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Feeling unproductive? Maybe you should stop overthinking (adolos.substack.com)
198 points by adolos on July 20, 2020 | hide | past | favorite | 71 comments



A little tangential, but I've found that I'm the most productive when tired. When I have energy, nothing I do seems good enough and I end up wasting a lot of time trying to make something better, whether it be a piece of code, a blog post, some ML analysis, etc.

When I'm tired, I don't have the mental capacity to go above and beyond, so I just concentrate on producing something, anything. Turns out it's much easier to modify something that is sort of crappy but exists than create something great out of thin air.

The take away is that if you can, just produce the crappiest, quickest thing you can first. Once you're done, seriously evaluate if it actually needs to be any better, because often this crappy solution isn't actually that crappy and perfectly sufficient (I'm looking at you, Unix). If you think it can be better or needs to be better, don't be afraid to throw the whole thing away and try and make a slightly less crappy version. Even if you redid the same thing 5 times and the result is only slightly better each time, it's often less effort than if you tried to create the final solution from scratch on the first try.

I don't know where this quote comes from, but I really like it and I think embodies this kind of philosophy and thinking: you don't understand a problem until you've solved it.


I completely get where you are coming from. In college I had to almost all my papers and projects late at night to take advantage of the “tired effect.”

I’ve thankfully been able to move beyond that a little bit. A large part has been getting more confident in my work; or more precisely more confident that everyone else’s work is generally terrible as well and mine is just fine in comparison.

One thing I’ve found incredibly useful is having developed people who I can give first drafts to. I can accept that I’m doing “sub-standard” work because they’ll tell me if it’s actually bad or not.* I’ve been surprised at how positive some responses have been to things I thought were terrible.

Getting over that inner critic can be tough. Sometimes it helps to have a team.

* My mom was the first person I’d this with- her “I have no idea what you are talking about, but it looks convincing to me” stamp of approval has always been amazingly encouraging. Thanks Mom!


I relied on "the fear". My levels of motivation were poor when i had weeks until my deadlines. But when they started closing in "the fear" would motivate me.

I think that's why writing my PhD thesis is taking so long. The final deadline is december which means i have to self motivate the whole way, something that is alien to me after 10 years of "the fear"



"If you want anything done, ask a busy man to do it." They don't have the time to fuss about perfection. They have to do the most with the least or not do it at all.

I've always approached this thought from the perspective of "how much time can I spend" instead of energy levels. Thinking about it, it's likely a mixture of the two. Thanks for widening my perspective.


I’ve found when I’m hung over or exhausted (e.g. kids were up all night), are the times when I can really plow through all the mundane todos that have been sitting around forever. It’s almost like my mind is happy to have a bunch of stuff lined up that takes minimal effort. When I’m “fresh” and energized, in the absence of another forcing function (e.g. deadline), the easy stuff is too boring, and the hard stuff results in analysis paralysis.


I totally understand how this feels. I've always been a night owl, staying up in my teenage years until 3 or 4 in the morning working on a project. I can just think more linearly when my brain is tired.

Pre-covid I was regularly doing an intense morning spin class before going to the office, so I was "tired" when I started my day, and my productivity was great. Not perfect, but much better. Since WFH/SIP I don't have the opportunity to do the same kind of intense cardio, so I've relegated myself to blocking my afternoons so all my meetings get scheduled in the morning. Even then, I still am not that productive in the afternoon, and sometimes resort to getting work done in the evenings when I feel I can take on a larger task.


Its nice to know im not alone in this. With lockdown and writing up my thesis, there is no forcing function other than myself.

Its been hard to adjust to forcing myself to write and do the hard stuff.


Do you have anxiety? It was what caused me to have the same issues


It sounds like you need to adjust your expectations of your own work.

Being tired is terrible for your short term mental performance and your long term health. It also increases the chances you will be involved in an accident.


> I end up wasting a lot of time trying to make something better, whether it be a piece of code, a blog post, some ML analysis, etc.

Yeah I’m like that too except my doctor had a name for it


The best is the enemy of the good [1]. I constantly remind myself of that and I still fall for the trap. So I write down two questions, dubbed the procrastination questions:

1. What do you think you are supposed to do now? 2. What kind of difficulty are you facing?

And then it's easier to continue working.

[1]: often attributed to Voltaire


Please do not take this in the wrong way, but this sounds like adult ADHD.


> I just concentrate on producing something, anything

You can also have a deadline. Productivity goes up as deadline approaches.


I once ran 2 miles in under 15 minutes while completely detrained (I did have past cross country and track experience) because that was how long I had until the last T left Copley station and I had no money for a cab. Fear is a powerful motivator.


The higher performance is not free. Fear makes you accept a higher risk of injury.


Indeed. Cases where the golgi reflex[1] is suppressed are some of the most vivid examples.

[1] https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Golgi_tendon_reflex


Very good point. I would stay up late on Adderall and the first hours would be very chaotic. But if I took it even later when I was supposed to be sleeping, it would drag me, and I would be able to work. Later I found out it was an anxiety issue, but the they tend to rob me of long term memory


Slightly related, but I'm more productive when my life is on the line :-)


Found the Sicilian...


This is good insight. You can take the next step and apply it consciously to your work when you are not tired.


Spot on.


This is either something written by GPT-3, or the human equivalent. Zero substantive content, pure regurgitation.


Maybe you're new here, but your comment punches below the belt and isn't acceptable in a community like this.

If you disagree, be civil and give reasons rather than throw insults.


I struggle to understand the target audience for this. I'm currently crushed by lack of productivity, and overthinking is definitely a large part of the problem. But I can't just "not think" - I'm painfully aware of how behind I am, how much I don't understand in my current workload, and any time taken to understand it quickly overwhelms me with frustration and fear. This means I don't get any progress made, I understand things no better, the fear is heightened, and it all gets worse.

Logically I'm aware that I'm my own enemy here - that my natural evasion of dealing with the problem is amplifying the problem. But that logic doesn't translate to action. Like an adult that tells a child to not let someone teasing them bother them, the child doesn't really have the option to NOT feel the humiliation of the teasing. When I go to try and tackle the problem, within minutes my brain shuts down except for that active amygdala, pumping fear hormones into my system and blocking any actual learning.

So avoiding the problem doesn't help. Attempting to tackle the problem doesn't help.

The problem is real, but who are the people that just go "oh, I just need to relax!" and that WORKS?!


Yep, exactly right. I suspect that authors of posts like the OP are people who might have small blips on the productivity/overthinking radar but otherwise are generally productive. They run into a small problem, "don't think about it," and get back to work, and everything is again fine. (Of course, everything would have been fine no matter what they did.) They then write blog posts about how they can just stop thinking about issues. Then people with more serious difficulties read those posts, try them, and go, "huh?"

I had these sorts of issues, too. The true answer to overthinking isn't to stop overthinking, of course. The true answer is to realize that overthinking is a symptom but not the cause, and so you need to find the root cause and treat that instead.

Just imagine you have some meter in your mind somewhere, not sort of unlike an HP bar, that measures how you're doing mentally. There are some actions you can do to replenish this bar, and some that will deplete it. If you find yourself overthinking constantly, it's possible that that bar is quite depleted. However, remember, it's a symptom of a low bar. Telling it to go away won't actually go away. You can also do a self-inventory to see how you're doing on replenishing it by checking to see how much you overthought on a given day.

Everyone has their own things that replenish and deplete from this reservoir. I personally like hanging out with friends and exercising, but your mileage may vary. Other people like meditating, or cooking, or walking. It's pretty crucial to remember, though, that your current source of anxiety is probably just a red herring.


> It's pretty crucial to remember, though, that your current source of anxiety is probably just a red herring.

Everytime I have anxiety it's my brain focusing on one thing to avoid confronting the real problem. When I finally find the thing I am avoiding it's usually not that bad of an experience to deal with it directly. Some examples are "I should call person X to deliver news Y." Or "I need to make a big decision soon."


When I was faced with this issue I found that spending about 30 minutes at the start of the day planning, and then another 15 minutes or so at the end of the day conducting a retrospective, really helped. Start by creating a list of tasks to be completed, and then prioritise them. It helps to be very specific with your tasks. Don't have a task be "work on assignment 3", have the task be, "Find 6 articles to support section 1 of assignment 3". Once you've got your prioritised list, work on them starting from the top and mark them off when you're complete. Sometimes you will have emergency tasks come in that take priority, and that's ok. Log them in your task list and work on them like any other task. It's ok to not complete the tasks you planned for the day. In your retrospective, critically examine the tasks you completed, and determine (and log) why you either did or did not complete everything you'd planned. Next morning in your planning session, take yesterday's list, re-prioritise with any new tasks that have come up, and work through the process. If your tasklist keeps growing and growing forever, then it's just fundamentally clear that you have too much work to do in the time allocated and you need to either bring somebody else in to help or start making sacrifices, either with the tasks you take on or the quality/effort of your work.


Dont avoid the problem, take a thin slice at a time, don’t think how much behind you are because that is bound to stress you and spiral you down into an unproductive loop. Just do something. Whatever you don’t know put it down on a list, get it out of your head


I second this sentiment. Breaking a problem down into a smaller set of problems tends to help for me. It's much easier to start and be consistent with a small set of changes and grow them over time.

If I can add onto "just do something", sometimes a brute forced/hacky solution is better than nothing. I know that I will delay something if I don't think I can do the "perfect" version of it (either in diet or exercise); however, I have found that starting a behavior in a small way and being consistent is infinitely better than waiting to have the circumstances be perfect.


When I am having difficulty starting a task I start with making a list of everything that needs to get done to solve the problem. It always make it more manageable.


Fake it 'til you make it applies. When you're in the habit of stressing/overthinking, it's temporarily built into the way you process things. To overcome it, you have to practice controlling your mind. Sometimes starting with, "What is the worst way I could do this?" is helpful, because there's nowhere to go but up, and sometimes you trick your brain into producing solutions that seemed too ridiculous to consider - my own experience, anyway.


A useful thing I've learned: "just relax" doesn't work, but if you take the same idea and apply it to the more specific things which are causing you to not be relaxed, you can make some headway.

In other words, if you take note of what you're having concerned thoughts about, you can pause and ask, "is it that important right now? Is it okay to leave this alone until tomorrow?" And if you can honestly say it's alright, you'll begin to relax.


What works for me, is to ask myself what is the next step and then try and focus exclusively on that. When my mind wanders three steps ahead, I mentally kick myself in the butt and remind myself to focus on the next thing only.

It's a discipline like a lot of things, and it gets easier the more you do it.


You need to admit that you can't do everything on the list and say No to some. Declare plan bankruptcy so you aren't allowed down by work you aren't going to do anyway.


I have been on the situation that I was overstressed, but thought I was unproductive because everything was boring, and I had to push myself more until I got into the interesting stuff. Just somebody telling me I had to relax was already enough to help.

But I don't think in any circumstance I could simply read this in a web article and get the point. The person that told me to relax was a psychologist, that had a list of symptoms to base his advice on.


I understand your perspective. I am yet to read the OPs submission I did want to give some insight that helps me a lot with overthinking and just doing.

I use GTD and Trello to manage my reoccurring tasks. I eliminate a lot of overthinking at the wrong time by planning and scheduling at the appropriate time.

After several months I have built a system that I have learned to trust. It has taken a long time to get here, but it makes a real difference for me.


It does work, but not magically from day 1. This stuff requires practicing and building up some habits.


I’d strongly suggest getting a therapist or professional help. It has worked wonders for me so far.


I think this was written by GPT-3.


Nice try GPT-3

This text generated by GPT-3


Hello


Is GPT-3 the biggest thing since Bitcoin?


I suspect that so many of us overthink most of the time, such that it's one of the reasons that the most productive times seem to be in the early morning or late at night.

Early morning our brains have been largely reset and it's a clean slate, thoughts haven't had the chance to build up yet. Late night our brains are tired, making it easier to be single-minded in focus during coding.

Balmer's peak could be related to this (though I haven't personally found alcohol to work for me).


Personally, my unproductivity came from allowing myself to take dopamine hits where I worked. Putting games, web browsing or texting physically somewhere else prevented my home office from becoming a Skinner box of wasted time.


This neatly sums up something I’ve been thinking about for a while. Cheers.


> Feeling unproductive? Maybe you should stop overthinking.

> ...

> I've been thinking about this lately, so I thought it would be good to write an article about it.

This highly meta introduction just cracks me up


Yeah it's like the petrol (aka gas) tanker needs a smaller petrol tank to drive itself.


OK, the advice is to stop thinking about what have already been thought through by others, and only think about novel, creative stuff.

Two problems.

You need to be an erudite, and know all the stuff other people has thought through, and ideally the current agreed-upon best solutions. This is, of course, hugely useful, and often fun! But it also takes a lot of time.

Since you quite possibly don't know enough about any particular domain, including the domain where you are trying to be creative, you are bound to reinvent wheels. To learn about known good answers in a particular area, you have to know that such an area even exists.

My approach to this problem is to try, stop, and do research once I've acquired the target.

I often end up on the verge of reinventing a wheel. But once I think that a particular thing I'm about to invent and implement is nifty and generally useful, I stop and and search for existing solutions. I'm very unlikely to be the first person to have this problem. Once I know the problem enough to consider my own solution, I know enough to look for existing ones, and maybe rank them. This saves me from sinking time on reimplementing a wheel once I have invented it, and it's usually 90% of the time expense.


Reinventing the wheel is great for learning or creating something better.

The first version of the wheel used a square glad someone thought maybe a circle could work. Spokes were a big upgrade. The rubber tire filled with air creating[a donut changed the game.


Rather than “stop overthinking”, which I find to be similar to asking a fish to breathe air, I tend to try to just accept and embrace unproductive moments, knowing that they arise from time to time. I believe they are a necessary part of mental rest. I also tend to be at my sharpest when returning from one of these episodes.

In general I’m known for being a highly productive person, but I’m not sure many people know quite how much time I spend doing basically nothing.


> So how do you get into the habit of creative thinking? > > Well, the best way is to just do it!

Such actionable advice! Much wow!


I actually think that is actionable advice. Like, stop thinking about, stop planning to do it, just, right now, fucking do it. It doesn't matter if it's sub-optimal or whatever, that can be fixed later.

This works for most things, but not all things. If you're trying to solve a difficult math problem for example, you can't just put your head down and grind through it. But for other things that you do know how to do, but not necessarily the right way (writing an essay, writing some code, etc), you can start immediately. Like if you have a problem and can only think of a O(n^2) solution, well, just write the O(n^2) solution, even if you know it won't be good enough in the end. Implementing the code for the O(n^2) solution will often give you insight into how you can turn it into O(n) or O(n log n). By writing a loop to sum number for example, you might realize you're summing mostly the same number over and over and can save time by instead calculating a cumulative sum.

You could very well have this insight without writing any code, but actually typing something and reading it gives you a different and deeper perspective into the problem.


I know you're being cheeky but for me when I've procrastinated on things the fix has been to "just get started." Often in the past I've gotten caught up on how to do something "right" or "well" and this leads to avoidance procrastination. Instead finding somewhere to start and just getting started and continuously improving has been the way for me to break out of the hurdles of avoidance procrastination (overthinking).


Good points.

Lack of productivity within an individual is usually* tied to procrastination. This isn't the only explanation but its low-hanging-fruit. Make sure none of it is still there, quietly causing rot.

So, I'm a proponent of thinking that "all"* procrastination is mostly* emotional resistance in one way or another. The whole "just do it" thing can actually work. For awhile. Checking in with your emotional state and being methodical about it can open your eyes. That's why its only "for awhile". You may need to timebox and switch deliberately. The emotional aspect can really play games with your head. Experiment with what works.

I practice deliberate creativity where I set aside an hour per day and actually write. Do the thing. Ideas or whatever. X words. Y diagrams. Measurable. Get it done. Do something creative. After while the brain gets used to it - well, mine did.

-- * A lot. Generalisations are like that.


Thinking itself is work. When you're thinking too much, anything that's not "thinking too much" causes context switching, which is a hard task on its own. Human brain cannot multitask, so you can't work while you're already doing a lot of mental work. The trick is to do things that are fun (which, for some people is doing creative work) such as playing games, taking a shower or whatever makes you relaxed. Once that chain of thoughts is broken, you can start working again.

Telling this from my personal experience, because I can't go from overthinking about my business to designing a database model or fix an issue. I need to take a mindless break, like showering or making coffee, or just grabbing a teaspoon of ice cream from the freezer. Those few moments work as a transition point for me to get back to work, and become productive.


"Quit Thinking So Much and Take Action" - A great two-minute video by Jocko Willink https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bmYtP9uKwFU


War of Art is a good book on the subject too


Genius does what it must.

Talent does what it can.

You do what you're told.


> It is a form of mental activity that involves the use of logic and reason.

Not necessarily. Creativity can also involve intuition and spontaneous insights which go beyond logic and reason.


Intuition and spontaneous insight are the highest forms of logic and reason. Reason so pure, they've been sublimated into the unconscious.


Logic assumes process of deriving new knowledge from previous knowledge. Spontaneous insights is more akin to something that can't be derived.


I've read about some comedians explaining how to make improvisation work, especially when working in duo: never dismiss any idea, just take it, expand on it, keep the flow going.

Well applicable to "improv" on your own, and also to "brainstorming" meetings: forbidden words "no" and "but..".


Fun fact: there's a name for not being able to focus because your mind constantly wanders, resists switching tasks, and resists working towards things you're supposed to be working towards until it's an emergency or you at least convince yourself it is.

It's called (though is probably poorly named) ADHD.


The same is also caused by constant context switching. The brain makes a habit of "oh I've hit a hard part, time for a break!"

Please people don't try to diagnose yourselves with ADHD over the internet. Go see a professional


Unproductive: The Procrustean Bed of Modernity. My experience has been that a person is either enjoying it so much so that he or she doesn't give an f about hours spent, or is bound by responsibility. The feeling of being unproductive is more often than not a byproduct of not being in one of these situations --- all it says is neither am I enjoying what I'm doing nor am I in a position of responsibility. A net negative term, says nothing of essence at all, squeezing every bit of life out of you by inducing unwarranted guilt!


Great, now I can overthink about how I think about overthinking.


People in creative professions mostly know they need to strictly separate creation vs evaluation. Many creations will turn out to be crap, but if you start judging your ideas already during the creation process, you will just kill the creativity – that's what's described here as "overthinking".


I feel that you need a good foundation to be productive. You need to eat nutritious food, have enough sleep, set aside some time for exercise, relaxation and socializing. You can' expect to be productive if you don't have this base layer


Sounded a bit like Visual thinking Strategies at the end of that article. https://vtshome.org/


No. I overthink today to be a step ahead the next time the issue, or a similar one, pops up.




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