The Surprising Hardness of the Simple
I just observed something distressing about my behavior. The absolute most simple component to my productivity repertoire is to keep a notebook and a pen within reach at all times. In the standard GTD canon, this allows me to immediately capture any tasks or ideas that pop to mind.
In theory, this basic behavior — taking a notebook out of my backpack when I sit down — should present no difficulty. What task could be more simple? All I have to do is move my arm, literally, just a few feet, from my bag to my desk. No thinking is required. No more than 3 – 5 seconds transpire. No sweat.
Many times, however, I can’t stand the thought of it.
In fact, as I write this, such an occasion just occurred. I returned to my office after lunch, sat down, and found that every ounce of my being was resisting this trivial act. I had to fight to rally the energy to get out that notebook. And this is I fight I often lose.
The Problem with the Hardness Assumption
This observation contradicts a lot of what we assume about productivity. We like to imagine that the difficulty of starting something is in linear proportion to the difficulty of a task. When we see “write term paper” on a to-do list, we know we have our work cut out for us to overcome the urge to procrastinate. Something simple, on the other hand, like “take a notebook out of your backpack,” should be a breeze.
But it’s not.
To my continual consternation, the simple and hard, at times, can be equally difficult to get started. And this causes trouble. The core of most modern work flow management systems depend on the use of “easy” habits to support and simplify the “hard.” If these gradated designations fail, so does, perhaps, many of the claimed benefits of these systems.
Toward a More Realistic Theory of Motivation
The obvious question remains: What does explain our varying motivation levels? I don’t really know. But it’s likely quite complicated.
One thing I have noticed, however, is that I tend to move between grooves and slumps. When I’m in a groove on a certain type of work, it’s relatively painless to switch between tasks within this same type. For example, if I’m in a blog groove, it’s easy to knock off tasks related to the blog. This is similar to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow state, but not quite the same. In a groove you are able to move between many different tasks within a broad type, whereas Flow typically refers to your concentration during a specific activity.
The slump is the evil twin to the groove. It describes a general period of low energy where anything beyond desultory e-mail checking seems impossibly distant.
What’s key is that in both situations the “hardness” of the task at hand plays a minimal role in determining my motivation to tackle it. The key is not only that I’m not in a slump but also that I’m in the right groove for the type of work I face.
The Important Questions
If this general model holds universally, it begs some interesting questions. For example:
- How do you avoid slumps?
- How do you jump from a slump to a groove?
- How do you know what groove you are in?
- Is it possible to jump from one groove to another?
- Do we have any control over what grooves we land in? And, if not, does it hold that the optimal work flow is one in which you learn to identify and then extract the maximum amount of work out of whatever groove you happen to be in?
From Control to Accommodation
I’m fascinated by these questions. But I have no real answers. It seems that the general paradigm shift at play here is one away from rigid control over your entire work day and toward one where you acknowledge a big part of your motivation is out of your control, and the best you can do is be aware and leverage what you face each day.
For future reading, there are, no doubt, relevant lessons in Csikszentmihaly. There is probably also a lot to be learned from Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz’s work on energy management.
I leave a more rigorous examination of these issues as future work. For now, however, as I sit and ponder the notebook that sits beside me, and the herculean struggle that preceded it’s arrival in this position, I can’t help but a feel a slight shiver of discomfort — maybe the whole productivity game is much more elusive and much more non-deterministic than we would like to believe.