Prioritization 3: Hormones, Carbs, and Creative Bubbles

Prioritization 3: Hormones, Carbs, and Creative Bubbles

"Excerpt from 'The Creative Habit'" It’s the third week of learning how to focus on-demand, and it’s still been tough going. Last week I struggled with feeling like a jerk as I tried to prioritize my time needs over others. I didn’t feel so bad about that this week, but it still wasn’t great. It was downright depressing toward the end, in fact. That said, some interesting patterns have started to emerge.

Control Factor 1: Reducing Meetings

The week began with a commitment to eliminate Wednesday and Thursday meetings to see if the larger continuous block of time yielded better productivity. I would still retain the Monday, Tuesday and Friday meetings. Also, on meeting days I would not expect to be productive just knowing that my brain takes a long time to quiet-down after any social interaction.

This started well enough. I did some writing, made some tangential code improvements that are excitingly forward-looking. However, by Wednesday/Thursday I still found it extremely difficult to get into the work mindset. I only really was able to fall into late on Thursday, but then I had to wake up for the Friday meeting and this killed the rest of my day.

Focus Metric 1: Hours Worked

Total number of billable hours for the week was 14.25, which was considerably lower than I wanted and this was quite irritating. I blamed this on my lack of ability to focus and the unwanted interruptions that further eroded my powers of attention. On reflection, though, 14.25 billable hours is close to 15 hours/5-day average I tried to maintain in 2019. In hindsight this isn’t bad. Furthermore, my timesheet indicates that I’ve done an additional 10 hours in unbilled work (the “tangential code improvements” I mentioned above), so in light of that perhaps I’ve been more productive than I give myself credit for. However, this also confirms that productive procrastination is still the state I fall into, and the whole point of PRIORITIZATION is to take more control.

Analysis 1: Mood

The week was characterized by the familiar cycle of (1) relaxation in the first two days, followed by (2) stress of trying to get into work mode that (3) culminated in frustration/depression/anger over the lack of major accomplishments.


  • I felt pretty good at the beginning of the week, because I was being social and working on long-ignored side projects. I finally published the URSANODE package on GitHub, which will be my educational Javascript web application framework for sharing what I’m learning and doing. I’m really excited about what this opens up.

  • Toward the start of the TUE-THU work period, I took an entire day to get settled. This included finalizing my earlier work and cleaning up the office, buying grocery supplies, and letting people know I was not going to be around. Then I took some time to binge-watch some unrelated stuff on Netflix (Tiny House Nation, Shokugeki no Souma) which helped clear my head further.

  • By Wednesday evening, it was clear to me that I was having trouble pushing into work mode. I spent most of the day trying different ways to deconstruct the code challenge I was facing, writing a few small essays and trying some different ways of outlining my work. I wrote down what I intended to do, then called it a day to get some rest.

  • On Thursday I worked in spurts of 30-90 minutes, taking long breaks between each one or napping. The work was mentally taxing and I felt a bit lost for some of the time. It felt like pushing through a brown fog of dull sporks that pushed against my eyelids, neck, and shoulders. I made silly mistakes that forced me to reset my billing clock by 30-60 minutes, which was the ethical thing to do but made me aware of how unproductive I was being. I put those thoughts out of my mind as much as possible. At least I wasn’t angry…yet. By 4AM Friday morning I had gotten a nice piece of code done, and clarity had slowly come. YES!

  • Friday, however, was a 10AM Meeting Day and it wiped out my momentum. I was frustrated but not really angry at anyone. The meeting went fine, and I tried to get started on work. I was too tired and my mind was buzzing in a weird cycle where I would start one thought and it would disappear as a new thought overwrote it…this is a common state for my mind to get into when I’m tired. I went to sleep, woke up at 8PM ready to start with a clear mind! However, while I was getting some protein I was drawn into a couple of intense conversations and POOF…my brain was shot again. For the next eight hours I tried to get back into the work zone with very little progress, and I finally gave up and went to sleep.

  • Saturday, I had another meeting on Saturday at 10AM, and the day is again kind of wrecked. So I decided to just write this blog post to get these thoughts out of my head.

I noted other potential sources of mental fogginess:

  • The elevated frustration seems to have a pattern of occuring around the third week of the month. I presumed this was due to me feeling like I hadn’t accomplished enough as the month approached its end. By coincidence I happened to rewatch Cooperative Calligraphy, the episode of Community in which Abed was tracking a behavioral pattern and belatedly realizes what it is: the menstrual cycle of his classmates. How is that relevant? I’m on a gender therapy regimen that includes the hormone Estradiol; was it possible that I’m experiencing the emotional effects of a hormonal cycle? There are anecdotal stories in the community that suggest this, but I’ll have to schedule an appointment with a specialist or talk to my therapist about it to find out more. It’s an interesting possibility, though I’m wary of reading too much into it.

  • My mental clarity has been pretty good until Thursday/Friday, when I ate some potato chips and a slice of pepperoni pizza for lunch on each day. I know I am sensitive to carbs and I am a “well-controlled’ type II diabetic, and since I’d been “good” for the week I thought I could handle it. APPARENTLY NOT. I need to maintain my low carb diet of daikon soup, poached chicken, natural peanut butter, and leafy salads. I really like all these things so it’s not a sacrifice. I can probably eat bad stuff until 12 hours before I want to be in a more productive mindset.

  • On the days that I drink coffee, I tend to feel more mentally alert than the days I don’t. I do NOT get the same response from canned caffeinated beverages at all. They just make me feel jittery. I think hydration is also important for the coffee boost to work, so I have been keeping 32oz bottles of water in the refrigerator for my work sessions. Adding some non-sugar flavorings to the water makes it palatable.

  • There are occasional intense personal conversations that happen which I find distracting. People are isolated and lonely and need to talk. As I noted in my June 06 report, I have a tendency to give my full attention to personal interactions, and this is really draining. While I’ve been able to moderate my attention for the past few weeks, I don’t want to do this when people really need to have a conversation. The cost is high but worthwhile.

Bonus Control Factor 2: The Creative Bubble

At the end of the week, I felt the need to engage HERMIT MODE, which is when I shut-out the rest of the world and detach from all social interactions. This is something I don’t naturally like to do, but it tends to be when I am able to get the most things done. The social cost, though high, is balanced by the sense of achievement backed by tangible results.

I have tended to think of HERMIT MODE as something I do because I’m not able to stay focused, a kind of brain defect that I’ve learned to overcome. However, by sheer accident I came across a relevant quite in Twyla Tharp’s 2003 book The Creative Habit because I was telling my sister about it. Flipping through the book while chatting, I read this:

“When I look back on my best work, it was inevitably created in what I call The Bubble. I eliminated every distraction, sacrificed almost everything that gave me pleasure, placed myself in a single-minded isolation chamber, and structured my life so that everything was not only feeding the work but subordinated to it. It is not a particularly sociable way to operate. It’s actively anti-social. On the other hand, it is pro-creative.”

Twyla Tharp, The Creative Habit, Chapter 12: The Long Run

I’m AMAZED I hadn’t seen this before. Maybe I was really excited about putting the rest of Tharp’s book into practice and never finished reading it. It’s particularly useful to read now, having struggled with the issue by myself for years now. There’s an anecdote in that chapter that I find heartening about a writer who became very prolific after he turned 60 by adhering to his isolation regimen. Tharp even warns about the social costs and how not to be all-consumed by the mission, which is that issue of balance I’ve been writing about for a very long time.

Reframing HERMIT MODE as a positive state…that has a lot of promise. I already know that I do my best work when I’m in HERMIT MODE, but had considered the social costs too high. Perhaps my missing balance just is to Embrace the Bubble as a necessary requirement, not a necessary evil. In hindsight, many of the changes I’ve made to my living situation have been about attaining control of my “Happy Bubble” of productive work; I had merely made a distinction between “work I’m doing on purpose” vs “work I accidentally did”. Perhaps there is a bridge between those world that I have yet to glimpse.

I’ll be thinking about it this week.

Looking Forward

I know I said earlier this year that I wouldn’t track anything, but I really want to take control of this aspect of my life. Tracking is good for finding patterns. At least I am not tracking GOALS; that would take me out of mastering the moment of doing and put me into an undesirable manager’s mindset. There’s a time and place for thinking like a manager, but I already know how to do that pretty well. I’m not so good (and this is really irritating) at entering THE WORK PRODUCTIVITY ZONE at will. I’ve never been good at it. Grumble. There’s GOT to be some way to do it.

Updating my things to practice for the coming week:

  • CONTINUE: Moderate my attentional intensity to “low power”, with an exemption for people in emotional crisis.
  • CONTINUE: Militantly maintain the block of meeting-free days from Tuesday evening to Friday morning. Use Monday, Tuesday, and Friday for more personal projects guilt-free.
  • ADD: Track mood patterns by day to see if it might be a predictable cycle. Is it hormonal?
  • ADD: Maintain low carb diet, starting 12 hours before my work block.

Also I want to try out the Twyla Tharp insight:

  • ALLOW: Creative Isolation Bubble aka HERMIT MODE…maybe this is not a coping mechanism after all, but the way productivity creativity has to work?


Gathering raw notes during the week…

  • “Linearizing thoughts into executable blocks” seems to help me with difficult programming tasks. Rather than try to hold the causal relationships in my head, turning them into “block instructions” that have a simple A->B flow works better. For multi-branch and looping structures, I need to visualize them on paper so I can trace them.
  • “Restricting multi-dimensionality” is purposefully making the simplest possible flow NOT to make something work, but to gain CLARITY on how it should work. It’s like mini-prototyping. I did this with the conditional logic engine I’m running, just writing little functions that can flow linearly in a process I can grok. Otherwise it’s easy to get into the rabbithole of anticipated complexity TOO EARLY.
  • There’s a distinct difference between “logging what I’m doing” versus “logging what I just did”. The former is good for setting higher-level intentions with questions that drive movement forward. The latter is good for non-thinking reconstruction of what I just did, because often I have to pursue side-tracks to get to the thing I wanted to do.
  • Occasionally I have to stop and make a diagram of my understanding of what’s going on and how things fit together.
  • There’s a lot of time spent renaming and refactoring. I have to watch out though that I don’t try to make an optimal structure BEFORE I actually need it; but then I have to be very careful about logging “intent vs line-by-line doings” as I described a couple lines above.
  • It seems like I’ve actually finally hit “programming zone” after about 2-3 days of work. I have been thinking of little else, and it’s become a nice thing.
  • I’m noticing too that I have to PUT AWAY thoughts of “I would rather do something else” or “I am being taken away from something more fun” or even “I want to take a break and not think about this”. There’s a kind of dedication I need otherwise my brain, given the opportunity, would jettison everything happily and reset completely to a GOOP state.
  • REACTIVITY and HYPEREMPHASIS on COMPLETION are two adjustments to make in July. Reactivity is the kind of nervous “reactive doing” that tends to lead down rabbitholes that are not relevant to getting something done. The emphasis on completion creates neurotic behavior and frustration about how nothing is done fast enough, because completion is the only valid achievement. The two things combined are correlated with perfectionism in trying to make conditions “just right” for doing things, and this is a false state to achieve without measured and consistent practice. The kind of consistency I want in my life isn’t consistent productivity, but consistent maintenance of my major practices so reactivity doesn’t occur (say, blog maintenance which has side-tracked me this morning)
  • The FEAR OF LETTING PEOPLE DOWN is also a primary motivator, and while it’s good to be responsive to people it also is an unhealthy when it comes to prioritizing myself. This behavior is related to the “giving people 100% of my attention”; the reason I do it is because of the “letting people down” anxiety. Part of making space for myself, and also maintaining a sense of peace about it, is to be OK with being consistent with this. And part of this is maybe “giving no F**Ks” in whatever the “nice” way is. Some people take it very personally when you don’t prioritize them, or feel sad, and I’m very susceptible to this due to my empathic nature. But for my own sanity I should deprogram this…that might help with my productivity/creativity as well.

About this Article Series

For 2020 I am NOT doing Groundhog Day Resolutions, and am instead thinking about what life is like without them. You'll find the related posts on this subject at 2020 NOT Groundhog Day Resolutions page. You can also find the link under the INVESTIGATIONS menu item on my website.