(last updated on April 5, 2019)
On May 8, I started a productivity reboot to see if I could improve my level of energy, which had been fading in the face of the many business-related tasks before me. Today, I’m ready to make some conclusions and conclude the reboot.
To summarize: I made many observations over the past several weeks, and found that I kept coming back to the problem of energy sources and the mental resistances that sapped them. I was able to identify ways to reduce resistance that was due to my own attitude, but I still lacked a true reliable power source, which I’ll call my Prime Motivator. I think I’ve discovered what it is, and it’s so fundamental that I am kicking myself for not seeing it before: it’s mental stimulation, and the pursuit there of.
Before I get to that, though, let me recap the findings of the entire six-week productivity reboot. It’s a doozy of a review, but I hope you’ll find it interesting.
[update: I had used the phrase “mental engagement” instead of “mental stimulation” in several places, and I’ve corrected that. Stimulation is the more visceral term.]
When I started the Productivity Reboot six weeks ago, I deliberately set a low number of daily tasks: only 3 main areas of endeavor with a mere 15 minutes allocated for each of them. The rest of the day was assigned to “Happy Bubble Time”, a form of undirected exploration and learning time, which I believed was the catalyst that kept my energy reserve full.
At the time, I thought that this was ludicrously self-indulgent. Most people have 8-10 hour work days, and here I was trying to get away with about an hour of scheduled time. As this was part of my reboot experiment, though, I thought I might as well try it; even if it didn’t work, I was likely to learn something. Plus, I knew from my 15-minute morning ritual experiment that I had a strong tendency to keep working once I got going; the 15-minute threshold just makes the big scary tasks more approachable.
The takeaway was this: three things a day was hardly slacking because I am learning new things, deeply thinking about what I’m doing at the same time. This is mentally-draining and demanding. A blog post like this one, for example, takes hours of thinking spread over many days. It used to not take as long, as I would just write stuff as it came out and post it (hence the plentiful typos in many of my blog posts), but these days I am embracing incremental refinement because I’ve come to understand that anything worth doing takes a lot of time. In this case, I’m trying to discover the truths in my experience, distilled into useful takeaways that can be applied universally. Even in tasks that I know how to do, I’m always trying new technologies and ways of presenting information, and this can only be absorbed through trial and error. There’s no way around it, when you are trying to make something interesting. One way of measuring interest is compared the amount of time it takes to create a work of art versus the time it takes to experience it. As consumers, we love concentrated experiences. When we have the opportunity to see the work of 10,000 hours condensed into a perfected instant, we’re pleased. The more epic the achievement, the more we are delighted. Sometimes the achievement itself is taken for granted, as in the case of a blockbuster movie that took 300 million dollars and 1000s of people work for three years to condense down into a single 80-minute experience. My point is: making something worthwhile takes time. I should feel no guilt at how long it takes me to learn and apply something new.
That said, there is a level of slacking that I fall into. It’s when I’m exhausted or otherwise unable to heave another brick of effort onto the pile. That’s what I wanted to diagnose during the productivity reboot. Sometimes I have the energy but it gets swallowed up before it can be put to good use. Sometimes, the energy just isn’t there. At other times, things get done but I’m not sure why, or it is other things that get done instead of what I “should” be working on.
Here’s a bunch of possible reasons.
Different Tasks, Different Mindsets
During one particularly slow day, I became aware that there was a battle of desires raging within me, using up energy and twisting what remained. I described it as having a kind of split personality with opposing expectations between manager and creative selves.
Having honed my creative skills in a professional context (engineering, grad school, video game development, and web agency work), I have tended to think that every creative act exists to produce a tangible benefit. Reducing the time and effort to produce a given piece of art according to a timetable, therefore, has been baked into my expectations. This is the management expectation: results-focused, systems-oriented, looking for efficiencies and reliable ways to estimate. As a manager, I like to hear that the next deliverable will be made on a certain day, and it will be ready to plug-in to the system we’re building. It sounds very reasonable.
However, this is a terrible way to run a creative project, and it is a terrible way to manage a creative person. Emphasizing timetables creates anxiety because you are working on a project that doesn’t have a known timeline. How long does it take to create a hit song? How long does it take to paint a stirring painting? If you are doing something that aspires to a high level of craft, then it is difficult to estimate. If you enforce it, you just stress the creative out because you don’t understand the process. The creative person—and the learning person too for that matter—needs time to work through uncertainty to see what is on the other side.
Since I had prided myself in giving the most accurate estimates, and am naturally averse to promising what I don’t know how to do, this creates a situation where failure to measure up to management standards of excellence—demonstrable effort, guaranteed quality, minimum time to produce, and predictability— is constantly on my mind.
The solution, as I wrote about in my most recent Groundhog Day Resolution Review, was to redefine the role of my management mindset as a support role instead of a judgement role. Management needs to support my creative process, because this is the process that actually produces stuff that has value. That means not demanding timeliness, but facilitating the ability to work quickly instead. It means creating an encouraging environment where uncertainty is not a catalyst for failure, but an opportunity to find out what is on the other side. It means trusting that the creative process works, and being ready to step in to harvest what’s made. In a way, it’s my Happy Bubble Time applied in a production process.
So now, I am careful to restrict “manager thinking” to certain parts of the day: my morning planning, coordinating with other groups. I no longer impose management goals on creative time. A watched pot never boils.
Removing Friction and Resistance
Another source of productivity friction came from my own emotional response to certain tasks. There are two levels that I’m currently aware of: negativity and resentment. They are closely related but not the same, though they both allow procrastination to slip-in and to clog up the works.
- Negativity is having poor attitude toward a given task. The task might be perceived as being unfun, difficult, low value, or otherwise not attractive. When faced with a task like this, it’s easy to think that something more fun exists, inviting the mind to wander toward whatever has less negativity associated with it. For example, if I don’t want to process my bills, cleaning my office has just a little less negativity associated with it, so it becomes an option. It’s easy to justify doing it, though really you are just procrastinating productively. Another one is checking email/ clicking on Facebook more than once every 15 minutes. Nothing probably has happened, but that click is so easy that we do it anyway. I know that I’m in a rut if I unthinkingly check Facebook again right after closing it. I am just hopeful that something new has happened, something to take my mind away from the yucky task at hand.
To get over this, I’ve had to learn how to de-emotionalize my responses to tasks that I regard as boring or unpleasant. Once stripped of the bad emotions (“I hate this”, “I’m not being paid enough”, “This is a stupid idea”), I can then meet the task head on and see what needs to happen.
Here’s some more examples: When I’m taking out the trash, cleaning the cat litter box, sorting bills…these are all tasks that I regard with negative bias: inconvenient, smelly, taking time away from more fun things. The negative attitude makes doing these chores more difficult in my mind, and therefore I never start them. By accepting them and refusing to feed the negativity, I can reduce the resistance. Also, by seeing the tasks for what they are, I can sometimes figure out a way to make them less unpleasant. Discovering that I could wear a painting mask when I was changing the cat litter was a huge improvement; I really just hated the dust and holding my breath. The task wasn’t THAT bad.
There are some unpleasant tasks that are, like it or not, enabler of new capabilities that are truly beneficial, like a beautiful piece of chocolate buried in a puddle of mud. A recent example for me is figuring out how to build a new e-commerce system to handle international fulfillment, since Amazon won’t work for my products. My gut reaction for years is that it’s boring and overly complicated, and my negative attitude sucks the motivation right out of me. By not letting the negativity build and practicing it’s just a task, so plug away at it a few minutes a day until some answer presents itself”, progress is made with less headache.
- Resentment is like negativity, but it’s way more personal. These are tasks that have become charged with actual anger, toward someone or something. For example, say I want to learn how write programs for a mobile device. I discover that I have a poor opinion about the computer language that I need to learn because I think it’s unnecessarily convoluted, and therefore stupid. And on top of that, the documentation is filled with errors and poorly-written by someone who obviously doesn’t know shit about code. That makes me angry….OH SO ANGRY. And you know what? I let the resentment build, and it makes it much harder to learn anything because I’m so mad. What usually happens is that I don’t learn.
Another version of resentment is buried more in unresolved fear, uncertainty, and doubt (FUD). As the pressure to engage a FUD-imbued task rises, it generates a lightning bolt of resentment that angrily seeks the closest excuse. It’s not my fault! It’s his fault! It’s unfair! I didn’t have the same opportunities! Wah! Sometimes it turns inward, deeply wounding one’s confidence and causing one’s soul to shrink into itself. In either case, recognizing the resentment that is building-up (anger, fear) is the first step toward defusing it. A lot of things aren’t as personal as they seem to be. The risks are not as great as they may appear. Will you literally die? Do you want to be shaped by fear? Do you want to feel angry all the time? The answer is usually a resounding NO. I can choose to let that resentment fade away by invoking my tweaked version of the Total Perspective Vortex, which tells me that my concerns are—cosmically speaking—really not that important. So I might as well have a good time with them. Note that it helps to have a really great posse of friends who believe the same thing, otherwise you are fracked.
Uncertainty, Thy True Name is Opportunity
I have mentioned uncertainty several times already, but it’s worth touching on in detail because it’s so automatic with me, causing me to procrastinate:
- Every time I wonder if doing something is “worth it”, I am dealing with uncertainty.
- Ever time I think that I should find the best way to do something before starting, I’m delaying myself through uncertainty.
- Every time I decide to do something more immediate or easier, I am side-stepping uncertainty.
- Every time I worry that I’m doing something wrong, I am being slowed by uncertainty.
- Every time I don’t start because I don’t know exactly what I want, I am being stymied by uncertainty.
- Every time I don’t start because I feel I’ve already lost the race, I have been conquered by uncertainty.
In the context of this article, I’m thinking about the uncertainty factor as it relates to epic creative works. By “creative”, I mean a combination of learning new (to me) skills and making excellent (to everyone else) creative works by my own hand. In other words, I don’t just want to be “expressive” and “make things” by following someone else’s recipe by rote; I want to create something new and unique. Something that I have made with my own hands that I think will be awesome. By “epic”, I mean any achievement I desire that seems difficult in a daunting way.
Here is a sobering realization: in my 45 years of existence on this Earth, I’ve let uncertainty keep me from acquiring skills that can only be learned through dogged pursuit of experience. I’ve let negativity quash my desire to learn. I’ve let resentment toward bad documentation stop me from starting. It’s only recently that I realized that creativity of the kind I crave is on the other side of uncertainty. It’s not, as I had constantly thought, an A-to-B journey that one can follow using a GPS and a downloadable guide, a matter of just finding the right combination of quality shortcuts. There is so much uncertainty at so many levels that we can’t predict what will happen even when we make it through. I suspect the pattern of one’s achievements only make sense in hindsight. For someone like me, who likes the A-B directions backed-up with a GPS and a travel guide, this is a hard lesson to swallow, and so throughout life I have been more of a sipper of experience than a drinker. Add to this the management expectations I described earlier, which adds performance anxieties to the mix, and I can see the root of many stalled projects.
Fortunately, once I can see a pattern, I can quickly change my framework and learn to unstick myself. I have enough of a story now that I can see where I’ve gone. I’ve also picked up enough anecdotes from others to know that, ironically, the only reliable way to create genuine progress is through the uncertainty. Sure, there are other ways, like stumbling upon the perfect mentor, or having the right resources available at a young age because your uncle is a Nobel prize-winning physicist, or maybe someone discovers you and is willing to do the hard confusing work for you. But these are low probability events, some of which you have been already granted. Waiting for more of them is a stupendous waste of time. Pushing through the uncertainty and seeing what is there is much more likely to yield results.
Part of me wishes that I’d learned this 20 years ago, but then again there is something delicious about learning this lesson now. I’m not so old that I’m going to just give up. Now, I can see how fast I can push the insight with the 20 years of personal experience behind it. Every outcome is bound to be unique, which is exciting and (still) a little scary.
Powering the Doing Machine
That concludes the insights of the past few weeks, which catches us up to today. They all fit into the “Doing Machine” pattern, which is the productivity siege engine that I’ve been tinkering with for years. Its mission: batter down the barriers to personal productivity, provide maximum power for crushing and building, and be self-sustaining in its power needs.
While parts of the machine have worked—I did after all pick up a variety of useful skills—I have been lacking two critical components: a powerful source of energy and a strong universal chassis. The energy is really motivation to start difficult projects and persevere through them at a rapid pace. The chassis is harder to explain; it’s sort of like a framework of understanding that is strong enough to keep my focus usefully engaged. Perhaps this is Belief in myself, or having the Self-Knowledge to align my innate proclivities in the strongest direction.
But before getting into that, I think it’s worth looking at what I think I know about my Doing Machine:
- I’ve somehow built a machine, however imperfect. I’ve overcome a certain measure of uncertainty by designing my own machine instead of following a prescribed career path. This is a big risk, ameliorated through the support of friends and family to which I am so, so grateful. I have been a bit of a crackpot in this regard.
The machine has an evolving blueprint. It is based on the operating framework I posted a couple of days ago. The most recent version here is now designed to separate management and creative mindsets.
I’ve identified areas where friction can build up, and have refined the mechanism so resistance in the machine (and by extension, my brain) will keep it from operating efficiently. The lack of resentment and negative thinking is a big deal. I’ve also field-tested the machine, tentatively so far, in the corrosive environment of fear, uncertainty, and doubt. I think it has been adequately sealed.
What’s missing from the above list is the energy to power the damn thing consistently. It occasionally starts up and runs for one or two weeks at a time, but then I run out of energy and experience a slump. I haven’t found the right kind of fuel that will make it run in the way that I’d like. To date, I’ve tried powering the Doing Machine with the following metaphorical fuels:
- I’ve tried Motivation, which comes in two grades: internal and external. This type of fuel has a large “mental carbon footprint”, and therefore isn’t sustainable. Mining the internal form motivation requires self-trickery, which is not reusable because I’m so aware of tricks. External motivation, which comes in the form of making commitments to other people, makes me feel like I’m dependent on OPEC to run my gas-guzzling creative engine, and I’m then at the mercy of other people’s interests and availability. I want a self-sufficient local energy source.
I’ve tried Discipline, which apparently I don’t have much of. I have a tough time doing things just because I think I am supposed to. It only works if there is a plentiful catalyst available, such as working with other disciplined people on a common goal. When it’s just me…forget about it!
Focus became more promising once I learned how to refine it from Attention through a form of meditation. When I quiet my mind and remove every conscious thought except for the task at hand, the purest and most singular of attention is left. This quickly reacts with the task to produce an self-sustaining reaction. However, Focus requires that I am free from Distraction, which means I have to lock myself away. I don’t particularly like this, but it’s not a bad secondary fuel source.
What about Collaboration, the gathering of like-minded people in the same room as me? Experimentally I have found that working with other people in the room, even virtually through tools like Skype, generates energy. When I can have another pair of eyes look at something I’m working on, energy is transferred. Likewise, when I return the favor, energy is generated! Perhaps energy transferred between people naturally generates more energy than the sum total…I’m not sure why this works. In daily practice, though, it’s been difficult to find enough high-yield creatives to get together with on a regular basis, which makes Collaboration an unreliable source of energy. I’d probably have better luck in Portland, Austin, the Bay Area, or possibly Minneapolis, where I think there is a higher density of compatible nutty creative types.
Despite my belly-aching, I know I have actually been fairly productive over the years. It just hasn’t seemed like “enough”, and I know that there are other people who have produced a lot of interesting project every year I have slacked. Rather than view myself in a negative light, which would be self-defeating, I take it to mean that there is a lot of room for improvement, and that is what the productivity reboot is all about.
Return to the Driving PrincipleAfter reviewing everything I’d learned, I felt I’d made some progress toward understanding myself, but seemed not very much closer to getting things done quicker. The energy source was the issue. The Doing Machine design seemed ok, but without a power source it wasn’t going to be producing the benefits that I wanted. When I get stuck, I will often review the basic plan in terms of actions, intentions, and desired benefits. My basic plan has been the same for the past 4 years: build a self-sustaining freedom machine, bringing in enough money so I could afford to pursue anything that I was interested in. Learning to design cool products and selling them appealed to me, because it combined income with my interests. Breaking it down:
- Actions: Design products, learn how to take orders and fulfill them, and keep adding products until the volume is great enough to support me. Also, learn how to increase the sales of existing products by explaining how to use them.
Intentions: I have to continually design and improve products. I also have to maintain transparency and authenticity in what I’m doing, and sell nothing that does work really well.
Benefits (to me): Passive income means that once the products are set up, the revenue that comes in requires no additional work. I will have the time to spend going anything else I’d like to generate more opportunities, and in time the monetary resources to invest in learning and manufacturing. I will have the time to collaborate with others.
In the past six weeks, I’d been focusing on Actions and Intentions. I’d recognized that I couldn’t spend all my time working on just these tasks, though, because I would go nuts, so I built-in plenty of Happy Bubble Time so I could explore other things. Happy Bubble Time replenishes my store of energy, though I was not exactly sure why. I just knew it seemed that I was, well, happier when I did it. I thought that if I could just find the right balance and energy sources, I could make progress with a minimum of headache. A pretty straight-forward rationale, I would say. However, I got to thinking about the benefits. These were not really part of the machine I had built in my mind, which was designed to create products that could generate revenue. What would I do when everything was working, and I had achieved the life of leisurely creativity I craved?
Reviewing the FutureThat was a good question. Up to now, I’ve lived a fairly unadventurous life. I haven’t travelled all that much or met many people. I’ve always had this unfulfilled desire to create something epic and awesome, though, so I’ve focused primarily on learning about skills, trying to acquire them, and then looking for ways to put them into practice. Thus far, the really big projects have eluded my grasp for many of the reasons I’ve listed throughout this article. But what would I do when it’s all done? When I have the money, the products, and the time to do anything I wanted?
- I’ve always wanted to buy some land with a few buildings on it, then build a creative sanctuary where I could build and design things with my friends. It occurred to me, though, that I could perhaps do the same thing right now if I joined the local Hackerspace; building a facility, however cool, is a lot of work.
How about travel? I guess I would finally go visit the United Kingdom and Italy to see what it was like, but beyond that I didn’t really know why I would go. Hm.
How about the big projects? I could afford to hire a team to help me out with development of various interactive projects, maybe work on a game. But that still seemed very abstract. I could also buy some of the big tools that I’ve wanted for woodworking, but I wonder what I would really get out of it? I think I’d like to learn how to make boxes.
Hm. Maybe the distant goals I had are not so compelling today. It really is the feeling of freedom that I want. And I don’t want to be bored… I don’t want to be bored. What was the opposite of being bored? Being mentally stimulated. And just like that, I think I have discovered my missing energy source. Duh. A lot of really focused people I know seek mental stimulation before all else in the form of concentrating on their chosen area of work. In a way, it’s refusing to do work that they know is unstimulating to them, and therefore difficult and not part of their job description. As a manager this used to bug me, but now I am thinking good for you! :-) I am sure there has been a lot written about the power of mental engagement and stimulation, so I am not presenting this as a stunning breakthrough in anything other than my own self-knowledge. The key insight is this: I spend most of my waking hours avoiding boredom. I am very easily bored, until something captures my attention and imagination. Then I have to hunt it down until it’s understood, categorized, and distilled into a purer form. This is just the way I am. What I need to do is ensure that every task that I have to do has some element of mental stimulation. Without it, I’m going to be bored. There are very specific kinds of mental stimulation that work for me:
- Recognizing excellence, then learning about it from the topmost to bottommost level. For example, if someone shows me a cool knife with unusual design features, my attention is immediately captured.
Recognizing that there is some connection between two experiences or methodologies that is not explicitly known, and seeing that some greater benefit could arise by exploring it. For example, recognizing that some process in jewelry-making might have applications in making very fine-scale wooden boxes, or seeing a link between MBTI and Tarot Card interpretation that suggests a new kind of computer role playing game.
Understanding how anything works, discovering its patterns, and then making comparisons to other known patterns. Then writing down my thoughts to clarify what I’m thinking.
Evaluating how one thing compares to another, particularly my own work with respect to the current state-of-the-art. It is not so much about “ultimate polished excellence” as it is capturing the essential core of an experience; if the core is sound, that is enough of a proof of concept for me.
p>Many of the tasks that I find boring involve processes that are mundane, already understood, or require polishing beyond the essential core. These generate no spark of interest, no energetic response. They are boring.
If I could convert these tasks into ones that do spark, that would be a way of getting things moving. In other words, if I can find something in every task that will stimulate and engage my mind, I believe that would help unstick myself. I would not be bored by them. And in a way, that actually fulfills my future plans to not be bored as well. I can be mentally-engaged RIGHT NOW, instead of waiting for the future or setting aside Happy Bubble Time.
In other words, instead of wishing that all time was Happy Bubble Time, perhaps I could learn to find happy bubbles in all time. Mental engagement. Not boredom. That’s what I want. And it is part of the path toward building that epic creation I so crave. The Doing Machine starts to look like this:
- Identify tasks that lead toward epic project completion
- Find the happy bubble in each task.
- Focus on the happy bubble, and ignore everything else that the manager mindset might say about that time.
- Harvest the results, and apply it toward project completion.
Could it be so simple, just seeking mental stimulation in all my tasks? It reminds me a bit of the advice to “make a game of it”, which has never worked for me because I actually don’t like games that much. I’d rather wrestle with the reality of how the world works than escape it. The true game for me is the testing of what I learned against real-world scenarios. That is not to say that I dislike game models that seek to create a balanced, self-consistent framework of rules and actions; that I find very interesting.
Anyway, the “gamification” of my own day-to-day work requires a game designer that understands what motivates and engages my attention, otherwise it will fail. You could look at the past six weeks as a game modeling session, looking for the inputs, actions, and outputs that can package nicely into one clean set of operating rules. The purpose of these rules? Ensure mental stimulation at every step of the way.
This was a very long article that took me several days spread over the week. The key takeaway for me is that I need to build Mental Stimulation into every task to avoid Boredom. Mental Engagement is the energy source that I think is implicit in my long-term personal goals, and it’s much more accessible than I think. Instead of looking for one big reservoir of energy that’s all in one place, it’s a potential that exists in every task. There’s always something to be learned, improved upon, or examined more deeply.
Learning to unlock that potential will be the subject of the next few weeks, as I start to tackle some long lists of boring tasks that, like it or not, I have to get out of the way.
Thanks for reading, I know this was a long one :-)