GHDR Review 4: Reducing Friction and Picking Winners

"Happy Groundhog Day"

THE JUNE REVIEW

This is my 4th monthly look at my yearly Groundhog Day Resolutions, an ongoing quest to set some worthy goals and stick to them. Detailed review follows!

What I Said I Would Do

Last month, I emphasized taking my existing work here on davidseah.com and converting them into a more accessible form. I also wanted to keep moving on creative projects. Here’s the list:

  • Start a content audit, to identify the best works to possibly repackage into ebooks and new related writings.
  • Define a framework for understanding my forms, to help people understand which forms were useful for what.
  • Think about restarting “A Product a Day”, because this was my most productive time in recent memory.
  • Revisit the Index Card Blocks, because I feel I have not been using my hands creatively for a long time.
  • Revisit 3D, Game Programming, Music Composition, and Learning Chinese, because these are areas that I think would bring me pleasure and opportunity.

At the time I thought this was a doable list that featured areas of concentration, the theory being that progress in any of these strategic areas would produce a feeling of satisfaction. However, this wasn’t the case. For most of the month I felt behind schedule, unmotivated, and short on energy, and it didn’t feel like I was being productive at all.

After I wrote a lot of diagnostic blog posts (tagged xpr-2013a), I came to the conclusion that I was fighting myself a lot, and this may have been the cause of my lack of motivation. How?

  • I had built up a great deal of subconscious resentment toward some tasks, which produced negative feelings that bummed me out. It’s hard to do good work when you are feeling resentful toward it.
  • I also identified two warring personalities, a “Dr. Jekyl” of Management and the more spontaneous “Mr. Hyde” of Creativity. The goals of Management are timeliness and getting things done quickly. The goals of Creativity is to explore and assess, finding the true way by being fully in the moment. By trying to meet both the needs of management and creativity, I created a conflict.

Once I recognized the resentment and split-personalities clashing, a lot of the inner friction disappeared; the summary goes into more detail. However, I still didn’t have much motivation to begin with, and it still felt like my productivity was low.

What Got Done

With the assessment out of the way, I was ready to grit my teeth and see how much I really got done. I reviewed a month’s worth of Trello “Task Complete” lists plus my email records, and when I listed everything out it actually looked like a lot of stuff. Here it is in detail if you really want to know:

The Stationery Biz – With the addition of the new ETP notebook, I’ve seen a modest increase in monthly sales volume. This confirms that more products = more volume = more revenue = more freedom. I also received my first inquiry for wholesale, and now I’m trying to figure out how that works. Fulfillment of goods outside the USA, though, continues to be a problem. The elusive $100/day profit edges nearer, averaging around $53/day when looking at Amazon sales. That’s not bad. If I add in the small amounts of digital sales, that adds another $7 or so. I am 60% of the way to my goal!

Blog Life – Creating a more accessible and interesting blog is part of the be a bright spot on the Internet strategy. Most of the effort here were small fixes: an updated favicon, re-adding search, adding a balloon to point out the “latest blog posts”, tuning the navigation pop-overs, and rewriting the front page copy. Content-wise, I also wrote 23 blog posts in the past month, which is probably at least 35 hours of thinking and writing. I also processed a good chunk of my reader email queue, which provides future material in the form of modified forms and personal submissions.

External Projects – Since I’m not at my $100/day target, I maintain a trickle of interesting client projects. Most of these projects are related to website development, which is something I can do reasonably well though it is not my business focus. More relevant are the information graphic design projects, such as a request to adapt the Creative Cootie Catcher into a book launch giveaway. Cool!

Happy Bubble Time – These are the exploration projects that are driven by impulsive curiosity. They’re usually tied to something I want. For example, I have been wanting a super-strength ginger ale, and have been gathering resources. The most recent acquisition is a Sodastream which I got for $59 at Staples. The tomato plants are back in the sub-irrigation planters for round two. There’s a few new pieces of gear I’ve gotten in for measuring the thickness of paper stock, and I backed a few Kickstarters that were doing cool creative stuff that I wanted to get into someday. Skill-wise, I installed Visual Studio 2012, Scrivener, and Modo 701 and ran through some basic tutorials. I even attended a Chinese language meetup, a first because I have historically been very embarrassed about my accent, but apparently it no longer bothers me. I’m learning, and there’s no reason to be embarrassed about that.

Social Days – The number of days I spent by myself numbered in the 20s, which is high. I need to get out more. I did do some things with friends: Pancake Day! Friend’s Daughter’s Graduation Day! Star Trek: Into Darkness and spicy Chinese Food Day! Beach Day! I caught up with my new friend Aaron Mahnke in Danvers, spent a nice long weekend with my sister, and attended Memorial Day cookout. I believe that I need to make a greater effort to connect with people who are on the similar wavelengths. I won’t know until I try!

Home Maintenance and Chores – I am terrible at doing regular cleaning or household maintenance. So moving old chairs out of basement storage and recycling cardboard are kind of BIG WINS as far as I’m concerned. I also ran the garden hose from the downstairs floor up to the deck, which makes it much easier to garden. It’s a pain in the butt, but for the rest of the summer it will be convenient. If only I could remotely turn-on the faucet without going out the basement.

While I know that every hour of the day was not productive, a certain amount did get done. It’s hard to really assess after-the-fact, so this month I have started using Emergent Task Timer trackers to see how each day breaks down.

Ongoing Improvements

I’ve also been evaluating my processes, actively looking for ways to improve them.

PROCESS

  • Kicked off new two-week productivity sprint – I documented this extensively on the blog. Unsure whether it would stick, I treated it as an experiment; I like seeing where data takes me, and it seems less like a chore than had I said, “OK, BE RELENTLESSLY PRODUCTIVE AND DON’T SCREW UP”.
  • Review two-week productivity sprint – As I mentioned, my sprint didn’t feel particularly productive. My notes tell of lack of motivation and energy. Instead, there were hours of restless clicking on Facebook, Email, and Popular Websites and energy, like I hoped some thing that would pique my interest would give rise to action. Similarly, I spent about 10 hours playing Star Trek Online, ostensibly to evaluate their revamped gameplay as a professional interactive designer, but really it was just because it was something to do without having to think too hard. I found I was taking a lot of naps at odd hours, particularly after I finished a chunk of work. I never got into a super-efficient productive cycle, and this was a kind of failure because I felt highly-susceptible to the doing of consuming mindlessly instead of creating triumphantly. I did, though, identify some new resistances, the aforementioned resentment and conflicting manager-vs-creator mindsets. Having dropped resentment from my mindset, getting started is easier. Also, my new understanding of how I can separate “creative mindset” from “manager expectations” in the day-to-day work has removed the underlying anxiety of not being productive. In its place, there’s the knowledge that practicing creativity needs a kind of isolation bubble, and the the role of management is to allow that to happen predictably and nurture the results.
  • Met with a CPA – After doing last year’s taxes, I have wanted to bring in professionals to help with my accounting more than once a year. A trusted friend suggested that I talk to someone I’d met through her from a local music jam, and so I’ve bitten the bullet and am seeing what this will bring about. I have no idea, but I am using the money generated from the Stationery Business to pay for it. With luck, I’ll have a way of more accurately figuring out what to do with my business.

TOOLS

  • Scrivener – I started to wonder whether Scrivener, the much-loved writing software used by novelists, might be good for handling of my long blog posts. I installed an evaluation copy, went through the interactive tutorial, and was very impressed. Right now, I’m trying to use it for projects where I have to do a lot of thinking, polishing, and rearranging. The content audit is one such project. Maintaining a journal about what I’m doing every day is another project that benefits from this.

HEALTH

  • Started Gym Routine – Amazingly, I held to this. Yay for me! After about three weeks, I am starting to regain my cardiovascular fitness, which means I can start to intensify. Not dieting, though, so I haven’t lost weight. About half the days I didn’t want to go, but applied the “15M, and then you’re done” rule. There were two days where I just did 15M of cardio and left, but the second time I actually wasn’t feeling well and made a judgement call. With elevated cardio, I can now start really sweating.

LONG TERM ASSET CREATION

  • Start Content Audit – The content audit is something I’ve wanted to do for a long time…just what is here on davidseah.com that is worth dusting off and packaging for 2013? The first chore was to just get a listing of posts to read and comment on systematically. I started by just picking the “productivity” category and copying/pasting hyperlinks to each post. Then, I copied that into a text file and started reading and keeping notes. I had no idea what I was noting; I figured I’d find a pattern and then start again. My overall takeaway, though, was that I had written some very obtuse stuff to the point I was horrified. Granted, this was early 2005 stuff, but I’ve known since high school that I have a tendency to leave details out. The content audit’s main takeaway was that I needed to start writing more clearly. The secondary takeaway was that I would use the Content Audit to mine for patterns and ideas, possibly to collect into a “State of Dave” productivity document. I don’t know yet exactly what that is, but in the spirit of being comfortable with the uncertain artistic process, I’m just going to keep scratching.

PERSONAL WELL-BEING

  • Actively Build Community Connections – As I alluded earlier, I spend more than 2/3rds of my days to myself without communicating with another person. This doesn’t include shopping or working by myself at Starbucks. I need to recreate connection with people who are doing what I’m doing: doggedly building a small creative business, learning new skills, and applying lessons learned the hard way toward one’s distant goals. I know that there are people who WANT these things, but matching energy levels and schedules between possible collaborators is the problem.

The Assessment

Reading everything I’ve done last month, it actually does seem like a lot. So why did I feel so unproductive? Was it just that I was hyper aware that I was wasting time as I wasted it? Maybe I spent less time actively procrastinating than I actually did, amplified by the knowledge that I was not living up to my own goals. This feeling is compounded by the lack of hard assets produced even when I was being busy. Why was this happening?

By chance, I heard a piece on NPR last weekend with two alcoholics, a mother and her adult son, who had co-authored an autobiographical book about what it was like to be drunk for years and years. The son made a comment that even though he’s been sober for 30 years, there’s this part of him that feels entitled to have a drink, and it wants it. The mother said there is no reasoning with it, because it is beyond reason. Being sober is a matter of choosing not to give in, and living with it. Sobriety does not fix the impulse, and it does not make life any easier. You have to deal with it forever.

It occurred to me that perhaps I had a similar attitude toward Procrastination and Productivity. If I were to admit this out loud, it might go like this:

Hello, I am a procrastinator, and I don’t want to do work. I feel I deserve shiny rewards and that creativity should flow naturally from me, because I’m that good. Instead, though, I visit dozens of sites on the Internet and read about other people who are doing cool things, and I pretend I can do that too even though I don’t. I despise myself for not living up to my potential and for frittering away my time, but I keep doing it. If only I could find some better tool, some better process, or the right people to team-up with, then everything would be better and I would be productive.

Framed like that, and knowing that the desire to procrastinate has no rational basis, it comes down to a choice to be productive. That means not giving in to the part of me that complains when it can’t have instant gratification. Pressfield’s The War of Art gives us a name for it, the Resistance, and others have called it the Lizard Brain, which is a primitive collection of wants and fears that constantly challenges our rational intellectual powers. I’ve been watching it for years too, writing and writing to clarify how it worked. But you know what? I might have just been enabling the irrationality by trying to understand it. I’ve tried to reason with it. I’ve also tried to accommodate its many needs to create harmony. But this has been a waste of time. It can not be reasoned with. It is not reasonable. It just wants what it wants. It does not care about my future well-being at all. If I assume that it is here forever and it will never go away, the only thing to do is to ignore it. That takes a lot less energy than trying to have a conversation with it. That suggests to break procrastination, you have to pick a side and do the right thing for yourself. Picking that side won’t make anything easier at all; in fact, life will be harder and more frustrating. But perhaps that’s just the way it is.

The Coming Month

There is one observation that gets down to the nuts and bolts:

(1) I feel productive when I have something to show for my effort, something tangible that can be shown to people.

Now that I have done a pretty good job of purging of procrastinatory forces, it’s clear that I need to focus on actual productivity: delivering something new that people can interact with. These deliverables need to deliver tangible benefits to me in the form of new systems that support revenue generation.

There are a few tasks like this that come to mind. International fulfillment is a big nut to crack. I will make it June’s focus and try to make it happen. Another nut will be reorganizing the digital download section and refreshing the calendar offerings. Both of these will increase sales slightly, pushing me ever-closer to the magic $100/day mark.

As for supporting tasks, I don’t think I need to worry about blogging, maintaining the gym habit, or handling client work. These already happen, and I think they’re under control.

A third directive is the need to connect with communities, which means getting out there and meeting new people. This fills me with some trepidation, but I think that if I am also being more productive on the above tasks, it will help me feel more relaxed. One reason I dislike social days is because I feel I am behind on achieving “creative independence”, which is a core goal right now. I don’t like taking the time off from it, and I particularly don’t like talking to people who lack similar aspiration. But let me not fill my belly with resentment and disdain ahead of the meal.

So, in summary, June will focus on two deliverables that theoretically will improve the number of goods I can ship; these are pragmatic bottom-line goals that directly address the MAIN GROUNDHOG DAY RESOLUTION of being CREATIVELY INDEPENDENT:

  • International Fulfillment
  • Reorganized Digital Downloads

And so I don’t forget the reason why I’m doing this whole creative independence thing in the first place:

  • Carrying on with everything else that I’m doing, in a way that brightens my little bit of the Internet
  • Meeting People in new social arenas, finding people to share with

The day-to-day challenge is to identify which tasks are actually helpful and which are distractions. In a general sense, the most helpful tasks are ones that produce an asset that I can sell/trade or use to build a needed machine. Second-most helpful tasks are logistical chores (gathering what’s needed). Everything else is an indirect support task that doesn’t pay off immediately. The more tasks I do that produces real assets, the more productive I am.

To help maintain my day-to-day continuity, I’ll continue to track my work in Scrivener (as daily notes) and with the Emergent Task Timer (ETT) to see how distracted my days are. One challenge will be balancing external commitments with internal ones; I’m going to try to maintain the same structure as I had described three weeks ago, though I will replace “Content and Products” with “International Fullfillment/Reorganized Digital Downloads” to be more specific. That should help tighten my focus, and without the motivation-crushing resentment I have at giving myself homework, I have a better chance of making progress. Especially if I recognize the urge to procrastinate as an unreasonable voice that should be ignored instead of assuaged.


Groundhog Day Resolution Posts for 2013

Here are other posts about Groundhog Day Resolutions for the 2013 season.

  • 02/02 Kickoff - Setting 30 Products in 30 days.
  • 03/03 Review - The Aftermath of 30 Products in 30 Days; What's Next?
  • 04/04 Review - New Website, Increasing Opportunity
  • 05/05 Review - Winding down a long chain of external commitments, getting ready for a hopefully-productive month.
  • 06/06 Review - Reducing Friction from internal struggle, picking the winning attitudes and tasks that produce tangible assets.
  • 07/07 Review - Mid-year Review, Focusing Process
  • 08/08 Review - An unexpected vacation for me, Relaxed Progress Made
  • 09/09 Review - Slow progress made, but that's OK; I'm accepting the slow and mindful way!
  • 10/10 Review - After a month of experimenting with early rising, I realize that prioritizing my mission of creative independence might actually be what I need to do. Duh.
  • 11/11 Review - Not much progress made on Creative Independence, but I have attained a sense of surety and calm about what needs to be done--and how to approach it--while maintaining balance between external commitments and personal goals by accepting that they take time and that's OK.
  • 12/12 Review - The year ends without closure, but looking back I see that I've made progress. More importantly, I believe that I'm generally on the right path.