Shades of Structure

Shades of Structure

It’s the third day of a personal productivity reboot, during which I am maintaining a “continuity journal” as my first activity of the day. It’s important to do this before I read any email, “like” anything on Facebook, or read the news, otherwise I get scatterbrained and lose track of time. That first nugget of attention in the day is precious, and must be spent wisely.

It occurred to me that I’m craving structure, and at the same time I don’t want structure either. How can this be? When in doubt, get a knife and cut the thing open to see what’s there, I say! Musings follow.

Structure I Want

What’s great about structure? In the context of information, it helps you absorb information more quickly. It’s easier to search information that has been well-structured too. Well-structured information is a pleasure to use while it reinforces the principles of the field of expertise that it documents. I love that kind of structure.

Structure is also great when you don’t want to have to make decisions. There’s that idea of decision fatigue, which is the deteriorating quality of our ability to engage in it after a long string of decisions. A great structure, in this sense, is a known methodology that you trust, with clear milestone markers, rules, and signs. It’s like getting on an eight-lane superhighway to ProductivityLand. It’s what helps a team be a team. Powerful stuff, when it’s done right.

Structure I Hate

Structure is not so great when you want to go exploring, or if you feel the crying need to have the choice of exploring. That’s me, most of the time. I hate structure that doesn’t make sense to me, is bound in some kind of dogmatic tradition. When I am forced to adhere to it, I automatically get antsy. I almost always choose freedom, if I have the choice. I am not so much a team player.

There’s a few problems with giving-in to the urge for freedom:

  • First, not trying a structure just because it seems binding is pretty short-sighted. When I’m learning something, I tend to want to start from a great pool of structured information instead of doing a drill from rote. Both approaches are a form of structure, and I naturally prefer the first kind. However, I’m learning to appreciate drills because they are like amusement park rides. The actual ride operators who are in charge of administering the ride may not truly understand the underlying principles that make it work (ahem, bad teachers of my youth), but if I focus on my EXPERIENCE and use that as the basis for future exploration, that works. I learned it too late to be great at it in school, blaming bad instructional materials and teachers without “true insight”. I could have fixed that if I’d focused on building the “bridging knowledge” between their structured teaching methodology and my structured understanding, instead of just being irritated all the time. So…trying structure is something I’m trying to be better at. Last night I went to a Chinese Language meetup and we did some drills. I found them immensely more useful with my improved attitude, rather than wishing for a comprehensive guide to learning Chinese.

  • Secondly, freedom is fatiguing. If you get off that superhighway to ProductivityLand because you hate its conformist leanings, then you’re going to have to build your own road. It’s way slower, tiring, and it may not even work out. I’d guess it’s at least 10 times slower, if not 100 times. The point is: it’s slow, unless you already have hooked yourself up with an alternate mode of transportation like a helicopter. I think this is the allure of The New Tool as a shortcut to the stars. The New Tool is even more alluring when the superhighway I described is really more like a goat path, or appears only marginally better than making your own road.

Building Structure for Tasks


p>As I mentioned earlier, I’m doing a “continuity journal” as my first-thing-of-the-day (FTotD). The reason why I’m starting with continuity is because I’m not quite sure exactly what I should be doing. So, my first piece of structure as an anchoring event is the morning (or whenever I wake up) writing. I want to be more certain than I’m balancing the right combination of things that ensure that multiple projects are moving forward. This is structure as load-bearing certainty, which gives me more faith in my subsequent actions. Having that trust is important, otherwise I might not move at all.

It takes about 15 minutes to write it up, because that’s the amount of time I allow. Here’s today’s morning blip if you’re curious:

# this is a daily planning sheet to update
# don't keep history, but rewrite the top paragraph, move useful stuff down
# write declaratively, not bloggily

QT: Email [PERSON1] about blog setup
MT: Review [ORGANIZATION] Materials and Setup Project Area
HBT: Staples Shopping
DT: Bills

Reviewing yesterday's writing in 5-14-DAILY PLAN:

Goals for the Week are the same: 

* practice 15 minute focus
* go to gym
* work on [PROJECT1]
* improve the home website (needs definition)
* monitor my resistances (ongoing)

I had an idea this morning about a very simple google-like interface for "information at my fingertips", like EverNote in conception but much simpler in UI. (felt resistance in the complexity of ensuring it as a software as service, a little resistance too in how to build it, but not much)

**Structure Mole:** I like some structure, but not others. I like structure so I can remember what I need to remember, or find what I need to find, when I need it. However, I don't like structure that tells me when and what to do. Structure is also useful as a set of principles, methods, and tangible rewards when I am working completely on battery power (self motivation) versus being plugged into a human energy network (external motivation) -- Blog Post!

BLOG POST - About this! 

[PROJECT1] - There's [TASK1] (resistance in the annoyance at having to dig through and modify someone else's code to do something that I find a bit boring that isn't related to my own interests. However, I think I can enjoy the hunt, and just look at it as an opportunity to look at code and learn that way. The desire for structured information is also there, but unlikey because all sources suck

SITE - I want to get last blog listing into the home page. A surge of resistance about how to do that and the possible complications in making it work, but nothing life threatening, so it was put down. 

BILLS - Should do them as a break, also look at finances. Felt surge of resistance about how long this will take, but killed it with a 15M timeblock.

STAPLES - go before GYM

GYM - Sometime around 2PM I'd like to go
    - Also need TRASH BAGS and maybe TOMATOES

[ORGANIZATION] - Organize Materials (less resistance now that I know what I want to do)
[ORGANIZATION] - Leave at 6:50P

While writing this, I was referring to yesterday’s notes to make sure I carried-on what I was thinking about yesterday. Yesterday was an unproductive day, so that was on my mind to fix for today by being specific. Specificity is the great bugaboo of planning, and I guess you could call it part of the structuring exercise. Along with certainty of purpose, specificity of the deliverable is a load-bearing part of the structure. Everything else is just hand-waving…”oh, it should be beautiful” and “wouldn’t it be nice if” talk is just noise that came out of a mouth or butt until it is married with purpose and concrete deliverable. If you can’t ultimately experience it in person, it doesn’t exist. Defining these qualities creates the structure that makes a task doable.

In the above blip, my specifics are to deliver a specific code feature in [PROJECT1] and SITE. The rest of the tasks are not so well-defined, so they probably have less of a chance of getting done. We’ll see.

Structuring Time

When I decided to do my 15M continuity journal as the FTotD, I was trying to establish a mental context for myself to give my day meaning and purpose. You could say it is a restatement of the following:

I’m doing X because I want Y because I believe it will help move toward Z and result in happiness in the long term, despite the amount of short-term pain, which are tasks T1 – T3.

The first 15M of the day is also an anchor of time, from which I could derive an entire schedule. This is something I haven’t quite figured out yet. I like the idea of a schedule, because I have this dream-like desire to:

  • know exactly what to do at any given moment
  • be productive on a schedule
  • not have to think so much about what I do
  • synchronize with the rest of humanity’s activity schedule

In reality? None of this is possible in my line of work unless I redefine what productivity is. And that might be a useful exercise. Currently, I define productivity as producing finished products or features. I like it when tasks are DONE and when I can SEE what I’ve made. However, I could probably define productivity as just working on a project by putting time into it. I am super-impatient, though, and this doesn’t come naturally to me, but I could see that a change my attitude would make a schedule possible. Perhaps if I hadn’t worked as a manager in a previous life, I could let-go this constant pressure-desire to have things DONE and worrying when they are NOT. Is the schedule doomed? Will the company fail? Is my lack of total omniscience as demanded by the executives screwing up the project in some way I can’t see? I don’t miss those feelings one bit, but they may have over-sensitized me such that I am not using useful processes (like the extended time-blocking mindset) in my day-to-day approach to work.

Anyway, I’m not sure if structured time is for me. As a single guy and a solo practitioner without local peers, the energy I expend in trying to maintain an arbitrary schedule would seem to exceed the benefit. But perhaps I am missing the point.


  1. Alicia Diaz 9 years ago

    “working completely on battery power (self motivation) versus being plugged into a human energy network (external motivation)”

    This really spoke to me. I’m a solo practitioner who sometimes misses working with a team, and how you described this is exactly how it feels to me – thank you!

  2. Nancy 9 years ago

    David – I resisted scheduling my entire day for decades but, at the same time, longed to manage my time better. I’ve used paper planners for years, but this year switched to Google calendar and love it. The key for me is using several different calendars (I have nine) so I could get a sense of balance/imbalance/things left undone through the display of color. Each calendar is a different color. Also, having an electronic calendar allows me to easily drag and drop/change things on the fly without the annoyance of erasing & writing. I can also fit a lot more information into a single day than I could with writing on paper. I am even revising the entries at the end of the day/throughout the day to more accurately reflect WHAT I AM ACTUALLY DOING. Everything is recorded, procrastination and productivity equally noted. It is also helping me to be more realistic about what I can actually do, and to learn to plan in down time and transition time. I’ve been at it for about five months and I’m getting calmer because I’ve become more realistic about what is actual possible to accomplish in a day. It has also helped me to see that I wasn’t spending enough time with my family (family is purple!), so I’ve remedied that and now expect to have less deathbed regrets. That is a theme that runs throughout my days, to make sure I have no deathbed regrets.

    Keep up the good work, I enjoy your thinking.

  3. Nancy 9 years ago

    BTW, I forgot to mention that I had a lot of problems with the calendar that is native to the iPad; it sucked. Very pretty, but synchronization way off. I finally found a great app called Calendars+ by Readdle. Also, for my Android phone, I prefer aCalendar instead of the actual Google calendar.

  4. Author
    Dave Seah 9 years ago

    Alicia: It was a surprising insight to me, to finally connect motivation with connectedness in this way. But it feels right! The part I miss about teams is having a unified goal. This might explain why I like helping people move; it’s a good burst of team-focused energy with clear shared goals and outcomes. I don’t get that feeling very often. It also affects the kinds of working styles I prefer as a solo practitioner: I prefer doubling-up on a problem with someone else, instead of submitting to divide-and-conquer work allocation. Without the social context of a team, divide-and-conquer feels like “go stand in your corner”, which depletes the battery more rapidly.

    Nancy: That’s a fascinating use of Google Calendar. I use it only to make note of when I’m supposed to be somewhere. I’ve noticed the same thing with the iPad calendar…it does suck, and is unreliable at synching. Thanks for the suggested recommendations! BTW, have you looked at Trello? I wrote about how I use it; the way you are describing your Google calendars for their drag-and-drop reminded me of how I use Trello to manage multiple lists.

  5. Nancy 9 years ago

    David – more on Calendars+; i love it because I can sit at a cafe with my ipad and use the calendar, or in bed at the end of the day in-between commercials (if I don’t fast-forward!); the drag-and-drop functionality is great.

    Re: Trello. I tried it exactly because of your suggestion, but didn’t like it, the layout didn’t suit my means. Instead, I use GQueues, which I initially thought I would use as a substitute for Google’s sucky task function, but, instead, I use it to store all of my long- and short-term to do’s. It has an ‘outline’ structure, which I love. You can add sub-sections multiple times to a single topic. I now use it as a less restrictive form of GTD. I worked with this for a few months and have massaged it into 15 categories that work well for me. Everything I want to do has a place to go and a process for rising to the top and getting my attention without a sense of being overwhelmed. Again, it’s a way of me being able to be realistic about what I can and cannot do and allowing me to abandon some items and devote myself more rigorously to others. BTW, GQueues mobile version sucks on the iPad, unfortunately. It WILL work, but it’s necessary to delete the database if the sync doesn’t work. The sync is the only problem. When it works, it’s pretty cool. It works fine on my Android. They are working on an ipad app.

  6. Amit Patel 9 years ago

    I’m torn. Part of me wants structure but part of me doesn’t. If I were directly working with others, I’d have a daily schedule, because that allows me and others to coordinate. But since I’m working alone, I have more options, so I’m experimenting with a flexible weekly structure. I allocate days of the week instead of allocating hours of the day, but within those days there’s not much structure. For example, I will allocate 1 day a week to meet people; on those days I don’t code or write. I’d like to say it’s working well but the Hawthorne Effect might be in play :-)

  7. Author
    Dave Seah 9 years ago

    Nancy: I’ll have to look at GQueues. Sounds interesting. I tend to be allergic to ugly solutions…hopefully it’s not ugly. Have you looked at Workflowy? It’s a kind of minimal outliner with a lot of hidden power. I’m more of a block thinker than an outliner, so I haven’t really found it useful myself. But it looks like a nice app.

    Amit: Yeah, me too. Schedule = coordination = win. But for solo work, schedule = binding structure = ambiguous benefit. I tend to allocate by day as well; any day I have to meet someone is a day that I will enjoy, but it terrible for working.

  8. Nancy 9 years ago

    David – GQueues may or may not be considered ugly; it’s saving grace is that you can select colors to associate with lists, similar to Google’s calendars. I think it’s fine, nothing fancy. Thanks for the Workflowy suggestion, I’ve been playing with it the last half hour and am intrigued. Some advantages over GQueues (i.e. notes are hidden/truncated as opposed to GQueues, which always displays with the note in expanded view). Also, in GQueues the sublists display in expanded view, so I’m forever clicking to close all the lists. Also, I see that Workflowy has an iPad app so that will be a big plus. Many thanks for the suggestion!! If you need a task substitute for Google’s task app, GQueues is built specifically to work well with Google calendar (it can place items directly into your calendar), so in that regard it’s excellent.

  9. Author
    Dave Seah 9 years ago

    Nancy: Just checked out GQueues, and it looks pretty slick! I am tempted to give it a try because of the Google Calendar integration. However, I like the “everything at once” view in Trello. The idea of maintaining a list of action queues, though, is pretty intriguing! For a while I was using Wunderlist for this, but at a certain point I became annoyed with the amount of extra chrome that was in the app taking up space. And, using it as a list of lists didn’t really work so well for me.