent experience that if I am careful about ignoring this voice, I get things done. It just often is not the way that I thought it would get done. If you embrace that this is OK then you would enjoy the Structured Procrastination approach. However, I have to think first things first: support myself through some independent means. The battle I am fighting now is to maintain enough time to build and own a source of financial support while making enough money to see it through to the end. The psychological part of the battle is to maintain good morale and direction. I want to succeed, but I am not always strong enough to keep pushing. And when I’m not pushing, I feel I am wasting time.

Surprise Solutions

Let me recognize that I have an attention deficit. I’m not saying this as an excuse, but as a starting assumption. From what I’ve observed, the attention deficit is a result of the desire to seek exciting and interesting things over routine things. It’s a common affliction, I think, in our society.

I can force myself to do boring and routine things, but realistically it’s easier if I tie them to what that genuinely engages me. For me, that revolves around people and finding mutual-inspiration to create those exciting and interesting things, which are almost universally about empowering or inspiring people in some way. Embracing this gives me motivation. However, the challenge is really finding a reliable trigger mechanism to make things happen now, not later. The supporting function is finding the sustaining mechanism, which is the ability to keep from being distracted. For me, that’s just turning off the part of my brain that is constantly noticing things that are interesting. Remembering to ignoring distractions is the practical way for me to focus.

Reviewing the AAADD joke, I can also see another pattern: the desire to optimize as I work. I like to accomplish more with fewer actions, so I am constantly optimizing to get more done with less. But, like the joke teller laments, my ability to juggle multiple tasks that have different contexts is very limited. I can optimize maybe one task at a time, so I should keep just one active thread going at a time and ignore everything else until it’s done. This is another practical focusing tip. I may end up making more trips than was strictly necessary, but I make up for it by maintaining focus on one task at a time.

At this point, I’m STILL in bed, and while these insights were fascinating I still needed to get up. I formulated the following diagnosis:

I didn’t want to get out of bed because I wasn’t exciting about it. My body was conspiring against me to make me feel tired. Another unnamed monster was also reminding me that I hadn’t built that self-sustaining financial engine yet, and my lack of progress was the reason I was reaping yet another unexciting day, which was a depressing thought. I was tired! And I saw the work as being something unpleasant.

I sensed that I was not being honest with myself, another subterfuge being played by the resistance monsters.

The first lie to fall was the tiredness. I knew my body was capable of action, because in a moment of self-congratulatory joy last week I picked up Star Trek Online, which had recently dropped in price. This weekend, operating on very little sleep, I clocked 20 hours in a row playing the game, and still woke up on time to make all the early-morning meetings I had scheduled. So clearly, when my mind is engaged, I’m still capable of pulling multiple all-nighters and functioning the next day. It isn’t sustainable, but it’s doable in bursts. So I knew I wasn’t so tired that I couldn’t get up and do some work. It was entirely in my head.

That settled, I turned to the second resistance: what was demoralizing me from doing the work? It’s all intriguing design stuff, but with design the outcome is not known much of the time. A technical mindset might be at work here; when I was studying to become an electrical engineer, not knowing how something would come out was a huge sin. In graphic design and art, structuring the work so synchronicity is the byproduct requires that you jump in before you know what’s going to happen. This clash of competing mindsets was creating huge resistance to starting the design work.

When I’m working with an engineer and encounter resistance to an idea, the first thing I do is ask is to quantify what the worst-case scenario is. If I am getting an emotional response from the engineer, this request will put him or her into analysis mode that is expected in the field; if you can’t back up your opinions in a technical or scientific field, you pretty much have to give in to the qualified opinion. A good engineer will deliver a qualified technical reason at the drop of a hat, or say he doesn’t know, and be open to other approaches. A bad engineer will sputter and call upon his “years of experience” and similar appeals to authority instead of answering the question in a manner that addresses the fundamental framework of the problem. This is not so much a lie as it is an emotional response wrapped in the assumption that there’s a good reason because I’m the one having the response. It may even be legitimate, but it must be tested.

So this in mind, I turned my own technique on myself: how much of a pain in the ass is this work? First, I realized that it’s visual design work and the unknown aspect of it was bugging the hell out of my engineer psyche, which was saying, “When something is unknown, how can I predict how long it will take or how hard it is?” So I pushed: would it take more than 4 hours? Well, no…it wasn’t that hard. How about more than 2 hours? Probably not. All I needed to do was read a few documents, assess the project and make estimates, and then get back in touch with someone. It would probably take 15 minutes. Just 15 minutes. I had spent 45 minutes working up the rationale to even start the work! Chastened, I got my ass out of bed and started working. It ended up taking about 45 minutes, but once things were going I didn’t have a problem.

The Takeaways

I still haven’t pulled together a complete model for how to tackle these constant assaults on my productivity, but recognizing that there is some past training that needs to be undone when it comes to pursuing unknown but desirable outcomes is an important realization. In my case, I was equating “unknown” with “unspecified and therefore undoable”, which created anxiety. I approach projects from an engineering perspective, but for the kind of work I’m doing now it’s not the right mentality to have.

Additionally, remembering that I do one task within one context at a time well is important. If I try to overload that task with additional “related” tasks with different contexts, then that creates the opportunity for distraction. There are ways to cope with this, for example ignoring the impulse to look when you are distracted and refusing to optimize tasks when you don’t have to. There is a time and place for that.

So, that’s this week’s blog post! Back to the grind!


  1. Phoebe Baker 12 years ago

    Your analysis and insight are extremely helpful, David. Thank-you for taking the time to share it with us. It’s obviously something you really enjoy, or you wouldn’t bother doing it.

    I wish I knew some editors to send your way, because I think you could write a great book. A lot of the material is already here!

    The good that you do here by sharing your thoughts circles ‘round. You are doing well.

  2. Dave Seah 12 years ago

    Phoebe: I’m not so sure I really enjoy it…it’s more like I’m compelled to write it down and work through the problem, then share it so other people can save themselves some time.

    I’d much rather be stupid and happy, I think :D

    If you have suggestions for a book topic, I’m all ears! I’d like to start writing one this year.

  3. Keenahn Jung 12 years ago

    Hey David, very interesting post. I can definitely relate to your trouble getting out of bed. It is hard when I know there’s something I have to do that I don’t particularly want to. My answer, and I think you already know this, is ACTION. I’ll make a deal with my brain to commit to the unpleasant task for five minutes, and then go back to sleep. Of course, it’s just a trick, and after the first five minutes I have no desire to go back to bed.

    Also, it’s funny to note the opposite effect having something to look forward to has. For the past week, I’ve been waking up before my alarm and not been able to go back to sleep because I’m so excited.

  4. Phoebe Baker 12 years ago

    Hmm… Quest, Questing, Taming the Vagaries of Communication Design… I read ahead. I know a title is different from a topic, but I’m encountering the same difficulty as when I’ve got a great idea for a paper and my professor wants a thesis statement: “Well, you see, it’s got a… and it’s really cool, neat, exciting!.. and I don’t have all the details yet, but you’re really going to like it!

    I suppose a topic could be thought of as the same thing as a focus, rather than a “category.” My guess is that it would include something to do with epistemology, a branch of philosophy that studies the nature of human knowledge. But what you do goes beyond that, because, oddly enough, epistemology seams to be focused on the what and the why, but not the how.

    You look at it all. You’re not afraid to delve in and explore an area of thinking if it is relevant to your subject. I’ll keep thinking about it.

  5. Karen 12 years ago

    Very interesting post! The AAADD joke describes my thought processes perfectly as well, though I’m not sure it’s age-activated—I’m pretty sure I’m no older than you are. This is part of why I was singing the praises of your ETP form recently, though—it’s been helping me stay on track. I look at the form and remember what I intended to do.

    This comment alone is worth its weight in gold: “excellence is a habit of process and follow-through.” That’s precisely what I need to remember; I may hang it over my desk. I do one-on-one teaching, and often I’ll get hung up on wanting to find or create the absolutely perfect exercise for my client (I’m in the midst of writing my own manual, so clients get pieces of the manual as it gets done, and often the impetus for writing another piece is that I need it for a specific client). I can diddle around with fixing the worksheet I’m making until the client thinks I’ve forgotten all about them. It’d be far better to just send something that more or less works and then improve it. In fact, staying with the process and improving follow-through is the single most important thing I can do to improve the service I give to clients, more than finishing the damn manual.

    Finally, I notice you were stuck when you didn’t know “how big of a pain in the ass” the project would be. I’ve learned from FlyLady that artificially setting a limit helps. If you tell yourself “I’ll give it just 15 minutes” or “just one hour,” at least for the first go-around, then there’s a limit to how much misery you’re going to get into; then either you’ll get on a roll and enjoy the project and not want to stop, or you’ll get it done within the time limit, or you’ll stop at the time limit but at least have the sense of accomplishment of having started it. Something about setting a limit makes it work—the fear of getting bogged down in an ill-defined task of unknown duration is powerful. My rule now is, the more uncertain I am of how long something will take, what it needs or how I’ll know when it’s “done,” the more I need to structure my time and tell myself it’s OK to just give it one hour; that tames the fear.

  6. Dr Paul Dyer 12 years ago

    Your thoughts about your frustration that was brought on by not being able to predict the rewards of your actions are quite interesting.  And I’ve certainly been there.  However, IMHO, this common cause of frustration is why it is so important to make sure that we use our gifts and talents in alignment with our life’s purpose.  We never really know what rewards we’ll receive…life can be pretty unpredictable.  Additionally, we often find that once we achieve some desired outcome, it really wasn’t as great as we anticipated and the reward doesn’t hold any lasting significance.  So we dash off in pursuit of some new achievement to fill the space that rightfully belongs to a more purpose-centered action.  From my perspective, focusing on doing things that allow us to use our gifts and talents in ways that make the world at least a little better place and simultaneously bring us joy, is a both a sustainable and deeply satisfying approach to living.

  7. Dave Seah 12 years ago

    Keenan: Oh, I’ve made those same deals with my brain before, like in this old post about tricking myself into action. But like The Borg, my mind adapts quickly and alas, my body is assimilated into its collective laziness :-) These days I’m waking up earlier, though. I have to think about how to generate EXCITEMENT again.

    Phoebe: Epistemology IS a field I find very interesting. The why is super important to me too. But I’m starting to think there isn’t really a grand purpose, more a “grand processing” that creates the illusion of purpose thanks to 20/20 hindsight.

    Karen: Yay, it’s not just me then :) Your thought on limiting the amount of misery is awesome…I’ve heard of other people doing the same thing, such as my friend Elise who has a “15 minute practice” rule when she HAS to practice but isn’t feeling it…if after 15 minutes, she still feels like not practicing, she drops it. There’s an OUT. Most of the time, though, after 15 minutes she’s going and doesn’t opt-out. What I like about the way you’ve put it as that you’ve tied an emotional rationale to the mechanism, which a lot of advice tends to miss.

    On a side note: TIME REBATES! That’s what we need! The promise that you only need to spend 15 minutes on a task, knowing that 40% of the population will commit but never cash in.

    Dr Paul Dyer: Good thoughts! There’s the trick, though: “focusing on doing things” is the stuck point. I’ve had the thought that perhaps if I’m not doing the things that are aligned with my values (and trust me, this has been a long-running theme here), perhaps they aren’t really in alignment. But there are times, I think, when focus = fighting to do what you must do. That’s when your values are tested. A lot of us don’t muster the will to fight for them. I’m not saying it always is a battle, but there are seminal moments of decision that define us. And that is what I think this post was about, though I didn’t quite realize it until you commented :-)

  8. Phoebe Baker 12 years ago

    David Seah: “But I’m starting to think there isn’t really a grand purpose, more a “grand processing” that creates the illusion of purpose thanks to 20/20 hindsight.”

    “Grand Processing,” I like that. And lest it be said that “processing” eliminates emotion and motives of the heart, it doesn’t. All those things are part of our processes.

    Maybe your book could focus on processes? Processes of thinking and other things and how they combine and interact to create new processes; ones we don’t even think about as processes, just as life.

  9. Karen v. H. 12 years ago

    It’s interesting to me that the technique of setting boundaries around a potentially-overwhelming task makes it possible to approach it rather than procrastinate. It seems identical to the way that boundaries make it possible to deal with difficult people. That is, there seems to be a natural tendency to avoid people who seem to make excessive demands (“excessive” is in the eye of the beholder, of course, which is why I said “seem”) or seem overbearing or controlling; if we fear they’re going to ride roughshod over us, it’s natural to take evasive action. If you have confidence in your ability to set and enforce boundaries with the person, though, suddenly the need to flee from their presence evaporates. In a way reminiscent to the old adage “Good fences make good neighbors,” boundaries make it possible to engage—with people *and* with tasks. I expect it’s the same psychological mechanism at work in both cases—we fear being invaded, taken over, and/or generally plunged into a state of chaos by the intrusive person or the ill-defined large task. When we set some limits, it becomes safe to risk engagement.

  10. Amanda Pingel 12 years ago


    I have that same issue—trying to do everything all at once. MOST of the time I can keep it under control, but when I get to the AAADD stage (as it did yesterday), I use Now Do This. I have it as an iPhone app, but it’s also a website.

    I like it because I can add tasks to it at any time (“Oh! I need to go through the mail!”), but it will only show me ONE.  When I’m done, it shows me the next one.  It’s a great tool for keeping me focused (especially since my iPod touch is one of the prime sources of distraction. Good to have it tell me what to do as soon a I turn it on.)