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The Subjective Side of Productivity

The Subjective Side of Productivity

Well, it seems that Being the Body is necessary for certain kinds of productivity, but it’s not sufficient in itself. In particular, it doesn’t help as much with tasks I do on the computer, unless those tasks have an auxiliary physical aspect. For example, being in-body helps with paying bills (which I open and stamp and process) more than with writing or programming tasks.

It also doesn’t help with tasks whose goals are ill-defined; as one might expect, mere motivation and readiness to act don’t do much to overcome having “amorphous blobs of undoability” on one’s to-do list. Turning vague ideas into concrete physical action steps remains essential to productivity. The flip side of this is that you can end up being super-productive doing lots of unimportant things, because they tend to be a lot easier to define. “Pay the bills” is a lot more specific than say, “Work on Chandler 0.7 stuff”. 🙂

But I can’t really complain about my experiences with body integration so far. This weekend I assembled dozens of shelves in my garage and cleared about 2/3rds of the piles of boxes and junk off the floor out there, to mention just the biggest project I tackled. The cars got their oil changes, and all kinds of other little odds and ends happened, while still leaving plenty of time for enjoyment.

But yesterday and today haven’t been quite up to that level of productivity. I didn’t plow through as much of my backlog as I’d hoped to, and I began to be dissatisfied. But then I thought about it a bit more closely this evening. Was it really true that I wasn’t being as productive as I had hoped?

Thinking back over the days, I realized that it wasn’t so much about how much I got done, as what I got done that determined how I felt about my productivity. What I consider “productive” is much more subjective than I thought it was, and in some interesting ways.

The first thing that I noticed was that I didn’t count as “productive” any task that I hadn’t originally planned to do that day, no matter how important. So, I wasn’t counting all the bug fixes and code cleanup work I did both days (a huge part of my Monday in particular) towards my productivity. No wonder I didn’t feel like I got much done yesterday, despite working till 9:30 or so!

I also had a few other unexpected detours that kept me from other projects, so of my day’s goals, I had actually only accomplished two: the oil change for Leslie’s car, and loading up a spare CRT for her to take to the store.

Somehow, all the usual little chores and things that have to get done every day, don’t seem to count on my productivity meter either, so even though I’m sure I did other things besides those two, I’m apparently not including those in my emotional “score” for the day. I also don’t seem to count stuff I just made some progress on; only stuff I actually finished and crossed off on a list.

No wonder I so rarely feel productive: the rules I’m using are heavily stacked against me, and some of the things they’re based on aren’t even in my control!

In addition to the rules of what does and doesn’t “count”, I discovered that I also value accomplishments on a sliding scale. To a certain extent, each thing I can list as a separate accomplishment gets some credit just for being a completed task. But I feel best about the things that remove the most “backlog stress” or require the most effort.

So, if there’s something I’ve been putting off for a long time and am stressed about, I seem to feel that getting it off my plate is more valuable than taking a step towards some future benefit and preventing future stress – unless the latter involves a lot of effort.

What You Measure Is What You Get

These rules are out of whack in a couple of different ways. First, they reward doing piddly little things, because there are more of them to check off on a list. (Woohoo, I did twenty things today!) Second, they reward catch-up thinking, because I end up feeling better about catching up than I do about staying current or getting ahead.

So, these rules have obviously got to be refactored. Some are obvious byproducts of my “inner taskmaster” wanting to whip me into shape: clearly he doesn’t think anything should be permitted to excuse any deviation from my plans, and also that I shouldn’t be rewarded for doing things I’m supposed to do every day. Similarly, he seems to think that the more effort I put into something, the better, and by golly I’d better finish everything, or else! The other rules appear to be spin-offs of my approach to big, scary, or otherwise stressful “have-tos”, and don’t seem directly tied to the “taskmaster”.

Alas, I’ve run out of time to think/write about this for this evening, so I’ll have to pick up this thread another day. Unfortunately, it’s a lot easier to find design problems in one’s psyche, than it is to design alternatives to them. If I knew what a better alternative was, I’d likely be using it already!

Join the discussion
  • As far as feeling productive, and feeling like ‘this is moving my life forward in some way’:

    I’ve taken a lot of good advice from both your writings and some comments of David Allen’s, and … everything I can do (even sitting on my butt and trying to un-whirl my inner voice) serves some goal in some way. If I’m not moving toward a goal I’ve defined, then I count it as more evidence in the ‘how I might improve my future performance’ goal.

    I’m trying hard to teach myself that the feeling of not achieving as much as I’d like is coming from _my_ unhelpfully designed internal nagging TOTEs; when I unhook the emotional feedback and look at my time uncritically, I usually find that I actually did do quite a bit, just not what my ‘desires’ may have wanted.

    The more I try to use a GTD-like system to put the ‘what to do’ decisions on as impartial a basis as I can manage, the more I feel myself loosening the grip of the nagging demon ‘ButWhatAbout’.

    Of course, I’m still coming to grips with the contradiction of needing to feel something for the goals I aim for, but needing to not feel so much for the details of getting there…

  • I’ve found that looking at it this way helps: There a number of things that you will inevitably have to do in order to reach your goals. If your tasks for the day include things from that set, and you’re working at a good pace within each task, then you’re being productive. If you’re doing to many inessential things, or if you’re just working slowly, there’s room for improvement.



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Cover photo of "A Minute To Unlimit You" by PJ Eby
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