New Habits: Occupying Uncertainty, Finding Happy Bubbles

New Habits: Occupying Uncertainty, Finding Happy Bubbles

Occupy Uncertainty! After reflecting on yesterday’s post summarizing what I learned from a six-week productivity reboot, I’ve decided to develop two habits:

  • Consciously identifying when I am experiencing Uncertain and Negative Reactions, then embracing them.
  • Generate energy by finding the “Happy Bubble of Mental Engagement” that lives in every task, even the boring ones.

I think that developing these habits will help me chip away at the mountain of tasks! Read onward for the details.

Occupy Uncertainty!

The first one, seeking out uncertainty and negative reactions, is the main experiment. Instead of fighting them, the plan is to embrace them instead, diving into them and occupying the moment. Before, I would isolate and them muster the energy to destroy the resistance.

The theory is this: by embracing these feelings, I might discover a different way of dissipating the negativity. I got the idea from the ‘Possess’ animation in Bioshock Infinite, a computer game I’ve been playing. In the animation, a ghostly spirit flies from your hand and possesses a machine or enemy, turning hostility into an alliance, until the effect wears off. It’s kind of a beautiful effect, though the game itself is hyper-violent.

Anyway, earlier today I was facing an unpleasant task in the form of taking out the garbage to the dumpster in 95+ degree humidity. I felt the negative resistance rise, and I chose to occupy it instead of trying to overwhelm it with logic. The negative feelings surged and took on a voice. I listened to it the various reasons that I didn’t want to take out the trash: Oh, I had to open the gross garbage can and tie up the bag inside. Hopefully it would not be dripping ooze onto the floor. Then I would have to open the door and walk for several minutes in the sweltering heat, operate the dumpster, and then walk back. After that, there didn’t seem to be much of a reason NOT to take out the garbage, other than it seemed gross and inconvenient, but not really that bad.

This might work because negative emotions are a kind of shadow, and shadows don’t do so well when the light of reason shine on them. I’m a fairly rational dude, so by “occupying” the emotion by acknowledging and empowering it with the support of my thinking process paradoxically makes it go away, like a ghost released from its earthly bounds. It also reminds me of when I was in the 5th grade, and I went up to Mrs. Nunnalee with a vexing question about the assignment. In the process of explaining what my confusion was, I somehow ended up clarifying the problem, and Mrs. Nunnalee smiled and nodded sagely without having had to say a word.

Happy Bubbles in Every Task!

As I wrote yesterday, I have a theory that my main desire in life might be as simple as not wanting to be bored. Therefore, I reasoned, I should be seeking tasks that are mentally stimulating; it is then that I am not bored, and productivity ensues. The barrier I had faced before was that I let the “boring nature” of some tasks manifest as negativity. My new mandate is to find something mentally stimulating buried in the task, and then pursuing it because it’s no longer boring. Before, I might muster a sense of duty to do the task (e.g. “It’s good for me, so I should do it”), but that requires a lot more discipline than I can reliably muster. This is especially true if the task doesn’t really seem that urgent.

So how do I convert a boring task to an interesting one? I’m borrowing a page from my Happy Bubble Time, which is made of mental stimulation. I think I can learn to find something interesting in even the most tedious task by either turning some aspect of it into an experiment, blog writing, or structured knowledge enhancement. So, if someone needs me to do some Javascript and HTML coding (which I don’t naturally enjoy), I can try to find some aspect of the task that I think is mentally stimulating, rather than doing it out of a sense of obligation; in this example, it would be to refine my understanding of Javascript and documenting it, thus increasing my store of knowledge.

My reasoning may sound selfish, but perhaps it is a more honest way to approach the chore. Doing a task because you feel some kind of obligation is not the same as doing work you love. That said, to be part of a community requires a giving of effort backed up by the sanctity of your word, so there’s a need to balance between obligation and self-interest to live a harmonious life.

Success Metrics

The true measure of this week’s habit-building experiment will be how I tackle the MOUNTAIN OF TASKS maintained in Trello. The more that get done, the better! I’m trying to get closer to my long-term goals by occupying Uncertainty and Finding Happy Bubbles in Boring Tasks.

Wish me luck!


  1. Dave Howe 7 years ago

    Nice write up Dave.

    I was in a similar situation just today. It was time to paint (my least favourite task ever, I think)

    I was thinking to myself, “How can I make this better?”

    So I downloaded 4 x 1 hour entrepreneur interviews from and listened to them all. I got some great ideas for my business from each interview.

    There is always an upside to a negative!

  2. Michael Laplante 7 years ago

    One mental trick I will use to handle unpleasant tasks is to ‘zoom in’ and think in smaller increments of time, typically 30 seconds to 5 minutes.

    “Anyway, earlier today I was facing an unpleasant task in the form of taking out the garbage to the dumpster in 95+ degree humidity.”

    Although this is a 3 to 5 minute task it can be broken down into micro-goals each of which can give you a feeling of accomplishment. Since these are micro-goals they are almost happening NOW as you do them so it’s helpful to mentally articulate them in the present tense.

    First 30-second micro-goal: “I’m opening the garbage can and pulling out the bag.”

    Next 30 second micro-task: “I’m opening the door and carrying the bag to the dumpster.”

    Next 30 second micro-task: “Open the dumpster lid and toss the garbage inside.”

    Only focus on each micro-task and think of it as finished when you do it. Dwell a second or two on each accomplishment.

    For slightly longer tasks I will even write down my list of micro-tasks with a time estimate and physically cross each on off as I do it, mentally enjoying the satisfaction of drawing a line through that micro-task. For example, I don’t care much for house painting. I enjoy the painting part, but typically it’s the set up and take down that takes the most time and is the least enjoyable. So, on the day, my list of micro-tasks might be:

    1. Retrieve brushes, rollers and tarps from shed. (10 minutes).
    2. Tape up top of walls in bathroom. (10 minutes)
    3. Tape up baseboard in bathroom. (10 minutes)
    4. Retrieve paint, stir paint. (5 minutes)

    I write these down on a sheet of paper folded into eighths. Each micro-goal is written on one square, I fold it up so that I can only see that micro-goal when I look at the sheet. As I cross that one off, I re-fold it so I can only see the next micro-goal. At the end of the day, it’s immensely satisfying to open the sheet up and see this big list of crossed out items. You could probably do the same thing with index cards or similar.

    You get the idea. As I DO each micro-task, I don’t think of the hours of work ahead, I only think of the 10-minute task that I am doing right now. It almost becomes a type of meditation — whenever you find yourself thinking of the larger task, let it go and return to what you are doing right now — “I’m pouring the paint into the paint tray”.

    Interestingly, I recently attended a presentation by a fellow who is bipolar and who was describing the strategies that they use to manage their condition and it’s similar to this. Whenever he starts to get overwhelmed, he thinks in 3-minute increments.

    I’ve been reading about gamification as a way to accomplish life goals and I’ve been giving some thought to ways in which unpleasant tasks could be ‘gamified’. How would points / powerups be assigned? What would be the reward of a successful game? As a designer of forms, perhaps you can come up some ideas.

    Hope this helps…