Work That Isn’t Work

(This column is posted at and Steve’s Tumblr.  Find out more at my newsletter.)

Last month started productively – but then got brutal. I got sick, I had to reprioritize, and was annoyed a side project had to get delayed (sorry, no spoilers). Something felt off about what was going on, so as I sat there battling allergies and a cold I caught because of allergies (really, that kind of week), I wanted to figure what was off.

Why did I feel bad, overpressured, and even when sick not want to do my fun projects like writing and generators?

I used the “Five Whys” technique. This is a good one to learn, but in case you don’t care, you ask “why” about your situation, then “why” to your answer, then “why to that answer,” and so on. Eventually you get an idea of what’s wrong and how to solve it. It’s like having a helpful child in your head to pester you until you explain something, and like talking to a child, it’s a way to realize how smart or how stupid you are.

I’m quite fond of it.

This took more than the supposed “Five” whys, but I realized something amazing and liberating – I had lumped all my “work” in a month into the same pot. Cooking and working out was the same priority, a fun piece of writing was just as important as my weekly budget. All the things I wanted to accomplish were sitting in one pile saying “do me,” so I began treating all things the same.

The problem with treating all things you have to do as the same is that you don’t prioritize (or in Agile terms, you forget their value). In fact, you sort of end up with a worst-common denominator effect where you treat everything as a collection of the worst – often conflicting – traits. Everything was a boring and overwhelming must-do task that was also not important.

At that point I realized my organization had killed my motivation. So how did I solve this? I broke them up by relevance and changed them on my own Big Visible Chart.  OK it’s a spreadsheet, but still.

First, are the must-do tasks for a month. These are important life tasks that I want to do and do as soon as possible and most are repeating.. My motivation is “I really better do these.” Now I know what has to get done, and I’m motivated to do them out of importance. Also there’s less than I thought so that helped. In my list of work I marked them “hot” colors – yellow for do at the start of the month, orange in the middle, red at the end.

Second are the important things to do for a month that are kind of regular maintenance; blog posts, cooking, working out, and maybe some lower-priority stuff that’s added for the month. These things can shift around, but are also the “daily grind.” Seeing this made me realize a lot of them can be done reguarly and over time – in fact many have to be (I’m not going to cook 80 meals at once or workout for 15 hours in one day). I saw that these could be paced, that they didn’t need to build up – and that I should never see this as a giant task to surmount, but one that’d be done over time.

Third but not finally is my creative work – books, the Sanctum, other projects. These are things that I do in addition to “life” stuff – and they’re the fun things. I didn’t overload this for the month of April, but may add more. In my chart they’re green.

Seeing it like this made me see what I’d done wrong:

  • Trying to spread out my most vial (“hot” colors) work as opposed to getting it out of the way or just doing it at the right time and not worrying about it. I had a gut feel that this was wrong, but this helped me put it into words.
  • Being unsure how to pace my more regular tasks like cooking and so forth (blue). Because there was so much, I kept trying to do all of it and feeling overwhelmed by this big pile of “stuff”. Really the pile would decrease over time.
  • Viewing my more fun work (green) as labor by conflating it with regular tasks. I had treated it like other work, trying to fit it into other things to do. Now I could see this wasn’t a grind – this was stuff to do when the other work is done, caught up, or has just bored me.

So what solutions did this give beyond solving my issue:

  • For the vital work that has to be done at the start of the month, my goal is to get it over with early, even if it’s a bit of a haul.
  • For vital work due other times in the month, I don’t worry about it until I have to.
  • For the regular grind, pace myself. Don’t let it overwhelm me, or try to get too far ahead of it.
  • For the fun stuff, I realized now that I’m aware of it, I can make space to do it when I want to relax, when I want to get it done, or when I’m caught up on the other work.

Ironically, I think I’ll get more done since I’ll be less stressed, less juggling work, and have better priorities.

So your takeaway, know your priorities and what work means to you. It’ll help you get the vital things done so you’re not distracted, pace yourself with the regular grind, and be aware when you can/will/want/should do your fun stuff.

– Steve