0087 – productivity apps fill buckets when they should be lighting fires

Here’s how I think we’re actually going to solve the productivity/procrastination problem.

I’m a person with the problem:

Hi, my name is Visa and I’m a horrible procrastinator. I’ve procrastinated all my life. I played a lot of video games. I can spend hours on social media, Twitter, Tumblr, you have it. I enjoy those things, they get me off. I can spend hours arguing with people online, because that gets me off, too. Unfortunately, I’ve never really been able to commit to working consistently at things that matter to me. My progress as a musician has been slow, shaky, and in pathetic bursts. The thing I do best is writing, and this comes from a childhood of severe book addiction… and lots of arguing on the internet.

I’ve tried the solutions and they all suck (for me): 

I have some things I feel very strongly about. I’ve tried many, many productivity apps. They all suck for me. I don’t know if they work for you, but they suck for me. See, the thing about Pomodoro is… I click on one or two, and then I stop clicking. I get distracted and I stay distracted. To-do lists don’t work for me. I either make massive lists that I don’t get through, or whatever. I’ve tried keeping a calendar and scheduling stuff, but that doesn’t work for me, either.

My problem is a lot more fundamental. It’s deep-rooted, pathological. I need help that no other human being can provided, perhaps not even myself. I need the power and force of something relentless to keep me focused on the things that matter, while not allowing me to weasel my way out of things.

I think some dating sites have partially figured this out.

I was looking through a couple of dating sites today. I’m happily married, but I was studying social media (the resulting blogpost: What Is Social Media?) and trying to make sense of how to define it. In particular, I was curious about the pub/sub dynamics on dating sites.

I noticed something interesting. On Nerve.com and HowAboutWe.com, the sites attempt to game/modify your behaviour by getting you to come up with little bits of content that get published. They prompt you. What did you do last night? They prompt you. What books have you read? You start thinking, oh, golly. I better read an intelligent-sounding book so I can make an intelligent-sounding comment and snag myself an intelligent-sounding partner.

Wait-a-damn-second. Prompts affect thought. Control your thoughts and you control your actions, your destiny. Prompts modify behaviour. Prompts are the answer. I need to be constantly, incessantly reminded of what I’m interested in, what I’m excited about. I can’t ask my friends or loved ones to do this for me, that’s just a little pathetic. But maybe I could build something that did it for me. Maybe I could have an app or some sort of routine where I’m forced to build something, level up something.

Periodical Prompts To Solve Procrastination 

Something that asked me every 30 minutes, what the hell are you doing with your life? How are you getting from where you are to where you want to go? What little action have you taken towards your dreams? Have you done [your 1000 words] today? What do you care about? What’s one little thing you could do to feel beter right now? What’s the last thing you did to [get fitter]?

That’s what I need. I need a constant stream of prompts reminding me to breathe, to sit taller, to write a blogpost, to meet somebody interesting. When was the last time you met somebody interesting? When was the last time you had a great conversation with someone? When was the last time you felt inspired? When was the last time you read a good book? Prompt me. Prompt me, damn it.

The problem with to-do lists… is that they’re trying to help me fill a bucket. A bucket of things I’m supposed to do. This doesn’t make sense at all. When I’m in the zone, I don’t need a to-do list. I’m writing this like crazy when I’m on fire because I saw something earlier (I was on a dating site, thinking about social media), and then I read a few lines from Founders at Work while having a coffee downstairs, and then I was thinking about productivity and procrastination (a lifelong addiction and anxiety for me).

I don’t need something to help me fill buckets better. I need something to set me on fire.

Somebody please direct me to something that systematically, periodically reminds me (or gets me to remind myself) of what I care about, what’s important, what I ought to get pissed off by, what ought to put my ass to work.

The nitty gritty to-do list is like giving me a list of monsters I need to kill. I don’t kill monsters because they’re neatly ordered in a list. I kill them because I want to build my hero into someone amazing, and because I want the glory of conquest, the treasure at the end. THAT’s what I need to be reminded of. I need to be reminded of what’s at stake. Put me in a state regularly, like that, and I’ll be the most productive bastard you know.

If somebody can build this for me, I’d pay $100 for it. Hell, give me a free trial for a month, and if it works, I’ll pay you $100/month for it.

“Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” – Willam Butler Yeats

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” – Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Build me something that lights fires, not fills pails. Don’t drum me up to collect wood, make me long for the sea. Force me to say it. Make me say that I’m choosing to spend time clicking through tumblr instead of building my dreams.

I don’t care if I don’t get the credit for this or whatever, I just hope this idea is useful to somebody. Cheers and love. It’s back to work for me.

EDIT: Hello, HN! Several people have been asking me if I’m serious about the $100! Wasn’t expecting this to catch on, but here’s what I’m going to do- I’m going to try out every solution that people send or suggest, and I’ll document it in my blog, and I’ll paypal the $100 to whomever’s solution works best for me. 🙂

Here’s a followup non-directed rambly blogpost

“I designed the book to raise the energy level of the reader without the reader knowing that’s the plan. If I succeeded, which is an admittedly rare situation, readers will simply feel good while reading it. And that energy can be useful for whatever you hope to achieve in life.”” – Scott Adams, describing something I’d call firelighting. I experienced similar things from reading Carl Sagan’s autobiography. I think I need to make a list.

 UPDATE: 14 days later!

42 thoughts on “0087 – productivity apps fill buckets when they should be lighting fires

  1. Girish

    Beautiful. I will try this out. I will make something for myself and see if it works. I will let you know if it turns out to be an elegant solution.

  2. Thomas

    This. I’ve recently had some successes with an app called “Way of Life” on the iPhone (or its Android equivalent, Hab.it). It’s half way between the bucket filling an fire lighting methods, but it’s so quick and easy to use, I’ve actually managed to use it for 6 weeks now. I realise that doesn’t sound like a lot, but this is coming from someone who can write a diary for 3 days max and to-do lists last a week or so.

    The idea is that you put in a behaviour and tell the app whether it is bad or good, and then every evening you spend 10 seconds telling the app whether you did it or not. Very soon you have a red or green patchwork of your life’s choices to stare at on a daily basis.

    The bad: I’ve been pretty honest so my results aren’t great (about 60:40 green to red).

    The good: I’ve had many occasions where I’m at the tipping point of doing or not doing something and thinking about getting that green square for the day has nudged me to do the right thing. Which I figure means it’s worth it.

    Since buying the app, I’ve lost a few kilos, been to the gym twice as often, reduced my computer games usage, almost stopped biting my nails, and cut out 90% of the fizzy drinks in my diet. Stopping eating chocolate seems to be a persistent problem though…

    1. Pankaj Shroff

      This is such a useful and well articulated review of the app. I am surely going to try the Way of Life app. Will post feedback if anyone else is interested in hearing more stories about it. Thanks Thomas!

  3. jonathancutrell

    I recently wrote a script that, though driven by a static message, pops up every thirty minutes. It has been quite effective – “Stand up and stretch.”

    I imagine there’s a fairly simple way to make it powered by a JSON web interface and a few smarts.

    I like this idea a lot.

  4. Kris Reeves

    I wonder how this would work as something like a Facebook app? If you’re embarrassed about that 60:40 ratio, how much more would it burn if all your friends could see it? It doesn’t even have to show what those things are, it can just be a history graph or daily display or something.

    My one concern on that count is for people who are depressed, for which it could become a confirmation of worthlessness and drive them in the opposite direction.

  5. nyan_sandwich

    A friend and I are building something right now that is basically in line with this idea. I really like your prompts idea, too. We’ll experiment with it and I’ll let you know when I feel that it might work.

  6. shiva

    I am in the same boat, morbid procrastination and can talk my head off why it is not a bad thing. But no results to show. What works for me to get off this boat is to still build the to-do list, but put creative and powerful action reminders that jolt me to action.
    The point is, you have put the fire into the to-do pail and have it shoot out painful (or stimulating, if you prefer) barbs to get you to finish those tasks. Until you need them no more!

  7. schubash

    THIS. I need so desperately to be inspired, not prodded. Please blog again if you find that blissed out app that meets this need.

  8. Giuseppe Catalfamo (@Joe_Catalfamo)

    My god I am not alone!!! I share the same feelings about procrastination and, before now, failed to find another person with same point of view about being set on fire while feeling desperately unmotivated to do stuff.

    The only problem with your solution is that my problem, like yours, is so deeply rooted that my brain would start to “snooze” a reminder-like app and therefore make it unhelpful…this is so hard

  9. Groxx

    I like this idea. I’ll add it to my ever-growing todo list 🙂

    But seriously, I think I will try to work on something for this, it would probably help me too, though of course what I come up with might not fit what you’re looking for. If I make progress, how should I let you know?

  10. rb2e (@rb2e)

    Okay, I have a crazy idea. I don’t believe the answer lies in a digital solution. Our bodies adapt and can filter out a lot of background noise, our email boxes and phones are just the same. We filter them out. So you need a loud reminder.

    What you’ll need:
    1) 1x Egg Timer. Its need to be mechanical and loud. Crazy loud. An mechanical alarm clock is just as good but it needs to be loud. This has to be on your desk, within your line of sight.

    2) 1x Day to Day diary if you travel, or a piece of A3 Card if you work in one location.

    3) Golden or silver star stickers (yes folks we are going back to school).


    1)Pick a task to complete (if its a big task, break it down into workable small chunks).

    2)Set the Loud egg timer to fifteen minutes.

    3)Go. You have 15 minutes to accomplish this task.

    4) When the timer goes off. Stop. Have you accomplished the task? If yes, put a star sticker in your diary or on the piece of card but keep this out of eye sight. Write down the task you accomplished. If you didn’t complete the task, no sticker but doesn’t matter. Keep going.

    5)Start a new task with a completely different subject matter. Set the timer for another 15 minutes and go.

    6)Once you have completed this cycle four times. Stop. Set the timer for 15 minutes. You are free to surf any social sites, check your phone, email etc but when the timer goes off. Get back to it.

    7) On the Sunday of every week, publish how many stars you got on your blog, in a public post. No need to detail the exact tasks but a summary of what you accomplished, would be good.

    8) At the end of the month, write a summary on your blog. Repeat for every quarter. Then at the end of year, write an end of year review. Publish it on your blog.

    Goal: To fill the page of your diary or the A3 Card with stars so that at the end of the day. You can see what you have accomplished. However the main thing is, its not the stars you’ve stuck on (which is just a simple gamification), its keeping your mind occupied.

    The publishing your achievements on your blog is for a public record.

    Notes: Don’t use your phone, computer or digital timer. You’ll just block it out. An mechanical timer is best because its loud and in your face.

    If you are really serious about the money, donate it to a worthy cause.

  11. Alex

    This is excellent. I have been thinking over similar ideas since I read Bakadesuyo’s post last week about the book The Power of Full Engagement. Basically saying that intense energy, not time, is the currency of high performance. For this reason, think of work endeavors like an athlete, not a time manager – intense explosions of energy and rest/planning for the next burst.

    I hadn’t thought this is something that can be systematized better but you are thinking well in that direction with prompts. I wonder what else can systematize this approach?

    Thanks for the post!

  12. Amit

    “Control your thoughts and you control your actions, your destiny.”

    This sounds like precisely the foundation of cognitive behavioral therapy, which you seem to have stumbled on incidentally. Nice.

    I’m also working on something like this for myself. I’m trying to focus more on timing and when certain things should get done, but I appreciate the perspective of inserting prompts and motivational context to light a fire under your ass to do them!

  13. Dave

    Inspiration comes from within not from without. De-motivation also comes from within. No app is going to solve your problem. If you don’t know what motivates you or inspires you then you need to get to know yourself better. If you like writing, consider keep a journal. It may be that you like to have something to show off to impress your friends or maybe you just take pride in your own work. Everyone is different.

    An app that constantly pesters you may be nice at first, but eventually it’s just going to make you feel like your falling short or it’ll get annoying and you’ll start ignoring it. Figure out what truly motivates you and do the next easiest step that gets you closer to getting there. Don’t make huge todo lists that make you feel overwhelmed. Not that I think there is anything wrong with you (almost everyone suffers from motivation issues), but you may want to consider talking to a therapist or life coach – you may be amazed what a difference it can make in your life.

  14. jason

    For iOS users, there’s “Alarmed” and it’s DayMinder feature. I have my phone buzz me with the message “What’s the best thing to do be doing right now?” every 1.5 hours from 10am to 8pm Mon-Sat. The big gotcha, though, is that you might develop a habit of ignoring it. I’m going to try writing something down in response to the reminder.

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  16. nibor

    I think to be productive you must have the following:
    – A dashboard that allows us to see the tasks we have to do during the day
    – These tasks must mean something, for which to give context we can put them in buckets.
    – You must have a timer to see how much we’re investing in certain task
    – Finally, you should see the time spent on each task or bucket for certain periods of time.

    In addition to this we should be able to save the files associated with tasks or buckets, in order to have all the information in one place.

    I’ve been testing this desktop application ataskbucket.com for 2 weeks and at least has a lot of the above even has support for full-text search which allows me to search for any text in all my notes. It also has a RSS reader, but only displays post titles but I think that is enough to keep informed

  17. Ryan

    Nice article.

    I built and use a small rails app that prompts me every 25 minutes, with “What have you done since last checkin?” Being called to task (or prompted), does help direct attention. I’ve combined this with my Calendar and (and I’ve used dozens), to help curate, funnel and churn work.


  18. miroz

    I won’t just jump in and build the anti-procrastination app but you just gave me an idea for “Prompt-Based User Interface”. Application with such UI is invisible and has no configuration upfront but it occasionally prompts you for something and configures itself based on your answers.

  19. sm road runner

    If your ass/job is not on fire and your wife is not bugging you and your kids are not going to be hungry, task is worth procrastinating. No App can make you motivate. They may make you do initially, but eventually it will die down. You finish a task because there is real deadline with punitive damage, if you don’t do it.

  20. Prasanna

    Hey checkout idonethis.com. It sends you a mail every day at a time of your choice asking you what you did that day. You can just reply to the mail.
    And it will motivate you by saying “you did x, y and z yesterday or 30 days ago”.
    It will automatically sync wiith your google calendar.

    But it just not remind your every 30 minutes. I think eventually you’ll grow tired of the repeated notification and learn to ignore it first and then uninstall the app later!

  21. Prasanna

    Come to think of it again, no apps will help you get over procrastination! The shortcut to this problem is probably the longest route – Develop a will of iron, have stronger reasons to do things, and then you don’t have to worry about forming good habits at all.

    Check this interview by Seth Godin: http://www.copyblogger.com/writer-files-seth-godin/
    His consistency in writing blog posts, or books or executing his projects (domino, krypton college etc) is due to the fear of wasting an opportunity to help, to make impact.

    So yes, have strong motives for what you want to achieve.

  22. Jerzy Gangi, author of Maxims

    Hi Visa, Check out my online book of “Rules to Live By” called Maxims (http://www.maxims.us). If you like it, sign up for the 7am daily email. Maxims won’t fix your procrastination overnight — nothing will. However, the daily email can help you change your cognitive patterns over time so you’re less inclined to “put it off.” I used to be a procrastinator, too. After researching the science, I discovered that the solution wasn’t software or egg timers… it was about changing the way I thought. I hope that helps, and please accept my best wishes to you.

  23. giacomo

    Whatever method or tool on earth you’ll use, I think it’s your attitude toward life in general (your beliefs, your mindset, etc..) that allows you to accomplish almost anything you want and actually gets you to the place where you really want to be. So be sure to work on that too! Good luck!

  24. Justin

    I thought your idea was kind of interesting, so I made a little diddy here: http://bathofsolace.com/

    It asks inspirational questions and lets you see a random selection of other peoples’ answers.

    I have another to-do list app at thoughtjotter.com, so this idea was interesting enough for me to try it out.

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