Why Productivity Systems Don’t Stick

Note: Experimental, trying to repost a Twitter thread as a Lesswrong post to see if people like it (so if you like it, or don’t, tell me).

Let’s talk a little bit about oscillating motivation, shadow values, non-coercion, and the problem of revolving productivity systems.

We’ve all had the feeling that new productivity system is working! Only to find that days, weeks, or months later it falls off, and we fall back into a period of being unproductive. Hell, I was stuck inside this revolving door for more than a decade.

I tried every planner, app, book, coach, journal, todo list, calendar, and retreat under the sun. But always, would find myself back in the revolving door, back to where I started.

Robert Fritz calls this “Oscillating Tension.” in order to discover the root of it, we need to look at what procrastination actually is.

What is Procrastination?

It’s trendy these days to say that “We procrastinate to avoid negative emotions.” That’s true, but what does that make procrastination? It’s a defense mechanism against taking actions that hurt psychologically. Procrastination is a tool to prevent psychological self-harm.

So along comes this tool that we can use to get ourselves to act! It charges us money, or it gets us really excited about our todo list, or it gives us social pressure to take that action anyway.

But the underlying emotion is still (often) there. Every time we trick ourselves into doing the task without resolving that negative emotion, we’re confirming to our defense mechanisms that they were right to worry.

And then, when our environment changes, or we miss that call, or we misplace that planner… guess what happens? Our procrastination knows using that tool leads directly to self-harm, so it causes you to procrastinate from ever using that tool again. Oscillating tension.

The Need for Autonomy

There’s another problem here too. It’s not just the task itself that felt bad—the very fact that you felt you had to force yourself (instead of acknowledging and processing the negative emotions) leads the task to be even MORE AVERSIVE!

According to self-determination theory, humans have an innate need for autonomy. When we feel coerced into action, we resent this need not being met. That resentment builds over time. This leads to the second pattern of oscillating tension.

The pattern: We find a new coercive method that gets us to do things through “self-discipline”. As we use this method, resentment builds. Until finally the resentment for the method is stronger than the coercion it provides. Onto the next method. Oscillating tension.

(As a side note, when you learn about this, it’s easy to then decide to coerce yourself into non-coercion. This is just a signpost that that method doesn’t work).


Of all the coercive methods of self-discipline we use, the most common is also one of the most damaging: Self-loathing. This is a method that society has trained into us so thoroughly we don’t even recognize that most of us use it as our primary motivation tool.

The way it goes is this: We feel negative emotions related to a task, so fail to do it. In response to this, we begin to start feeding the “self-loathing monster” trying to pile on enough shame and guilt that they outweigh the other negative emotions.

So we pile on this shame, guilt, and loathing, until finally we buck up and do our task. But what happens then? We feel less shameful, and less guilty. The self-loathing monster shrinks. And suddenly, our fear of the task is stronger, we stop acting. Oscillating tension.

Value Tensions

Another way to frame this is tension between two values. One that we acknowledge (doing our task) and another that we refuse to acknowledge (e.g. not wanting to fail). Each one is constantly building as we’re living through the other.

This brings me to the fourth pattern of oscillating tension: Shadow values.

The pattern goes something like this: We have two values that (without proper planning) tend to be in tension with each other. One of them, we acknowledge, as right and good and ok. One of them we repress, because we think it’s bad or weak or evil.

Safety vs. Adventure

Independence vs. Love

Revenge vs. Acceptance

All common examples of value tensions, where one of the values is often in shadow (which one depends on the person).

So we end up optimizing for the value we acknowledge. We see adventure as “good”, so we optimize for it, hiding from ourselves the fact we care about safety. And man, do we get a lot of adventure. Our adventure meter goes up to 11.

But all the while, there’s that little safety voice, the one we try ignore. Telling us that there’s something we value that we’re ignoring. And the more we ignore it, the louder it gets.

And meanwhile, because we’ve gotten so much of it, our adventure voice is getting quieter. It’s already up to 11, not a worry right now. Until suddenly, things shift. And where we were going on many adventures, now we just want to stay home, safe. Oscillating tension.

There’s a 5th common pattern of oscillating tension called the Identity Snapback Effect, related to our actions and identities getting out of sync. Further exploration is left to the reader.

Inner Conflict

So what do all 5 of these oscillation patterns have in common? A lack of congruency. The tendency to ignore some needs in order to focus on others. A sense of inner conflict, instead of alignment.

In each and every case, the solution involves welcoming and acknowledging all parts of yourself, before plotting a way forward. Transitioning from forcing yourself to choosing what you want to do.

Honestly, I could do another 100 tweets on what this looks like in each case. The delicate dance of beliefs, emotions, strategies, behaviors, and tools that can be combined to internalize a new way of being.

But the start is just self acknowledgement. Letting all your feelings, values, desires in, and going from there.