Decompartmentalizing Productivity

Juan Herrera
8 min readApr 14, 2020
Decompartmentalizing Productivity

TL;DR

Productivity becomes (almost) effortless when conflicting thoughts are iteratively aligned. Decompartmentalizing is the process of breaking the walls between opposing ideas to systematically deal with them.

1. Discipline 🦾

For years I’ve been struggling between two opposing forces in my mind:

  • 🛌 The one that wants to stay in the warm comfy bed, and the one that wants to start the day early.
  • 😴 The one that wants to take a long nap, and the one that wants to do some exercise.
  • 🤳 The one that wants to check twitter one last time, and the one that wants to get some work done.

In psychology, having conflicting attitudes, beliefs, or behaviors is called Cognitive Dissonance, and it produces a feeling of mental discomfort.

With time, I started to be more aware of these forces, and little by little I found techniques that would help me get rid of the former, because that’s the evil one, of course:

  • ⏰ I found alarms that would not turn off unless I took a picture of my bathroom, making it necessary for me to get out of bed.
  • 💪 I found quotes that would keep me in the right mindset when I felt like taking a break, such as Robert De Niro’s “You’ll have time to rest when you’re dead.”
  • 📵 Finally, I discovered app blockers. They would allow me to block Twitter during certain hours a day.

This is just an excerpt from the struggling ideas and solutions I found. Over the course of years, I built a system full of rules, restrictions, and rewards. I called this system the regime ⚔️ and it became the cornerstone of my life, helping me develop new habits, stay healthy, and finish my side projects.

Friends of mine often heard me talk about it, and as a consequence, they perceived me as a very disciplined person 💪

2. Regime ⚔️

A regime is a type of government, and by some definitions, authoritarian. I used the regime to block ideas that diverge from productivity, therefore, wasting time, breaking a rule, or being lazy was by no means allowed or encouraged. To get rid of dissenting ideas I used techniques such as:

  • 🎥 Watching motivational videos that reminded me, among other things, that winners don’t take breaks.
  • ✍️ Writing in my whiteboard what rebel thoughts sounded like so I could detect them and suppress them immediately.
  • 📣 Sharing my goals publicly, so that social pressure would encourage me to finish them.

When my friends thought I was very disciplined, they were wrong, instead, I was very good at coercing obedience, I had the capacity to put myself in situations where the only way out was to achieve my goal (sounds clever, doesn't it? 😏).

But undisputed obedience ultimately led me to a bigger problem: burnout 🔥

3. Burnout 🔥

Burnout is a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. My performance and productivity dramatically decreased. It took me weeks to fully recover, and when I did, I had lost the momentum I accumulated.

My obedience had a counterproductive outcome, I was puzzled 🤷‍♂. How was I supposed to be productive if my body could not endure the effort required? Cognitive dissonance was back.

After a thorough analysis, it was evident that the regime needed to entertain both points of view in harmony, productivity, and leisure. Burnout was proof enough that I needed periods for resting, taking breaks, exceptions for rules, and baby steps, as opposed to unrealistic expectations.

And so the bipartisanship started 🤝

4. Bipartisanship 🤝

I updated the regime to include both perspectives so that burnout was avoided but productivity remained:

  • 💤 I made it mandatory to go to sleep at 10 pm, so I could ensure 8 hours of sleep.
  • ⏱ I added power naps after lunch, allowing me to stay fresh in the afternoon shift.
  • 🤝 I relaxed the rules of app blockers so I could check twitter more often.

This promising approach along with many other rules gave me exceptional results, my stress levels were low and my sense of achievement remained high. It was perfect.

Until corruption arrived 🦹

5. Corruption 🦹‍♂️

It was a matter of time before I started taking longer naps, sleeping 10 hours, and disabling my app blockers to check twitter at work. All based on the excuse that I really needed it, or I’d burnout. My productivity levels dropped. I wasn't burning out indeed, but I wasn’t achieving much either.

It felt as if I went from an authoritarian regime to an anarchistic one. It seemed like the regime tended from one extreme to the other. Arguing that I needed more obedience to be more balanced, was a chicken-egg problem.

Dissonance. Once. Again.

How could I achieve a balance between productivity and leisure without involving those variables in the equation?

The answer was just another variable: Time

6. Time ⏳

Pretending to remain productive and relaxed simultaneously is as effective as having two presidents with opposing views at the same time, it creates the illusion of bipartisanship but in reality, one would hardly let the other achieve anything.

By adding the time dimension to the equation, I could allow productivity and leisure to have executive power one after the other, significantly avoiding cognitive dissonance. For example, I could:

  • 👔 Be productive every weekday, and on weekends be free of any responsibility (Like normal people, right?).
  • 🌃 Be productive the entire day, and at night let leisure take over.
  • ⏱ Be productive for 3 hours, and then have 30 minutes to relax, in several cycles throughout the day.

It took me several iterations to find the combination that worked best for me. This is an excerpt of the new regime:

  • 🌄 6 am to 9 am (productivity): Carry out my habits, no questions allowed.
  • 🌇 9 am to 5 pm (productivity/leisure): Go to work using a tailored version of the Pomodoro technique 🍅: Focusing on achieving a particular task in timeboxes of 15 or 30 minutes, with a break coming afterward.
  • 🌃 5 pm to 9 pm (leisure): Do as I please: play videogames, watch a movie, or scroll on social media, no complaints allowed.

Defining these specific timeframes was very effective to achieve Cognitive Consonance (harmony and consistency of attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors). Conflicting thoughts were substantially reduced because there was a time allocated for them. Productivity was finally becoming effortless 🙌🏻

7. Distractions 🤳

In psychology, there’s a concept called The Flow 🧠, the state of being fully immersed in an activity to the point your sense of time is transformed.

According to Csikszentmihályi, the main proponent of this theory, one can process up to 110 bits of information per second. Speech decoding takes about 60 bits, thus you cannot fully understand two people talking at you simultaneously. Csikszentmihályi states that when one is in the flow, all bits are used in the task at hand, leaving no chance for you to process anything else, like the passing of time.

That would explain why time flies when you are having lots of fun 🤔

If Csikszentmihályi is right about our processing capacity, the flow has the potential to make productivity truly effortless, but deliberately achieving such a state is not easy. On the other hand, when we’re not in the flow, chances are that remaining bits are being used in different, perhaps conflicting ideas.

Theoretically, it would be impossible to be productive without conflicting ideas unless one is in the flow 🤷‍♀

But there's a difference between cognitive dissonance and conflicting ideas:

  • 😴 The former is not being able to get up from bed because you only slept for 4 hours. The latter is waking up and realizing the bed feels really nice.
  • 🔥 The former is not being able to work because you are burnt out. The latter is working and suddenly being interrupted by a notification.
  • The former is an obstacle. The latter is a distraction.

And distractions can be safely dodged if you have taken care of the fundamental dissonance:

  • ⏰ It’s ok to use an alarm that forces you out of bed if you are sleeping a healthy amount of hours.
  • 🤳 It’s ok to enforce app blockers if you also have breaks in which you can check your social media.
  • It’s ok to get rid of distractions now if there’s a time for them later.

By updating my regime to take care of distractions, I managed to keep my productivity levels high even if I was not in the flow 🧠

Yet eventually, a new dissonant force showed up: Purpose 📡

8. Purpose 📡

Purpose is the inevitable question you ask yourself when you have achieved something (so it is a good indicator of progress). Purpose brings up some of the most relevant questions but also the ones that bring the highest dissonance:

  • 🤔 Why am I doing this?
  • 🤔 Does this make me happy?
  • 🤔 Should I be doing something else?

It showed up during my pomodoros 🍅 making me wonder if a task actually made sense, but also during the weekend, making me wonder if my regime was actually taking me to the right place. Or on a rainy Thursday afternoon, while I look through the window and suddenly wonder if anything makes sense.

Allowing these thoughts during execution quickly stripped away my motivation to do anything, but ignoring them meant repressing philosophical questions essential to our existence.

To ensure I was steering my life in the right direction I needed constant oversight of Purpose; so I allocated two periods:

  • 🔬 Every weekend I’d do a retrospective on my regime to fine-tune it in the right direction.
  • 🔭 Every four months I’d contemplate past achievements and refine upcoming goals based on my vision.
  • (Pretty much becoming the scrum master of my own life)

By doing so I achieved equilibrium between Purpose, Leisure, and Productivity, although it was already evident that dissonance (like any other archenemy) would eventually show up again. But at least I was increasingly balanced ⚖️

9. Balance ⚖️

Up to this point, consonance has been portrayed as your ally, and dissonance as the adversary, but in reality, both are equally necessary. Dissonance hinders progress in exchange for new perspectives, consonance hinders your perspective in exchange for progress.

Or simplified, consonance brings harmony of opinions, dissonance brings diversity of opinions.

That’s why this article has such a hard-to-pronounce title: “Decompartmentalizing Productivity”. Compartmentalizing is a defense mechanism in which you build walls between conflicting thoughts to avoid dealing with them (that’s exactly how I burnt out). You have to tear down those walls and find a balanced configuration that works for you. In my regime, I allocated time and dodged distractions, but you can find your own mechanisms 🦾.

Thanks for reading!

I'd like to give credits to Lulie, it was after I read her thread on productivity that I felt inspired to write this article:

"Discipline is remembering what you want." When that works, it's not 'discipline'; it's getting less conflicted.
Thread by @reasonisfun

Additionally, this article wouldn't have been the same without the proofreading of Anna Mikulich, Melanie Obermeier, and Sigrid Prenner 🙏🏻

I want to offer guidance to those who are trying to improve their productivity. If this article resonates with you, send me a message on twitter, maybe I can give you some suggestions 🙂

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