You know when I was the most productive? The day before I started writing about how productive I was. You know when I was the least productive? About a week after that. You know where I am now? Still trying to get back to the pinnacle.
What went wrong? I started to believe not that I was producing, but that I was a productive person. I'm a man, and it takes no maintenance to stay that way. I'm American, and it takes no effort to remain american. Those are things I am. But producing is something I do. I'm productive when I'm producing, and I'm no longer productive when I stop. There's upkeep involved.
When I write a blog post about how productive I am, and it is received well, I see myself in a different light. I shouldn't, but before my conscious could grab ahold of it, my subconscious granted me the title of Productive Person.
So I started slacking. Not a lot, but enough to notice. Rather than pushing myself to not browse Reddit all day, I'd take a break here and there. Instead of pushing through from 11pm to midnight, I'd cut out early and waste time for the last hour of my day. I downloaded a chess game for my phone and would play a few games per day, rationalizing that it's an intelligent game, so learning how to play was a good idea. But that's not why I played-- I played to escape the pressure of hard work. Twelve hours of honest work shrunk down to six or eight hours of work stretched to a twelve to fourteen hour window.
It's really important not to be too self-congratulatory. Being happy is great. Being proud is great. But congratulating brings along the subtle implication of completion. That's dangerous with things like productivity, where it's something you do, not something you are.
By the time The Game came out, I had regressed from my peak of pickup. A few long term relationships in a row, which I don't regret by any measure, had left me rusty. But I was now one of the main characters in the definitive book about pickup artists, therefore I was a pickup artist. A friend and I went on a cruise, an environment where there are generally few to no attractive girls, but we got lucky-- our cruise had two absolutely stunning girls. He suggested I approach them. Of course, I thought-- I'm a pickup artist, after all.
I was blown out two minutes later, and left reeling. It didn't go as I had imagined at all. Standing close enough to hear the conversation, my friend was even more shocked than I was.
"Why did you say that?"
I hadn't said anythng strange or offensive. I hadn't said much at all. I just walked up and made normal boring small talk, so they left. According to a book I may have been a pickup artist, but I acted like an average boring guy. I didn't make any special effort, because I made the mistake of thinking that being good with girls was something I was, not something I did.
There are very few things that you just get to be. Most states of being are transient and require effort. If you want to be a productive person, you can't just coast-- you have to keep being productive. If you want to be fit you can't just get in shape and then go back to eating doughnuts. If you want to be creative you have to keep creating. These aren't titles, they're ways of living life.
Photo is me cave diving in Mexico. It's not being productive, but it's not exactly a waste of time, either.
So, what's so wrong with a little downtime ? We're not robots and our minds need time to focus on other things, otherwise we risk becoming stale and face the real possibility of burn out.
Being a programmer myself, many times I've found myself at my desk, racking my brains to find a solution to a particularly niggly design issue, all to no avail.
When faced with such a dilemma, I've found that by simply not focusing on the issue and by removing myself from my immediate environment, an elegant solution always comes to mind. I can then return to the issue and tackle it head on with a clear mind and greater enthusiasm that I would have if I had stubbornly refused to take time out.
I've found this gives my conscious mind a break from a frustrating issue and allows my subconscious time to work through the issue and come up with the proper solution.
I've read stories where, even when you are not actively thinking about an issue, your subconscious is still plugging away behind the scenes trying to find the answer. This is why answers come to you at the strangest of times... your subconscious has found the answer and just needs your conscious mind to quieten down in order to receive it (such as in the shower or in bed).
Whether this is true of not, I can't say, but I tend to subscribe to that type of view.
Another anecdote I should add in defence of non-productive time is this... during the 70's, Australian cinema went through a period of revival, thanks in part to a new wave of directors that brought fresh ideas and concepts towards film-making.
These directors where taught at some of Australia's most renown film schools and were given generous grants and subsidies to produce, what turned out to be, some of the greatest films in our history.
However, after they graduated from film school, and before they were allowed to direct their first films, they were given one instruction... go out into the world and live for several years. Then come back, with the experience you've gained, and direct your first films. The results speak for themselves (though not being Australian, you'd probably have no idea what I'm taking about).
The moral of this story is, just because some of the time you spend is not being productive, does not mean it's time wasted. In fact, in many ways it serves your productivity indirectly, giving your mind time to relax and reflect and to learn from other experiences, however trivial they may seem.
Plus, we should all take the time to stop and smell the roses.
"I've read stories where, even when you are not actively thinking about an issue, your subconscious is still plugging away behind the scenes trying to find the answer. This is why answers come to you at the strangest of times... your subconscious has found the answer and just needs your conscious mind to quieten down in order to receive it (such as in the shower or in bed).
Whether this is true of not, I can't say, but I tend to subscribe to that type of view."
This is certainly true and I relied on it intentionally and habitually during my college days. At the time I called it "letting the back of my mind do the work for me". I've since learned there's a famous principal that describes this. It was mentioned on the Big Bang Theory in the episode where Sheldon starts working as a bus boy at the Cheese Cake Factory until his subconscious can solve his latest theoretical impasse for him. The name of the principal was mentioned. I wish I could think of it.
I love what you said last about stopping to smell the roses, partly because I always took a few seconds on the way into and out of big exams at college to smell the fragrant flowers that could always be found on the well landscaped grounds of our campus.
"The Power of Negative Thinking" by Bob Knight (Amazon.com) a basketball coach says the game after the winning game is dangerous because of being complacent. Having been mostly an overachiever I tend to be an optimist so it was a little difficult to buy into negativity; I guess it made some sort of sense in context. I was getting out of an unaccustomed slump in productivity. One of the answers was to put failsafe procedures in place to deal with roadblocks.
Sorry, maybe I would just need to read everything above for this, but what did you mean by, "One of the answers was to put failsafe procedures in place to deal with roadblocks." Are there specific fail-safe procedures you remember? Maybe I could add something to my arsenal of strategies (that I don't make up as I go along).
Kyte- Good question. This is an oversimplification-for instance,in sports it's defensive strategy for dealing with contingencies that you have found to be sidetracking you from your goal. It may be preparing to get started on your project by creating a work environment that limits distractions. For me it's playing with my computer before getting down to the nitty-gritty.If I allow a 30 minute period for this it means that then I get down to business. It is a trigger. Even better is getting to the important things first-an acquired habit that takes repetition.
Don't beat yourself up Tynan, we all get a little unproductive sometimes. Usually it tells us something. I think Tim Ferris asks in one of his books 'am I being productive or just keeping busy?' If I start to feel my productivity slip I ask myself 'why are my goals important to me and how will I feel if I don't do them?' That usually works and kicks me in the ass.
Thanks, but I'm not beating myself up at all. Just making sure I'm seeing as an accurate picture of my performance as possible, and making adjustments as necessary. I don't expect to be 100% productive all the time, but it's important to me to know when I'm slipping and to either accept it or fix it, but not pretend I'm still at 100%.
I imagine the sophomore slump happens for similar reasons.
Say a writer spends years crafting her first novel, making sure everything is perfect. Upon release, it receives critical acclaim. Soon, said writer goes from thinking of herself as a "hard working writer," to believing that she is a great writer! However, as a result of this change, she struggles to write her second book, all the while wondering where her writing chops disappeared to.
Maybe she realizes the problem in time, and puts in the effort it takes to create another masterpiece. If she doesn't, she's likely headed for a sophomore slump.
Do you (or anyone reading) do anything creative where it's hard to be 100% sure if you're being productive or not? For example I write songs (did you not used to make hip-hop?) and the best way for me to write lyrics is to sit there with the guitar and go over notes I've gathered in Evernote.
Sometimes it takes hours, spread out over weeks or months, to come up with lyrics that satisfy me. I wonder if playing a riff, a million times and humming and adlibbing over them is the best way to do it?
When I do finally get something I like it's hard to relate the final product to the 'effort' that was put in, because the right words will all of a sudden pop out. I guess my brain is doing a lot of unconscious background processing and incubating on the issue.
I imagine this sort of thing applies to other skills as well. Maybe programming where there is a problem to solve and the solution suddenly pops into your head after trying all kinds of approaches.
Thoughts and experiences from others? Accept thats the way it is, or is this process hackable as well?
I write piano music and find the same - sometimes great ideas just fall out onto the keyboard as I play, so i scoop them up and try to form them into compositions. Other times, it seems as if everything I think of is uninteresting or a rehash of something else.
It appears to me that creative work (mainly artistic work, but possibly other creative work such as software design) is the result of our minds taking some "seed" ideas and experimenting with similar ideas and their combinations. So when you sit in a particular place, or hear the same music, or speak with particular people etc., certain ideas/neurons are activated, and your creative possibilities are going to be from associated ideas/neurons (even if there is absolutely no obvious link between these ideas).
So, two answers:
Is the brain doing a lot of unconscious processing? I'm not an expert, but I'd suggest this is kind of true: the subproblems that you're trying to solve (finding appropriate guitar notes, or whatever) are in your short/medium-term memory while you're not working on them, and occasionally as random stimuli activate different niches of your brain, you may generate new ideas from any interplay between these and the original subproblems.
Is this process hackable? I'd suggest yes, but that you have limited control: simply expose yourself casually to a variety of new ideas/environments and see what happens. For example with your guitar composition:
From above, by Neill-GTR. "is this process hackable as well?"
It's hackable. To be more creative, get up a little earlier than you normally would, and try doing your creative work then. Your subconscious should be more available to you, since it was expecting to have control of you at that time, or so goes the reasoning behind the phenomenon. But all you need is the help from it, not the reason why it works. Word of warning - take issue with why it might work and you could ruin it for yourself, if only because you will secretly hope it can't work so as to prove that you were right all along that it couldn't.
I think that actually trying to be productive 100% is just as good as actually being productive 100% all the time. Eventually you get to a point where you can be honest with yourself about how productive you're actually being (this was hard for me at first).
To me it sounds like you have a really good process... just trying over and over and over again until something pops out. Often times solutions to problems in SETT come to me like that. I'll try 10 different ideas to make, say, long threaded comments work, and then finally the obvious right way comes.
One of the historical greats I look up to is Vince Lombardi. I thought his message was something I needed- I needed to work harder. I had all the talent in the world, but I could improve myself greatly by putting forth more effort.
But I quickly came to the conclusion (I'm not necessarily correct) that the kind of work I do, the way I do it, isn't the type of work 99% of the population refers to when they talk about productivity and "hard work" and effort. Namely, creative work is special. The rules don't apply.
I've read quite a bit of generic "how to manage your day/how to get work done" posts by experts (some self-proclaimed, some real, some fake, some a mix), and everything they talk about is easy. Here is a typical manager list:
1) Email Bob
2) Get that expense report done
3) Read the earnings report
4) Lunch with client
All of those are easy, and noncreative. The earnings report probably took some struggling when he first learned how to do earnings reports, but more than likely he didn't create the process himself. Most productivity tips help with this kind of stuff.
For SETT, probably most of the tasks remaining are this type. But originally when Tynan first sat down, the ERD, the whole concept, all that stuff about SEO strategy maybe was creative, or maybe it was told to him. The layout- not really. That's more of a decision. But by and large, the creative things can't simply be another item on a list. And you can't rush them imo. No use putting a deadline on "figure out how to cure cancer", but "Email Bob", sure.
Exactly my thinking for about a year. End result was I essentially got nothing done. Wrote a post on this: http://benyu.org/the-importance-of-structure
Long story short, in my attempt to 'not rush my creativity/confine it to schedule or structure', I ended up not creating anything.
Good counterpoint to this is Jonathan Coulton's Thing a Week, where he forced himself to make a song a week for a year, with fantastic results. http://www.jonathancoulton.com/primer/thing-a-week/
I think this "waiting for inspiration" idea is the main thing that prevents people from getting creative things done.
I work as a writer, and although I write non-fiction, it's still creative work that is my main task everyday.
One thing that professional writers know which amateurs seem to miss is this: you have to sit down and write, everyday, whether muses smile at you or not.
I don't know about other creative professions (although I assume that the same applies there too) , but in writing, it's a a lot less about inspiration and a lot more about hard work than people tend to imagine.
This is exactly why you can't talk about project ideas (especially business ideas) to friends and family when you start working on them. It tricks your brain into thinking that it is being productive and doing work, when all it's really doing is distracting you.
Question: how do you reconcile the concept of not being too self-congratulatory with the one that Mr. Babauta and several others have with sharing your endeavors online or with friends? I've noticed that as soon as I talk about how I'm GOING to do something with someone, a small sense of satisfaction waves over me even though I haven't done anything at all yet. I even get praise from others, way before I take the first step. For this side effect I've rejected the idea of "accountability" that is so often toted.
Re: labelling yourself as "a productive person" or "a pickup artist" and quickly noticing a downward slide, I recommend "The Inner Game Of Tennis" for insights in this vein where the author (a tennis teacher) notices a direct decrease in his students' abilities once he labels their performance to them. Makes a distinction between an ego and status-driven "Self 1" and an intuitive, non-verbal "Self 2". Quick read, insights on every page.
This is a continuation of the story, How I Became a Famous Pickup Artist Part 1. If you haven't read that already, you should do so before reading this article.
Papa was notorious for being in contact with everyone in the pickup scene. I couldn't blame him, either - he was the business side of "Real Social Dynamics", a company that taught seminars and workshops to aspiring players. Not surprisingly, he was the only person at the seminar that I knew.
In order to extract every last precious second out of my experience, I had gotten on the earliest flight to Chicago that I could book. I called Papa when I arrived at the hotel at 10am. I could hardly make out his voice. He'd been out in the clubs until very late and was still sleeping.
A month before Y Combinator Demo Day, I resolved to be as productive as possible for 30 days, since they say that the time leading up to Demo Day is one of the most highly leveraged timespans you can go through. They were right, and it was worth it. Demo Day was on Tuesday, and it was epic.
Having been working mainly on CodeCombat's competitive multiplayer during YC and finally launching it widely last week, it delighted me to see it immediately get picked up on Slashdot, TechCrunch, Hacker News, reddit, and other sites, and for the leaderboards to explode, and for there to be hundreds of players I now can't even beat at my own game. I'm also pleased (but somewhat alarmed) at how much time I'm now spending playing CodeCombat, trying to destroy my own users and reclaim my programming throne. And I am not above dirty tricks (watch the strafing in the upper left).
So how much work did I get done?
I averaged 11.32 hours of work per day, or 79.23 per week, for 30 days. Not recommended for general productivity purposes, but great for growing a website fast when it counts. The other CodeCombat guys and our GitHub army were also swarming smoothly last month. Trying to find more balance now that I'm back town to a relaxed 60 hours of work per week. (Why do I work so much? Because it's important, and because I only have so much badass work time left before I produce infants.)