in Creative Work

True Productivity: It Has to Come From You

This is Part 2 of my series on true productivity. Part 1, True Productivity Leaves Less Time for Talk, can be found here

There are two types of productivity apps: those that block out distractions from work and those that encourage work. Examples of the former are web site blockers (such as Leechblock) and application blockers (such as DoNotDisturb). As for the apps that encourage work, they’re the tools that allow you to work faster and better. For me that includes Texter and Google Docs. In the past years that I’ve been experimenting with almost every productivity app ever released, I’ve realized one thing – the distraction blockers don’t work in the long run.

Let me clarify: if an app blocks out things you can’t control such as noisy neighbors and needy cats, then it’s useful. But if it’s blocking out something that’s within your control like, say, checking your email or looking at Facebook updates for the umpteenth time, then the app is nothing more than a cosmetic. It’s like sticking a Band-Aid on your melanoma and telling yourself that it’s cured.

Apps can be disabled, programmed, and uninstalled. The same goes with the manual tweaks you do to “block” distractions, such as tinkering with the hosts file and whatnot.

“Oh, but they make it difficult for you to disable Leechblock.”

Yeah, but would you really want a solution that is dependent only on the fact that someone pressed the “Enable” button? What if you’re working on somebody else’s computer? What if you’re so desperate to check your email yet again that you find a way to disable your site blockers “just this one time”? Then you realize that you’ve done it so many times that your “productivity tool” is actually making you unproductive at being unproductive.

Hey, I’m not judging. I used to do that a lot. And now I feel stupid about it.

Painting the Office

In the past month, we’ve been redecorating our home office. We were already overwhelmed with work and rarely had a spare moment to attend to this project. Ergo, it was slow. When I told my partner that I’d been fiddling with Adsense, Facebook, and message boards during my workday, she gave me a scolding simple solution. “When you catch yourself doing that, why don’t you just paint the office?”

Good point.

Now that the office is done, I see myself growing into the habit of channeling my energies to other important tasks. They can range from sorting the laundry to writing my novel. It doesn’t matter what I do, as long as it’s not Spider Solitaire or Adsense or Facebook. True, it’s still procrastination, but at least something‘s getting done. And you know what? I’m also having a lot of genuine fun. Not the mindless drone-like buzz I get from checking Facebook, Adsense, and Google Analytics yet again.

Also, here’s the key thing: every time I feel like opening another tab, I ask myself a very important question.


Why do that? What am I going to get from doing this? If I really take the time to answer that question, what I get is really painful:

  • I’m going to play Spider Solitaire or look at Facebook because I’m too lazy/afraid to do my real work.
  • I’m going to check Adsense to see if I earned a measly $0.01.

These answers are embarrassing and pathetic. I didn’t want to be that person anymore, and the only way to do that was to admit that I think these things and find a way to just deal with it. And to actually spend more time doing the gorram work than “dealing with it”.

The Results

I shouldn’t have been surprised, but by accepting the full responsibility of my own productivity and being more conscious about falling into distractions, I actually got a lot of stuff done. Here’s what I accomplished so far:

  • Made significant progress with my Spanish. I’ve been taking in a lot of new material, and it’s just a blast realizing how much I understand now.
  • I started and finished a 7-page short story and submitted it to an anthology. My first short story in five years.
  • I spend less time feeling guilty about not being productive enough, and more time actually doing the work. Any work, as long as it’s something I’m passionate about.

At the same time, though, I’m not going to lie and say that I’ve got it perfect. That I’ve got my shit together. I still fall into the occasional digital fiddling trap. But you know what? There’s less of it. And I know that if I keep getting better at dealing with this every single day, it’s going to happen less and less until it’s barely happening anymore.

It wasn’t as simple as enabling an app. This act of being a productive person rather than a productivity person is going to be a lifelong process. It’s going to take a solid daily commitment. And I guess that’s why it works.