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Getting Back To Work: A Personal Productivity Toolkit

I procrastinate. You procrastinate. We all procrastinate. Let's get back to work.

Pavlov's Dogs

Everyone knows the story of Pavlov and his salivating dogs. Ring a bell just before feeding the dogs often enough and they'll start to salivate just because the bell rang. It happened to me today when I opened the jar of horseradish to spread on a sandwich. It's called conditioning.

One day there was a bad storm and Pavlov's lab flooded. They had to release the dogs and bring them to safety by swimming. This was a very traumatic experience for the dogs. Upon returning them to the kennels for further experimentation, some of the dogs simply stopped responding to the bell.

The animal was abnormally restless and all conditioned reflexes were practically absent, and, though usually very ready for food, the animal now would not touch the food and even turned its head away. During three days while the animal was purposely left without food its general behavior during the experiments remained unaltered. On considering various possible interpretations we reached the conclusion that this extraordinary behavior of the animal must still be an after-effect of the flood.
Conditioned Reflexes: An Investigation of the Physiological Activity of the Cerebral Cortex By Ivan P. Pavlov (1927)

So it would seem that an extraordinary event can shake us from our routines, and this state of being shaken can last for an extraordinarily long time. But it was only after two months of experimentation with the animal on the floor, and eight months after the flood, that it was found possible to return to the usual experiments with the animal.

Work is a sort of conditioning. It's not natural to sit at a desk for hours on end, nor is it natural to perform dull, repetitive tasks, but we train ourselves to do it. Unfortunately, it's easy to lose that conditioning, and it takes a while to get it back.

A lot has been written on the subject of procrastination, but I wanted to collect here my current thoughts on the discipline required to get back to the grindstone.

Positive Associations

There are some places that I just associate with work. The local rehearsal studio, for example. When I show up there, I know that we're there to make music. Yes, there's a certain amount of socializing that we do there, but mostly, we're there to work.

A sense of place like this can be created subtly. Even in the same office, in the same cubicle, at the same desk, simple things can change the "mood" so that you're more likely to associate it with work. We have 5 senses - sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste. Any of these can be used to create an association with work. In offices, probably the most common is sound. People will put on their headphones when it's time to get down to work. Rather than being a distraction, this can serve to remind you of other times when you worked in the past and help recreate that environment.

This works, I've done it for years. I go bicycling on a semi-regular basis. Sometimes I'll go three or four times in a week, and then not go for a month. Whenever I want to go, but just can't seem to get to the point where I'm taking my bike off of the wall and getting on it, I start to listen to my walkman (or MP3 player or whatever). Because the only time I listen to my MP3 player is when I go bike riding, it creates a strong association with bike riding, and before I know it, I'm changing my clothes and checking the tire pressure. It's hard to believe that such a small thing could create such a large change in my behavior, but it never fails.

The key here is to only use this thing when you're actually doing work. You don't need to do it every time you work, but you should only use it when you're working. You can use one of those scent things, or a nature sounds CD if you're afraid music would be too distracting.

If you already listen to music when you're goofing off, then using a nature sounds CD, or just choosing a particular artist or style of music to represent work music can also be effective. For a while, I used to listen to the same album every time I went bike riding. I probably couldn't listen to that album now without thinking about bike riding. I had a handful of albums I listened to every time I drove long distances in my car, and guess what. Listening to them now reminds me of driving (even though I don't own a car). One of them - Sly and the Family Stone's There's a Riot Going On was great at getting me to drive at the speed limit and letting everyone else pass me by, rather than me trying to get past everyone else.

Just by changing the album, I could change the way I drove.

When you're in a state of Flow, or know you're about to start doing some real work, turn it on. Then the next time you want to work, you can simply turn this on, and it will turn you on.

This positive association extends to your work tools as well. By simply having your tools around you (if your work is on a computer, having the applications open) can go a long way towards getting over that hump and actually doing work.

I want to experiment with different desktop themes. I use the no-frills Windows 2000 skin, but I wonder if I could associate the standard Windows XP skin with working and get myself to work by putting on certain music, opening my tools, and changing the windows skin all at once. I haven't changed my physical location, but still I manage to create an environment that I associate with work.

You want to create an environment where work is more likely to happen than not happen.


We have seen how people describe the common characteristics of optimal experience: a sense that one's skills are adequate to cope with the challenges at hand, in a goal-directed, rule-bound action system that provides clear cues as to how well one is performing. Concentration is so intense that there is no attention left over to think about anything irrelevant, or to worry about problems. Self-consciousness disappears, and the sense of time becomes distorted. An activity that produces such experiences is so gratifying that people are willing to do it for its own sake, with little concern for what they will get out of it, even when it is difficult, or dangerous.
Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

I started writing this article, ironically enough, on November 27, 2003, over one year ago. Back then it was called "The Motivation Game" and focused on creating a sense of flow by creating a system where you challenged yourself by keeping score and making work in to a game.

This concept of Flow is a powerful one, and resembles what we all want work to be like, but rarely is. Flow, as described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is a "state of inner experience in which there is order in consciousness." He also states that "some of the activities that consistently produce flow (are) sports, games, art, and hobbies." "The more a job inherently resembles a game - with variety, appropriate and flexible challenges, clear goals, and immediate feedback - the more enjoyable it will be."

This is what the ideal job looks like. This job will resemble play, and will be addictive. As much as you can create work like this, you will be a happy person. As much as you can make your work like this, you will want to do it.

Nanny 911

There's a TV show on that my girlfriend and I love. Nanny 911. These classic British nannies choose a family in trouble and work their magic on them. They spend a day or so observing the family and learning all their poor behaviors and triggers, and then set about fixing the family.

A lot of the show is tough love. Just as easy as it is to reinforce positive behavior, you can reinforce negative ones too, and they're easier to reinforce. Ask any behaviorist and they'll tell you that randomly reinforcing a behavior works better than reinforcing it every time. Every time you put a dollar in the soda machine you get a soda. There's no need to check that. But putting a quarter in a slot machine doesn't always get you a prize. People get obsessed waiting for the chance that they'll get some prize money, even once they've put way more quarters into one of these things than they could ever hope to get out. Gambling is addictive because while it operates within a set of rules, it's unpredictable.

And that's what happens all too often in these families. When the baby cries you say to yourself, "no, I have to stick this one out and not give in," but after a while, you break down and give in. All this teaches the child is that crying more and louder works.

Where in your life are you randomly reinforcing negative behaviors? Where do you need tough love?

So what do these nannies do to turn around all this negative behavior? They take away all the rewards. When the rewards are always available, there's no need to do the work. They take away television privileges, and make the kids and parents go cold turkey with any negative habits they may have (like pacifiers). Without the rewards, without the easy and fun stuff, what's left to do? Just the work. Incidentally, they take away all the junk food too because it makes you hyper and ruins your ability to concentrate.

Procrastination is the reward for not doing work.

If you work hard all year, what can you look forward to? Your vacation. Procrastination is like taking that vacation right now. If you can't take a vacation at the end of a year of hard work, you might as well take it now because there is no reward for finishing your work.

When I was in kindergarten I got a letter sent home. I wish I had it framed because it explained so much about my personality for so many years. It said:

Mark doesn't distinguish between work and play. He continues to play when it's time to work, and work when it's time to play.

Most books on procrastination will tell you that it's important to separate work from pleasure. That you procrastinate because you don't know when you will be able to take some time to relax, and that by creating clear times where you're not allowed to do work, you give yourself permission to do work at other times.

I'd say this is half true. The problem with it is that there's still no clear reason to do the work. If I work 9 to 5, I don't work when I get home, yet much of my day at work is wasted too. Why? Because there is no reward for completing the work. If I complete the work, I'm still at my job, so what incentive do I have?

Well, what would Nanny 911 do? She would take away everything you use to procrastinate, and not give it back until you finished your work. No exceptions, because an exception is a random reinforcer.

Procrastination 101

Procrastination is a habit. People aren't born procrastinators or hard workers, it's something you learn, like biting your fingernails. Luckily, it can be unlearned as well. 

If you study people while they're working, you'll find that a single behavior or set of behaviors predict when you're about to procrastinate. These are like poker tells. Unconscious twitches that signal you're about to stop working. If you can figure out what these behaviors are and remind yourself to get back to work whenever it happens, you can stop the interruptions.

These procrastination events come in basically three flavors. The first are events that come to you - the phone ringing, someone knocking on your door, etc. The second are things that depend on outside objects, but that you initiate like getting up to go to the candy machine. The third are purely internal events, just zoning out and daydreaming.

If you can change your environment to get rid of the distraction, you should do it. Sometimes these environmental variables are more subtle than you realize. A memento on your desk could trigger a pleasant daydream, or a bill could trigger some abstract financial worry. The key here is to recognize when these distractions are tied to objects, and then get rid of those objects.

These environmental variables aren't always objects. Like Pavlov's dog, the sound of a phone ringing or the sight of your coworker going for a smoke could be your trigger. I can't cover all the possible variables here, but I trust that you can identify them and come up with the appropriate solution.

If you can't change it, you're going to have to discipline yourself to remember work whenever you think of that object. This is simply a matter of repetition and discipline. When you find yourself thinking about candy bars, remind yourself to get back to work.

This should actually take care of a large number of distractions, but if you take care of these and you still find yourself starting off in to space, thinking about something other than work, you should probably address the thing you're daydreaming about. Even if there is no external trigger, you can learn to recognize and subvert the internal trigger in the same way.

Often these distractions are things you want to do some time in the future. To get rid of these, just write them down. I always carry a notebook with me that I can write these things down in. The notebook also serves to focus my thoughts when I have a spare moment and need to figure out what to do next. By keeping everything in here, any part of my brain that was worried about what I have to do goes away. The gaurantee that I will look at the notebook and do what I wrote down keeps me from having to think about it.

Measuring Productivity

Perhaps this section is mis-titled, it's not productivity (how much you accomplish over a period of time) I'm talking about simply the ability to concentrate without interruption. has a popular article titled How to Get More Done in Less Time. It recommends you keep a time log where you write down when you start an activity and when you stop it. At the end of the week, you create a tally so you can know exactly where your time is going.

Studies have shown that the average office worker does only 1.5 hours of actual work per day. The rest of the time is spent socializing, taking coffee breaks, eating, engaging in non-business communication, shuffling papers, and doing lots of other non-work tasks. The average full-time office worker doesn't even start doing real work until 11:00 am and begins to wind down around 3:30 pm.

Does that sound like you? If you're serious about improving your productivity, you need to keep this kind of log. Not only that, you need to record what interrupted you, and how much additional time you wasted before getting back to work (and doing what).

Only when you have this information can you see what prevents you from working, and what changes you need to make to your environment in order to improve your productivity.

Your mind distorts things, making some things seem larger than they are, and other things seem smaller. After a couple of weeks of this, a very clear picture should start to emerge. You need to do this to get objective about what's really going on so you can fix it.

The Afternoon Sleepies

I used to suffer from this big time. Around two or three in the afternoon, I'd start to get drowsy and nothing I did could fix it. A lot of people suffer from this, but don't know the reason.

The most likely cause is low blood sugar. A large lunch, especially with lots of starchy foods, will cause your blood sugar to spike and then crash. In this state there's no way you can be productive.

The best way to fight this is simply to have a smaller lunch with less starchy carbohydrate filled foods. This includes pasta, rice, sandwiches, pizza, soda and so forth. If you must have a sandwich, try to have it on whole grain bread, and check that the bread really is whole grain and not just starchy white bread with some grains thrown in to make you think it's healthy. Remember, when it comes to lunch, you want fruits (but not too much), vegetables, and proteins (nuts, eggs, meat, etc). Stay away from sugary drinks, including juice. Water is the best.

If you're afraid you'll be hungry later on if you have a small lunch, then bring some fruit or nuts back to your desk with you. You can pick at this stuff while you work, and it should help keep your blood sugar on an even keel.

My Browser Homepage (and yours too)

One major behavior that triggers a work interruption is "going online." The Internet is a vast repository of Time Wasters, and if you're like me, the activity that signals that I'm about to lose focus is opening the web browser. So I created a simple web page with the words "Get Back to Work" in big, bold letters on top and set it as my homepage.

In fact, I went one step further and decided to make this page a productivity tool. I type in what my next goal is, and a time I want it completed by. Then I can click one of three buttons:

And the web page keeps a running tally (using cookies) of items I finished on time, items that took longer than the allotted time, and times I didn't do any work and just goofed off.

By keeping this open all day, not only does it remind me when I look at my web browser that I should get back to work, but it allows me to see at a glance how able I am to dedicate myself to reaching goals, whether or not I reached them (whether it was my fault or not), and when I simply didn't do any work and am willing to admit to myself that I wasted some time.

It's a simple tool, but it's effective. I hope to make it an even better tool in the future, and you'll know when because you're going to set it as your homepage too, and I'll post a small notice there when a new version is available.

Visit the page now: Get Back to Work

Get Back To Work

I used to procrastinate all the time. So much so that I thought I must be avoiding work for a reason, but when I did manage to get some work done, I'd find that I was no worse off than if I had procrastinated, in fact I felt better about myself when I got work done.

Then why did I put it off? This question plagued me for years. I felt guilty and I doubted myself - are other people working harder than me? Is something wrong with me?

Now I know that procrastination is a habit, and so is productivity. You can disrupt your negative behaviors, and reinforce your productive ones. It takes some work to implement this system, but by doing so, you'll learn what to avoid and what to do to be more productive.

Now get back to work.

Further Reading

  1. Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity by David Allen
    This is my bible for personal productivity. This is an absolute must if you're serious about getting yourself organized. Once you're organized, and nothing slips through your system, it frees your brain cells to concentrate on other things, your mind will wander less because everything is under control.
  2. How to Work the Competition Into the Ground and Have Fun Doing It by John T. Molloy
    Unfortunately, this book is out of print, but if you're lucky enough to get a copy, this book outlines a program (some of which I paraphrase here) that will increase your ability to concentrate and get back to work. Like Getting Things Done, this book outlines a system that simply needs to be implemented in order for you to see results.
  3. Peopleware : Productive Projects and Teams, 2nd Ed. by Tom Demarco, Timothy Lister
    This book focuses on productivity for teams, and emphasizes the importance of having an environment where you can remain undisturbed for a while, because it takes time to get into a Flow state.
  4. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
    This book represents decades of research in to the positive aspects of human experience, and comes up with general principles, along with concrete examples of how some people have used these principles to transform boring and meaningless lives into ones full of enjoyment.
  5. Bernie Krause records the best Nature Sounds CDs I've found. I have his Rainstorm in Borneo CD. You can learn more about him and his products on
  6. I talk about my implementation of GTD and the benefits of leaving when the work is done in my article Getting Things Done!

Other links you might like

page first created on Tuesday, January 18, 2005

© Mark Wieczorek