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!


0086 – memories of reading, procrastination, facebook, smoking

I have been feeling slightly blocked for a while- though perhaps it might be more accurate to say that I am slightly blocked most of the time and that I have occasional moments of clarity. I haven’t been doing these vomits regularly in a while. Won’t try to explain it, just poor flow/energy management.

I’ve been reading. I read all of Ender’s Game in a day. A respected friend recommended it to me once and I mentally put it in my “maybe read someday if the opportunity presents itself” list. Then I started work and a colleague used the author’s name as a skype handle. I asked about it in some random conversation and more than a couple of colleagues said it was great. Now I really had to read it. If I got the chance. I still wasn’t about to go looking for it or buy it, I was too busy with work. Then me and my wife found the book in one of those free library book exchange type things. I had to have it.
It sat on my shelf for a few days and then I picked it up. I skimmed a few pages before bed. I read it on the way to work, and on the way home. Then I stayed up until 330am, finishing it in a single sitting as my wife lay asleep next to me. I tossed and turned as I read, book up, book down. Was so thankful for the adjustable reading lights my wife bought us. (I think there’s really something about how you need to move around to properly absorb something. Which makes sitting still in a classroom or lecture a really bad idea.)

It occurred to me that I hadn’t done that in a really long time. The last books I remember devouring like that were the Harry Potter series. Since then maybe the Lord of the Rings, Carl Sagan’s biography, Soul Made Flesh, The Black Swan and Antifragile, Malcolm Gladwell’s books (particularly Outliers), The User Illusion,  Lost Illusions… okay, a few books. But the point is that I read vociferously as a child- obsessively, like an alcoholic. I’d wake up and read until my mom demanded I shower, and I’d read in bed until my sister demanded I turn off the light. (When you grow older, she told me, you’ll wish you had time to sleep.)

I’m probably romanticizing this. I remember reading a Roald Dahl book while sprawled out on my sofa. I remember reading Enid Blyton books my mom got me, in my parents room. I remember reading a thick The Dark Is Rising tome at some boring wedding. Read a large chunk of the Mahabaratha at some temple event. Finished a buddy’s copy of Norwegian Wood over stolen breaks while at Pulau Tekong. Remember borrowing books about volcanoes and hurricanes and tornados, and pyramids and mummies and dinosaurs.

The library was a wonderland before the internet. I borrowed books about chess and video games. I had books on HTML, Java, C++… though I never properly learnt anything other than the first. I remember reading The Golden Compass… I think during primary school. The Pearl for a secondary school assignment. Charlotte’s Web, Friedrich, a Wrinkle in Time. Flowers for Algernon. I remember a book called When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit. Another rather weird one called Finn Family Moomintroll. I remember reading about knights. I remember a collection of Aesop’s fables and I remember reading an older version of Aladdin over and over again. There was something about trees with jewels in it. I remember reading about cars and trains and engines and planes, asteroids, meteors, cells, bones, carnivorous plants.

Anyway the point is that reading was a big part of my life- and a very valuable part too, I think. And I’m excited to revisit that. I think getting off Facebook helps. I think having a bookshelf and not having a TV helps. Having a laptop doesn’t help. Haha. But I want to read. I want to break past my current plateau. I think there could be a lot of value in intelligent quotes and reviews of good books.

Writing’s important too. I had to take a break from Poached magazine for a while because I honestly felt like I had nothing useful to say. I didn’t know what I wanted people to think or talk about. Writing is a form of inquiry- what do you do when your inquiring leads you to the realization that you ought to shut up for a while? Well, that’s what I did. I think there is great value in decoupling oneself from the hustle and bustle of immediate relations and familar habits. I think I need to travel. Whatever it takes to break out of established routines so you can make yourself uncomfortable. In a positive sense, where you’re forced to pay attention to your surroundings, to your self.

I think I’m becoming a better writer. I don’t think it’ll show in these vomits but I think I see it in my work. I was looking at a draft of a blogpost I had written in February and I was disgusted with how meandering and rambly it was. I was trying to impress by bringing in all these slightly-interesting tangential facts while neglecting the central hook. Story of my life, maybe. Fixation with icing, neglecting the actual cake. That’s how I survived for a long time so I have to rewire my brain at a very fundamental level. I thought I made progress and indeed I might have, but the challenge remains undiminished. I have to bash myself against this wall like I might in a video game. I have to believe.

I had a thought about smoking and smokers and general procrastination or impulsiveness… something in there is about a lack of faith in the self and a lack of faith in the future. At some level it might be “tomorrow me will take care of it”. But that doesn’t seem like a real conviction, a sincere belief. It’s just lip service. If you sit a procrastinator down and point out their past history of failure, and they’re intelligent (as many procrastinators disproportionately are, I’m sure), they’ll have to admit it: they can’t be trusted. Procrastination is not very different from substance abuse. I think so because of the parallels in my experiments with reducing smoking, Facebook and procrastination. I’m not sure what these precisely are, maybe I’m imagining it. But they all involve certain conceptions of the present and the future in a way that’s irrational from a global perspective, yet seems to make sense in a local, present perspective. There seems to be a “get this pleasure now while it’s guaranteed because you don’t know how fucked up the future might be”. The influence of the present on the future is vastly underestimated, even altogether ignored.

At work now. To be continued.