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Have You Accidentally Sabotaged Your Motivation to Work?

“How can I motivate myself to work?”

I’ve asked myself that question many times in my life.

It’s funny, though. Here are some questions I’ve never asked:

  • How can I motivate myself to eat pizza?
  • How can I motivate myself to talk with an attractive woman?
  • How can I motivate myself to get out of these cold, wet clothes and slip into the hot tub?

I haven’t asked these questions, either:

  • How can I motivate myself to play my favorite video game?
  • How can I motivate myself to play disc golf?

At this point a question comes to mind.

Why Are So Many Activities So Much More Compelling than Work?

I find the above activities intrinsically motivating. My work often isn’t? Why?

Some of the above activities are designed to help meet my immediate physical needs (for food, for sex, for companionship, for warmth). There’s little puzzle there. Such activities are essential to my evolutionary mandate to survive and replicate.

But, when we compare the leisure activities to work, things get a little puzzling. Work seems to have a much stronger connection to evolutionary fitness than playing video games or disc golf. Shouldn’t we expect work to be more compelling as well?

In some ways this is just as puzzling as other things we find in the modern world.

The Beetle-Bottle Battle

Once upon a time, if you were a male jewel beetle, the female jewel beetle was the sexiest thing around. Those beautifully-dimpled, amber-brown wings…those mesmerizing hips…mmm. Then one day, the Australian stubby beer bottle came along.

And that was that.

That beetle is doing exactly what you think it’s doing to that bottle. This is happening all over Australia, while female beetles go unwooed.

Why are Beetles Hitting the Bottle?

Male jewel beetles are (and were designed through evolution to be) triggered by patches of amber-brown and the presence of dimples to pursue sex with anything in their environment bearing those cues (apparently).

And for ages those cues reliably led male beetles to pursue sex with female beetles. The normal stimulus triggered adaptive behavior.

Then things changed. The Australian stubby beer bottle came along bearing these same cues, only much more clearly. The amber-brown, dimpled goodness of the beer bottle is not a normal stimulus. It’s a super-normal stimulus. And this super-normal stimulus is triggering maladaptive behavior.

Or consider another question relevant to members of our own species.

Why are Humans Hitting the Food Court?

It used to be that a fairly bland stew of beef, carrots, cabbage, and potatoes was the tastiest thing around. Hearty and satisfying.

But now we have pizza and pastries. And potatoes need to spend hours getting all gussied up if they want to have the slightest chance of getting our attention.

Many people are starting to think that junk food, too, is a super-normal stimulus for humans (This is the theme of David Kessler’s book, The End of Overeating).

Whole foods, with their higher water content, higher fiber content, lower salt and flavor content, are the normal rewards of food-seeking behavior. We are supposed to like those foods. But we don’t like them as much as we used to. We have tasted pizza, and things might never be the same again.

In the case of junk food, it’s not the external cues that are super-normal, but the internal reward (Actually, thanks to modern marketing, it’s both, but it starts with the internal reward). Pizza delivers its payload of glucose, salt, fat, and flavor in a relatively intense way when compared to whole foods. So the behavior of pursuing and eating pizza is reinforced more strongly than the behavior of pursuing and eating foods with less flavor, lower calorie density, and more fiber.

And that means, when we get that pang of hunger, and start thinking about what to eat, pizza and other processed convenience foods are much more likely to come to mind than a simple pot roast. Add to that the fact that a good pot roast can take hours to prepare, and you can typically shove a large bolus of junk food down your gullet within minutes, and it’s little wonder people are eating more super-normal food, and less normal food.

If junk food turns out to play a causal role in the diabetes and obesity stories, then this is another case of super-normal stimuli causing maladaptive behavior.

Now, with the idea of “super-normal stimulus” in mind, let’s get back to work.

Work as a Way to Meet Basic Psychological Needs

According to Self Determination Theory, we humans have three main psychological needs. We have a need for autonomy, a need for competence, and a need for relatedness (or connection to a community). (see The What and Why of Goal Pursuits)

And, believe it or not, work can be a fantastic way to get these needs met.

If you were the blacksmith in an medieval town, your work wasn’t perfect. It could become tedious, and demand for your services would have its ups and downs. But you could also hone your craft over time, and become a master of metal. No one would tell you how to do your job, because no one else knew your craft like you did. And, if anyone needed smithing services, you were the go-to person for that service for the community.

In short, your craft provided you with autonomy and felt competence. And, because others depended on you for your skills just as you depended on them for their skills, your work contributed to your sense of connection to your community as well.

We are attracted to activities that promise autonomy, competence, and relatedness. And that means we can be very attracted to at least some kinds of work.

However, there’s a reason this example comes from a bygone era. Such examples are clearer and crisper, because some features of the modern work world can also frustrate our psychological needs.

In the modern world autonomy is often frustrated by the need of firms to coordinate the activities of one employee with another.

And felt competence is frustrated by fact that we now live in a village of seven billion people instead of a few hundred. In an old-style village we might spend 500 hours achieving “go-to” status for a skill. In the modern world we can work all our lives and still feel mediocre.

That’s not to say that no one enjoys their work these days. Many people do. In fact some people are positively driven to advance their careers. But a large portion of the workforce is also simply “working for the weekend.”

And, even as work becomes less compelling, something else is happening.

Leisure Activities are Growing More Compelling

As a species we have invented many leisure activities, and the ones that have turned out to be most rewarding have been selected and modified, while the less-compelling activities have been forgotten.

As the world became smaller over the last few centuries, we could choose not only from the pastimes that had evolved within our own community, but also from those that evolved in communities around the world. Just as we learned to ask ourselves whether we’re more in the mood for Mexican or Chinese food, we also began selecting our leisure activities from a larger pool of options.

Disc golf is an extremely compelling activity for many people (the author included). And some (the author included) might even consider it the pinnacle of old-style pastime evolution.

Playing disc golf well requires many different skills, which gives a person many opportunities to develop competence. Each shot provides reinforcement. Sometimes the reinforcement is positive, and sometimes it’s negative. As one gets better, other players say “nice shot” more often. And, because there are many kinds of shots, and players have different physical abilities, there’s some freedom to develop an individual playing style that matches one’s native abilities and one’s risk/reward temperament.

These different playing styles can become important when playing a “doubles” version of the game. Two average players with complementary skills can find themselves paired up in a team that’s much better than the sum of its parts. And that’s an almost surefire recipe for feelings of relatedness or connectedness.

In short, disc golf provides its players with feelings of competence, autonomy, and relatedness. And it provides it faster and more purely than any job they’ve had.

And That’s Just the Beginning

In the past our leisure activities grew more and more compelling through a relatively slow process of tinkering and filtering.

But now, video game developers are very consciously designing their games to satisfy our needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness (meeting psychological needs is one of the rubrics Jesse Schell recommends in The Art of Game Design). And these games are growing more compelling by the year.

Skyrim, for instance, allows a player to go anywhere in the game world at almost any time, and allows a player some freedom to mold her character in her own image. As a player’s character develops skills within the game, the player also gains skills as a player. The game provides players with virtual companions who form a team, and each member of the team contributes something unique to the success of the team, making the whole greater than the sum of its parts. And, as time goes on, the townsfolk express more and more awe and admiration whenever the player’s character ambles into town.

Few jobs can satisfy a person’s needs for competence, autonomy, and relatedness so quickly and purely.

Games like Skyrim, Call of Duty, and World of Warcraft can deliver hits of autonomy, competence and relatedness, for those susceptible to its charms, better than anything previously seen in history. And these games are getting more and more compelling all the time. People already sink hundreds of hours into these games. Imagine what game developers can do when much more immersive virtual reality systems come online. People may never leave these games.

Not everyone enjoys video games (yet). But developers are rapidly figuring out ways to offer more and more different kinds of people the kinds of experiences that appeal to them.

And other activities, such as social media and video entertainment are rapidly evolving as well.

So that raises yet another question.

Are Our Leisure Activities Spoiling Our Appetites for Work?

If we are hungry, and someone offers us a plain baked potato, we might well turn our noses up at it, in spite of the fact that a plain potato is perfectly good nutrition. And part of the reason we find that potato unappetizing is because tastier modern foods have raised our reward thresholds. Old, normal rewards just don’t cut it anymore.

So, when we find ourselves asking “How can I get myself to do my work?”, perhaps it’s reasonable to suspect a similar dynamic at play. Perhaps we find our work less compelling, in part, because our leisure activities have raised our reward threshold, and it takes a more intense reward to satisfy our psychological needs.

If so, that will help shape our answers to our final question.

How Can We Increase Our Workplace Motivation?

There are many reasons we might lose our motivation to work. Finding it relatively dull or uninspiring is just one of them.

If we are stuck staring at our computer screen because we are overwhelmed with dozens of stray thoughts distracting us, then we should simply find a way to clear our minds.

If we are unclear about the purpose of our work, then we should figure out the purpose of our work.

If we don’t know how to do something, we should plan it out better, or learn a new skill.

But if we lack motivation to work because we find our work dull, and our thoughts are more on the golf course than on our work, then it seems we have a couple choices. We can 1) try to make our work more interesting, or 2) reduce our exposure to psychological junk food.

There is not space here to go into detail about both of these kinds of strategies. So I’ll just say a word or two about each and point to a good resource for further investigation.

Workplace Gamification

The goal of workplace “gamification” is to make our work as compelling as the games we enjoy.

The term has been a buzzword for at least a few years now, and many tricks have been tried.

Some attempts to gamify work can create perverse incentives that work against the long-term interest of the firm. Some can make employees feel like children, or stifle creativity.

However, when done well, there are many ways to restructure our work so it is much more compelling, and much more likely to provide things like autonomy, felt competence, and relatedness.

And some of the most successful gamification techniques have already been in use for decades.

Agile SCRUM is a wildly successful development strategy in many sectors of the economy (but especially in software development). Part of its charm is that it breaks large projects into quests (called “sprints”) that take one or two weeks each. It allows each member of the team to contribute to the completion of the sprint in his or her own unique and essential way, and it provides regular feedback that leaves team members with an ever growing sense of competence.

So one way to make our work more compelling is to make our work more compelling.

But there’s another way to approach the problem. And please don’t hate me for bringing it up, but maybe our best bet is to do something downright puritanical.

Stop Having So Much Fun Outside of Work

Please tell me you are resisting this suggestion. I know I am.

This is not universal advice. There are places for compelling leisure activities. And maybe, one day, when robots and software are doing all the productive work needed by the economy, we humans will be free to pursue whatever compelling activity suits our fancy.

But, if you are serious about advancing your career, perhaps, just maybe, you might want to keep your appetite for work strong. And that means that maybe, perhaps, just possibly you should consider cutting back on the activities you find more compelling than your work.

Let me be more blunt and specific. If you want to succeed in business, maybe you should give up your favorite video game. Or maybe you should consider limiting your time spent on social media such as Facebook. Or maybe you should stop watching television.

The reason these might be good ideas is not only because these activities compete for your time. It’s also because, by indulging in them, you might be making your work feel dull and uninspiring by comparison.

It might be that you have been spoiling your appetite for work.

So there you have it. Now let me have it. Tell me why I’m a killjoy ;)

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The Clear Mind and the Box in the Garage

In this post we looked at a procedure for getting a clear mind, and I emphasized the need to get absolutely everything out of your mind, and onto a piece of paper, so you can sort those items into three lists: “delete”, “to be done”, and “maybe later”.

In this post I want to highlight the importance of the “maybe later” category in this process.

There are some who will claim that you need only two lists: “to be done” and “delete”. They’ll tell you that, with every item you process, you should “Only Handle It Once” (OHIO). And they might even add: “If in doubt, throw it out.”

But this is wrong. The maybe later list is actually worth its weight in gold. With a maybe later list you can sort your thoughts with little effort. Without one, the process can cause you to pull your hair out. (Just look at my photo in the sidebar).

Organizing Stuff Can Be Exhausting

The same holds for sorting physical “stuff”.

When children collect too much stuff in their rooms, it’s tough to keep them clean.

If your kids are anything like mine, they will resist suggestions to get rid of things. They’ll say, “I might still want to play with that.” They might even start playing with the toy in question right then and there.

An hour-long task stretches into days.

If the child keeps the toy, she can still play with it, and it will continue cluttering the room. If she gives it away, it will clear up space for more important things, but she won’t be able to play with it any longer.

These are difficult choices. The child is being asked to make decision after decision like this. And we wonder why the child gets squirrely and distracted? After a while, they’ve burned through their supply of decision-facilitating neurotransmitters, and they can’t focus any longer.

This phenomenon has a name: “decision fatigue.”

But there’s an easy solution for this.

The “Box in the Garage” Solution

If you have room to store some of their stuff in a box in the garage (or basement, or attic), then you can simply tell the child to make three piles: 1) stuff to keep, 2) stuff to get rid of, and 3) stuff to put in the box in the garage.

You assure them that the box will be out there, and if they ever need something that’s in it, they’re free to go get it.

Now the child can process their stuff at a much faster pace. There’s no agony. And their rule becomes: “if in doubt, put it in the box”.

And the dirty little secret…they will almost never go out and retrieve anything from the box in the garage. A year later, they’ll gladly give most of it away.

The Maybe Later List is Your “Box in the Garage”

In our “Clear Mind Procedure,” the “maybe later” category is your “box in the garage”.

It’s what allows you to sort your items quickly.

When you put a thought on the maybe later list, the idea will be there if you need it. It’s in a safe place. But, as with the box in the garage, the dirty little secret is that you’ll almost never go back to your maybe later list to put things back on your plate.

And here’s the best part. No one can tell you there’s no room for another “box in the garage”. Whether you keep your maybe later list on paper, or in an electronic format, there will always be more room in the box.

So, whenever you do the Clear Mind Procedure, and it’s time to sort all the items you’ve written down, delete the obvious, keep the obvious, and then make this your rule:

“If in doubt, put it on the maybe later list”.

Follow that procedure any time you’re feeling overwhelmed, and you’ll be free and clear in no time.

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5 Steps to a Clear Mind

143706-145124Have you ever tried working on a project only to find thoughts from all the other areas of your life intruding in your mind, making it difficult to concentrate on the task at hand?

This kind of distracted state can be debilitating. It might be a sign you have ADD and could benefit from any of a number of treatment options or coping strategies for ADD. And it might be a sign of other problems. But there’s also a very good chance that you’ve simply acquired too many open loops in your mind, and you can get long-lasting relief within the hour.

I teach people a five-step method for getting a clear mind. It’s a simplified version of David Allen’s inbox-sorting procedure, and it very often works wonders when done correctly and to completion:

The Clear Mind Procedure:

  1. Write down everything that’s on your mind on one piece of paper (use more than one piece of paper if you need to).
  2. Create three columns on a second piece of paper, and label them:“to be done,” “maybe later,” and “delete.” Sort all the items on the first piece of paper into the three columns on the second piece of paper.
  3. Take each item on the “delete” list, send it off into space, and tell it never to return (with a corny little ceremony if that helps).
  4. Take the items from the “maybe later” column and put them on your “maybe later” list. (If you don’t keep a “maybe later” list, start one).
  5. Take the items from the “to be done” column and put them into your planning system. (If you don’t have a planning system, then get one).

This process often works wonders for people. However, as simple as it is, it can still be easy to misunderstand some of the steps, and these misunderstandings can keep you from realizing all the benefits of the process.
Related Links

Today I want to look at the first step of the process and explain how to do this step to best advantage.
What Kinds of Things do People Have on Their Minds?

Whenever I clear my own mind I find that about one third of the items are things I can delete. One-third are things I can put on my “maybe later” list. And about one third are things I need to do something about sometime soon.

But some people, when following the process for the first time, have reported very different results. They report that almost every single item they wrote down is in the “to be done” column. They have nothing, or next to nothing, in their “maybe later” and “delete” columns.

Why do some people find many items to delete and defer, while others find almost nothing to delete or defer?

It could be that different people have different kinds of things on their minds.

It could be that people in the latter group are too attached to their various aspirations and perceived obligations, and they need to learn how to let of some of these things go (or at least demote some of them to the “maybe later” category).

And it could be that people who don’t have anything to defer or delete aren’t actually writing down everything that’s on their minds.

“Everything” means Everything

I’ve been walking others through this process recently, and I’ve noticed that, for the most part, people just aren’t writing down everything that’s on their minds. Instead they’re basically just writing down their unfinished tasks.

But unfinished tasks are not the only things that clutter our minds.

So let me prompt you, my reader, with the following clarification. When you write down everything that’s on your mind, write down everything that’s on your mind, including:

  • unfinished tasks
  • trips you want to take
  • people with whom you should touch base
  • skills you want to develop
  • subjects you want to learn
  • areas of your life in which you feel inadequate (such as your physical appearance, your knowledge, or your skills)
  • regrets about past choices
  • daydreams about what you would do differently if you could re-wind the clock and start over again
  • ways you feel trapped in your life
  • interpersonal conflict issues
  • home repair issues
  • home renovation ideas
  • things you’re dissatisfied with and want to change
  • goals other people want you to pursue
  • worries about the economy
  • worries about loved ones
  • habits you want to establish or break (but have had little success with to this point)
  • and pretty much anything else that has come to mind at some point over the last few days

All that stuff competes for your attention. And if you want a clear mind, you must deal with all of it.

When prompted like this many people begin to realize for the first time how much clutter they’ve allowed to collect in their minds. And they begin to realize how much of that clutter is stuff they can’t do anything about, or don’t need to do anything about right now. It’s just taking up space, time, and attention.
Give it a Try

Go ahead. Give it a try. And don’t be surprised if you get dozens (or even hundreds) of things off your mind.

If you take the time to work through this process, let me know how it goes in the comment section. I’d love to hear from you.

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Could You Use a Productivity “Tune Up?”

Start the new year running on all cylinders.

magine a world where everyone is driven to create things and share their creations with others. Some work on projects alone, and some work on larger projects with others.

In this world everyone is free to work on projects that allow them to learn new skills, demonstrate their mastery of their existing skills, and increase the amount of good in the world.

And imagine that each of these people starts with a clear mind, an organized life, and has enough self-understanding and self-mastery to keep moving toward their goals even on those rare occasions when they don’t feel like working on them.

Just imagine what all those people could accomplish in a year.

If you’re reading this blog, you’re likely a creative individual (a business owner, a writer, a developer, a grad student, an event planner, etc.).

In other words, you’re a real go-getter. And that vision probably appeals to you.

In fact you likely have some creative projects of your own in mind that will allow you to learn new skills, demonstrate your existing areas of expertise, and increase the amount of good in the world.

Let me ask you something:

Are you ready to create all the things you want to create in 2014?

Or do you fear that you will struggle to find the time, focus, and energy to work on what’s really important this year?

I want you to succeed this year, and I want to help you get started on the right foot.

Specifically, I’d like to help you get a clear mind, get organized, and keep yourself moving on your creative projects.

There’s a good chance you’ve got a lot on your plate, so I’ll take just a couple minutes to explain what’s on offer. Then you can consider whether you want to work with me a little in early January to get things rolling for the rest of the year.

Why Me?

My name is Jim Stone. I’m a writer, software developer, well-informed amateur psychologist (with a focus on Motivational Psychology), and credentialed philosopher (my Ph.D. is from the University of Washington, class of ’06).

I’ve studied many contemporary works in Motivational Psychology, such as:

  • Deci and Ryan’s Self-Determination Theory (SDT)
  • George Ainslie’s “Picoeconomic” theory of willpower
  • Locke and Latham’s Goal-Setting Theory
  • Gollwitzer’s work on Implementation Intentions (and modifications, such as those Charles Duhigg makes in “The Power of Habit”)
  • McGonigal’s work on will power
  • Oettingen’s work on Mental Contrasting.
  • Piers Steele’s “Procrastination Equation”
  • And I’ve kept up with the literature on Evolutionary Psychology over the years as well.

I’ve studied many communication methods, models, and theories, such as:

  • William Miller’s Motivational Interviewing (MI)
  • W. Barnett Pearce’s Coordinated Management of Meaning (CMM)
  • Sperber and Wilson’s Relevance Theory (RT)

I’ve also studied and implemented many productivity systems, such as:

  • Agile SCRUM
  • David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD)
  • The energy management techniques of Loehr and Schwartz
  • And many other systems

After much study and experimentation, I’ve gathered what I take to be the best ideas from all these methods, and have left out what seems to me to be unnecessary. As a result, I’ve tinkered and tweaked my way to a fairly simple productivity system that keeps me clear, focused, and motivated.

I’ve written about many of these topics on this blog.

I am not saying all of this to impress you. I am saying it to help you decide whether I’m qualified to help you get clear, focused, and motivated for the coming year.

Why Now?

There are three converging trends that make NOW a very good time to work with me.

First, there’s the trend of increasing lifestyle complexity. The world is more complicated and distracting than it’s ever been, and it’s getting more so every year.

We have Facebook, Quora, LinkedIn, Twitter, and our email clients sending us “important” alerts constantly. Our friends, family, and business contacts can interrupt us nearly 24×7 via phone or text. Our best video games are completely addicting, and our best television shows are extremely compelling. We have more options for spending (and wasting) our time than ever before.

Even things that seem extremely productive (like watching YouTube instructional videos, reading Wikipedia articles, and watching TED talks) can lure us deep into the night, robbing us of precious sleep.

Even our work is more distracting. The typical knowledge worker now juggles many projects simultaneously, and business owners juggle even more than the typical knowledge worker.

If you’re like most people, you’re walking around most days with an overwhelmed, disorganized, and unfocused mind, and, if you don’t get a handle on it now, you can look forward to being even more overwhelmed, disorganized, and unfocused a year from now.

Second, my ability to help you is currently greater than it’s ever been.

I’ve been studying Motivational Psychology and the procedures of various productivity systems for a long time now – long enough to develop a sense about which ideas are crucial determinants of creative productivity, and which ideas are relatively minor sidebars.

I’ve learned that the world’s accelerating complexity is generated by relatively simple, recursive processes. And I have learned that we can use simple organizing structures to unravel that complexity and tame it.

At this point in the trend, I feel confident that I can help almost anyone get a clear mind, get organized, and stay motivated.

Third, I hope (and have reason to believe) that I will have the privilege of helping more and more people in the future.

I have just started offering personal productivity coaching. I understand the methods and theories very well. But I’m still taking my first clumsy steps with the logistics of helping others to use these theories and methods to get clear, organized, and focused lives.

And that means my services are still relatively cheap :-)

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m fortunate to be in relatively high demand already. But I also want the people I work with to feel like they got a lot of value for their money.

Since I’m still in the process of developing and refining my process, I am charging a low-ish fee at this point. To be honest I want to have the freedom to make a mistake or two and still leave you feeling like you got more than your money’s worth.

OK, So What’s The Deal?

In short, this productivity “tune up” is for busy individuals who must dream up, design, and juggle many creative projects in their professional, personal and/or creative lives. And it is for those who still find themselves in periods of confusion, overwhelm and stress, in spite of all the organizational tools and systems they’ve already tried.

It’s a lightweight, one-shot, coaching process that promises to get you a clear mind, an organized life, and ways to keep yourself moving – all within a week.

Unlike one-size-fits all productivity advice, systems, and software, this consultation will provide you with enough friendly interactive expert guidance (and accountability) to get a handle on your specific challenges.

How the Coaching Works:

Once you sign up, the coaching comes in three parts.

First, you will answer some survey questions. These will help you get some clarity about your situation, and will give me the information I need in order to help you in your specific situation.

Second, you will receive three email lessons with exercises – one per day. The first lesson will help you clear your mind. The second lesson will help you get organized. And the third lesson will give you the tools you need to keep yourself moving throughout the year.

And at the end of each lesson you will be required to complete an assignment, and will have an opportunity to ask me questions via email.

It sounds pretty simple, but the lessons are actually fairly meaty. You will need to set aside about a half hour to read each lesson. And set aside between 30 minutes and 2 hours to complete the assignments (it will depend on the lesson).

And this isn’t busy work. If you read the lessons and do the assignments, you will have a clear mind, you will get organized, and you will know how to keep yourself moving the rest of the year.

Third, you will answer an exit survey, and have a chance to ask any remaining questions.

At the end of that process, I guarantee that you will have A) a clear mind, B) a good organizational system that fits your particular work style, and C) the self-awareness and strategies you need to keep yourself moving on your projects the rest of the year.

Now, as good as it sounds, this coaching opportunity is not for everyone.

In fact, I will now try to talk you out of signing up . . .

Client Requirements (Please Read This Section Carefully)

To work with me you must meet the following requirements:

  1. You have self-directed projects in your life (either at work or in your personal life — or both)
  2. You are currently feeling overwhelmed, disorganized, and/or unfocused.
  3. You see benefit in working with a coach, even when you COULD find the information you need and do it yourself.
  4. You can easily afford my (really quite modest) fee.
  5. You are willing to commit to doing the exercises, sending me your questions via email, and answering the exit survey I will send you at the end of the program — all within a week of starting the program.

Let me say a bit more about each of these qualifications:

1. You have many self-directed projects in your life

Some people are overwhelmed because other people bring them too much work, and their inbox is overflowing. Those people need learn how to process their inbox more efficiently (and perhaps how to delegate or say “no” more often). This coaching is not designed for those kinds of challenges. If you are in that kind of situation, let me recommend David Allen’s book, “Getting Things Done”.

However, if your stresses come from juggling self-directed projects, where you must determine which projects will contribute to your larger goals, you must plan them out, and you must deal with all the complexities of bringing them to fruition, then this coaching is for you.

2. You are currently feeling overwhelmed, disorganized, and/or unfocused.

I want to work with people who will see immediate benefit from the coaching.

If you’ve got everything handled at the moment, you don’t need this coaching right now.

3. You see benefit in working with a coach, even when you COULD find the information you need and do it yourself.

Many of the ideas and strategies I will share with you can already be found out there somewhere on the vast internet. In fact, much of the content can be found on this blog.

If you’re a DIY type, and you would rather just find what you need on your own, and implement the procedures on your own, then I don’t want to waste your time or mine.

On the other hand, if you’re the kind of person who likes to work with someone else to make sure you’re getting the most out of the techniques, . . . or if you want a little accountability and encouragement, . . . or if you want an extra eye on your situation to see how someone else might make the tradeoffs you need to make, then I want to work with you.

4. You can easily afford my fee.

The value of this coaching depends quite a bit on where YOU are at in life.

And I want to work with people who will see a tremendous return on their investment.

If you’re Bill Gates, this coaching could be worth hundreds of millions of dollars. (Though Bill Gates probably already knows how to keep a clear, organized, focused mind, or he wouldn’t have done all he’s done).

If you’re making $5,000/month in your business, then a clear, focused, organized mind could help you (very conservatively) grow your business by 10% this year, because you’ll be able to work with less friction and make sure you’re working on your highest priority projects. That means the coaching could be worth $6,000 this year to you. And it could be worth much more than that.

If, on the other hand, you’re out of work, with little savings, trying to start a dubious business, this might be a good investment, and it might not.

If that’s your situation, then I want to discourage you from taking me up on this offer. Even if I deliver on my promise to get you a clear, organized, focused mind, that might not make as much difference as you need it to. It might be that what you really need to do is figure out how to change course completely, and that’s beyond the scope of this coaching.

5. You are willing to commit to doing the exercises, sending me your questions via email, and answering the exit survey I will send you at the end of the program — all within a week of starting the program.

This coaching will only work if you do the work. And I want this to work for you. So I want you to do the work.

Also, I will be making a commitment to you — to be available to answer your questions. In exchange, I want a similar commitment from you — to finish the assignments and ask your questions in a timely manner.

If something important, urgent, and unforeseen prevents you from being able to complete the course within the week you start, I am happy to work with you, and am open to extending the period if needed.

But you must have every reasonable intention of completing the course, and all the assignments within a week of when you start.

Now, . . .

If you meet all of those qualifications, . . .

Here’s How To Sign Up:

  1. Click on the signup button below.
  2. On the next page, you will see if any slots are still available (I’m limiting this initial coaching program to 10 clients, so I can see how the process is working, and can give adequate attention to each person). If a slot is available, pick one.
  3. Once you’ve picked a time, you will make payment.
  4. After making payment, you will enter the email address at which you want to receive lessons.
  5. Then the coaching process will begin.

Productivity Tune Up (with Jim Stone)

This Course is Full for Now

Check back later. I might open up a second class soon.

Best wishes,



P.S. If you’re interested, I would suggest grabbing a slot quickly. There are only a few slots available, and they will fill quickly. I would never say that to pressure you. Personally I hate pressure (and make a point of not responding to it). I just want to make sure you’re able to get a time slot if you want one.

Posted in Coaching, Productivity | Tagged | 5 Responses

Willpower and Game Theory

This blog is about creative productivity.

And this post is about willpower.

Willpower is important for productivity, because sometimes we will want to work while being tempted not to.

In this article I explore George Ainslie’s fascinating theory of temptation and willpower — or something like it.1 If you read this essay it will probably help you better understand your own experience with exercising will power in the face of temptation.

I chose to use diet as the main example in the essay. If you’re looking to drop a few pounds, perhaps it will help you think through how to structure your diet so it has a better chance of succeeding.

If you’re not in need of a diet, I’ll leave it to you for now to figure out how to apply these insights to other areas of your life.

This post is timely for those in the crowd who will be making New Years resolutions roughly a month from now.

A Theory of Temptation

Suppose you’ve started a new diet plan, . . . and you see that a co-worker has brought donuts to the work meeting.

This gives you a choice. You can stick to your diet, or you can eat some donuts.

What will you do?

Before you answer, consider the fact that you will likely face many similar temptations before reaching your weight loss goal.

And pretend for a moment that, while you are responsible for making the present choice, you will not be making those future choices. Instead, future versions of yourself will. In other words, think of these future selves being entirely different people facing their own temptations.

Now suppose you assign the following values to your possible outcomes:

  1. A thinner self in the future + donuts now = 10
  2. A thinner self in the future + no donuts now = 7
  3. A fatter self in the future + donuts now = 3
  4. A fatter self in the future + no donuts now = 0

And suppose you reason along these lines:

If all the future versions of myself stick to the diet, then I should make an exception for myself and eat donuts, because I will then get my favorite outcome instead of my second favorite (10 units instead of 7).

If, on the other hand, all the future versions of myself will defect on the diet, then I’ll be the lone sucker if I resist these donuts. I should eat donuts and get my third favorite outcome instead of my fourth favorite (3 units instead of 0)

Either way, I — the self making this decision right now — am better off eating donuts.

Now, if every version of your self thinks this way, the outcome is clear. You will repeatedly break your diet and will not see a thinner version of yourself for the foreseeable future.

Some Hope for Willpower?

But what if we could assure you of the following two things:

Condition 1: If you cooperate now, future versions of yourself facing similar choices will cooperate as well.

Condition 2: If you defect now, later versions of yourself facing similar choices will defect as well.

If you had confidence in these two conditions, then your set of available outcomes would be reduced. Outcome A would no longer be available, because, if you defect, your future selves will, too. And outcome D won’t be available, because if you cooperate, your future selves will as well.

So your decision would be reduced to a choice between outcome B and outcome C. And that’s a no-brainer. If you stick to the diet, you’ll get an outcome valued at 7, and, if you eat donuts, you’ll get an outcome valued at 3. The choice is simple. You stick to the diet.

This gives us a glimmer of hope. If our outcome preferences resemble those above, and we can find a reason to think that conditions 1 and 2 hold, or even that they are likely, then we might be able to get ourselves to resist the donut and stick to the diet.

Resolution to the Rescue

In his book “Breakdown of Will”, George Ainslie claims that resolutions (sets of personal rules) are the glue that makes willpower work (when it does).

Resolutions help to coordinate the decisions of successive versions of the self that are locked into a bargaining game with each other.

When we start a diet, for instance, we adopt new rules for eating. And typically we start out with some optimism about our ability to follow these rules.

What produces this optimism? One possibility is that it’s produced by a (mostly subconscious) simulation of the bargaining game that will take place among our future selves as they face the series of temptations that will challenge the resolution.

If we feel like the rules will provide a basis for cooperation, then we are optimistic — and feel a great sense of resolve. If we think widespread defection likely, then we are pessimistic, and probably don’t adopt the diet in the first place.

But in those cases where we start out optimistic, is the optimism well-grounded? Do optimistic resolutions provide sufficient willpower to help us achieve our goals?

Our experience tells us the answer is: “Sometimes, and sometimes not”.

Sometimes we set new rules for ourselves, follow them without exception, and they take us all the way to our goal.

Sometimes we follow the rules well-enough — with occasional lapses — and eventually get to our goal a little behind schedule.

And sometimes our rules don’t get us all the way to our goal. Somewhere along the way we fall off the wagon and never get back on again.

If this is how things work, two questions seem apt: why do resolutions work when they do? and why do they stop working sometimes?

Why Do Resolutions Work?

Resolutions sometimes translate into willpower, because they sometimes give us confidence that conditions 1 and 2 are in effect.

To see why, we must consider how a current self’s decision will affect the decisions of future selves.

When a future self looks back at the decisions of previous selves, she will take their decisions as evidence for predicting how selves in her future will decide.

If this future self looks back and sees defections, she loses confidence in the power of the resolution to produce cooperation, and expects future selves to defect as well. This will drive her to defect.

Thus, condition 2 seems to hold.

On the other hand, if a future self looks back and sees a series of cooperative choices, she will use this as a basis for predicting future cooperation as well. That prediction, combined with condition 2 holding, will lead her to cooperate.

Thus, condition 1 seems to hold as well.

In general, an earlier self’s choice will serve as evidence that future selves will use to estimate how likely it is that selves in their future will cooperate with them. If you defect, you make it more likely that future selves will also defect. And if you cooperate, you make it more likely that future selves will cooperate.

Resolutions can coordinate expectations like this because they are explicitly placed in the forefront of attention of every self that will face a temptation in the series of relevant temptations. The resolution becomes a common touchpoint in the bargaining logic.

Notice also that this model predicts that there will be a tendency for our resolve to strengthen over time. The more times we cooperate, the greater our confidence that future selves will cooperate as well.

Unfortunately, this strengthening force is opposed by weakening forces — as we know all too well from experience.

Why Do Resolutions Fail?

Here are three reasons our resolutions can lose force over time:

1. Exception Creep

Sometimes we come up against circumstances that make it especially tempting to break the resolution. For instance, if we’re on a diet, and Thanksgiving rolls around, we might think “hey, it’s Thanksgiving. My family will think I’m completely OCD if I stick to my diet today.”

So we make an exception and go off our diet for a special holiday.

This might be alright. If the exception is rare enough, and important enough, the exception might not poison the bargaining logic much.

After all, if a future self looks back and sees only one defection — the one that happened on the special holiday — and then looks ahead and sees that there aren’t many special holidays in the future, it might still expect most of the future selves to cooperate, and so it can still feel confident about getting outcome B by cooperating without worrying too much that it will get stuck instead with outcome D.

But you must be careful. If you make an exception on Thanksgiving, and then Christmas, that might be alright. But then it’s your birthday, and your children’s birthdays, and then it’s because your friend came to town, and then it’s because you’re feeling a little under the weather, and then it’s because you’re in a bad mood, and before you know it . . . no future self has any confidence that cooperation will pay off, because other selves are making exceptions all over the place.

The resolution is then broken, and will likely not be trusted again any time soon.

2. Mutual cooperation becomes less attractive.

But also note that the success of resolutions depends on outcome B being assigned a higher value than outcome C. And these values can change over time.

For instance, if your original goal was to lose 30 pounds, and you’ve lost 25 of them, losing that last 5 might not seem nearly as important at this point as losing 30 seemed at the outset.

Perhaps the 7 units of value you assigned to the 30-pound-lighter version of you at the outset slipped along the way to a 6, and then a 5 as the gap between your current weight and the goal weight continued to shrink.

That might be one reason “the last 5 pounds” are notoriously the toughest to lose.

3. Mutual defection becomes more attractive.

And the values can change from the other direction as well. At the outset the mutual defection case might have a value of 3, but, as you lose weight, you might find yourself getting hungrier as time goes on, as is often reported by dieters losing substantial amounts of weight. In that case the value of the mutual defection outcome starts to rise, perhaps becoming a 4, and then a 5 and then a 6.

At some point, through some combination of a falling value for the mutual cooperation outcome and a rising value for the mutual defection outcome, it might no longer seem worth it to stay on the diet — regardless of what we expect future selves to do.

So What?

So resolutions can help us resist temptation as long as our preferences for certain bargaining outcomes have a certain structure, and as long as we remain confident that future selves will choose as we do.

And these conditions are often met.

And resolutions can also lose their power when we start to allow too many exceptions, when mutual cooperation loses its luster, and when mutual defection grows more enticing.

So what?

Well, it might be that understanding these things will help us develop more willpower.

For instance, while making resolutions, we might consider how to prevent exceptions from creeping in by making the line between allowed behavior and prohibited behavior very clear and crisp — what Ainslie calls a “bright line”.

We might also spend more time anticipating exceptions (like special holidays) ahead of time, and setting up special rules for those occasions so that they lose their ability to undermine the general confidence in the resolution.

We might consider ways of keeping the mutual defection outcome from growing in value over time. For instance, if we are dieting, we might try a lower reward diet that allows our set point to fall with our weight, so we don’t get as hungry in later stages of the diet.

And we might consider ways to keep the value of the mutual cooperation outcome high as well.

And, if all that’s not enough, . . . at the very least this model of temptation and willpower gives us another way to understand what’s going on behind the curtain as we face temptations along the way as we pursue our goals.

1 The view presented here is very similar to Ainslie’s view, but isn’t exactly Ainslie’s view. Ainslie’s model has competing interests bargaining with each other. The present model has successive selves bargaining with each other. It seems to me that the successive self model yields a more intuitive analysis — as given above. However, Ainslie’s worry seems to be that successive selves disappear after each moment, and don’t persist long enough to have true interests in future outcomes. Ainslie proposes that interests are what persist through time, and so they must be the entities bargaining with each other. However it’s difficult, in my view, to get an “intuitive” analysis using a bargaining-interest model.

I suspect that a more complete account will involve both interests and successive selves. A good analogy would be a legislative body. The legislature is composed of individuals with competing interests, but it also must think about how it’s ability to follow its own procedures will set precedent for future versions of the legislative body. Interests lobby and bargain within the legislative body (one level of bargaining), and the legislature sets precedent for itself as a body (a second level of bargaining — and the one presented here).

Posted in goal striving, motivation, procrastination, temptation, willpower | Tagged | 7 Responses

To Flow, Or Not To Flow?

Cal Newport is not a big fan of “flow”

Cal Newport, author of books such as “How to be a High School Superstar” (which has my 14 year old son all fired up about getting in to a good college), and “So Good They Can’t Ignore You” (which has helped me understand some of the missteps I’ve made in my own career), has written a series of blog posts with these titles:

  1. “Flow is the Opiate of the Mediocre: Advice on Getting Better from an Accomplished Piano Player”
  2. “Beyond Flow”
  3. “The Satisfying Strain of Learning Hard Material: A Deliberate Practice Case Study”
  4. “The Father of Deliberate Practice Disowns Flow”

Cal, it seems, is not a fan of FLOW.

Well crap!

I went and named my blog “Work With Flow”, had a header graphic designed and everything. And I’ve been trying to convince all my readers that flow is good. And now I find out flow is bad??

Why didn’t Cal tell me sooner?

OK, let’s all take a deep breath.

Before we all abandon ship, let’s first explore the possibility that Cal and I are, in fact, using the term “flow” in different ways (hint: we are).

In this essay I will do 5 things:

  1. I’ll explain how Cal is using the term ‘flow’, and why he is not a fan of that kind of “flow”.
  2. I’ll explain how I have been using the term ‘flow’, and why I am a fan of this kind of “flow”.
  3. I’ll explain why Cal and I are in almost complete agreement about how to learn and work, even though, on the surface, I’m “pro-flow” and he’s “anti-flow”.
  4. I’ll explain how long-term growth depends on how well we cycle between a) taking on difficult challenges, and b) reducing the friction in our lives.
  5. I’ll give some suggestions for managing this upward growth spiral.

Why Cal Don’t Dig On “Flow”

Cal’s initial shot across the bow of the U.S.S. Flow, was his post “Flow is the Opiate of the Mediocre: Advice on Getting Better from an Accomplished Piano Player”.

In that post Cal shares the lessons he learned from an accomplished pianist he calls “Jeremy” about getting better at one’s craft. Here are “Jeremy’s” 4 rules:

  1. Avoid “flow”. Do what does not come easy.
  2. To master a skill, master something harder.
  3. Systematically eliminate weakness.
  4. Create beauty, don’t avoid ugliness.

Jeremy seems to think that seeking “flow” is closely related to “doing what comes easy.”

He says that mediocre pianists will spend just as much time practicing as masters, but they practice in ways that feel good – playing through the whole piece and skipping quickly past the parts that give them trouble. The master pianist, on the other hand, makes a point of tackling the very most difficult parts of the piece, hammering on it over and over for most of the practice time.

So, on this reading, seeking a “flow” experience during practice leads to mediocrity, not mastery.

Cal’s second post in the series was “Beyond Flow”.

In that post he describes the quality of his experience while proving a mathematical theorem over a strenuous three day period.

He writes:

“My experience this morning was not flow. I was not lost in the experience. Nor did I feel ‘spontaneous joy’. On the contrary, I found myself waging battle with my attention, forcing it back again and again to the complexities I was trying to sort through. My mind was pitching every possible distraction as an alternative to working on that problem, and I don’t blame it — it was a draining effort that in evolutionary terms must seem a waste of perfectly good glucose. At the same time, however, the work wasn’t annoying or tedious. I ended the day exhausted but fulfilled.”

Should we seek spontaneous
joy when we work?

Here we get another hint about how Cal is using the term ‘flow’. “Flow” is supposed to lead to “spontaneous joy” and being “lost in the experience”.

So flow is something like “taking the easy road” and working with “joyful abandon”.

This rendering of ‘flow’ is understandable, if not full-bodied. Mihály Csíkszentmihályi (the “father of flow”) does sometimes characterize flow in these ways.

And Cal’s view seems to be that, if you want to maximize your chances of achieving impressive things in life, you can’t spend your whole life seeking joyful bliss and easy work.

Cal has a valid point here.

Why I Dig On Flow

So what do I mean by flow? And why do I think it’s a good thing?

Clues to my meaning can be found in the advice I give in this blog.

I spend a lot of time helping people who are overwhelmed with a hundred unrelated thoughts to “clear their minds”.

I help people who are experiencing internal motivational friction to discover what their core needs are, and to design a life that’s in harmony with those needs.

I help people who are disorganized get organized.

I help people who don’t know what to work on next figure that out.

I help people who have forgotten “why” they are doing what they are doing to rediscover their reasons for their work.

I start from the observation that many people have already taken on difficult challenges, perhaps too many difficult challenges all at once. And these people are now overwhelmed, stressed out, and are flailing around not knowing if they’re working on the most important things.

These people are in turmoil, and this kind of turmoil keeps people from being able to work effectively.

They have a thousand points of friction in their lives, and that friction is preventing them from getting much done.

I’ve found that, if a person in this situation can get organized, clear their mind, and have confidence that they’re working on their most important project(s), they will simultaneously reduce their stress and get more done.

And in this process I help them restore a sense of “flow” to their work.

For me, friction is a flow “killer”. And unnecessary friction is an unnecessary flow killer.

When I say I want to help people “work with flow”, I’m offering to help them remove unnecessary friction.

Things work better when we
remove unnecessary friction

I am not much concerned with “spontaneous joy” or “being lost in the experience”. These are ephemeral, contingent experiences that show up sometimes, and don’t at others. They are often not predictable. And I agree with Cal that it’s not always good to seek these states out as we work.

In short, moving towards flow, in my sense, is about removing unnecessary friction in our work.

Cal and Jim Both Dig On Growth

In the third post in Cal’s anti-flow series, he talks about preparing lectures for his graduate level “Theory of Computation” course at Georgetown:

1. “The process of creating [the lectures] is very hard. On average, it takes me between 2.5 to 3 hours to prepare a lecture. This preparation requires that I work with absolutely zero distractions as the material is too difficult to be internalized if my attention is divided in any way. Furthermore, the work is not particularly pleasant. Learning things that are this hard does not put you in a flow state. It instead puts you in a state of strain, similar to what is experienced by a musician learning a new technique.”

2. “I have gotten better at this process. The lecture I prepared today was the twenty-first such lecture I have prepared this semester. The earliest lectures were a struggle in the sense that my mind rebelled at the strain required and lobbied aggressively for distraction. This morning, by contrast, I was able to slip into this hard work with little friction, tolerate the strain for three consecutive hours, then come out on the other side feeling a sense of satisfaction.”

So Cal says he is not in flow while creating lectures.

But he says he is “getting better” at the process. He is now able to “slip into this hard work with little friction.” [my emphasis]

I agree with Cal’s approach here.

Furthermore, I think that, if we remove the word “flow” from the discussion, and explain what we think about growth and achievement in flow-free terms, we are in nearly complete agreement about the nature of growth and achievement in general.

I’ll let Cal speak for himself, but I think we are both in agreement on the following:

  1. Spontaneous joy and being “lost” in our experience is not the primary goal. Growth and creative achievement are our primary goals.
  2. Growth requires accepting difficult challenges.
  3. At first the challenges produce anxiety.
  4. As we develop the skills we need to meet the challenges, we reduce our anxiety, and the process becomes easier.
  5. Once we get so good at something that it becomes easy, we should seek out new challenges, or choose a new weaknesses to correct (if we care about growth).
  6. Anxiety that’s not inherent to the challenge, such as anxiety that comes from being disorganized, overwhelmed, unfocused, and from lacking a clear sense of purpose is unnecessary. We should fix those things if we can (and we can).

The Relationship Between Flow and Growth

So I’ve analyzed the difference between Cal’s advice and mine as a case of equivocation. Cal’s notion of flow is something like “easy joyous rapture”, and mine is something like “lack of unnecessary friction”.

And I’ve suggested that, if we eliminate the term ‘flow’ from the discussion, and use other terms in its place, we mostly agree about the nature of growth and achievement.

But let’s say we both get back closer to the core idea in Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s thought, and see if there’s another way to understand the putative disagreement.

This diagram is Jesse Schell’s elaboration on Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s flow diagram.

For Csikszentmihalyi, flow is a magical zone between anxiety and boredom.

The vertical axis represents the size of the challenges we are facing.

The horizontal axis represents the power of our skills in relation to those challenges.

When our challenges exceed our skills (in the upper left part of the diagram), we feel anxiety.

When our skills exceed our challenge (in the lower right part of the diagram), we feel boredom.

When our skills and challenges are closely matched (the diagonal zone from lower left to upper right), we are in a sweet spot where we feel neither too much anxiety nor too much boredom.

Csikszentmihalyi calls this diagonal channel the “flow channel”.

Flow is what we feel when we take on challenges that are well matched to our skills. This doesn’t necessarily mean they are “easy” relative to our skills. In fact, Csikszentmihalyi says that to feel fully engaged, we must stretch ourselves a bit beyond our current comfort level – but not so much that we feel helpless or completely disoriented.

Jesse Schell’s diagram appears in his excellent book “The Art Of Game Design”. Schell’s contribution to the above diagram is to draw the directed graph over the top of Csikszentmihalyi’s flow channel.

[ASIDE: I would recommend that book to every creative type, even if they don’t design games, because, while it’s specifically addressed to game developers, it’s really a book about designing user experience, or audience experience – whenever, wherever, and however we need to do that.]

Shell’s directed graph allows us to talk about the relationship between flow and growth.

A4 is a better place to be than A1. At A4 we are working on bigger challenges than at A1, and we have more skills to meet those challenges.

And notice that there are two ways to get from A1 to A4.

First, you can move from A1 to A2, and then to A4. On this path, you develop new skills without much challenge. And once you start to feel competent with those new skills, and you start to get bored with the way you are using those skills, you can take on a challenge that will use those skills and get your mind back in the game.

This might be the approach of a math student who keeps working on easy problem sets until he gets so good at them that he’s bored, and then decides to tackle a harder problem set.

Second, you can move from A1 to A3, and then to A4. On this path you take on a challenge before you have the skills to meet the challenge. This creates anxiety, and the anxiety drives you to develop the skills you need to meet the challenge.

This might be the approach of a math student who jumps right to the most difficult problem set and fills in her skills as she works on those problems.

We can call the first path “boredom-driven growth” (which is actually boredom-driven challenge acceptance).

And we can call the second path “anxiety-driven growth” (which is actually anxiety-driven skill acquisition.)

In these terms, I take Cal to be floating the hypothesis that anxiety-driven growth will help you grow faster than boredom-driven growth.

And, though I’m unaware of definitive studies on the matter, I find the hypothesis eminently plausible.

When my son and I first played Skyrim, he would just jump into battle and figure stuff out, while I would cautiously develop skills until I felt I could easily handle a given battle. His character died more often than mine did. But he also got better faster.

One way to look at the issue is this:

  • Cal’s burden is to take people who are sitting at A1 and encourage them to move to A3.
  • My burden is to take people who are already at A3, and help them to move to A4.

Cal IS trying to drive people away from flow, and toward anxiety (to a point).

And I AM trying to help them move from anxiety back toward flow (to a point).

But our advice is not in conflict. We are both working with people who are taking the high road – people who choose anxiety-driven growth over boredom-driven growth.

Anxiety-driven growth is a matter of moving from flow to anxiety, and then from anxiety back toward flow – so the process can start all over again.

Cal emphasizes the first step, while I emphasize the second.


Now, all kinds of interesting questions come to mind at this point. For instance, what are the effects of “meta-learning” on this process? Does it increase the size of the steps you can take in each direction? Should we always strive for anxiety-driven growth? Or should we sometimes strive for boredom-driven growth? Are there times to relax and recuperate after a big growth event?

But we can leave questions like that for another day.

Let me just leave you for now with some thoughts about how to manage your growth cycles.

  1. First, get rid of the unnecessary friction in your life that comes from having an overwhelmed mind by using the clear mind procedure as often as you need to until you start “running clear”.
  2. Consider whether you have other sources of unnecessary friction in your life, and get strategies in place for dealing with those unnecessary “flow killers” as well.
  3. Once you feel clear and resourceful again, take on new challenges. Stretch yourself beyond your comfort level — to the point where you feel some anxiety about being able to complete your project, or to complete it on time.
  4. As you work on your difficult challenge, figure out what skills you need to develop in order to tackle the challenge effectively.
  5. Spend time developing those skills (using deliberate practice if applicable).
  6. Take enough time between challenges to recuperate.
  7. Rinse and repeat.
  8. While you’re going through successive iterations of the growth process, keep an eye on meta-strategies for managing your anxiety and for learning new skills faster.

Following these steps should put you on a path to an ever-growing skill set, and to great achievement. Anxiety is a double-edged sword. If you choose when to feel anxiety, and limit it to shorter sprints, then it can be a force for good. If you experience chronic anxiety because your life is a disorganized mess, then anxiety is a force for evil in your life.

Posted in flow, personal growth, Productivity | Tagged | 8 Responses

Fractal Interior Design

I’m thinking of installing marble countertops.

Which slab do you like most?

A) B)

I think I prefer “B”

The thing is, I can’t put slab “B” in my kitchen.

It’s too big.

In fact, this is where it comes from:

It’s quite sublime (I think) how nature produces similar patterns at much different scales.


Not really. Both patterns are produced by a similar fractal unfolding process.

Nature uses fractal unfolding processes over and over and over. It’s Nature’s biggest cheap trick for form and function.

We find the same kinds of fractal unfolding patterns in our minds — in the way we organize our experience, and our plans for the future.

And that’s why we need planning tools that work the same way — with a fractal branching structure.

Interior design.

Inside your kitchen . . . inside your mind . . .

It’s all the same cheap trick.

Oh, but what a trick it is!

Posted in fractal planning | Tagged | Leave a comment

Just In Time Deep Planning

If you want to work more effectively, and with less negative stress, then you need to use good planning tools and good productivity procedures.

The more complicated your projects are, the more important it is to make sure you have good tools and procedures.

Many (probably most) project planning tools allow you to define projects and tasks, with nothing more fine-grained than that. That level of detail might work for small and simple projects. But it’s nowhere near sufficient for more complex projects (such as writing a book, building and marketing a product, or running a small business).

While working on complex projects, it’s better if you can not only break projects into tasks, but also break those tasks into sub tasks, sub tasks into sub-sub tasks, and so on.

How deep can this process go? Actually, it can go hundreds of levels deep. But it won’t.

The goal is not to keep breaking tasks down further and further just because you can.

Instead, this should be your goal:

break your tasks down far enough to
keep your mind clear as you work.

It turns out that most projects of reasonable size won’t require you to plan any more than about 5-7 levels deep to get to the point where you don’t have to juggle anything in your mind as you work. It’s a simple matter of mathematics. By the time you get 5-7 levels deep, the lowest-level items will take only 2-3 minutes to perform.

With that said, if you’re seven levels deep, and you need to break a task down further, it’s important to be able to do so. So the ideal planning structure will basically let you plan as deeply as you want.

For more thoughts about the depth of the typical plan, see: Fractal Planning, How Deep?

Because they allow you to break down tasks as far as you want, I recommend a fractal planning tool for people executing complex projects.

A fractal planning tool (like the Fractal Planner) is kind of like a word processor outline, but with more structure. Specifically, it will allow you to zoom and pan, show and hide, and highlight items for better focus. It will allow you to rearrange items easily, without getting your outline all messed up. And it will allow you to process your tasks (such as marking them done when you have completed them). It might have other features on top of that, but those are the core features that allow for fluid planning.

With a fractal planning tool we can plan as deeply as we need to. And that’s a good thing. But it’s not necessary to go crazy breaking down your projects from the get-go. Here are two thoughts that should guide you as you plan out your projects.

  1. Break things down further in order to free your mind.
  2. Strive to master the art of “just in time” planning.

We’ll take a look at each of these in turn . . .

Deep Planning for a Clear Mind

Suppose you need to send out a message to your email list. You could simply list one task in your planner:

  1. Send email message out to list

Sending out an email message to a list sounds pretty simple, but it’s actually a pretty complex task – a task that could take hours, depending on how much care you need to take crafting the message.

If you have only that one item on your to do list, your brain will feel compelled to make its own finer-grained plan internally, and it will keep looping on its own plan to make sure you don’t forget any steps.

If you get that finer-grained plan into writing, it will save your brain the effort of keeping track of it as you work. And that will keep you mentally fresh longer into the day.

So you can break the task down further, something like this:

  1. Send email message out to list
    1. Brainstorm the elements that will go into the email message
    2. Freewrite the message
    3. Rearrange and edit the message
    4. Put the message into the auto-responder application
    5. Test it
    6. Send it out.

If you frequently send out email messages through your auto-responder service, and most of that task is second nature to you, this might be all the more deeply you need to plan. If, on the other hand, you are still clumsy with using the auto-responder service, you might benefit from breaking down task “d” further to get the steps out of your mind and into your plan.

The whole point is to free up your mind. When you get things written down in a well-organized plan, you no longer have to juggle them in your mind as you work. And you won’t have that haunting fear that you might forget something.

Just-In-Time Planning

So, yes, you should plan things more deeply. But you shouldn’t do so right out of the gate.

There are two main reasons to add more detail to a plan intended for personal project execution (as opposed to a plan you need to present to others):

  1. to convince yourself that your plan is sound
  2. to keep your mind clear as you work.

When you first start a project, you needn’t plan your project out in full detail. For instance, if your project will require you to send out an email message, and you’re confident that, one way or another, you can get that message sent, you don’t need to add all the sub-steps when you’re first planning your overall project.

When first starting a project, you just plan as far as you need to in order to feel like, one way or another, you can do all the pieces, and they will add up to the finished product.

Sometimes, though, when you’re working on part of a project (call it part “A”), it will dawn on you that something you’re doing has implications for another part of your project (call it part “D”). If you take 20 seconds at that moment to expand part D as far as you need to in order to assure yourself that parts A and D will fit together, the process of expanding D’s plan will get this worry off your mind.

This is a case where it’s good to add more detail to part D, even though you’re not working on it, because it does serve the purpose of getting stray thoughts off your mind while you’re working on part A.

But, for the most part, you can (and should) wait to add detail to part D . . . until right before you start working on it. And then it is good to plan it out one level at a time, adding more layers whenever it seems like it will be good to get things out of your head and into your plan.

In short, waiting to plan the details can save time and increase flexibility. It also keeps you more “foolishly optimistic” which is a good thing for creative types.

Here’s a corny couplet to help you remember:

Break things down to clear your mind
But wait to do it “just in time”

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Fractal Planning – How Deep?

One of the benefits of using a fractal planning tool such as the Fractal Planner is that you can keep breaking tasks down as far as you need to.

But how many levels deep do you actually break things down?

I’ve found that I rarely go more than 7 levels deep in my actual planning, and typically, I’m in the 4-5 range.

Here’s a way to make sense of this.

Suppose you break your project into 4 chunks. And you break each of those 4 chunks into 4 more chunks. And so on. After 7 levels of planning you will have:

  • 1 project
  • 4 sub tasks
  • 16 sub-sub tasks
  • 64 sub-sub-sub tasks
  • 256 sub-sub-sub-sub tasks
  • 1024 sub-sub-sub-sub-sub tasks
  • 4096 sub-sub-sub-sub-sub-sub tasks

If each lowest level task takes 2 minutes to do (and there’s rarely a reason to break things down further than that), a 7-level plan will accommodate 8192 minutes of planned out work (or about 137 hours).

Now not every branch will be filled out evenly. But you’ll also have atomic tasks that take more than 2 minutes, so this seems to be a fairly reasonable way to estimate how much planning 7 levels will accommodate.

137 hours is a fairly large creative project for an individual. If you work 6 hours per day for 23 days per month on the core project, that’s about a whole month’s worth of project all planned out in 7 levels. That’s about 2-4 times longer than a good SCRUM for One project should be.

(And even if you work 8 hours per day, studies have shown that on average only 3 hours are actually spent focused on your core creative project, so 7 levels might actually be enough to accommodate a 2-month project.)

This is, of course, a rough estimate. You can tweak the parameters and get different outcomes – maybe showing that you need an additional level or two. But the main point remains clear. While it’s nice to have the ability to break projects down further and further, the number of levels you actually need will probably be in the single digits.

I find this interesting.

A plan is a fractal unfolding process, and the depth is limited by the size of the project, the number of branches per level, and the size of the lowest-level chunks.

These limits mean we never actually get too far down the rabbit hole.

Nature has other fractal unfoldings, and we see mostly single digit tree depths there as well. Nature’s plan for life is structured roughly like this: Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species. 7 levels from “The Trunk of Life” to “Species”.

(Strictly speaking this scheme breaks down at places, and tree depths might go another level or two in some cases. But it’s definitely close to 7 levels for the whole tree of life.)

Same goes for human creations. The Internet is perhaps our most complex creation. One of the most popular schemes for understanding the various levels of activity taking place on the internet is the OSI model. And this model has 7 layers — from physical logic gates all the way up to the applications we use.

I don’t know how many branchings there are between the arteries and the arterioles (capillaries kinda sorta break the strict branching pattern, so we’ll stop at the arterioles).

I don’t know how many branchings trees make between trunk and leaf. If a tree branches once per year, then the most distant leaves on a 30-year-old tree will be 30 branchings away from the trunk. That would make trees an exception to the general pattern. Perhaps trees are true freaks of nature when it comes to structural branching.

I also don’t know how useful this particular post will prove to be for you, but it’s a fun way to look at things, and can provide some abstract context for your project planning.

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Projects, Tasks, and the Meaning of Life

I want to say a few things about goal structure (this is part 3 of the Goal Setting Guide). But first . . . a quick story about a man lost in the jungle:

A few years back I was simultaneously trying to finish up my Ph.D., start my own business, and help raise a couple young children. And I was also going through some social turmoil that was emotionally draining. (The details would take too much time to explain and aren’t really relevant anyway.)

Me, lost in the jungle a few years back.

I had all kinds of things I needed to work on, and I didn’t know which way to go. It wasn’t that I didn’t have any idea which way to go; it was that I had too many ideas. Should I work on my dissertation, work on my business, or spend more time with my kids?

If I work on the business, what should I work on? Should I work on product development, or market the product I already have? If I develop a new product, which of a dozen promising (but risky) ideas should I choose? If I work on marketing, which marketing method should I focus on? Or should I work on building my professional network?

What I tended to do during this time was jump around from project to project, never confident that the project I was working on was the project I should be working on. Often – too often – I would start a project, think another project was more important, and then switch projects.

That left me with dozens of half-finished projects. And half-finished projects are typically no more effective than projects never started.

Clearly I needed some help. Goal setting was not working very well for me – not the way I was doing it.

I was lost in the jungle, and danger was lurking.

Looking back I wish I had understood better how goals work.

Projects, Tasks, and the Meaning of Life

First, let’s take a moment to notice that some goals are big, and some are small. Making a million dollars is (for most people) a big goal. Getting out of bed (again, for most people) is a small goal.

And notice that goals often fit together in a branching structure.

If your goal is to make a million dollars, once you start planning how to do it, the bigger goal will branch into sub goals.

For instance, “make a million dollars” could be decomposed into:

  • do some research to discover how others in my situation have made a million.
  • create a product or service
  • set up the marketing
  • tweak things until they’re profitable in a scalable way
  • and then goose the marketing until I’ve got it made

Sure this plan is nebulous, it might not work as stated, and it is definitely much easier said than done. But it’s a plan. And breaking big goals into sub-goals is almost always better than not doing so.

Each sub goal here should probably (by which I mean “definitely”) be broken down into sub-sub goals as well. And those sub-sub goals should probably be broken down into sub-sub-sub goals. And so on, until you’re working on tasks that don’t tax your mind as you work on them.

This process should sound familiar. You’re just creating an outline. And you’ve been making outlines all your life.

Most plans are outlines, though they don’t have to be. They could have a different structure. Some sub-tasks might share a sub-sub task, and that would break the strict branching pattern. But even then you COULD still represent your plan as an outline. It would just have a little redundancy in it.

So goals are typically nested together in an outline structure. And this is very natural to our brains. We just naturally break complex goals down into sub-goals and sub-sub-goals this way.

And every level of the hierarchy is important, even though it’s only the lowest level actions that actually get done.

Here’s a plan with only the lowest level to-do items.

  • buy the boards and 2×2’s
  • clear the space for the bed
  • assemble the bed
  • soil the bed
  • Dig the grass away
  • dump the grass in the sod heap
  • Get an extension cord long enough.
  • build housing for cord
  • drill hole in wall
  • fill hole around cord
  • purchase an arduino board
  • purchase a raspberry pi processor
  • hook up the raspberry pi to input/output devices
  • hook up raspberry pi to arduino
  • do a simple test to make sure they’re communicating
  • dig hole
  • drop it in
  • secure it with cover that keeps dirt out but allows easy access
  • get pumps
  • hook pumps up to arduino
  • thread hosing from pumps to garden beds
  • Start with regular watering schedule for each bed.
  • Eventually work in moisture sensors, and water only when needed.

It’s a little tough to see what’s going on, right?
Now here’s the plan with all the higher level organizing nodes filled in.

So the lowest level items are very important. They’re the actions you actually take. But the higher-level nodes also are important. They give meaning and context to the lower level actions.

All the lower level to-do items on this page are part of the “improve the garden” project, which is part of the “backyard landscaping” project.

What most people don’t realize is that, by extending this idea, their whole lives can be organized in a single outline.

This one personal project might fit into your larger “personal life” project. And your “personal life” project fits into your “my life” project (alongside a lot of work/professional/business projects). So everything can be fit under the same umbrella of “my life” (in the example it’s “master plan”).

And, just so that I’m not misunderstood, I don’t mean that there is one single outline that can represent your whole life. I mean that your whole life can be organized in any of an infinite number of outlines. You have complete artistic freedom here. And how you choose to describe and structure your life (whether in an actual outline plan or just vaguely in your head) determines, in a very real sense, the whole “meaning” of your life. (I may post more on this later.)

Now there’s something to notice about these planning outlines . . .

“WHY” is Up. “HOW” is Down

“Why” is up. “How” is down.

Plato (pointing up) and Aristotle (gesturing down) in the School of Athens.

Notice that, if you’re working on a project, and you ask the question “why am I working on this project?”, the answer can be found by looking up a level or two in your goal structure.

For instance, if you’re doing the gardening plan, and digging a hole, and you pause to ask yourself “why am I digging this hole?”, you can see that you’re digging the hole, in order to “create a reservoir”, and you’re doing that in order to “set up the watering system”, and you’re doing that in order to “get an automated garden”, and you’re doing that to “have a nicely landscaped back yard”, and you’re doing that to “make your personal life better”.

It gets a little nebulous the higher up we go, but, in general, we figure out the “why” by going up levels in our plan.

So when you look up the hierarchy you can answer “why” questions.

And if you’re at a node and you start to wonder “how am I going to do this?”, you look down.

If you’re looking at the node “set up watering system”, and you ask yourself the question “how am I going to do this?”, you look down and you see that you do it by “getting the control system set up,” “building a reservoir,” “installing the pumps”, and “programming the system”. And if you want to know how to do any of those sub-steps, you look down again.

Raphael (the painter, not the ninja turtle) might have been savvy to this point way back in the early 1500s. In his painting “School of Athens” the central characters are the philosophers Plato and Aristotle. Plato, known for addressing “why” questions, is seen pointing up. And Aristotle, known for addressing “what” and “how” questions, is seen gesturing out and down.

Now it might be that Raphael was actually making a distinction between the “heavenly” and the “mundane”, but it would work equally well were he making the distinction between “why” and “how”. And, really, those two distinctions are not unrelated anyway.

(NOTE: there are actually at least two main kinds of plans. There are HOW plans, and there are WHAT plans. At times it will be important to understand the difference.

In short, a WHAT plan is a structural map of the final creation, and is often the most natural way for our brain to start breaking down a project. A HOW plan is a construction story, and is the best kind of plan to work from when it comes time to actually start executing on the project.

Sometimes you’ll find that you need to convert a WHAT plan into a HOW plan. I plan to write more on this distinction later.)

Just remember to look up for context, and down for details.

What Does This Mean?

“How do I do this?” and “Why am I doing this?” are not the only questions we ask when looking at an item in one of our plans. Another question we are prone to ask is “What does this mean?”

And the “what does this mean?” question is answered by looking up and down in the hierarchy. If you want to know what it means to “automate the garden”, it really helps to look both directions. You will understand that item better if you know what it is or how to make it (looking down). And you will also understand it better if you know what role it plays in the bigger picture (looking up).

This works for defining words as well. If we want to know what a word means, we often want to know both how to analyze the term into more basic concepts, and how the word is used in bigger language games. Both kinds of answers help us grasp the meaning of the word.

OK, so now we know how plans are structured, and how to navigate around inside our plan in order to answer different kinds of questions about particular items in the plan.

The final thing I want to note today is that, while all levels of the plan are necessary, some levels of the plan are more important than others.

The Two Most Important Planning Levels Of Your Working Life

Your goal structure might have 10 or 12 levels going all the way at the top from your life mission all the way down to your lowest level sub-goal.

But I’ve found, and others have found, that it’s useful to treat two of these levels as special in your working life. These two levels are the ones you need to spend the most time getting right.

Get them right, and they will provide you with a pair of points to line up your aim on — in order to make sure the rest of your planning is going in the right direction, and with maximal motivation.

The first most important goal level is your highest career aspiration, and the second most important level is the level of the sprint.

Your highest career aspiration is the highest organizing principle for your whole working life. It will remain flexible, being updated frequently, and evolving with you as you gain skills, knowledge, connections, and so forth.

Your sprints are 1 week to 1 month chunks of work that have certain properties that will help you focus, help you get a lot done, and help you stay motivated. You will commit to these with great rigidity.

(Both Cal Newport and Scott H. Young emphasize the importance of understanding your highest career aspiration. And sprints are emphasized by practitioners of the Agile SCRUM methodology. See also my post Traditional SCRUM in a nutshell and the one following that How I Do SCRUM For One.)

In the next two sections of this guide, we will consider what role these two planning levels play in your working life. And we will consider strategies for determining the content of these goal levels.

As always, constructive feedback is heartily welcomed :)

Posted in fractal planning, goal setting, planning | Tagged | 3 Responses