The Lizard, Blogs, and Self-Incentive

The Lizard, Blogs, and Self-Incentive

SUMMARY: Convincing myself to work on long-term projects with no immediate gain is difficult, and I write out some thoughts on why this is. Partly it’s due to the lack of definition, a lack of desire to redefine for the umpteenth time, and the lizard-like part of my brain that is concerned with conserving effort. But perhaps by maintaining focus on the the act of blogging itself, I can resolve all these issues at once.

Lately I’ve had the itch to revamp my productivity tracking systems, because my focus has changed. I’ve been trying to figure out, though, what exactly HAS changed. So I thought I would write out the problem as I thought about it.

I’m at Starbucks right now, around 830PM with the sun still casting a few last rays into a cloud-specked sky. I have my 5×8″ Cachet Classic Graph notebook, my Lamy Al-Star fountain pen, a cup of decaf coffee, and am pretty comfortable except for the mosquito bites on my feet. I’m sitting here wondering what the hell I should do first.

There’s nothing stopping me from launching into a productive frenzy, but on the same note there also is nothing PUSHING me into a productive frenzy. If I were to describe my mood, it would be mildly itchy. This is due partly to the mosquito bites, and it’s also due to the desire to DO SOMETHING EPIC. There, I’ve actually identified an urge: the desire for epic accomplishment.

The lazy part of my body is saying will take a long time, and the imaginative part of my mind is not even sure what that epic achievement would even look like. However, there’s a list of things in my notebook that have been there for quite some time:

  • Digital Downloads for Sale – At least I signed up for eJunkie, but there’s a big website that I need to make.
  • Revamp the Website so people can find stuff more easily – This requires a redesign and a retooling of the underlying blog engine, which is not something I look forward to.
  • Design some new forms – I have several ideas for them, but am feeling blocked and am not sure exactly what they are.
  • Work on the Design website – My services have changed to something more complex again, and again I’m not sure how exactly I’ll phrase it.
  • Affiliate Marketing – I have been emailing companies that make products I use and like, so at least I’m collecting info. However, I also need to redesign the website.

The common blockages I’m noticing in this litany of non-productivity is that I am saying there are design prerequisites that need to be defined before I can start work. And I am not even sure yet what the parameters of these prerequisites are, though I do know from experience that this is likely to take a long time.

I think one way I can interpret my reaction is that the primitive part of my brain that assesses when something is worth doing is not being triggered. Without a boss or a other pressing need, it feels better to sit here and enjoy my coffee than thrust myself into a world that is uncertainty and doubt, even though intellectually I know that the outcome will be worth it. My lizard brain remains utterly unconvinced of what my higher brain insists is true:

“Show me the rewards. Or describe them,” the lizard brain challenges. “Well, I don’t actually have a diagram or a plan, but empirical studies show that people who are making things generally are more productive and happier”, sputters my higher cognitive functions. “That’s not much of an incentive, these vague promises based on unnamed sources and anecdotal evidence”, says the lizard brain. “But for the sake of argument, what would you have us do?” “Um, well, I was kind of thinking that we would work that out after we started”, stammers my higher brain function. “The right lobe says that artists work this way all the time, and that discovery is part of the process. The journey is the reward, right?” A chilly silence descends upon the conversation, but after a long pause the lizard brain speaks: “So you want me to work for unspecified rewards based on a ‘plan’ that you will make up as I work, using two cliches as our template to guarantee a success which is currently completely undefined?” The higher brain, ever hopeful, nods. “Sorry, I don’t do spec work”, says the lizard brain, which promptly goes back to sleep.

Although I recognize how silly it is to have this conversation with myself, I am convinced that there is some accuracy here. It’s tough to work for unknown gains unless you really BELIEVE in it or have a powerful incentive driving you. Being successful is actually not much of an incentive for me, though it’s a state that I’d like to achieve so I have the resources to do more things. But those things? They’re still too abstract.

Ways Out

The common wisdom is, as always, definition definition definition. Definition makes these abstract thoughts into blueprinted structures and strategies. This I know fully well, and yet I am still unmoved to action. Partly this is because I am still don’t really know what I want. There’s stuff that I can IMAGINE would be cool, such as teaching some simple courses in design at the local art school, or developing some software. But I also know that these activities are not at the heart of what I want to do. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say they are equally interesting and uninteresting, resulting in a net zero of motive force.

Not knowing what you want, of course, is not really an excuse for inaction. You might as well try SOMETHING that moves in the right direction, or is at least beneficial in that it brings in a living wage or creates something you can show to people. After you’ve done it 3 or 4 times it starts to get really old, and you start to lose faith. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve tried changes. You can give up trying new things and go back to the compromise old thing that at least rewarded you with money or sex in a predictable manner. Or you can do it again, wondering if you’re being a fool.

This is where I am right now, and if you’ve been here before you know that what you want in your heart of hearts is SOME KIND OF SIGN. Something that tells you yeah, you’re on the right path. It has to be clear and simple, readily grasped in the mind and in the hand in the blink of an eye. The last thing I want to see? A complicated definition or business plan, executive summary, mission statement, balance sheet, or white paper that outlines another damn procedural treadmill. This is one of those moments where you look up into the sky and shake your fist, seemingly in vain, to express the frustration boiling out of your every pore. Or, you just sit in a coffee shop watching the sun set and try to write a blog post to work it out.

It’s occurred to me that the one thing that the lizard brain understands is that a lot of good stuff has come out of just making things for the blog. In fact, much good has come of it professionally and personally. While I’ve avoided “monetizing” the blog directly, I have just realized that I have nevertheless been thinking of it as an asset to be, uh, “assetized”. And this is distasteful to me, because the lizard brain does not consider “possible future gain” as a powerful-enough incentive. The lizard brain mentality is concerned with conserving, not creating. Any expenditure of energy is considered a loss first, and it can be surprisingly subtle. Loss of freedom? Loss of the fantasy to reality. Loss of choice.

Lizard Bypass

Ordinarily by now I would be ready to start pushing on some work, but something I said earlier about the blog is resonating with my desire for the clear-and-simple sign that I’m on the right path. Like I said, the blog has brought a lot of good things to my life, and the lizard brain has already reaped the rewards. It may be that the crazy but simple focus is to formalize my energies completely around the blog? There will always be things that stem from the work I do here, and those will get taken care of. But the simple thing to do might be to designate the blog as the center of all activities. That way, I have just one criterion for assessing whether what I’m doing is worth doing or not:

Will it make my blog better?

Everything else, perhaps, will fall into place, and I won’t have to argue with the lizard brain anymore.


  1. Kip 14 years ago


    I think this question is the root cause for the Lizard brain’s argument. You have not given it a sufficient answer to why. You need to digger deeper into your root motivation. What do you really want to accomplish. You don’t want to build a great blog. You don’t want to put great words on the screen. You don’t want to stand up in front of people and talk and you don’t want to create a bunch of code. You want something more…what is it? Don’t say you want money, because honestly it is nothing more then a stack of green paper and I could send you a stack of green construction paper today and you would not be happy.

    Dig deeper, look inside. What do you really want? Why are you doing what you are doing? What is the end goal?

    Until you can see the target you will never be able to properly aim and complete the now tasks.

  2. Dave Seah 14 years ago

    Kip: You’re preaching to the choir, dude! :) These are all true statements, but they are the kind that I am tired of. It’s what this blog post was about: the traditional approaches, which you are prescribing, have lost their edge with me, so I’m looking for another way to keep moving. I have five years of “why” written down on this blog, and the “why” changes every six months. Just because I can define something doesn’t mean I know it’s right, and the momentum I am overcoming is a feeling that it’s futile because I’ve been here before. I think I know the answer to this, but it was good to vent.

    You’re right in identifying that there are things that I don’t want in themselves, but instead they are intermediate steps that I hope point the way to the “real” target. And there are any number of comforting cliches that would help me cope: “the journey is the reward”, “your treasure is just around the next bend”, “doors close, doors open”, etc.

  3. Britt Raybould 14 years ago

    What a perfectly timed post. Without the immediacy of a deadline, usually imposed by someone else, my long-term projects have turned into these neglected step-children that aren’t getting the attention they deserve.

    The lizard brain says I always have tomorrow, but my pragmatic brain says I have no guarantee that I’ll have time tomorrow either. For me and Penny, it’s helped that we’ve started holding each other accountable. That outside influence has helped me (and Penny, I think) feel some much-needed pressure to explain ourselves, but in a way that’s more about getting things done versus someone cracking a whip.

    Working on our own means that we prefer to not have someone standing over our head, day to day, telling us what to do. However, we also lose the benefit of that set deadline, of someone say, “How’s that coming?”

    Having someone equally engaged in your success, and you in theirs, can be the kick start that scares the lizard. Every week, I know I have a call with Penny. She’s seen my task list, and I’ve seen hers, so we both know that the other knows what we were supposed to accomplish this week.

    We may not be working on projects together or doing the exact same tasks, but we both want our businesses to succeed. For now, that common goal is enough to keep us both moving forward by helping the other say accountable.

  4. Elliott Bennett 14 years ago

    I just finished Linchpin, by Seth Godin.  He makes so many references to the lizard brain that I heard a joke about “lizard brain” being the phrase to take a shot in the “Seth Godin Drinking Game.”

    That said, between the book and the interview he did with Merlin Mann, he flat out says that he often uses his lizard brain as a sort of life compass-but in reverse.  If the lizard brain wants to avoid something—then he DOES IT.  He literally takes that gut feeling as a REASON to encourage the *opposite* behaviour.

    Or, at the very least, acknowledge (out loud) that it IS the lizard brain stopping you—which it sounds like you’re doing very openly. :)

    I’m trying to do this a bit more myself, just as a personal experiment to see where it leads.


  5. Steven Gallagher 14 years ago

    Look, David, I know where you coming from and I can strongly identify with the utter frustration one can feel when clarifying what is essential, what gives the most meaning and why, but I can tell you that, at least for me, much of that sort of feeling dissipated when I started a family, especially when my son was born. It adds a layer of purpose in your life that transcends everything you do. I don’t mean to pry, I respect your insight immensely (your the “DS” button on my chrome browser) but family, especially your own family, truly changes your perspective. (I guess this sentiment is clichéd as well but it’s the truth).

  6. Dave Seah 14 years ago

    Britt: That’s great that you and Penny are keeping yourself accountable! I’ve been trying to introduce that as well. Colleen Wainwright has been telling me about something she attends called a “SuccessTeam”, which might refer to this idea from (hey!) Barbara Sher (she’s the author of that book on “scanners” called Refuse to Choose that seemed to fit me). This seems to be part of the solution…accountability, social context, being part of something? I wonder if it’s the idea that you can both succeed and you want to see the other succeed that’s the core of it.

    Elliott: I wonder if that’s where I picked up the lizard brain vibe from…it must be in the air! That’s a great idea, doing things that are opposite of what the lizard brain says.

    Steven: I think you’re on to something there. I don’t have a family, nor are any family members close by, and I’ve often wondered if this is part of the issue. One huge improvement over the past couple of years has been to establish myself in a kind of community, and then there’s also the thought that I should be part of things larger than myself. It’s something I haven’t wanted to force, but at the same time it’s also something I have to grow, much like Elliott is describing. Hm.

    Isn’t it funny how the truth has more meaning when it comes from someone else? Thanks everyone! I really appreciate all your comments.

  7. Peter Knight 14 years ago

    re: “desire to DO SOMETHING EPIC”

    This is going to sound cheesy to some, but I know when I’ve got an epic idea (which leads to epic accomplishment hopefully) when I can think about the idea while listening to a cinematic film score (something by Hans Zimmer for example) and get revved to accomplish it. The ideas that don’t pass the cinematic film score test, aren’t the ones that really get me going. I hadn’t thought about that until today, but I think I should audit my projects based on the epic film score litmus test from now on.

  8. Michael Cuffe 14 years ago

    Have you read Switch by Chip & Dan Heath?  They talk about this same issue.  They use the rider and elephant metaphor to describe the split between reason and emotion. And they talk about ways to make them move in the same direction. Hope you get un-stuck.

  9. katrina 14 years ago

    Okay, I had to laugh.  Almost everything on your list involves either designing or redesigning a web site.  I had a similar list a few months ago.  And I too was completely unmotivated.  Then I tried the natural sifting of Autofocus (thanks for the info!), and all the things that got dismissed were … you guessed it … web site design for me.

    I discovered that redoing a web site for the umpteenth time is … boring and tedious.  So I dropped them.  I put up a simple three page replacement site for the one thing that needed a change, and stopped. 

    Now all that is on my lists are things that motivate me. 

    So maybe, redoing websites is not where your energy is needed … and your “lizard” and right brain self knows it.

  10. Dave Seah 14 years ago

    Peter: That’s an AWESOME idea! I’ve noticed that when I watch certain movies like “Saving Private Ryan” I’m often inspired and chastened into action. I’d love to see the epic film score litmus test (film scores fascinate me :)

    Michael: No, I’ve never read it. Thanks for the heads-up! I feel like I should get a Kindle or an iPad now…no…resist!!!

    Katrina: Wow, you are RIGHT ON THE MONEY THERE. Making websites isn’t something I particularly look forward do doing, and the reason why is probably actually an aesthetics thing. My lizard brain is sporting a monocle and holding a glass of Chablis! So the way past it is yes, maybe just work ugly and get the damn thing done and iterate. It seems the two ways I make progress are through personal experiments, explaining stuff, and other people’s needs. Hm.

  11. avrum 14 years ago

    “Barbara Sher (she’s the author)….”

    There’s only one self-help book I recommend to clients and colleagues: Sher’s Wishcraft. Free here:

    My problem: Finding people who want to work the Wishcraft system with me. I’ve come close: once in Vancouver and Toronto. 

    A proposal: I would be interested in finding someone – max 2 other people – to form a Wishcraft/Success team. We’d start from the beginning, make our way through the goal-setting process and then form an online success team. We can do this via Skype.

    My boy was born 48 hours ago, so I’d prefer to start this in 2 weeks.

    Any takers? Send me an email at striemel AT gmail DOT com

  12. Nollind Whachell 14 years ago

    Some observations of my own of late. Hope they resonate in one way or another with you.

    Thinking vs Feeling

    Whenever I “think” I’m on the right track, I’m usually not. In effect, when I start thinking too much, I usually end up getting off track. My best compass is actually what I “feel”. Often times, I’ll intuitively “feel” something is important without really understanding why at that moment. Yet I know deep down it’s right and connected to my pursuit in some way. Strangely enough, usually over time this understanding eventually does reveal itself, although sometimes it can take months or even years.

    Hungry vs Comfortable

    Being comfortable is like kryptonite for me. In effect, when I’m happily content, why push myself? Yet when I’m “hungry” though, I’m much more focused and clear on what I want. So lately I’ve been limiting the things in my life that make me feel too comfortable (i.e. enjoying an ale, playing computer games, etc). In addition, I’m also getting off my butt and getting out more for some running and longer walks.

    Attention vs Distraction

    In this day and age, there are just way too many enjoyable and interesting things to distract us. The thing that I’ve realized is that I can easily spend hours surfing the web and finding really great stuff (even stuff that relates to my web design work) but at the end of the day I usually end up feeling like I’ve just wasted a bunch of time on superficial things. Simply put, I sometimes feel like a knight who has lost track of his life quest and been distracted by a beautiful dryad within the woods for hours upon end, only to awake later wondering where the time has gone. I’m finding that the running and longer walks I mentioned above are really helping a lot because they really help clear my mind of distractions.

    Your Passion/Purpose vs Your Job

    What I do as a job has nothing to do whatsoever with my passion and purpose. In effect, if I didn’t have a job or didn’t have to work (because I won the lottery), I’d still being pursuing my passion / purpose in life because it is me at my very core (I couldn’t be anything else). This is why in the past I’ve had conflicting feelings with regards to doing web design. The reason being is that web design isn’t my passion but instead it is the particular type of work that I’m doing with web design that I’m passionate about. For example, if I had to build a product website for a company so they can make money, this doesn’t ignite me in any way. It’s just a “job”. If, however, I built a website for a company that truly trying to make a difference in the world and giving to the world in turn (i.e. Tom’s Shoes), then I’d be overjoyed because this really resonates with my passion and purpose. Again as Steven commented above, the right perspective will change everything and ignite the passion and drive within you. And instead of you needing “pushing”, it will instead “pull” you to it like a moth to a flame because it’s such natural part of you.

    Not One Or The Other But Something That Unifies Everything In Between

    I’ve continually been struggling to figure out if I should be this or that with regards to a career field. For example, I have a lot of background and experience related to the video games industry and also with regards to web design. So I’m continually on the fence between which field I should pursue. Yet lately, I’ve realized it’s neither field that interests me but instead something else that underlies them both. For example, the thing that I loved the most about my games experience hasn’t been playing games but instead the social aspects of them (i.e. sociology, organizations, collaboration, cooperation, teamwork, training, mentoring, etc). Even with regards to web design, it isn’t just about designing a great looking website but more about creating a visual design and identity that genuinely represents the culture of the company in an authentic way.

    Anyways that’s it for now. Hope something here “clicks” with you.

  13. Dr Paul Dyer 14 years ago

    I love your transparency.  I’d like to suggest something for your consideration.  You’ve said that you’re looking for “some kind of sign.”  From my perspective, frustration, confusion, and a lack of clarity as to direction, are all signs, great and wonderful signs.  These feelings are part of our inner guidance system telling us that we’re on the wrong path.  And this is terrific information that can be used to navigate to another course.  I might also suggest a slight shift from looking for, “What I want to do” to “What am I being asked to do.”  The first version is about trying to create a life of fulfillment and passion and the second one begins with discovery rather than creation.  Again, thank you for your honest writing and Carpe Diem!

  14. Nollind Whachell 14 years ago

    I might also suggest a slight shift from looking for, “What I want to do” to “What am I being asked to do.”

    I realized something very close to this myself. I kept asking myself “What Am I Passionate About?” and also “What Can I Do To Make Money?”. What I found out was that one usually conflicted with the other. In effect, I was so busy focused on “making money”, that I couldn’t see my passion under my very nose. Why? Because when I thought about making money, I immediately thought in my head “How can I be like everyone else?” Yet following your passion isn’t about following others but instead about listening to your true authentic self.

    So if you think you should be a web designer, yet you barely talk about web design on your blog, then more than likely your passion isn’t web design. That’s what I realized. In my spare time, I’m always thinking about community and culture (i.e. large social groups doing epic things to change the world), so that’s obviously where my passion lies.

    Put another way, sometimes the hard part isn’t finding your passion, it’s trying to monetize it especially if you’re a pioneer or explorer of sorts and are doing something on the edge that’s never been done before.