My Most Embarrassing (And Effective) Productivity Technique

Sometimes getting more productive isn't about fixing your own dysfunction--it's about figuring out how to subvert it.

The following is a transcript of an actual conversation that went on in my head at 6:15 p.m. on January 1, 2013:

Vicious Inner Critic (VIC): Why aren’t we writing more articles for Fast Company? It’s a great venue for our ideas, and we’re totally blowing them off. We’ve written what, like five articles in all of 2012?

Wounded Inner Child (WIC): We’re too busy with other stuff! We don’t have time to write articles when we have all this client work to complete.

VIC: That’s total BS. Just yesterday we spent four hours browsing apps in the Evernote Trunk. Four hours! And we didn’t even buy anything.

Helicopter Inner Parent (HIP): Hold on, that’s in investment in our future productivity. Potentially.

VIC: Oh, get off it. We just can’t handle the hard work of sitting down and being creative. We’ll do anything to get out of it.

WIC: What if we can’t think of anything to write? What if we realize that we’re useless? (starts crying)

HIP: There, there. We’re not useless at all. We write lots of articles for that search marketing website. We haven’t missed a deadline in 18 months, and most of our articles get tweeted and retweeted all over the place.

VIC: So where’s the publisher with the big book advance? If we’re such a thought leader, where’s the video of our damn TEDx talk?

Unrealistic Self Promoter: Hang on, we’re already famous and influential. We have almost 250 Facebook fans. That’s only slightly less than the overall average of 256.

VIC: The fact remains, writing twice a month in Fast Company would be awesome for our exposure and our income, and we’re just not doing it. We’re pathetic!

Rational Adult: Can I ask a simple question?

VIC, WIC, HIP, USP: No, shut up. We’re sick of your rational approach to life. (In mocking voices) “What’s missing here? What could help? What are some simple actions we can take to turn this around?”

RA (undeterred): Why do we successfully write biweekly columns about search marketing?

WIC (still sniffling): Because they make us.

RA: Because who make us?

WIC: The mean publishers. Remember, they made us sign that horrible contract when we started? And they send us an email reminder every time a new column is due? It’s horrible… (renewed bawling)

RA: And that’s why we’ve penned 30 articles that have gone all over the Internet? Because we were scared of the publishers?

HIP: We didn’t want to disappoint them.

RA: But we’re not scared of Fast Company?

WIC: They don’t seem to care if we write or not. Nothing bad happens if we blow them off.

RA: Guys, I’ve gotta go. Catch you later.

VIC, WIC, HIP, USP (muttering): Good riddance, he’s no fun to be around.

Two hours later, while the Vicious Inner Critic, the Wounded Inner Child, the Helicopter Inner Parent, and the Unrealistic Self Promoter were still arguing about why I had so few Facebook fans, the following email appeared in the inbox of my Fast Company editor:

Hi Erin,

Howard Jacobson here, with a weird sort of request:

I'd love to contribute 2 articles per month to FC, yet I don't.

I do write 2 articles per month for [search marketing website], because they had me sign a contract that basically obligated me to produce.

So I'd like to pretend that you would be really mad at me if I didn't send in my 2 articles a month.

At some point, I hope to be in enough of a groove not to need to play mind games with myself, but at this point I'd rather just accept that's what I need than fool myself about motivation.

Let me know if you'd be open to discussing this possibility, and what it might look like.

I feel really silly making this request, just so you know... ;)

The Outcome

Erin agreed to play the game with me--sort of. She didn’t send me a contract, but she agree to email me a publication schedule and told me to stick to it.

That was all it took. I put the pub dates in my calendar, and then blocked off chunks of my schedule to make sure I’ve have time to write the articles.

This Fast Company article will be my third of 2013, which puts me on track to produce two articles a month for the whole year.

Meanwhile, my Inner Critic, Wounded Inner Child, Helicopter Inner Parent, and Unrealistic Self Promoter are still arguing about what’s wrong and right with me. But I can’t attend those meetings anymore--I’m too busy writing.

Productivity Tweak: A Dysfunction Bypass

I’d love to tell you that I solved my productivity blockage by achieving some massive psychological breakthrough. That all the parts in conflict got together, felt understood, got their needs met, and merged in a sort of NLP inner orgy.

Alas, not yet.

What happened was much less dramatic, and much more effective, at least in the short run.

I looked at something that was going well, and applying the lesson to something that wasn’t.

My Rational Adult (or “me,” as I like to think of him) simply noticed that the same cast of misfits that was sabotaging my contributions to Fast Company was actually behaving quite nicely in a slightly different situation.

From there, it was simply a matter of tweaking the Fast Company situation until it resembled the search marketing one. And then having the courage to email Erin.

Contradictory Thoughts About Productivity Manipulation

Using fear and the threat of disapproval to motivate me is neither optimal nor sustainable. I’d much rather write because I have something of burning significance to share with the world than because I’m deluding myself that a woman in New York whom I’ve never met really gives a rat’s tail whether I turn in my thousand words or not.

And fear of disapproval is sustainable only as long as I don’t find a bigger, competing threat somewhere else. Like a demanding client who hooks me by implying or stating that my work is less than inspired, and can I please do it again.

In the long run, it’s much better to deal with the inner craziness than to try to manipulate the environment to accommodate it. But in the short run, this sort of trickery serves a couple of highly useful purposes:

1. It helps us realize what’s possible.
So many of our self-imposed limitations and assumptions exist simply because they’ve never been challenged. If I think I’m not writing for Fast Company because I can’t produce an article a week, then this manipulation proves me wrong about that.

Once I see through a limitation, I can start seeing through all of them. One of the superpowers that entrepreneurs need to cultivate is X-ray vision; the ability to spot real truth behind the layers of self-deception that attempt to keep us small, quiet, and safe.

2. It changes the conversation from “Why not?” to “How?”
So often, our language patterns reinforce our limitations. In our well-intentioned attempts to solve and troubleshoot, we end up searching for all the reasons things aren’t working.

“Why didn’t I write those articles?” may be a reasonable question, but posing such a question to the meeting of psychological misfits that you met at the beginning of this article doesn’t make much sense.

They’ll take it literally, and produce a treatise, not just on why it didn’t happen, but why it couldn’t. And the unrealistic self promoter takes the urgency out of the question by reassuring the gang that it doesn’t really matter.

3. It can be profoundly self-respecting.
For me, this turns out to be the big issue. When I pressed “send” on that email, I felt simultaneous waves of relief and shame. But relief ultimately dominated, because in that moment I had officially accepted myself as I was. As I am.

In that moment, I accepted the need to pull a gentle trick on myself in order to accomplish something I care deeply about.

I resisted this notion: “I’m better than that.” “I’m supposed to be a business expert--I don’t want anyone to see this side of me.” “I should be able to figure this out in a more systematic and deeper way.”

All these judgments pushed me away from the reality in the moment. And by resisting, I made the reality so much worse than it really was.

Now, as I admit my foibles, not just to Erin, but to all 38 people who regularly read this column, I’m smiling.

Yes, I intend to work on the inner voices that sabotage my goals and dreams.

Yes, I hope to achieve stratospheric heights of joyful productivity and selfless service one day.

But today, flawed as I am, I got this sucker written. And that’s one more article than I would have written had I continued to pretend.

[Paper Dolls: STILLFX via Shutterstock]

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43 Comments

  • Dot Deley

    This is actually a very effective therapy technique called "Voice Dialogue." Check out the book "Embracing Our Selves" for a primer. It feels weird but helps immensely. Someone has to be in charge, right?! Might as well be who you want it to be. Thanks Howard!

  • Cate

    Thank you for writing this. It's great to realise that there are other people in similar places to me, and I'd not considered such a solution before. I'm not sure I'm ready to ask my boss to help like this, but I think I'll implement a similar system of tasks and deadlines for myself, to increase my productivity and get more work done. 

  • aimee

    Thanks for the epiphany.  This is another article of yours which just got shared.

    Widely :P

  • Maria Korolov

    Great column! As a freelance writer I totally sympathize -- I spend all my time on stories with deadlines, and stories that don't have deadlines get postponed ... and postponed ... even when I actually do have time to write them.

    One technique that I use to get me to do non-deadline or long-term sorts of projects is a mastermind group. I've been in a variety of such groups, of various sizes and organizational structures. Right now, it's just me and a book editor friend, and we get together on Monday mornings, set goals for the week, and hold each other accountable for the goals we had for the previous week. 

    I'm a big sucker for peer pressure, so this works well for me. Plus, it's confidential -- I don't have to embarrass myself in front of my editors. Unless, of course, they read this comment. In which case, I'm not talking about you, but about other editors, and I always work on your stories first.

  • Alex Baisley

    Howie. What an amazing article. Brilliant. And... I just pretty much plagiarized your email to Erin, changed a few words - and my name of course ;), and sent it to my financial advisor. I feel a mixture of relief, humour, and holy eff! I LOVE this!

  • Jannasperry

    Just based on the title alone, I kept this in my inbox, and read it today, and hope to get some serious work done, NOW.  Putting more personal dates in my calendar.  It worked for my boot camp classes, I don't miss them (and I pay good money to my trainer), should work for the projects that I just can't seem to get finished.  Looming Deadline Sister (LDS)

  • Mike Moran

    Great article. I have the same problem, but it related to not producing curriculum for my corporate training clients until they said they wanted something new. I never wanted to produce it in advance (read: unsold) because I could have been spending those hours making money in other ways. So, I decided to start teaching classes at colleges. I don't make nearly as much money as when I do corporate training, but now I have numerous courses on the shelf that I can promote to corporations because when I agree to teach the class, I actually create the curriculum. I was proud of myself that I learned to manipulate myself this way, but until I read your article, I hadn't thought to generalize it. Thanks for expanding my thinking.

  • Howard Jacobson

    Great strategy, Mike. I love teaching teleclasses because I have to sell the seats in advance, and then I have no choice but to create the content.

  • Vela

    LOVE IT!, Fear is a great motivator when it comes down to it.  Self-awareness and taking action allows us to breakaway (from the pack, from our hinderances, from drowning).  I'm going to share this with others and follow you.  At least until my RA decides otherwise :-).

  • Howard Jacobson

    I think fear is useful for getting us unstuck, but outlives its usefulness quickly if it becomes our MO. Like a booster rocket; we can use it to power out of the gravitational field of our dysfunctions, in order to get to a zero-gravity space in which we move from our desires.

  • Raytownrepa

    Acceptance, no matter how minute or insurmountable the foe, is always the first step where non-attachment ultimately releases you from your fear driven goals and propels you to a sense of Knowing where your actions stem from your true self rather than being manufactured by your egocentric pain-driven mind. Cheers to a personal touch on a well written article. 

  • Sergiu S. Simmel

    Ah, this is a true gem disguised as a warm, delicious muffin disguised as a mimetic fable disguised as a blog post. Sparkly, nutritious, memorable, yet real.

  • Ilona Fried

    Thanks for risking vulnerability by sharing your internal cast of characters; you are certainly not alone!

  • Bushfire360

    Genius is the ability to capture what goes on in everyone else's minds and put it down on paper! Thanks.

  • Shauna Stacy

    Do you also have a HAC (Hyperactive Child)? She lets me go to the gym but won't let me sit down to write :)

  • Marivi Avalos

    Great Article Howard!
    I coordinate the contributors for Fashionbi, a news website for the fashion Industry. And I can imagine how many times they had this inner self conversations. I'll start playing the game just like Erin! lol

  • Chris Reich

    I recommend a head examination. There might be the kernel of an idea in there somewhere but it's down in the weeds. 

    Step one to productivity is clarity.

  • MountainTops

     Guess you just didn't get it pal. Ain't that just too bad?  This man is fine, and the article was very cogent, clever, and relate-able. I dunno about your simple, unstimulated mind in there, but the clarity is razor-sharp and he's spot on with his points! Too bad you're too simple to see that.  How about clearing away your weeds, hmm??? Geez...simple-minded folk who can't ever see humor or truth even when its literally beating them on the head really bug the PISS out of me. Shit. A shine or two of complexity and people start making "mentally-unbalanced" intimations!!! Lord. Holy fucking shit...... it's called HUMOR and PERSONIFICATION....Gracious....Hey, have you graduated from the "I Can Read" series of books yet? Well, get ready for the ride of your LIFE... Dr. Seuss comes next and they're a gas, I think you'll be thrilled. Lots of wacky pictures and bright colors! Much more your speed, eh?? Also... you may wish to stay away from movies that aren't based around comic book characters or  loud, redundant explosions....or have a lot of dialogue that includes 3 or more syllables or five words at a time...... you'll only be confused.