O, Fragile Productivity!

As long as I stick to my systems I don’t get sick very often, and thus I sometimes forget what it’s like. Getting enough sleep seems to render me immune to infections, though sometimes I stay up late or wake up too early. If I do start to feel a cold coming on, a complete water fast for 1-3 days will almost always knock it out before it takes hold.

But I don’t always take good care of myself, and then occasionally I have to pay the price.

A couple weeks ago I caught a nasty cold. It knocked me completely out of commission for about three days, as judged by blank entries in my goal tracking system. I figured I would rest up for a few days, mostly lying around the house, sleeping, reading and playing computer games, and then I would jump back on my horse and keep going. Oh how wrong I was…

Diagnosis: Habit and Context

It turned out that after three days straight of sitting on the couch and reading and playing computer games, the only thing I wanted to do afterwards was read and play computer games. I set my goals as usual, and then several days of failure later I started wondering where I had gone so very wrong.

So what happened exactly? The fact of the matter is that in just a few short days all of my habitual productivity behaviors had dissolved. I had hoped that these systems would be more robust, but a habit really works best when it is followed through every single time. A day here or there may not be enough to make a difference, but three days in a row was enough to break these valuable patterns. For a while I was in denial about this fact, and I tried to set the same kinds of goals as I did beforehand… and found myself floundering. I just really didn’t want to go back to this doing work thing.

Now, let’s not underestimate how important it is to have your personal physical system in good working order. In addition to still feeling some lingering effects of the cold, it also prevented me from doing my usual high-intensity interval training. With each passing day my fitness and energy level declined. Is it any wonder I didn’t want to get off the couch? When I do sprint intervals twice a week I’m bounding up staircases… but without a constant refresher those benefits start to fade away.

Another critical piece of the puzzle is something I like to call context-dependent cognition. This will get a whole blog post – or series of posts – at a future date, but I will explain the concept in a nutshell here. Basically, our neural network forms a vast associative array. Everything is contagious. If we usually do work at a desk, we will find it hard to do work in bed. If we normally go into the kitchen to get a snack, we will notice thoughts of food arising when we walk into the room. In my particular case, for example, I set up my laptop in the places I normally sit and do work, and instead played a computer game. That weakened the associations I had worked so hard to develop between context and productivity.

Treatment: Frogs and Success Spirals

Given that I’m now sitting here with these broken associations and unfinished goals, what is the path back to productivity? This has been a great learning experience for me, because it reminds me what it feels like to not be productive, and gives me another chance to reestablish the systems that work. This allows me to really get inside the heads of my coaching clients, who are also struggling with becoming productive or returning to a former level of productivity, and understand on a visceral level what they are experiencing. The answer boils down to getting back to the basics.

The most important part of getting back on top of my goal setting is to focus on the single most important task every day, and doing it first thing in the morning. This might be familiar to those of you who have read my summary of Eat That Frog as the eponymous frog – that task that you really don’t want to do, and the only way to get it done is to do it immediately and without hesitation. When I got in the swing of goal completion, I started giving myself as many as eight primary goals per day. When I ticked those off one by one it felt incredible, and this kept me going day after day. Yet when I gave myself merely four goals after I got sick, I didn’t accomplish a single one.

Having multiple tasks on my plate left me feeling uncertain and demotivated. Which one do I do first? Sure, I put them in a priority order, but it seemed like even if I did one I’d be left feeling like a failure at the end of the day. No, I needed to get back to the basics. So I began setting myself just one goal every day, the one thing that would move my long-term goals along the fastest. Then anything else I completed become a bonus instead of a burden. Sure enough, this simple framing is actually effective. I’m still amazed by our monkey brains…

Then, by turning the negative incompletion of goals into the positive completion of bonus goals, I started feeling good about accomplishing things again, and truly this makes all the difference in the world. I can feel confident about completing my stated goal and know I’m making incremental long-term progress every day, and then on top of that I can turn it into a game to see how many extra goals I can get done. This positive mindset and feeling of agency allow me to do a little more each day, and feel good about it every step along the way. This leads to an ascending spiral of success!

Bonus: Structured Procrastination

I did utilize one more trick in my recovery that seems worth mentioning. I thought about the intersection of what seemed like fun and what was in my long-term plan. It turns out that I had just such an activity jump to mind: continuing to learn programming! Looking at most of my goals, I was still thinking in the sick-brain mindset, and was feeling quite nihilistic about the benefits of accomplishing any of them. I was in quite a programming groove when the illness hit, and I knew that if I could just get over the activation energy of opening a browser, text editor, and command line interface, I would get right back into the swing of things. It turns out that I was right, and now I’ve transitioned hours/day of gaming into programming instead. This feels just as fun and much more rewarding.

I’m still effectively recovering from the cold. I got up to three major completed goals in one day (plus programming), but then just yesterday went for four and failed to do them all. So today I set just a single goal, and did it. I’m feeling good about getting it done… so I went and wrote this blog post, ticking off one of my (bonus!) weekly goals. Although I’m not back to previous levels of productivity, I’m well underway in that process, and enjoying lots of extra programming time to boot.

What factors have you noticed about your own productivity? What do you need to do to get (and keep) yourself in a groove? What habits have you found the most important?

  • Michael Keenan

    I find it very motivating to look at my list of tasks and then estimate the time each one will take. I did this at first just to improve my calibration, but I always find I’m motivated to beat my estimated times. I find myself unusually focused on the tasks, getting sidetracked less often, and switching to a new task more immediately when I’ve completed a previous one.