Five confessions in failed attempts at “productivity,” where it’s led me, and where it can take you

October 28, 2008 by Jared Goralnick

Failure to finish I don’t write about productivity because it comes naturally.  I’m more the psychologist who started as a headcase, hoping to both treat himself and uniquely identify with his patients.

The following are my failures, some that I’ve learned from, and some I’ve yet to rationalize.  Maybe my difficult lessons can help you to succeed.  Added later: I hope you’ll stay on for a surprise.

While I may a have penchant for learning the nuances of others’ success at balance, discipline, and focus, sometimes I feel no more effective at applying them than the average plumber Joe.  The following are five things I’ve tried and struggled with:

  1. Getting up at the same time every day – I tried very hard to put into practice Pavlina’s advice on being an early riser.   For a few months I managed to get up at roughly 6:30 every day.  For a time I used the SleepTracker watch (which actually worked, but I didn’t feel like investing $150 in, so I returned it), but generally I could get up without a problem.  When I rose early, I felt great having time for a run and a slow breakfast.  But eventually I just gave up, mostly because I’m not so good at…
  2. Making it to bed when I want to I’ve tried so hard to step away from my computer at a decent hour, but inevitably it’s never good enough.  I’m much better than I was when I was younger, but I’m not great at committing to going to bed either when I’m tired or at a fixed time.  I usually do get reasonable amounts of sleep, but that can come at the price of either skipping a morning run or not starting work as early as I’d like (I have this unnecessary belief that 9:00 is the right time to start work).  (and for you critics, no, I have little problem getting away when I have company)
  3. Doing things ahead of timeParkinson’s Law may be effective but it often can create unnecessary stress.  While I’m rarely staying up late at night before something is due, I’m far from clockwork when it comes to doing things that I know of in advance.  Monthly newsletters and blog posts, for instance, are things I’m particularly poor at writing in advance.  I would love to stick to an editorial calendar or be on top of all of Monday’s items by the Friday before it, but that’s just not going to be the case for me
  4. Checking email twice per day – I wish I checked my email twice per day (or once!), but generally speaking I’m far from disciplined after my first check of email at around noon.  However, every month I’ve gotten much better at this.

You know, I was going to make a #5 that had to do with sticking to my task list.  But the truth to this is much like the truth of the other items on this list: it’s not a total failure.  For instance, I’m very good at using Outlook To Do’s / flags but I sometimes have to write out big goals for a morning on a sheet of paper or the white board.  Try as I might there always seem to be times when I have to write things down.  (The bigger problem is I often don’t make it through the list…but I guess that’s human.)

The area where I consistently dream and fall short of success is trying to stick to daily routines (as you can see from the first two items above).  I don’t think it fits my personality (or how often I go out at night), but by having more flexibility in my work schedule (and starting the day a little later) it’s become less of an issue.

I can’t finish this blog post in good faith to you, because even though I have failed at a lot of the above (and do continue to get frustrated at myself), I think that every month I have gotten better.  And it’s recent things that have helped.  For instance, surrounding myself with others who are successful at these things and learning to set expectations on what comes naturally to me have been huge helps.  Occasionally revisiting my commitment hacks has been useful.  And sometimes I just have to remind myself to slow down or go home.

So this article has gone full circle, and I may have disappointed you.  I’ve surprised myself…but I’m still going to publish it.  The odd moral to the story is clear to me—if you stick at this stuff, and try to find ways to get past things that have you stuck, you’ll eventually make it there.  This wasn’t meant to be a feel good piece, but I’m glad it’s become one.

Have you surprised yourself lately?  Isn’t it kind of amazing when you finally hit that tipping point and suddenly have more control over your work, your life, and your time?


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9 Responses to “Five confessions in failed attempts at “productivity,” where it’s led me, and where it can take you”

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  1. @Stephen

    Keep at it Jared, if you are doing better this month than you were last month it’s a good sign. Reflect on your positive progress and focus on the incremental changes that made it possible!

  2. Tom Loveland

    Or surround yourself with systems/people to execute more (ALL!) of the routine stuff, thus freeing yourself to follow your interests and passion and focus on the 20% that provides 80% of the bang. That’s what I’m working on.

  3. Jared Goralnick

    You both are right. I’m actually feeling pretty good about my progress…but I certainly have more to reflect on and more places where I need to apply good ‘ole Pareto.


  4. Don Grauel

    I think you could replace your name with anyone’s who is taking on the challenge of managing the one non-renewable resource that we all struggle with – time AND is honestly evaluating their progress on a consistent basis. That said, we need to constantly remind ourselves that there is no endgame in this process and that it is indeed the process (journey) that we should celebrate.

    Each recognition of a failing is progress as long as we “fall forward” and learn from it.

    Tom hit on one of my three 2008 mantras: 1. 80/20 applies to almost everything, 2. Surround myself with people that give off positive energy instead of those who steal it from me. 3. Better done than perfect. I’m obsessed with the 80/20 rule.

  5. Nicolas

    You write about changing habits and this is difficult for everyone. One of the most frustrating things is that you get a good start and drop out later in time.

    I wrote an article about a technique which helps coping with such drop outs and keeps you motivated to start again – it is called chaining.

    The Time Management Master blog is a collection of about 200 concrete time saving tips on how to gain an extra hour every day. The tips can be applied at home, at work or on the road.

    Every person is different and so are the tips. I hope you can find something that works for you.

  6. Curtiss Asbell

    Jared…I admire your perseverance. For almost 4 years, I’ve been working diligently to implement all kinds of things I picked up in Richard Koch’s work, “The 80/20 Principle”. It has made a H-U-G-E difference in the experience I am having as I live my life.

    I can’t believe it took me so long, but about four months ago I got turned on to Tim Ferriss’ book, “The 4-Hour Workweek”. HOLY SMOKES!! Put me into overdrive! Application of many of those ideas have gotten me some tremendous results…and guess what I’m finding…although some of the ideas may be “controversial” in an employer-employee relationship, results speak for themselves, especially if you’re not a rude, hubris-filled manager. Imagine that!

    People like us are keenly aware of our shortcomings, and we are always striving to make ourselves better. Remember…incremental improvement IS DEFINITELY ACCEPTABLE.


  7. Carl

    I’m entirely with you on failed attempts at “productivity” and it’s one of the reason that I began my own blog. It keeps me honest and is an outlet for both my shortcomings and my successes.

    I’m just starting in on redesigning my life and it’s excellent to see other peoples work and stories here.

  8. Jared Goralnick

    Thanks, Carl! I wish you much luck on your path. And I completely agree, being transparent and sharing is a great way to both hold yourself accountable and more carefully think through decisions.

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