Sustaining Productivity

I have mentioned on here before that Scott H. Young is one of those go-getter, bootstrapping entrepreneurs that I admire (and wish to emulate).

He’s always challenging himself (and, unlike me, seems to complete his goals more often) and makes it look easy. But he had this to say recently in one of his newsletters:

Q: How do you sustain your productivity for weeks or months at a time?
 We’ve all experienced it–you’ll get motivated, finish tons of work and then a week or two later, you’re back to feeling lazy again. What gives?
I struggled with this problem for a long time. I would have surges of motivation, followed by long crashes where I didn’t get much done. After each, I wasn’t sure what had gone wrong.
Now I realize that productivity is best seen like the ebb and flow of a tide. Surges of motivation followed by slower periods. You can extend the surges for a bit, but there always comes an ebb at the end. The secret is to not fight the cycles, but to ride them out.
As a result, I’ll try to switch gears every 4-6 weeks. For a burst, I’ll be intensely work focused, getting as much done as possible and pushing ahead aggressively. During the MIT Challenge, I sustained this for the first three months, working around 60 hours per week.
However, I also balance that by allowing myself to settle into a routine for a period of time and let the habits I’ve built work on autopilot. During the months following, I worked less (more like 40 hours) but I got almost the same amount done and had almost no stress. I didn’t try to force myself to work harder, but I let the down tempo last for a few weeks before I started up again.
Anticipating and riding these rhythms isn’t easy, and I haven’t mastered it myself. But I’ve found it’s a more sensible strategy than trying to be 100% on at all times (or to pretend that you can keep everything in perfect equilibrium).
Make your learning routine a habit.
That means set aside a certain amount of time, every day, at the same time each day, for your learning goal. Even if it’s only twenty minutes in the morning.
If there’s any activity you want to sustain, but tends to get neglected, this strategy works well. Be extremely consistent when setting it up for the first month and then it will just become part of your life. Your time and energy will adjust to the new routine after a few weeks until you don’t notice any difference.
The other strategy–to use willpower perpetually to motivate your learning–is exhausting and ultimately self-defeating. Without setting your learning as a habit, it will always be drowned out by noisier and more urgent occupations.
Banging out a story during NaNo is thrilling (if hectic), but when November is over, do you keep working on what you’ve done, or do you go back to life and the routines you interrupted for a month, leaving your fledgling story to wallow in neglect in some file?
I think Scott is right that the key is to keep at it (whatever “it” is–in our case, writing) after the initial thrill is gone, albeit it at a greatly reduced rate. That might mean writing for 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week post-NaNo, rather than writing for a couple of hours 7 days a week, as you might do in November. That way, you’re always making forward progress, and when you have more time or more motivation, you can put on an extra burst of effort. Professional writers all seem to agree that you need to write every day, even if you aren’t inspired. (In my novella, The Widow, the male lead is a painter, and he adheres to this idea: when he is not feeling inspired to paint , can’t come up with a new idea, etc., he paints Bob Ross landscapes until he gets out of his funk.)
Now that I’m starting to settle into my new job and apartment, I’m looking to establish a routine that will help me get my miscellaneous stuff done: sewing projects, procrastiantion projects, proofreading The Flames of Prague, plus some time to write new things and more Bloodsuckers. I’m thinking I might devote one hour per evening (more if I want to) to getting these things done.
  • Monday: Sewing (I also have medieval meetings two Mondays per week, and I can do hand-sewing while I’m at the meeting, thus multi-tasking.)
  • Tuesday: Proofing The Flames of Prague
  • Wednesday: Anti-Procrastination Day (this is for finishing up all the things that have been languishing forever–like my illumination, drafting my Last Will and Testament, various jewelry and craft projects, blog post series that I haven’t had time to finish (yes, I’m talking about you Medieval Monday), etc.)
  • Thursday: Write The Bloodsuckers
  • Friday: Date night w/ hubby
  • Saturday: Synagogue and/or packing
  • Sunday: Packing, cleaning, and/or moving; drive back to Chattanooga
That’s the plan, anyways. As my husband says, “no plan survives first contact with the enemy,” so I’ll check back in in a month or so to let you know how my various projects are going.
Do you have something you want/need to accomplish? What’s your game plan for making it a routine/habit?

Update on “The List”

As I mentioned in previous posts, I’ve been battling procrastination with the aid a reasonable task list. So how’s the experiment coming?

Some win, some not-so-win.


Not me, but my boxes look like that... minus the shelves.

I have accomplished a lot at work. I managed to catch up all the filing (two banker’s boxes full of papers which had to be integrated into 40 other storage boxes full of files). I finished cleaning out an old office, stored the old files, reclaimed some office supplies, and threw away a full trash can and a bit of recycling and part of a can of regular trash. I’ve caught up the billing and file-making. This office is looking s-h-a-r-p.

In fact, I’ve pretty much done everything I can do which is outside my usual, daily work; no more low-priority, time-consuming, boring projects hanging out in the background.


The List becomes less effective the longer you use it. It’s gotten to point that I write things down, but will ignore some of the tasks, not caring whether I get them done or not. This was especially true on the weekends (I was better about sticking to the list at work, where there are fewer distractions and I’m, you know, actually supposed to work. When I’m working for myself, pfft, I’ll blow things off.)

I suppose for some people (maybe people who are a bit compulsive) they might not get list-fatigue, but I have never been one to keep a list or a schedule or anything like that long-term. I thought that was because I was being unrealistic, but it’s probably because I’m creative and don’t like to have everything in my day planned; it allows for flexibility, in case I get in the mood to do something else. (This is the same reason why I won’t plan what I’m going to eat for dinner more than one day in advance; when I wake up, I decide what I’m in the mood for that day.)

So, I think instead of making a list every day, I need to save it for emergencies–those times when I really need to buckle down and either tackle a long-term, tedious, boring task, or I have a pile of stuff which I really need to do. Interestingly, that is the way I used to make lists. Prior to the end of the term in college, I always ended up making a list of things I had to get done before I could leave for the holidays. It ran the gamut from turning in term papers and taking exams to putting out the trash and stopping my mail. While not everything on the list got done (because I always put too much on the list and/or waited until late to start), all of the most important stuff always got done in a rush of activity that Karen Kingston calls “a white tornado.”

And, I admit, I loved the thrill and the adrenaline rush. Doing a lot of things at once makes me feel really accomplished; doing the same amount of work over a long period of time (i.e. a little bit every day) does not make me feel accomplished and does not give me a rush.

Are we starting to see why I procrastinate?

On a slightly different, but somewhat related note, is this blog post about new research showing that the longer people make decisions, the worse their decisions become (or they more they procrastinate and don’t make them). I believe they’re talking specifically about the decisions we make over the course of a day, but I believe that this probably holds true for people who make decisions day in, and day out (CEOs, judges, teachers, etc.). That’s why some countries/corporations/schools recognize the need for people to take a sabbatical; it keeps them from becoming permanently burned-out.

But, back to decision making on a daily basis. If you are aware of the fact that you tend to make worse decisions as the day gets longer (or, in my case, the procrastination level goes higher), then you can structure your day to account for it. Schedule meetings where you need to plan or make decisions for the morning. Team meetings should also be in the mornings, so the entire group isn’t making bad decisions (or making none at all). Negotiations, court cases, mediation and similar should be scheduled for the morning whenever possible. Save your afternoons for mindless tasks: filing, paying bills, handling e-mails and phone calls which do not require decisions. In fact, if you structure your day this way, you can spend your last hour getting your filing and piddly work caught up so you start the next day with a clean desk. Theoretically.

Procrastination Confession

I had a four day weekend because of the Christmas holiday and boy, did it ruin me. I got off my exercise schedule, then I got off my sleep schedule, and by the time Tuesday came around, I drug out of bed late, didn’t exercise, and went to work and accomplished next to nothing. Then I did the same thing Wednesday.

Disgusted with myself, I vowed to get back on the wagon Thursday

Regardless of what wagon you’ve fallen off, the first thing you need to do is identify why you fell off; that’s the only way you have any hope to change yourself for the better.

The long weekend and messed-up sleep schedule is not what made me procrastinate when I came to work. Breaking my rhythm certainly contributed to my decline, but it’s not what kept me there.

The number one cause of my procrastination? Temptation. Presented with a pleasant distraction versus a tedious task, the distraction will always win out for the procrastinator. My worse distraction? Oddly enough, not the internet (although that’s up there). Actually, my writing is my biggest distraction. So the first thing I did was leave the USB key at home (I carry my writing around on my USB key). That eliminated the temptation of writing and editing instead of doing work.

Secondly, I fell into the fallacy that because nothing on my list was terribly important or time-consuming (back to filing and billing), I could wait until the last hour of the day and get it all done. Remember, I confessed to being a person who gets a high from rushing to complete tasks; I was setting myself up to get a high.

Only it never came, because by the last hour of the day, I was not saying, “Let me run around like a chicken with my head cut off and get this stuff done.” Instead I was saying, “Eh, it’ll wait until tomorrow.”

I know, from long experience, that I am most productive shortly after waking up (studies show that the vast, vast majority of people are this way, regardless of what time they wake up). As the day goes on, my output drops exponentially. This is why I can’t exercise or clean house in the evenings after I get home from work; my energy is used up for the day.

So, when I came to work Thursday, I knocked several things off my list first thing. Accomplishment is like a snowball rolling downhill: if I make a big enough snowball early, it will continue to gather momentum as the day goes on.

And before I even got to work Thursday, I drug my ass out of bed and did some exercise. It was lame exercise–sitting on the couch, reading a book, peddling a mini stationary bike–but it was better than laying in bed and not moving at all. (Not to mention I’m reading non-fiction, so I’m being edified in the process… theoretically.) I did that for 15 minutes, then I got up and spent 15 minutes picking up the living room (which is also a form of exercise, believe me).

Everything combined, I was able to get my list done yesterday, plus I picked up 1/3rd of the living room. I did the same thing this morning and my to-do list was more than halfway done before lunch. And this morning consisted of purging old files and making new ones for 2012–not high on the excitement list, you know.

My boss asked me today what my New Year’s resolution was. I said, “The List.” 2012 is going to be about getting more crap done. All hail The List.

Procrastination Update Delivered On Time!

I had an ugly task on my list today: drafting a long, annoying document, printing 19 copies, and mailing all of them out.

I broke it down into three tasks and then filled up the rest of my day with less annoying tasks. I came into work resolved to knock out my annoying tasks this morning (because I have better concentration and stamina in the morning), and while it went into the early afternoon (namely because I had to stop and do an emergency task in the middle of it, and, oh, my copier jammed several times while printing all of it), I got it done, then I promptly kicked the rest of the list’s ass. Inbox: caught up completely. Tomorrow is a day of filing and billing.

The list on the weekend is not working as well as the list at work, though. I put 10 things on my Sunday list and got 5 done, plus did a couple of other things which were not on the list but which were chores that needed to be done (so we’ll say 7). Saturday was a jammed-pack day, with religious service, a holiday party, cooking for said party, 4 hours total spent in the car traveling to various destinations, etc. While we didn’t get home late, both my husband and I were so tired that we went to bed immediately and slept very late.

So I should hardly find it surprising that I was less than enthusiastic about spending my one day off (my one day when I didn’t have to set the alarm clock) doing a lot of cleaning.

I still got enough cleaning done that, overall, progress has been made. (In other words, I’m cleaning more every week than we’re messing up.) I think, however, that I still need to lighten my expectations. After all, the weekend is my time to relax, and I do spend half of Saturday at religious services. So I’m thinking I can keep the 10-item list, but I need to give myself all weekend to do it. Or, when I only have one day free (like this past weekend), then I cut it to 5 items (7 if a few of them are not time-intensive).

Procrastination Busted… This Week

Here’s my one-week update on the procrastination list.

It worked.

It’s Friday evening and I got all of my Friday list accomplished. Admittedly, yesterday I didn’t do so well. One of my tasks–which should have been easy–became terribly complex and drawn out, plus I ended up having to work on something which I thought was already wrapped up. That depressed me to the point that I gave up on the list partway through the day. Obviously something I need to work on. But, yesterday’s incomplete tasks ended up on today’s list and I got them all done.

In fact, I ended up getting everything done this week that I wanted to, with the exception of my weekly chores: some billing and filing. But given the amount of work I’ve done this week (much of it catch-up), I feel really accomplished, and I should have some slower days next week which will allow me the time to do the piddly tasks.

Lesson learned: when I put something on my list that I KNOW I’m going to hate doing, I need to lighten my entire load for the day, because it’s going to take me a while to muddle through that hated task. Also, 7-10 tasks is the most I can do in a day (not counting the things I have to deal with on the spur of the moment–tasks from my attorney, the phone, clients, etc.).

The Task List

So, time for a procrastination update (being public keeps me honest… I think… at least for a little while.)

First of all, I’ve added a new category for things like this–Personal Challenges. I think of my attempts at self-improvement to be kind of like Emily Yoffe’s Human Guinea Pig experiments. Yes, these changes in lifestyle/habit can and do work or no, they don’t and if you’ve like me, you’re doomed. Doomed!

Anyways, to my anti-procrastination list. I will admit that I did some serious backsliding yesterday. Here’s how it went down: I did the easy things first, then I moved on to the long, tedious project that had gotten rolled over from the day before. I completed it. Feeling proud of myself and deserving, I took a break. Then I got sidetracked by something completely irrelevant and the next thing I know, it’s time to leave. So the list was half-blown yesterday.

But today, the list got done. DONE! It was a full day, but I got everything done that I wanted to do. This is the first day the list has been done completely. The in-box pile is steadily dwindling. Tomorrow will be another full day, but Friday is looking good for getting my weekly tasks done.

I have been working on my at-home weekly chore everyday as well: organizing my sewing table. I am a very crafty person, and I like to do a wide-variety of things. Unfortunately, I don’t have enough room in the house to put all of my things, so most of my organization consists of putting things into storage in the barn. But one day I hope to either finish out the upstairs of the barn or get some sort of little storage building which I can convert into my own personal workshop. It will be both where I go to craft and where I go to write (do you know how difficult it is to write a sex scene when your husband is on the other side of the desk playing Battlefield 1942 and constantly shooting Nazis? Not that I have a problem with shooting Nazis, but it is rather loud and distracting.)

Keeping a list of tasks you want to get done on any given day is not only good for procrastinators, but I can see it being beneficial to people who have ADD. Instead of getting distracted by new work that ends up on your desk–so you do a little of everything and all of nothing–the list rules your day. With the exception of emergency work, you do what’s on the list; incoming work gets put on tomorrow’s list. This keeps you focused on one task until completion.

Now, it’s time to stop procrastinating and go to the grocery store for some dinner.

More On Procrastination (Because I Know You’d Rather Read This Than Work)

Continuing on yesterday’s procrastination theme, here are signs you’re a procrastinator [at work]:

  • Filling your day with low priority tasks from your To Do List.
  • Reading e-mails several times without starting work on them or deciding what you’re going to do with them.
  • Sitting down to start a high-priority task, and almost immediately going off to make a cup of coffee.
  • Leaving an item on your To Do list for a long time, even though you know it’s important.
  • Regularly saying “Yes” to unimportant tasks that others ask you to do, and filling your time with these instead of getting on with the important tasks already on your list.
  • Waiting for the “right mood” or the “right time” to tackle the important task at hand.

Filling your day with low-priority tasks is not good, but doing some quick, low-priority tasks is not a bad thing, so long as it’s not your entire day. Marking things off your to-do list can give you a jump start into bigger tasks. For instance, the first thing I did at work this morning was check the voicemail and mail out a bill. Low-priority? Yes. But I did these things while my computer and printer were booting up–time that would otherwise have been wasted while standing around, waiting. And marking two things off my list made me feel better, and I jumped into a more important–but long and tedious–task.

If you fill your day with little tasks and avoid big tasks, then your big tasks are too big. Try breaking them down into smaller parts, so you can do a  little and then switch to something else for a while. Something I’ve also done to make myself get through something unpleasant (e.g. housework, data entry) is to set a timer for 15 minutes and work on the task for 15 minutes, then take a break for 15 minutes. You can set an egg timer, stove timer, or, if you are working on the computer, use this online timer (no download necessary). And if you can’t even stomach 15 minutes, do 5 minutes. That’s still progress.

I tend to keep e-mails pretty organized, especially at work. (Despite my procrastination tendencies, I actually have no problems developing really good organizational systems.) The first thing you need to do is have folders in your e-mail box for things you HAVE to keep.

When you read an e-mail, you need to decide:

  1. Is there anything I need to do?
  2. Do I need to keep this e-mail?

If there is nothing in the e-mail which you need to do (i.e. it’s informational, not task-related), then move to question 2. If it’s nothing you need to keep, then delete it. If you need to keep it, then move it to the appropriate folder.

If it contains an item you need to do (including, but not limited to, replying), then leave it sitting in your inbox until you do it. Now you know that everything you’re seeing in your inbox is work that needs to be done, and that tends to have a motivating factor as it begins to lengthen. And if it doesn’t, then print out the e-mail and put it in your paper in-box and make sure you add it to your daily or weekly to-do list. (Sometimes it’s easier to tackle tasks which have a physical form–i.e. paper–than those that are merely electronic.)

I am very guilty of going to do something and then getting back up to make tea, use the bathroom, etc. When there’s a portion of my novel which is proving difficult to write, I’m bad about playing solitaire or reading online articles to avoid it. Again, you might get some relief by breaking your task down into many smaller tasks, or you can always set the timer for 15 minutes.

One place where I procrastinate? Doing things which I know will be depressing–like checking my bank account/balancing the checkbook. Paying bills can also be depressing if you know you’re late; you hate to look at the late charge. It’s like a scarlet letter the procrastinator has to wear. I don’t have any help for that, other than to 1) not let yourself get late, overdrawn, etc. and 2) just force yourself to do it anyways.

Procrastination Shame

I’ll tell a story on myself, which illustrates procrastinator shame. I had a paper due for a class in college. It wasn’t a very long paper, and it was on a book I had read and liked. For whatever reason, the paper just wasn’t coming. I kept putting it off until it was a day late. Then it was a week late. Then it was over a week late. I think I actually finished the paper a couple of weeks late, but was too ashamed to turn it in.

The semester went on. I got my other papers in, but that one lingered. And I felt constantly guilty. I couldn’t just take a 0 and shrug it off (which, a month after the due date, is what I should have done for my mental health); I felt like I had insulted my teacher by not turning it in. The fact that the paper was short and should have been easy to do compounded my misery. I asked myself why I hadn’t written some crap and turned it in; at that point a poor grade would have been better than none at all (this is perfectionism at work big time; FlyLady addresses it on her site).

Finally, at the end of the semester–when I didn’t have to see my teacher again–I slipped the paper under her office door with a note about the fact that I had had the f-ing paper done for a couple of months, but had been too ashamed to turn it in late. And I made some humorous comments about “senior-itis” and procrastination.

What was the worse that could happen? I already had a 0; I couldn’t get a negative. I have no idea what the teacher thought about it, but I made an A- that term, so I’m thinking I got at least some credit for the paper.

In situations like these, the task is less of a problem than the accompanying shame. And at the root of the shame? Knowing you disappointed someone and/or having to admit that you f-ed up. No excuses, you just didn’t do what you should have done when you should have. I think that, theoretically, the more you get used to saying, “I’m sorry, I f-ed up and don’t have an excuse,” the easier it will be to swallow your pride and say it. And once you’ve gotten past that hurdle of shame, the easier it will be to complete whatever the original task was and, next time, get it done on time.

(Saying you’re sorry–especially sans excuse–is incredibly hard. In Judaism, you are required to apologize to others/seek forgiveness for your words/actions in the 10 days between Rosh Hashannah and Yom Kippur. And boy, is it ever painful.)

Or, as UNC-Chapel Hill puts it:

You may not be surprised to learn that procrastinators tend to be self-critical. So, as you consider your procrastination and struggle to develop different work habits, try to be gentle with yourself. Punishing yourself every time you realize you have put something off won’t help you change. Rewarding yourself when you make progress will.

This is something I need to work on, because I am bad about punishing myself/feeling guilty when I don’t complete something. That’s what I was saying yesterday: it used to be that if I didn’t get something done on my list, I added it to the next day’s list, in addition to a full workload. This was punitive, not realistic. I’m trying to be more realistic.


So, how did yesterday’s list go? Pretty well, but I didn’t get it completed. One task I had on there took about three times as long as if should have, because I was given incomplete forms and I had to go hunting for the info I needed. So, instead of getting that and other things done, I spent most of my day on just that one task, and I still had to carry it over to today (it’s since been completed).

Despite this, I felt like I got a lot of work done (this is different than getting a lot of tasks done). In other words, I spent more of my time actually doing work instead of procrastinating. So, in that regard, the list helped (by being a motivating factor).

Speaking of which, lunchtime is over; time to go back to the list. The liiisssssttttttt.