Plotting for Motivation

Plotting for Motivation

SUMMARY: I’d hoped to do a lot of work done this weekend, but I came down with a bad case of the blahs. Instead of going to sleep at a responsible time, I stayed up late and consumed a lot of television and Internet in an attempt to drown out a growing sense of malaise. And instead of getting up early, I slept-in and then berated myself ineffectually. Apathy ruled the day.

Zonked out in bed very late Sunday morning, I started to trace through the likely causes of my unproductive bout of ill humor, establishing a preliminary framework of understanding to help realign my attitude.

Working through the Bummer

Lying in bed, I attempted to savor the feeling. I swished it mentally around my head, identifying notes of antipathy and uncertainty against the tang of mild depression. I was feeling that nothing exciting was likely to happen no matter what I did, and even if I did get off my butt to work I wouldn’t be rewarded for it in any way I could predict. I felt like I was trapped with nothing to look forward to.

Intellectually speaking, I knew this wasn’t the case, and my natural sense optimism poo-poo’d the idea that I was truly stuck in a dead-end situation. I know from experience that doing leads to movement, and this is what produces the sense of NEWNESS that I crave. However, I had to admit that in my immediate state that my depressed feelings were also true. While I knew that doing leads to action, I also didn’t have anything concrete that I was looking forward to. All future rewards were still theoretical, unseen, and of an uncertain distance away.

If the future didn’t offer anything specific, perhaps the past could be mined for an energy-giving sense of accomplishment. There were a handful of such accomplishments, I knew, but they had lost the pungency of being new. Furthermore, the memory of these accomplishments are easily dwarfed by the awareness that I’m awash in an enormous sea of to-dos and other commitments. I cope by recognizing that I can’t do everything at once, allowing myself to maintain a schedule according to my ability to do so, conserving energy and riding the tides as best I can. This reduces the negative mental pressure, but this isn’t enough. For complete balance, I need two more things: assurance that I’m moving toward some resolution at at speed, while I consume a steady supply of new datapoints to keep me excited about what that might be.

In other words: measurable progress and speed toward a resolution that delivers a certain kind of excitement. This suggests that I need to develop some technology that’s capable of measuring power and speed, with the instrumentation to give me the feedback that helps keep me going.

I have numerous forms and other rituals that I’ve tried in the past six years of deconstructing productivity, but none of them seem to address exactly what I want. Seeing the amount of time I have been spending watching seasons Community, mindlessly playing Star Trek Online even though I’m bored, and clicking repeatedly on Boing Boing and others of its ilk, I think it’s safe to say that I’m craving input. Something for my mind to process that is lightly rewarding, but not too difficult. What would be nice is to create a replacement for this that is based on my own end goal, based on a range of inputs and challenges. This is something like gamification, but I dislike the word because I think it trivializes game design as a collection of mechanical tricks that can be sloshed like a coat of paint over business problems.

I’m not sure exactly where this is going, but the way to deal with that is to nail down some definitions as an anchoring landmark, and then start taking steps.

Defining the Dream

Let’s consider the end goal first. If the problem is that I’m feeling blah, and this blahness is leading to inaction, then the most obvious step is to NOT feel blah. That suggests that I need to get some excitement going. For me, making new connections with high-quality experiences fits the bill. Food, for example, is exciting because of its enormous breadth. I also love design that expresses a profound level of mastery shaped by many years of collective experience. I think this stuff is magical. The connection between tools and mastery fascinates me. Secondly, I very much want to be making novel goods that didn’t exist before, imbued with the qualities that attract me. This is difficult to rationalize…I just like the idea of having my own store filled with boxes of my own inventions like Ollivander’s Wand Shop. Perhaps this stems from a love of stationery stores. My store would be one filled with tools that enable mastery, insight, and the achievement of dreams.

Recognizing the Nature of the Journey

If I knew that every action I took was making my magic shop more of a reality, then I probably would be more motivated. Build your own magic methods shop isn’t the kind of thing that you can easily Google, so this indicates that I’m forging my own path.

Forging your own path is hard.

Of the oft-quoted “10,000 hours to mastery”, I’d bet that 50% of them are frustrating, assuming you’re starting from scratch. And that’s not even taking into account that this figure is for well-understood activities like piloting airplanes or learning how to cook. When you are forging your own path, you are without a guide or lesson plan much of the time. That’s a depressing thought…thousands of hours of frustration await me, without guide or recourse. To suffer is my fate, if I don’t wash out first.


An advantage to hacking your own path through the jungle is that you can change your mind and tweak the route according to circumstance. You just have to ask yourself whether the choices you’re making will take you closer to your goal, or perhaps add an additional dimension to it. If you also have some means of assessing the risk, you should do OK. Not a lot of things will really kill you. There are many ways to get to the same destination. By being comfortable with the amount of time it will take, it’s possible to embrace the journey and learn from it.

Ensuring the Supply of Optimism

So we now have a dream and a realistic attitude toward the journey. In the early moments of a journey, it’s easy to feel optimistic. What we need to account for is the bad times when we’re travelling blind without companionship or certainty of direction.

For the everyday drudgery of the journey, it’s important to ensure that a regular supply of positive occurrences happens. Just because it’s a long, uncertain journey doesn’t mean you can’t plan for frequent feedback in the form of your own ability to assess. That creates momentum and energy, and it may just be enough to help push forward on those windless days in the doldrums.

To create this motive force, we need to be able to harness our everyday actions in the context of our goal. I have a form, the Concrete Goals Tracker (CGT), which is designed to help new entrepreneurs focus on the business-generating aspects of their daily activities. What I’d like to do for my magic shop goal, which seems vaster than the limited context of the CGT, is recognize that there are several areas of activity that I can participate in at any given time.

Here’s the first one: REFINING WHAT I ALREADY KNOW, in rough order of difficulty.

  • gather the things I need to play for 15 minutes
  • follow a recipe to completion
  • repeat a recipe to improve it
  • create a bigger recipe from multiple small recipes
  • create a recipe from scratch
  • master recipes to perfection
  • distill key concepts of excellence in recipes
  • connect with people who are true appreciators
  • research fields that have complementary application
  • recognize when you have enough

Everyone should be able to do something here, because you’ve been alive. By living, you’ve assembled a collection of sure-fire recipes that deliver desired results. For example, I know how to use Adobe Creative Suite to create visuals for computer screens and print. I can program computers and build them. I can take photographs. I can write two sentences that link to each other. The result is what you see on right now.

Plan for Learning

Although I have a nice pile of skills and recipes to call on, creating a magic shop requires still more knowledge. How do I make physical products? How do I write an iOS application? This means an expansion of my knowledge, which means I’m going to have to learn something and be really terrible at it. I summon the spirit of Noob, and am ready to suffer through thousands of hours of frustration. I have to LEARN WHAT I NEED TO LEARN, ONCE MORE. In order of difficulty (for me):

  • commit to new area of endeavor
  • master unfamiliar concepts and vocabulary
  • catalog recipes and techniques
  • practice new recipes, divining underlying principles
  • master recipes to perfection
  • create cross-disciplinary recipes
  • connect with people who recognize the power of the combined recipe

Progress will be slow and filled with uncertainty, but so long as I am also working on stuff I know how to do, I can maintain a certain flow of achievement. Balance the power of the old skills with a modicum of the new to help maintain a net-positive sense of accomplishment. And remember…it will take time.

Raising the Stakes

At a certain point, I’ll have enough knowledge to shift from learning and into production. I think of it as BECOMING A PRODUCER OF GOODS, which I think means doing stuff like the following list:

  • architect a system of production
  • evaluate and grade quality of products
  • figure out who wants it
  • figure out how to pay for it
  • figure out how to price it
  • figure out how to scale up production
  • estimate demand for products
  • establish channels to distribute
  • establish your presence so people can see you
  • establish the means by which people can find you
  • Clarify the philosophy behind your work
  • Make it easy to understand for your audience
  • Deliver happiness
  • Profit, and re-invest in yourself and your market

I also think of it as becoming a CONTENT CREATOR, having the right attitude to make stuff that you can be proud of. Something like:

  • Set the bar high
  • Gather materials and supporting crew
  • Accept no risk that could destroy you personally
  • Or be willing and able to start again if it does
  • Commit to proactive leadership
  • Plan the gig, and push forward
  • Hit your marks, and be accountable
  • Be genuine in intent and in your value of your crew
  • Accept no compromise until you design around it
  • Don’t lose hope, retreat is not defeat
  • Be alive and in the game until the final whistle blows
  • Know what that final whistle is
  • Give up control of the signal, and see what happens
  • Share in victory
  • Learn from defeat

When you’re raising the stakes, you’re daring to put yourself out there. That’s the barrier that holds a lot of us back, fearful of being ridiculed or embarrassed. Find your supporters and your peers, and it’s a little easier to do.

And Don’t Forget Existing Commitments

While doing all this stuff, I also have to take care of my current business, existing commitments, and maintaining good relationships with my clients. These activities are generally NOT part of the goal, so balancing between commitments and survival with pushing toward the goal is the real trick.

The way I’ve been practicing might be described as follows:

  • Maintain equal balance between personal and professional commitments; they are both important.
  • Don’t neglect or exclude your family, either.
  • Look for synergy between personal and professional projects.
  • Don’t take work that compromises or delays your own path.

System Design

This post is getting pretty long, so I’m going to stop here, re-balance and summarize.

So far, I’ve identified the failure state:

  • I’m feeling bummed out and unmotivated. Meh.

…and postulated a cause…

  • I lack of clear picture of where I am
  • I lack a sense of progression toward a rewarding end goal
  • I am lacking in immediate and regular feedback

…and re-defined a goal…

  • Have my own magic wand / methodology of mastery shop

…and then defined several kinds of achievement ladders…

  • Stuff I know how to do
  • Stuff I need to learn
  • Being a happiness-delivering producer
  • Being a inspiring content creator
  • Balancing the above with existing business and commitments

What I want to create is a physical representation of my progress, goals, and activities related to these various paths. Ideally, I can look at whatever that is, and know what my specific choices are at any given moment. It needs to predict the winds of change and the tides of work. It needs to map the way between the earth under my feet right now to the constellations of the heavens, identifying where the rising dust transforms into the celestial ether.

I have until February 2nd to put this together in some fashion, in time for this year’s Groundhogs Day Resolutions. I’ll pick this up again in a few days.


  1. Avrum 12 years ago

    Wow. The expression “fly one the wall” would be apropos, given that reading your post felt as if I was in the consulting room with you and your analyst (a traditional Freudian, one who would say very little).

    Most productivity talk(s) lack the psychological aspect that you, and Merlin Mann:

    bring to the table. Some combination of relationships, childhood interests, carrots/sticks, narcissistic yearnings and pleasure/pain drives.

    Curious to see what you come up with.

  2. Nollind Whachell 12 years ago

    Dave: Have you ever thought that what you need for yourself (as stated in your second last paragraph) is what you could sell to people once you figure it out? This is how most great products evolve. Someone creates it for themselves and then others see it, wanting to use it as well. BTW I still have no idea what you mean by a “magic shop”. Or is that the idea in the sense that you’re still not 100% sure what you’re supposed to be producing? Although you mentioned that you want to produce things that “enable mastery, insight, and the achievement of dreams”. Articulating on that might reveal some more answers. In effect, maybe focus on what the product does for the end user first (i.e. how it makes them feel, how it empowers them, etc) and then work backwards from there to figure out the product.

    Avrum: Thanks for that article link. Merlin nailed it. Caring is the perfect place to start. To “know thyself” is to care for one self.

  3. Author
    Dave Seah 12 years ago

    Avrum: Thanks for the Merlin link. Especially appropriate, funnily, given all this talk about Magic :)

    Nollind: That’s a good thought, selling what I need for myself, and I agree with you heartily on the approach. I think I’m well on-the-way of doing everything you said:

    • If you look at the productivity tool design I’ve been doing over the years, I think this is what you refer to as “evolving product”. That phase is drawing to a close, and now it is time to make boxes with cool stuff in them, based on what I’ve learned.

    • Starting with what I myself needed was where I started. This is where “enabling mastery, insight, and the achievement of dreams” comes from. I have been teaching myself how to do this for the past dozen years. I have a good starting set of answers that will continue to evolve.

    The “magic shop” reference is more personal than I realized. I just like boxes with stuff in them, piled high on the walls. It’s a personal affinity. It’s even better when you know all those boxes are filled with fascinating things, each with a particular user in mind. I’d love to have a place like that, on the web or in the real world. In that situation, I become the conduit between the stock and the customer, providing customized fittings and recommendations. The desired result: a satisfied and excited customer, matched with the tool they needed. So I think that addresses your comment about focusing on the consumer here, except in the product fitting stage. We could debate whether it’s more important up front during design than during delivery, but it’s not where my head is. Your comments are good to consider during the opening moves of the game, but my head is thinking of strategies for the middle and end game. It feels like I’m close to finishing a first, difficult, creative cycle which will manifest as something self-sustaining without my constant input.

    • David,

      Then just sell boxes. Don’t have to put anything in them, other than perhaps suggestions on how to use them or what to put in them.

      Eg boxes for happiness, dreams, goals, birthday party, presents, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, next month, receipts, stuff to go back, To Do, Don’t Do, friends, memories, jokes, stories, games, stuff, books, movies, recipes, Project X….

      Regards, Ian Moncrieff MacMillan

  4. Elaine 12 years ago

    Hmm. My RSS feed has got stuck on 11 December and I thought you’d stopped posting. Happy to see you’re still here!

    I read ‘Who Moved My Cheese’ over Christmas and I highly recommend it. It’s really helping me to get through those periods when I seem to putting a whole lot of effort in for no obvious gain. Plus, it’s a short and easy read, and it’s cheap!

  5. Jenn 12 years ago

    Vitamin D deficiency is pretty common by this time. I tested insufficient and when I started taking it, my energy and focus increased sharply. Doctor put me on 2k mg.

  6. Bojan - Alpha Efficiency 12 years ago

    Hi there! Loved reading this article, it somehow managed to pop into my instapaper. I love the approach and I can personally corelate to it, although you seem a bit depressed in the beggining of the article. Seems that a little bit introspective can go a long way, because later on you managed to dig in an exciting post!

    Best regards from Belgrade, hope hearing back from you!

  7. Andy 12 years ago

    David, reading your post is like someone has read my mind and have pictured precisely what was going on there. Today I felt unmotivated and lost. But I could not figure out or articulate what is going on with me. Then, as usual I came to your blog and you have described my situation. Thanks Dave. Thanks Internet!