I got into the car to drive to Starbucks this afternoon with the intention of getting work done, but I was feeling so glum that I found even the act of buckling my seat belt a chore. That reaction was mildly worrying, and it was a lingering effect of the huge energy crash I had this past week. It hasn’t been all bad; a few necessary work-related tasks got done, and it’s been a pretty good week overall as far as talking to people go. However, it feels like I’m in a huge rut, which severely hampers my ability to concentrate. “Who cares?” says some negative part of my mind, and instead of pushing the thought away I’ve been inclined to go along with it.
This is, of course, a huge problem, and counter to the way I want to be! If I’m so jaded that I don’t even feel like following basic automobile safety precautions, that is a sign that I need to kick myself in the pants and get to the bottom of this. The result is a new definition of “Zing” and an interim plan to make up for the lack of it.
Opportunity versus Execution
It’s been a good week for talking to people. I caught up with old friends and made some new ones. I got to spend some time with my sister, and had some positive news pop-up on the work front.
I’ve been less motivated by any work requiring concentration. This got me thinking about the past AD/HD possibilities discussion; perhaps my drain in motivation was due to some chemical imbalance? After all, I haven’t been eating well, sleeping well, or going to the gym for the past two weeks. If it wasn’t a genetic condition, it certainly could be physiological.
There’s just one problem with that hypothesis: I have had no problem with feeling positive-minded when talking to people. If I was having some kind of chemical or nutritional imbalance going on, wouldn’t it have affected all activities? I wasn’t mopey or gloomy around people. My face-to-face meetings went well, and my brain seemed to function just fine. In the aftermath of these meetings, I even got a bit of work done. It was only when I was faced with starting a big chunk of work that demotivation set in.
Hm. Given that there seems to be a difference between “talking to people about projects” versus “doing the project work.” Perhaps there is something about the nature of the work itself that provides energy? And I also know that it’s not so much the execution of difficult work that bugs me—once I get going, I’m fine. It’s the starting of that work that I resist. The symptom is classic procrastation, but what is the root cause? So what is so exciting about opportunity, and what is so boring about starting a block of work?
The Energy of Interactivity
You know, for me, the excitement seems to come from learning what people are excited about. If I become involved in their project, then the tricky part is to manage the actual production work by myself without that sense of excitement. Perhaps it’s the one-on-one interactivity that powers my productivity.
This seems possible.
I know from past experience that I like working side-by-side with people who share the same mission, and I like coaching people through difficult projects as they do the work. One-on-one teaching, which I also tend to enjoy given a motivated student, falls under this umbrella of positive feeling as well. As a freelancer, though, I have to work in the opposite social context. I am working alone in my living room office when I have to concentrate or use the big computer. I escape to the coffee shop when I can, because at least there if the feeling that there are people there.
For an introvert, I appear to need more people interaction than I would have thought. Or it is that I get so little personal interaction on a daily basis that I’m operating in a kind of oxygen starvation mode. Living and working alone, and feeling under-the-gun on so many energy-intensive projects, I’ve inadvertently created the conditions where I can’t operate effectively even if I want to. My sense of personal fulfillment comes entirely from getting things done, and while it feels good it does not provide a balanced diet of mental stimulation.
I think this is the first time that I’ve clearly identified the source of my energy…it’s actually social interactivity. Not knowing what it was before, I had labeled it as “Zing”, a kind of metaphorical “dark matter” that accounts for the bulk of my productive output without being directly observable. It’s the “missing link” in my model of how my personal productivity works.
Keeping this in mind, let Zing be defined as “the activation energy that results from positive social interaction”. By positive, I mean that it is the kind of social interaction that I find enjoyable: thinking and making things together, sharing a sense of mission, and finding the joy in participating in the act of discovery.
In hindsight, it is an obvious fit for my long-standing declaration that I want to be around self-empowered, positive-minded, conscientious and competent people; this was presented as my idea of a tolerable sort of existence. I never said the reason out-loud, though: presumably we would interact with each other and prosper! If this is the true reason (and I think it is), then Zing isn’t about individual energy reserves as I had previously thought; it’s the spark that crackles between people.
So, that’s great! However, that also means I’m in a bind. I have a ton of things to do by myself, and I need some form of “artificial Zing” to bootstrap my way out of solitary confinement. I need a strategem or three to get by!
I mentioned before that “getting things done”—in general, not the David Allen methodology—does make me feel good, though it is not a complete solution for mental well-being. A complete nutritious mental diet adds positive social interaction; it’s this “zing” that gives me the energy to get things done in the first place. People give me context and a sense of mission, and the highest form of synergy occurs when I’m working side-by-side with them.
So…where do I get that positive one-on-one social interaction right now? I need it now because I gotta get some work done! I’m at Starbucks right now, and I don’t know anyone here. I could call someone, but I can’t think of anything to talk about. I guess I’m creating one-on-one social interaction by writing this blog post, which taps into my spirit of sharing; By posting this publicly I’m defusing some of the negative energy that has built up.
But I’m thinking that today’s work, which calls for a deep dive into programming, is the sort of thing that I can’t talk to anybody about because I don’t know anyone who is into it. I really just need to start doing it, and keep doing things throughout the week while I put a renewed effort into building more sources of side-by-side positive social interaction. Taking co-working to the streets! Teaching people for free! Being more inclusive about my processes and inviting people in! The possibilities are staggering!
There are a few techniques I know of that will help maintain momentum through the week. They’re all topics I’ve written about before on my search for improved personal productivity, except now I see them as supporting productive strategies rather than goals in themselves. The big goal is also the energy source: positive social interaction; these strategies help me maintain balance by providing me with the tools for mindfulness.
Waking Up Early
While I tend to be a night owl, I think the reason I stay up late is because I’m bored and feeling like nothing interesting happened. It’s easy to find things to do at night that require zero interaction with people, like watching movies or playing video games. These provide payoff and even a sense of accomplishment, but only within a context that does NOT include positive social interaction. When I catch myself opening Facebook or Twitter over and over again, I know that this is a sign that I am not getting enough social and need to turn off the computer, though I rarely do.
I’m willing to give up the late nights for early mornings if it means breaking out of this rut. Getting to work by 6AM is an awesome feeling, especially when you tune out everything else for the first couple of hours while you’re absolutely fresh. A huge advantage of waking up early is that you can get a big chunk of work done before noon, which frees up the rest of the day for anything else you want to do. This is a wonderful feeling. I could fill this time with pleasant social interactions.
Of course, this means I have to also go to sleep early, around 930PM at the latest. This will come in handy, though, for the coming winter months here in New Hampshire. It’ll soon be getting dark by 4PM, and waking up early will maximize my exposure to the sun, which I find that helps me maintain a positive mood.
Reference: My positive experiences about waking up early are detailed in Waking Up Early: A Summary.
Maintaining a Morning Ritual
I used to have a morning ritual, spending 15 minutes a day right after I woke up tackling long-stuck projects. I found that 15 minutes of time wasn’t a big commitment, and that the daily continuity that arose from revisiting it every day lead to significant progress. When I did this ritual with other people in our Campfire chatroom, my feeling of social connectedness and shared mission increased as well. In the context of seeking more positive social interaction, the morning ritual is a habit worth resurrecting.
Right now, there’s no one on the East Coast that I know who is able to do a 6AM call-in, but that’s OK because the morning ritual has another huge benefit: daily continuity. While “content is king” when it comes to marking one’s place in the creative universe, the way you make that content is through dilligent practice of continuity. In this context, it’s the act of reviewing of what you’ve done day-after-day that provides self-feedback. While it isn’t as great as getting feedback from other people, it is still extremely powerful. Using your self-assessment skills is a key component of practicing mindfully and developing competence.
For this next week, the continuity I want to maintain isn’t on a particularly product, but on my daily activities. In essense, I’m thinking of doing a daily review by writing and re-writing my goals an aspirations for the day. In the past this has served me well, and it’s the sort of thing I can do without a group.
Reference: For more information about how the morning ritual worked for me, check out Maintaining Momentum 15 Minutes a Day
Slowness as Part of the Process
I’m an impatient person at times, but I’ve come to think that it’s due to an internal conflict of values:
- Value #1: If I am smart/competent, I should also be fast; if I am going to be a successful person, I need to be ambitious and push the envelope of my performance in pursuit of excellence.
Value #2: I like to take my time, exploring under conditions of leisurely comfort. When I stumble upon something interesting, then I share what I’ve discovered with the people who will be delighted by its existence.
p>In the past, I measured my success by Value #1. However, my life observations and experiences have shown me that while it’s possible to produce great work under tremendous pressure to be fast, this is a rare outcome. For companies who have learned how to do it well, they have had to burn through tremendous reserves of human capital to acquire the key expertise to do it reliably. This is a process that takes a tremendous amount of time, is expensive, and tends to burn people out…there really is nothing fast about it. Today, I really have no interest in being part of a company that burns people out in service of profit and ego, and yet, these values are still part of the way I see myself and by extension: productivity. I have been actively deprogramming myself of this viewpoint for the past few weeks, to the point where I seem to have gone too far.
Today, what is more appealing to me now is having the luxury of time to explore the world in a slower and contemplative manner. Slowness is part of the process, man! Time allows ideas to develop and grow in the rich context of shared human experience. Harvesting these ideas and turning them into productive results is easy; just maintain the daily continuity, so the fragile nature of memory does not cause us to miss the opportunity to nurture/harvest them.
So now, the productivity model that I gravitate toward is the more leisurely one. Partly this is because I’m kind of lazy to begin with, but also because I think it’s a more humane and sustainable model. The model is more like having a fruit orchard than a factory, and there are different metrics for success. I’ve defined mine simply as making enough money to sustain myself as I wander about in search of subjects that catch my eye, keeping a roof over my head and having enough money to afford the tools I need. The process of building the conditions to make this happen is taking a long time, and this used to bother me, but now I’m not feeling so bad about it now that I’ve decided that this is the way I want it to happen.
Reference: A lot of these concepts come from my earlier Productivity Reboot this year.
Moving Forward for the Week
For the coming week, I’m going to put the following three strategems into motion to help anchor my day.
- Wake Up Early (and go to sleep early too) to get big chunks of work out of the way early-on. This will mean more social connection time, a key generator of Zing!
- Morning Ritual to provide continuity and self-feedback, as a substitute for Zing-generating positive social interaction.
- Mindful Slowness as the Standard Metric, as opposed to feeling like crap about not being a machine churning through all my work. This reduces resistance and frustration, which I am thinking will have the effect of being more productive in the long run.
I’m hopeful that the combination of daily continuity and having a morning time goal will have a positive effect on my productivity.
I’m also curious whether “seeking positive social interaction” and “producing regular work” will find a new balance. It’s felt out-of-balance for months. While I still have to work by myself in my living room on those solitary technical projects, the plan gives me hope. That might be the real contribution of this blog post: better, more balanced days might just be around the corner! That would be awesome.