Engineering Productivity (Part 2)

Thursday, May 5, 2005 by darco
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In my last post, I went into detailed observation of my tendencies, habits, and other things relevant to my productivity. In this post, I hope to refine all of this down into something actionable.

I want to be as realistic as possible. Coming up with a wonderful schedule and a list of rigid deadlines is great, but if there is little chance of me actually following through (for whatever reason) then it is useless. As a result, one key aspect of this exercise is to identify areas where it is likely that I will have trouble following through, and either come up with a way to make it work or come up with something else entirely.

Additional observations

Since I've made my last post, I've made a few more observations regarding the way I work(or, um, don't work, depending on the perspective):

I will often find myself stressing out about the multitude of tasks, but remaining largely inactive simply because I do not know where to start or what exactly needs to be done.

What does this mean? It means that I need to always know what needs to be done. If there is ever a question of what I should be doing at a given time, then something is wrong.


Everyone should have long-term goals. One important aspect about goals to keep in mind that goals are a hierarchy. Finishing one goal contributes to the achievement of the next goal. What are my goals, really?

  • Make a living doing something which I enjoy.
  • Get married and eventually start a family, with two or three children.
  • Achieve a comfortable financial status
    • Own/Build my own house
    • Able to raise three children and send them to college without taking out loans
    • Able to throttle back my workload appropriately when my family needs it.

These are great, but they are 5-15 years down the road; they are truly long-term. What about the next 5 months? What are my goals for that?

The plan

My plan revolves around the following goals:

  • Establish a support network of friends and family
  • Eliminate potential distractions, so that I can concentrate on important tasks
  • Change work environment
  • Establish a regular daily schedule with good habits
  • Host/attend a weekly social event/gathering

Support network

The largest problem that I foresee is me slacking off and becoming lax regarding the responsibilities that I outline below. As much as I would like to think otherwise, I do not have the self discipline to execute such a radical behavioral change alone. Unless I can get encouragement, support, and resolve from friends and family, I will surely fail. Thus, I have made this the first item on the list.

What kind of help do I require? Ultimately, it is about feedback. I need people to tell me what they think, minus all the BS filters. Most importantly, I need people to be firm. If I am slacking off or becoming lax in various areas, I need swift, firm feedback–because such signs left unchecked will certainly lead to collapse. Do not make excuses for my behavior, it does not help.

I need people to be nosey. If you see me online, ask me what I am doing. Better yet, ask me if I am on task. I should be totally transparent. Hopefully, if I am hyperfocusing on something inappropriate, this may give me enough of a distraction to break myself out of it. Ask me what time I got up this morning. Ask me what I am doing up so late. None of these questions require long and involved answers, and are totally appropriate given the circumstances.

There are two critical points in time for the success of this plan. The first is immediate. The next is four-six weeks from now. The hope is that eventually I will not need this crutch, and I will be able to rely on my own self-discipline. Until that time however, I will need help.


I discussed my work environment a bit in my previous post, but there was a few more things that I wanted to elaborate on. Specifically, what are these distractions that are keeping me from getting work done?

They are in fact the banalities of every day life.

  • Laundry
  • Dishes
  • General Clutter
  • Cat hair
  • Checking snail mail
  • Buying Groceries
  • What to eat
  • Paying bills
  • Doing taxes
  • Balancing the books

What happens as these issues get neglected is that I get distracted and distraught. Most of these issues are not immediate tasks with deadlines. Thus, I can put them off if I have more pressing tasks at hand–which, surprise-surprise, I often (always?) do.

This freedom to schedule has put me in quite a bind. More often than not I will get quite distracted by the fact that these things are building up; to the point where I work very slowly/inefficiently. Yet, even though I am getting very little work done, I dare not spend time in an attempt to resolve these tasks because "I have real work that I should be doing". This is when my stress levels skyrocket.

Garbage Collection

In computer science, Garbage Collection describes a system of memory management where objects in memory are not immediately deleted when they are no longer being used. The mechanism which periodically searches through the unused objects and frees them is called a "garbage collector". If the garbage collector doesn't run, then the system will crash because it will run out of memory. If the garbage collector is inefficient, then it will degrade system performance. You get the idea.

But why am I talking about garbage collection in a post like this?

I have a tendency throughout the day to use things and not put them back where they belong. Things like dishes, papers, laundry, books, etc. This tendency extends beyond the real world and into my computers as well–the computer desktops of most of my machines are cluttered with files.

I am thinking that what I need to do is schedule a time every day for "garbage collection".

Chore Sheet

Back when Maria and I were living together, we put together a way to make sure that our chores got done–and did so successfully for a handful of months. What we did was print out a table that listed out the chores on the left and the days of the week (for four weeks) at the top. Each time one of us would do a chore, we would write our initial in the cell for the given day/chore.

It gave us an easy way to see what tasks had been done, what stuff needs to be done, and who was slacking off. Every morning, we each would devote 30 minutes to doing chores on the list that looked like they needed to be done. This was our "Garbage collection" time as well.

While we were doing this, it worked great! So what went wrong? Embarrassingly, we ran out of chore sheets. The original was at work, and I kept forgetting to print more. ::hangs head in shame::

Nonetheless, I think that this is generally a good idea–even if it is just for one person.

The difficulty comes from actually getting myself to work on the chores for 30-45 minutes each morning. If you will remember, mornings are when I am motivationally weak. I'll discuss ideas on how to make this work in a bit.

Change Environment

The more I think about it the more I come to the same conclusion–that my work environment must change.

AstreaEdge made an interesting point on a comment from my earlier post:

I know someone here who motivates himself for home-based work by driving 15 minutes through morning rush traffic to get an espresso then driving back home to work. He claims it helps him get into a proper frame of mind for working, but it sounds like just another temporary mind trick to me.

As silly as it sounds, it might actually work–at least in the short term. However, I don't think that this would be the kind of change in environment that I really require. I mention it because it may be a possibility later on, after I get some momentum.

What are my current options?

  • Move — This isn't really fixing the problem, because I'll still be living and working in the same place.
  • Get a real job — This is a last-ditch-everything-else-has-failed option. Unless Apple makes a job offer. Or Pixar. Or any other cool company for that matter.
  • Get work done elsewhere (like a coffee shop) at regular hours.


I am currently without a regular schedule, but I seem to be getting up around 8:30am these days, and going to sleep somewhere between 10:00pm and 1:30pm. Unacceptable.

Mornings require extra attention due to the following:

  • I am most motivationally weak in the morning.
  • My productivity in the morning has a tendency to carry over throughout the day.
  • Mornings are potentially the most productive time of the day.

I'd like to get up earlier. 6:30am sounds like a good start. Somehow, whether it be with a phone call or an elaborate cascading set of obnoxious alarms, I need to be on my feet by 6:30am.

In the past, I have tried getting up in "stages", to try to build up some momentum to make it easier when I really have to get up. If this ever worked, it does not work now. So I am going to abandon it. I get up once, and I don't go back.

I'm going to define early morning as between 6:30a-8:00a. What all needs to get accomplished during this time?

  • Take my medications
  • Eat breakfast 20min
  • Take shower 30min
  • Morning Chores 30-45min
  • Check Snail Mail
  • Review agenda (EVEN if I think it already know what it says)

After that I should get started on the list of tasks for the day. It is imperative that I have reviewed and added the appropriate tasks to the to-do list the day before. This is in response to the observation that I made at the start of this post.

After around 5:00pm, my ability to concentrate on things tends to start to crash. I shouldn't expect to get very much brain-intensive work done during this period.

Social life

While I was at DigiPen, every Saturday afternoon would be "game/anime" night at myself and Amber's apartment. What started out as just a simple weekly gathering our freshman year turned out to be the our social savior. I believe it peeked at around 12-14 people.

Starting (or joining) some sort of predictable weekly social event would probably be quite adequate for my social needs.

Hosting some sort of weekly social event would have more benefits than just social interaction–it would also force me to clean my apartment regularly. Nothing makes me clean my apartment faster or more efficiently than telling me that guests will be over.

Here are the benefits from hosting a social event at my apartment weekly:

  • I get social interaction.
  • I am forced to clean my apartment regularly rather than just feel guilty about it.
  • With a clean apartment, I get a naturally less stressful and more healthy living environment in general.

Seems like a good idea to me.

Tasks at hand

  • Find a suitable place where I could get work done regularly
  • Create a list of all routine chores.
  • Create a template chore sheet.
  • Enumerate a list of chores
  • Develop a support network list.


Well, it's not all of the details but it's a good start. As I continue to think about things, I'll will likely add to this post. As usual, tell me your thoughts.