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Dangerous Ideas: What If Everything We Thought Was True About Productivity Was Wrong?

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:

  1. How do you avoid slumps?
  2. How do you jump from a slump to a groove?
  3. How do you know what groove you are in?
  4. Is it possible to jump from one groove to another?
  5. 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.

12 thoughts on “Dangerous Ideas: What If Everything We Thought Was True About Productivity Was Wrong?”

  1. I know I just went from slump to groove (and I can see myself going back soon…) I work 2nd shift, and I have had a huge project to work on both Monday and Tuesday evenings. Today, Wednesday, I got up early, went to school, read my History assignment, studied for my Economics exam, and came to work (I’m at work right now) feeling great. I have very little to do at work tonight, but I’m hourly and full-time, so I’m here until 11pm with nothing to do. I can feel a slump coming on. It’s easier for me to go between a slump and a groove if I have lots to do during my whole day, from school to work and home. If I have a little bit here and there and long periods of free time, I end up not wanting to complete the other tasks on my plate.

  2. I don’t know that, for me, the slump/groove thing explains why sometimes its so hard, at least not completely. I’ve been known to not want to pull out my notebook (or open my list tool, or look at my inbox) because it opens the possibility of new things being added. Even if I have done a great job of keeping up my lists, sometimes my emotional reaction to them is that I don’t want them to get bigger, and opening up my capture tool opens up that possibility.

  3. Now there’s an interesting angle…

    For me, I’m not sure that’s what’s going on (I’ve been doing a lot of self analysis here). I really feel as if somewhere deep down, my mind decided what it is I should be doing and any deviation is going to be fought…

  4. What an awesome post. The idea of grooves and slumps makes a lot of sense. You’ve on to something there…

    I agree with Rue that sometimes working on something seemingly small has a danger of opening a huge can of worms. I’ve had that happen a few times to me recently and it does trigger off a slump the more it happens. I also believe that there are some small tasks that won’t take long, but might go wrong. The worry that it might go wrong can sometimes create a slump, no matter how confident you usually are as a person.

    As for the notepad and pen issue, the pen is the weakest link for me too. I’ve been spending weeks trying to work out how I can keep a pen and pad about my person at all times. After buying a wonderfully small and effective notepad that fits all my shirt and back pockets, I too needed to work on the pen situation.

    I have found a tiny pen that’s about the same height of the notebook and fits in my pocket at the same time. However, it doesn’t have a lid/cap, just a click button. No lid/cap makes me feel uneasy, because it could leak more easily.

    What do we do?

  5. I have found a tiny pen that’s about the same height of the notebook and fits in my pocket at the same time. However, it doesn’t have a lid/cap, just a click button. No lid/cap makes me feel uneasy, because it could leak more easily.

    Exactly! Also, I just feel like a loser, sometimes, to be walking around with a pen sticking out of my pocket (“Is that a pen in your pocket, or…”)

    On the other hand, when I keep things in my back pack, I often find myself in situations where I am removed from notepad and an task arrives.

    Oh, the difficult lives we live…

  6. Normally I don’t learn article on blogs, however I would like to say that this write-up very forced me to check out and do so! Your writing taste has been surprised me. Thank you, very great post.


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