The Need for Modes and Boundaries, Pt 2

We talked last time about the importance of boundaries and modes at work. But burnout doesn’t just exist as an epochal work event; it can apply to using new tools, or even “productivity” itself in getting life things done. Famed productivity expert internet comic artist Allie Brosh weighed in on this phenomenon: an initial burst of vigor, “finally getting my life together”, eventually wanes and withers into nonimpact. I am certain I am not the only person to have the same experience trying a new productivity tool: jump in, try really hard to work all my things into it, then eventually find I never use it and give up. Thankfully, the boundaries and divisions from workplace productivity are instructive, and apply just as well to personal productivity systems.

Draw a line between executing and not

It is exhausting to have the seemingly-infinite list of things to do constantly looming over you. Unless you differentiate between “trying to get things done now” and not, you are more likely to grow weary of even trying and abandon the entire project. Block off some time on a daily basis for knocking out your objectives, then honor that line and stop. You will not lose any weight on a diet you hate and abandon, and you will not get anything out of a productivity system you hate and abandon.

Block off right-sized time

If the tasks you need to do are simple, small, and uncreative, by all means schedule an arbitrary amount of time, perhaps in intervals across the day, and just fill it to capacity. But if the task is creative, like “do that drawing assignment” or “write that blog post”, block off a long, uninterrupted period of time that allows a period to get into and out of “the zone”. If you instead try to do that writing in short windows “whenever you have the time”, you will be less productive and less satisfied with your end-product.

Build healthy habits

There are better and worse ways to try to build systematic changes into your life. Setting reasonable sized goals, like only a few hours of execution rather than constant labor, is an obvious one. Other people have already done the experiments and written up their findings for what does and does not work in building habits; don’t reinvent the wheel! The short version: remove obstacles, add incentives, and use contextual cues to steer your actions without thinking about it. Instead of jumping head-first into a new productivity system and burning out, add a couple things to it, work it into part of your daily routine, and add more things as you are able. The “lost productivity” of not maximizing each of your initial days is dwarfed by the productivity gains from successfully working a good system into your life, so don’t endanger the latter to eke small gains out of the former.


Separate concerns for separate problems and frictionless systems are big themes in the research we have done for Bonsai, and are our motivation in developing it as we do. In work, in life, or in anything else, try to break the big things down and avoid straining yourself doing too much; ramping up your productivity in a sustainable way is the goal.