Working More Slowly: Patching Leaky Motivation

Working More Slowly: Patching Leaky Motivation

This is a continuation, of sorts, of last week’s Working More Slowly: Preliminary Observations post. I had hoped to have a productive continuation of my early-rising work ritual (heretofore known as “The Morning Ritual”), as described in that post, but it collapsed. Why? I had no idea, so I collected my thoughts into this post. It turns out that I’d missed something important about the mission behind the Morning Ritual. Hint: it’s not really about having a productive day.

Last Week in Review

The week of Sept 30 through October 7 was intended to be a celebration of early-morning habits, but it was anything but! Here’s what I got done, in a nutshell:

  • MON: Up at 6:30. Writing emails. Started this blog post draft. Picked up sample ETP pads from printer. Asleep at midnight.
  • TUE: Up at 9:00. Stayed home. Client Focus on WordPress and related meeting. Schedule furnace replacement assessment. Asleep at midnight.
  • WED: Up at 11:00. Stayed home. Client Focus on Javascript Dev Environments and Best Practices. Meeting. Video shoot and dinner with friends. Worked on dev stuff. Asleep at 4:30AM.
  • THU: Up at 11:30. Stayed home. Client Focus on Javascript, Get proposal for new furnace ($3300). Schedule installation for Monday. Install Leap controller, compile test web app successfully. Asleep at 10PM.
  • FRI: Up at 9:30. Out to Starbucks. Tried to write. Went home and went back to sleep. Met with artist Kate for “art thinking time”. Played video games for rest of day.

You’ll see that I failed to maintain an early-morning habit pretty consistently. The weekend was even worse, spent sleeping and playing video games mindlessly when I could have been doing something more interesting. While I extol a certain amount of video gaming as healthy for my profession as an interactive designer, I was on a binge and didn’t like where it was going. This week was a real struggle.


So what was missing? It had been an OK week productivity-wise, but I felt I had lost control and satisfaction. This manifested as a loss of motivation, and I didn’t know where it was going.

So I wrote down a bunch of observations on Friday through Monday. Here they are, raw and roughly-grouped. The intent behind making this list is to find patterns in my feelings about the experiences of the week. From these patterns I hope to form a hypothesis about where my motivation is going.

Themed Days

Focusing on one main theme every day in the morning (business, client 1, client 2, domestic) seems to feel good. After getting that main chunk down, then filling in the rest of the day with smaller supporting tasks.


While I like the idea of “theme days”, in practice they don’t seem to improve productivity. It might be that I feel “I have all day” and then I don’t concentrate my effort. I think limiting the theme to just the first block of work is best. My impression arises from the late nights on certain days. Then again, I may be staying up late because I get sucked into a puzzle.

Feeling Productive

  • A good day is measured by what got resolved or finished.

  • To feel productive daily, I have to make progress on something that I can see and use in the future.

  • To feel productive over time, I need to see that my various threads of effort are making progress toward something I want. Goals, I suppose. Remembering the big picture is sometimes difficult, particularly for all-consuming projects.

Pacing and Goal Attainment

  • To stay focused and efficient, the Morning Ritual helps me with mindfulness, continuity, and balance. The writing that goes with it helps me maintain awareness of my day-to-day progress, which is an important contributor to feeling productive. Writing works for me since it comes to me easily.

  • I have a tendency to engage in “epic” challenges if I think I will get something finished. The urge to pull all-nighters when I’m in-the-zone is an example of this tendency, and it is what I did on Thursday. Which of course kills the Morning Ritual.

  • Personal continuity with regards to all the different activities I have is really important. I am worried that I’ll lose sight of something important if I don’t maintain that continuity (“what am I doing now, and why?”).

  • When there are multiple threads of effort active, I prefer that they converge toward one goal. The threads that don’t have an ending are less interesting in the long run.

Impulse Control

  • The more productive I am during the day, the less likely I will be successful at eating healthy and doing exercise. I tend to indulge myself because I am tired and can claim I deserve it. The easy rewards, however, tend to be bad things.

  • It may be that “good but unexciting” domestic tasks (going to the gym, cleaning the house) need to be done in the morning before work, even before the Morning Ritual. This might work because these tasks don’t require thinking, and I know I’m doing them because they’re good for me even though I don’t want to do them. The issue, though, is whether I will be physically tired-out by gym visits. Or perhaps I schedule theme as “theme days” in the morning.

  • Limiting the amount of time I spend on a project may be just as important to maintaining balance. Coding tends to pull me into a state where I am working very long hours, which disrupts my morning ritual because I go to sleep late. This means proactively monitoring myself during the day. I could also make sure I’m drinking enough water.

  • Social Media is a tempting distraction, because it is a source of new inputs and excitement, promising release from productive drudgery. It falls into the “reward” category.

Staying Focused


p>My memory definitely fades if I don’t do the daily journaling, which means that I lose personal continuity, and that’s important to me. On days that I don’t do the Morning Ritual, I fall into a reaction/distraction pattern that is loosely organized around “I need to do X”. This is not structured, and I tend to lose sight of the big picture. While the day can still be productive, at some point I have to then put on my Manager Hat and figure out if I got anything done. That is what I am doing right now, in writing this post.

I have to remember that there are two main areas of focus, too: my own projects and client projects. I maintain separate project journals for each client. It’s my projects that I tend to lose sight of; the Morning Ritual, I should remember, is for managing my time most effectively so I can make progress on my own goals.

Energy Management

If I get less than 8 hours of sleep a night, then it comes out later. Energy drinks currently seem to help, but I would prefer not to rely on them.

Visual design tasks, doing WordPress theme feature coding, and researching unfamiliar technologies that I need to master are high-drain tasks. Converting the unknown into the known takes a lot out of me.

Tweaking, adjustment, documenting tasks are medium-drain tasks, which I can do indefinitely. That is because the hard part of understanding the system and putting the pieces into place are done, and the adjustment/tweaking is more a form of play.

Writing down what I am thinking or think of something is a low-drain task. If I have the knowledge in my head already, it’s very easy for me to think-through.

A Model of Daily Activities

As I considered what was high-drain, medium-drain, and low-drain, it occurred to me that I could put together a model that described the way I approached my work. It could be helpful in determining how I schedule my days.

Dreaming Stage – No Commitment = Low Drain

  • Collecting Inspiration
  • Identifying interesting directions
  • Learning interesting skills
  • Encountering an opportunity
  • Seeing a possibility
  • Desire to make something…anything!

Getting Started on the Journey – Scoping Uncertainty into Best Guesses and Supporting Metrics = Medium Drain

  • Establishing Expectations, Actions, Metrics
  • Defining Tangible Targets
  • Setting Goals (tangible + timeframe + desired state)

The Hard Drain – Commitment to Uncertainty = High Drain synthesis and contingency planning + critical research + iterative wandering

  • Creating Certainty (hypothesis, mapping, design, research)
  • Creating Methodology and Process
  • Building Prototypes and Testing

The Tweaking Stage – Certainty Attained, can now screw around and have some fun = Low Drain

  • Tweaking, Testing, Refining, Remixing
  • Trying new arrangements of built modules
  • Getting Feedback

The Moment of Truth – Does it work in the field? Do we have to start all over? High Drain Tension!

  • Looking Back
  • Worth Going

Having Guts and Conviction Stage – Now, the tedious work of finishing. High drain, because this part feels like the end but it’s actually a whole separate project.

  • Polishing and Packaging into Finished Product…?
  • Marketing and Finishing
  • Profit…?


While the high-drain, medium-drain, and low-drain task model is interesting, I think I know what is missing: I am not making progress on my personal goals, because I feel they are being squeezed out by other projects. And that doesn’t have to be the case.

I know from trying the 15-minute hack that one can get a lot done, but for it to be successful I need to have the right attitude:

  • I haven’t picked a single personal project to push on, because I am seeing a million of them.
  • I have subconsciously prioritized client projects as more important than my own projects, when they should actually be equally important.

The Morning Ritual is not about developing good waking habits so you can have a productive day. That’s just a side-effect. The whole point of having this ritual is to commit to myself and make progress on what matters deeply to me. That is what has to come first, otherwise everything crumbles.

Such progress has to happen at least once every three days, I reckon, given my current project load. So let’s reboot and make some choices:

  • Picking one thing to work on this week for me: Organize the Digital Products in the Calendar Category.
  • Making this the “theme of the week”, to be addressed every day for 15 minutes minimum.
  • Maintaining progress on the Javascript stuff, which I’ll have to write about later because it’s cool.


  1. cricketB 7 years ago

    Have you tried an afternoon or evening ritual instead?

    I often do my planning right before or after lunch. It’s easy for me to put off the morning ritual if I’m tired, or overwhelmed, or for any number of reasons, including being excited about a project. My body rarely lets me forget lunch, so it’s a good anchor. By then, I know my energy level for the day and know most of what will need doing tomorrow. it’s also a good chance to reboot the day if necessary.

    I find that works better than an evening review because by then I’m tired, each evening is different (clubs and family), and it leaves me excited about tomorrow rather than ready to sleep.

  2. SoCalBonnie 7 years ago

    I think a good night’s sleep and a consistent bedtime are critically important for creative people, but they are the least likely to think so and always resist it the most.

  3. SoCalBonnie 7 years ago

    And I say that as someone who always resisted a consistent (and early) bedtime.

  4. Lynn O'Connor 7 years ago

    I so resonate with this –I’m trying to get up early (5:30AM) every morning, meditate and dive into my day and I’m failing on many days. I probably haven’t done it long enough, but a lifetime of being a ‘night person” constitutes a hard thing to change. I’m reading about it; they’ve discovered differences in our neurology, apparently for us night owls there some problem in our white matter. A scientist I’m working with who is an expert on circadian rhythms says that getting into the sun will change my internal clock –one relatively new study says we are living in a kind of permanent “jet lag.” And instead of getting out into the sun, I’m inside sitting all day, talking to people, reading and writing. i haven’t even been exercising for three or four weeks. I’ve gotten a few big and difficult projects finished in the last two weeks but there are several more to go. When I wake up early I’m incredibly tired all morning and half the afternoon, and then as usual I have high energy after around 8PM. I’m wasting it on MSNBC, sometimes I watch the round of news people twice –reminds me of your video games. The reading I have to do is absolutely endless. It’s all knowledge work, and to some extent I’m my own boss, like you (and therefore always in need of the Printable CEO. And I am endlessly reading about productivity, and daily digests from Scientific American. Maybe the productivity reading is more like your video games. I’m working on a blog post for my Psychology Today Blog, “our empathic nature” (and I’ve only been posting about once a month) related to productivity, at least I’d feel more justified. Big picture, I identify with you. And right now, still, after a few weeks of getting up early, I am so tired throughout the morning (previously my deepest sleeping hours) and into the afternoon, it’s hard to describe it. Thank God my teaching is in late afternoon and early evening. I don’t know how we can change our “wiring” –apparently it can be done, but it may be harder for us than for some, who weren’t wired this way but who got into staying up late and sleeping in in the morning, simply by habit. As usual, thank you for speaking for me!

  5. Matthew Parrett 7 years ago


    Thanks for sharing!

    I get the best results when I consistently prioritize, simplify, and focus on balance. My routine often becomes unmanageable and I have to start over from scratch.

  6. cricketB 7 years ago

    The Health and Performance Clinic that works out of the local university (Guelph) offers a 5-week sleep class. Lots of good information, including debunking several myths, and evidence (much of it anecdotal from other participants as we started experimenting) that several of the wonkier ones work.

    Above all, sleep is a habit. Go to bed and get up at the same time every day. Some people have more difficulty resetting than others. Even if you have a late night or can’t sleep, get up at the same time. Your body will get used to waking then. Weekends included, sigh.

    She gave us a long list of foods and behaviours, and a sleep diary. Many people have one or two things that cause problems, and the diary helps track them down. It also helps confirm (or debunk) things that we think work. Caffeine acts much longer than most people expect. Alcohol starts by relaxing, but many people then wake again in the middle of the night.

    Have a bedtime routine. Include a light snack with carbs and protein. Hot baths feel relaxing, but a high core temperature is associated with being awake. Sleep has a low core temperature and warm extremities.

    Think, “It feels good to rest.” Do not think “I need to sleep.” The words “I need” and “terrible things will happen” create adrenaline. Counterproductive.

    Bedrooms are for sleeping only, not reading or ruminating or worrying. If you can’t sleep for 30 minutes, get up, go to another room, and do something to distract yourself for 30 minutes before going back to bed. Nothing energizing or needing concentration or worrisome. Sitcoms are often good. They prevent you stressing and have a definite end. Books tend to not get put down on time. (R. Bootzin’s research.)

    MSNBC is unlikely to help you relax before bed. Nor is technical or work-related material. Yes, breaking that habit will feel very awkward.

    Most people wake several times during the night, but don’t remember it. So, don’t worry if you realize you’re awake. It’s normal! (That fact helped me a lot.)

    Sleep inertia is when you can’t quite wake up. It can happen in the morning. For me, it happens a lot when I need to get up and close the window. Rather than stressing out (stress hormones take an hour or more to go down again), or waking a bit, thinking, “I really have to” and then dozing, repeatedly, wiggle your toes, then your fingers, then your ankles, and so on, moving in towards the core. It worked for me.

    If you can’t turn off your brain, try a meditation or relaxation CD. Ones with body-awareness and muscle-relaxation are especially good.

    Set your alarm for shortly before you need to get up, and then don’t use the snooze button more than once. Setting it an hour early doesn’t get you up earlier, but you still lose an hour of sleep. SAD lights with breakfast are often helpful.

    Also consider therapy. My therapist helped me clear out and deal with several worries and emotions which were getting in the way, and gave me some “take home” techniques. Now when I realize that worry or excitement or even anticipation of a tomorrow is keeping me awake, I can identify and release it. My favourite one can be really intense the first few times, well-worth being with someone who can help you through it.

    She briefly covered difficulties such as pain (including cancer), stress, and shift work. She offers specialized classes for those. There’s even one for peri-menopausal women.

    I found the first relaxation technique worked the very first night. I couldn’t worry about sleep while I focused on the sequence. With just a few of the many ideas, I went from weeks and weeks of rarely sleeping well even with meds, to sleeping well most nights without. Whenever I go more than a night or two without sleepign well, I look back and realize I’ve gotten back into the old bad habits.

    Most of it, though, is dedication and habit. Your body eventually learns that at 10pm you have a snack, stretch, turn on the dishwasher, get changed, brush your teeth, and rest.

    Hope all this helps! She also gave us a bibliography of books she feels are actually useful.

  7. jacqueline 7 years ago

    Found your site when looking for planners/organizers on Amazon and saw your Emergent Task Planner. I was searching for a functional planner that works with my ADD brain. Skimmed through your posts and saw a lot of ADD type issues, topics, attempts to get life under control, etc. I realize that I am making a quick assessment and possibly incorrect conclusion – but I’m wondering if you have ADD. A lot of what you are struggling with, trying to manage, and coming up with tools for fall right in line with the struggles of a person with ADD. Distraction, motivation, procrastination, time issues, project completion, completing projects, etc. You are implementing ADD friendly strategies – like your high drain, medium drain, low drain idea and knowing where to fit those into your day. Your Emergent Task Planner is right on target too – knowing that keeping your goal to 3 main task because consistent daily productivity gives you momentum and traction. Anyway, it’s just a thought. Finding out I had ADD was an epiphany and explained a lot of the things I was constantly trying to stay on top of. It takes a lot of energy to keep trying harder when you don’t have the right tools. Finding out I had ADD is allowing me to try smarter, not harder. I worded harder than most people for half the results of most people. Now I’m becoming aware of tools and strategies that work for me – a lot of times they don’t look like the things that work for non ADD people. If you don’t have ADD, you are certainly thinking in ways that are helpful to those of us with ADD.