No Productivity System Can Override Your Choices

What lies in our power to do, lies in our power not to do. – Aristotle

Andrea left a wonderful comment yesterday on Create, Connect, and Consume, and her point is something I’ve been meaning to write about for a long time. The irony is that it’s about the problem of continual deferment.

To make it easier to follow the thread, I’ll quote her comment:

Charlie, would you say more about this?

“There’s no productivity system or bunch of creative tricks or tips that will help you with the continual deferring problem.”

Is it in fact that you believe existing support systems #fail outright at creating progress when procrastination or deferral is present?

Is it that you feel no viable system or tricks/tips exists? In which case I’m curious about your definitions. I ask because I teach on the power of environments to support exactly this, moving away from doing things through willpower or discipline – such an exhausting way to live.

For example, if a business owner constantly defers writing or some other aspect of ‘creating,’ there are weekly coaching calls as accountability, online platforms which encourage the creation of new writing habit chains, even self-tricks such as ‘If you write 3 times this week you get to buy that cool thing you saw.’

Clearly these and other examples work and don’t work from case to case. The best case scenario is that a sustainable new habit is formed and the formerly ‘often deferred thing’ becomes an effortless part of life. Thank goodness for me, I found a way to no longer defer doing my books and paying my taxes, you know what I mean? I owe that to a logic-based system (online tool for money management), a person (a great bookkeeper and accountant) and soft-system (reward for tax completion ahead of schedule.) Not to mention non-punishment in the form of frowning hubby or pissed off government that tries to bury me under reminder letters. (Tax penalty-by-papercut, perhaps?)

I’m wondering if by ‘help’ you mean ‘fix permanently’ or something like that…

Andrea and I are largely in agreement here. Environments, chunking down, and rewards make doing things a lot easier, but at the root of all of it is a choice.

Sometimes we choose not to do something because it’s a frog – we know what we need to do, we know why we need to do it, but we just don’t want to do it. Other times, we don’t know what we need to do. Still other times we’re just emotionally Stuck on it, which is different than it being something we simply don’t want to do.

There are ways to work through these things. We can focus on catching frogs before they get too large. We can harness different environments to help us figure out the path ahead. Or we can do some emotion mapping to see what’s really keeping us from doing it.

However, no external system can get you to do anything. You can ignore reminders you send yourself. You can skip coaching calls or choose not to tell your coach about certain things. You can defer acting on the help that others are giving. You can hide from your emotions.

So, when I said “there’s no productivity system or bunch of creative tricks or tips that will help you with the continual deferring problem,” I simply meant that if you choose to continually defer acting on something, there’s no external system that can override your choices.

When I mentioned “you’ll have to have the discipline or fortitude to either stick with doing those things when they’re hard to do or to quit them and take them out of your deck,” I meant that at a certain point, you have to make a choice to do something about the things you’re continually deferring, and that choice itself may be uncomfortable. I’ll also note that my views on meaningful action have changed since the time I wrote that post a little over a year ago; I’ll be sharing more about the shift in the future.

The only thing that can override your conscious choices is developing good habits and patterns that operate at a subconscious level – which is very close to what Andrea said – but you still have to choose to develop those habits and patterns. In the end, it all comes back to you choosing to fix, remove, or address the problem rather than choosing alternatives that let it persist.

I’ll end this by dove-tailing with the quote from Aristotle that I started the post with: choosing not to act is itself a choice – it’s a choice to act in a different way. Continual deferment is nothing but continually choosing an action that stalls progress on something over an action that promotes momentum on that thing.

So, what are you deferring? What choices can you make that helps you get some momentum going?

(Thanks, Andrea, for asking me to talk a little more about what I meant. It was just the prompt I needed to make a different choice. ;p)

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  1. says

    Hey Charlie,

    I’ve noticed this a lot with people I’ve worked with as well. Falling into the trap of trying out a productivity system, and then not being productive

    However, rather than reviewing where the breakdown occurred, they then (well meaning) try to shift to a different productivity system, assuming the issue is that the system itself was not for them

    While it’s true that one productivity system may work better for someone than others (e.g., GTD is sometimes overkill for some people and overwhelming), generally I think you’re right on when you say this:

    “choosing not to act is itself a choice – it’s a choice to act in a different way.”

    The issue is making the choice to consciously overcome our internal objections to take action, and follow through with the system

    I’ll concede though that I do see this as a “flaw” (for lack of a better word) in many productivity systems – they assume motivation, self discipline and follow through upfront as a given, and perhaps would better serve some readers if they taught them that hey, if the system keeps breaking down, and the issue is that you’re not following it – perhaps X resource would help you with that issue.

    • says

      I see this as a flaw, too, but not with the “system” per se. Part of the shift that I mentioned includes understanding “soft” and “hard” productivity; so much of the literature and systems are about “hard” productivity, which largely uses force and pressure to achieve goals. At a certain point, forcing something doesn’t work, and a much easier route is allowing or harnessing – which is a large part of what my best work here is about. More to come…and I think you’ll like it.

  2. says

    Wonderful post, thank you–a great reminder that we are ultimately accountable for what we do and don’t do, and no external ANYthing can make me do something. There is enormous freedom to be had in telling the truth about those things that we’re just plain not gonna do. When I get straight about (and communicate to those who need to know) the things I am now clear I’m not going to do (or at least in the forseeable future not going to do), it takes away a lot of the monkey chatter in the ol’ head. Not to mention it makes for relationships (both work and personal) that just plain work better. (As a mother, for instance, this skill has served me well, when I’ve used it!) Once the things I’m actually not going to do are no longer cluttering my mind/lists/calendar/lame-justification-generating-machine, I have more time, freedom and energy to devote to the things I’m truly committed to doing.

    • says

      So many people don’t see the value of clarity of what you’re going to do, and, importantly, what you’re not going to do. The difference is like driving in a thunderstorm and driving on a nice clear day, and I’m glad you see it.

  3. says

    Fabulous post! Processes are only tools. Tools can’t replace choice, will power or action. David Allen mentions this issue in Getting Things Done: that your productivity system can’t actually do your work for you! No matter what it keeps track of and makes easier, you still have to actually, you know, work to get work done :)

  4. says

    WORD! :) It’s funny you posted this today, because yesterday my last status quote on facebook was:

    You can’t run away from your problems, you can only deceive yourself by pretending they don’t exist…

    And then I commented under it saying:

    “Mostly, this is done through DISTRACTION…”

    and I think I got about 13 likes and 5 comments by the next time I checked my profile page 😉

    But it’s such a deep point: sometimes we need courage, NOT productivity tools to simply face the reality of what needs to be done.

    In fact, I’d go so far to say that some of us are studying productivity as a way of PRETENDING we’re trying productive when we’re really just avoiding the obvious things we need to focus on, y’know? (This was me for a looong time, actually)

    Peace ;),

    • says

      Ah, Bryan, you’ve hit upon what I’ve (not-so)-affectionately called meta-productivity. There’s a time and a place for metaproductivity, but at certain point, you have to recognize that learning 18 ways to make a list is not getting the items on the list done.

  5. says

    I share a system for making good choices in large part because people often blame the environment for their situation. Most frequently I see this in the specific area of dating. People who are unhappy dating in Chicago or Cleveland often inform me they are going to move to a completely different place like Denver or Seattle; that dating will be better there. I ask them if they plan to go along with themselves on the move. It’s pretty expensive to move such a long way only to continue to have dating problems. It’s you. You have to change what you’re doing. That doesn’t necessarily mean big changes; in fact, it’s often the small things that creat the biggest ripples, like asking someone to lunch instead of dinner. Or not attempting a kiss at the end of the date. This is applicable in all areas of productivity. Changing the environment can be a great way to get a fresh start but only if you make changes in your actions, as well. Totally agree with what you guys are saying here on that.

    • says

      Great points, Ian – thanks for sharing.

      And I totally agree that sometimes the smallest of things can have the biggest ripple. Funny how spending 1 minute deep breathing before working or 5 minutes planning can have a dramatic difference on the outcomes of the day.

  6. Archan Mehta says


    Getting things done is not always a good thing. It depends.

    Similarly, procrastination is not always bad. It depends.

    This is applicable to our daily lives.

    (Since you are a philosopher, maybe you can write about this in your next post.)

    Sometimes, we are too quick to make decisions–we are too judgmental–sort of like putting the cart before the horse or jumping the gun.

    Instead of resolving the problem, that can create even more problems.

    Sometimes, what is required is to sit back, relax and think things through. Hence, a little procrastination can actually help you.

    Our society, unfortunately, conditions us to have a “bias for action,” but to be “productive” is not always such a good thing. Sometimes, it is wise to defer in order to avoid costly mistakes. Just something to think about, that’s all. Cheers!

    • says

      I agree with most of what you’re saying here, and I have written about the perils of over-activity. However, procrastination and continual deferral need not be the same thing – continual deferral might be better seen as a subset of procrastination.

  7. says

    Reminds me of one of my favorite Rush songs, Freewill.

    “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.”

    Honestly, Charlie, I could spend hours, maybe days, on PF, soaking up the goodness.

    Thanks for being you – glad to know you.


  8. says

    I like how you talk about choice. Sometime we forget that we are choosing to defer our action. I know that I do this.

    I defer on creating a product for my blog. I know what I need to do. I just need to do it and fix it after I launch it, if there are major issues. A good product is better than no product at all. I know that I just want it to be perfect. My vow to your audience is I’m going to finish this product and launch it by November.

    • says

      November, eh?

      People have a habit of doing the things they tell me they’re going to do. And you’ve told nearly 4,000 people, too.

      We’re looking forward to seeing what you launch. It won’t be perfect because it can’t be, but let’s get it to good enough, okay?

  9. says

    Wonderful post, Charlie! I do agree with you that it all boils down to the person; no external system can drive a person to do anything. For me, “being emotionally stuck on what a person needs to do” means that he is caught in the worry cycle. In my opinion, this is because an individual might be too worried about the past or future (or even both), and thoughts like these become the underlying source of stress. This leads to a person deferring a particular task for fear of committing past mistakes, or not knowing what the lies ahead of him.

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