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Focus on the Inputs

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When quarantine started, I imagined my day would remain more or less the same before 5pm, because I already worked from home.

To the logical part of my brain, this was a simple algebra equation. My nine-to-five life stays constant, and my social life and errand-running would be replaced by their awkward and sometimes challenging COVID-era versions.

Two months later, the after-work stuff is running smoothly. My social life is fulfilling enough, on a rich diet of phone calls, one-on-one walks, and Zoom gatherings. I’ve become far more efficient at grocery shopping. (Why did I go so often before?)

Achieving an ordinary workday, on the other hand, has become uncannily difficult. Whatever I’m trying to do – write a blog post, return an email, tackle a website bug – it feels like I’m moving through mental molasses.  

I suppose this is the “Quarantine Mind Fog” many people have reported. I’d heard about its early signs: difficulty reading, excessive Redditing and TikTokking, unintended wall-staring, and googling the salaries of 1990s NBA stars.

Sleep has been fitful. I’m lethargic when I want to be up and moving, and wired when I want to be unconscious. The act of sitting down to write feels as straightforward as training a cat. I have as much time as ever, but my output has waned.

You may have experienced a similar down-shifting effect. What was once a manageable level of work may have become maddeningly difficult to achieve. Keeping the house clean, finishing your rounds by 4pm, or doing your daily stretches may have gone from a matter of course to an aspiration for the future.

No part of a routine exists in a vacuum, I suppose. Social distancing leads to increased screen time, which leads to decreased sleep, which leads to decreased energy, which leads to increased frustration, which leads to increased snacking, and so it goes.

I now accept that there’s an intricate spaghetti-sculpture of influences propping up any sort of “normal” day’s output. The mind and body need to be taking in certain ingredients in order to cook up your usual capabilities. What’s needed must be different for each of us, so there almost certainly isn’t a singular cause to the struggle – such as “anxiety,” as recent thinkpieces tend to assume.

For the same reasons, there’s almost certainly no singular solution. I’ve tried to “step back” and “take a break,” as is usually suggested. I’ve also worked weekends and evenings. So far both have only resulted in more lethargy, screens, and snacking.

I appreciate author Austin Kleon’s approach to the messiness of the output problem:

“Problems of output are problems of input,” he writes.

These few months have proven to me again how little connection there is between my “productivity” and my happiness. One thing I have noticed, though: I can be happy if my output is weak, but I’m rarely happy when my input is weak.

This shifts the spotlight to the oft-neglected other end of the equation. Rather than trying to steer your output to a certain standard, what if you focused primarily on what goes in, and let the whole system process it naturally?

I like this focus on input because it suggests that we’re not directly in charge of our output. Rather, we’re charged with the care and feeding of the complex, semi-autonomous system that generates the output.

Instead of becoming ever more vigilant about getting myself to achieve certain outcomes, I’m monitoring quality of the input. I’m just trying to get more good things into the hopper, and letting the system do its work. Training for a 10k race, even if it ends up getting canceled. Reading paper books instead of mobile articles. More lentils, fewer pretzels. Wearing pants even when I don’t have to. Excursions to places other than grocery stores.

Standard self-help rhetoric builds everything from output. The theory is that with clear goals and enough tenacity, we can seize control of the output end and make it produce what we want. All you need to do is define the result and accept nothing less from yourself. I will get X done by Friday. I will not let Y happen.

There’s a place for these output-first approaches, of course, but they take for granted that the system is getting adequate inputs. And if life has recently been turned more or less upside-down, that’s unlikely. No matter how hard you train, you can’t build much muscle out of Lucky Charms.

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Photo by Vitalii Pavlyshynets

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{ 48 Comments }

Avinash May 12, 2020 at 12:41 am

Hi David

Thanks for the article.
I always think “I need to finish this work no matter what by sunday”. Didn’t quite recognize that inputs it needed. Inputs can be as simple as getup by 7 , Have good breakfast and start work by 8 with focus. If we focus on the inputs , achieving any tough goal can be within our capabilities.

Tricky part would be to know the inputs though :)

Thanks
Avinash

{ Reply }

David Cain May 12, 2020 at 9:25 am

I think we can adjust the inputs without knowing exactly, because it can be hard to trace. But we know certain things definitely help the whole system to do its best work.

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Catrina May 12, 2020 at 2:13 am

Excellent points!
I think that’s also why a good, solid routine is so crucial. It helps us to stick to the inputs.
For example, I run every day because it’s my routine, regardless of whether a race is on the horizon or not. That helps me to keep my input constant, regardless of the output (race).

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David Cain May 12, 2020 at 9:26 am

Yes, definitely. In my case, having a race on the horizon is what gets me running regardless of how I feel.

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Weronika May 12, 2020 at 2:49 am

You really have a talent for capturing things that feel familiar but hard to verbalize! Thanks for this, it’s really helpful food for thought.
I only wanted to add, for me it’s been very similar when I became a mum. It was the same phase (or still is, 2.5 years later, with ups and downs). Definitely, focusing on the inputs is helpful, though I wasn’t able to put it into such elegant words :D

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A C Harper May 12, 2020 at 3:12 am

An interesting article. I’ve not experienced a great deal of ‘fog’ but neither have I exploited all this ‘undedicated time’ to do the tasks I now could. Yet I notice people around me do more ‘stuff’ that would normally be squeezed in, like cleaning windows, clearing gutters, refreshing external paintwork. Other people are doing Coronavirus related activities such as charity work and making personal protective equipment. Reduced social involvement affects people differently perhaps?

This leads on to refreshing one of my views about enforced isolation. I’ve previously wondered what it would be like to be a lighthouse keeper, a hermit, marooned on a desert island, or locked in solitary confinement. Or just old, lonely and housebound.

I used to think that I had sufficient mental resilience to be un-affected by such situations (just like my late father did until he found otherwise). Now, not so much… I suspect what makes up our ‘selves’ doesn’t end at our skull, or even body, but extends out into the reflections of the community and environment around us. Change the community or environment and this affects our ‘self’ and how we act.

Coronavirus quarantine has exposed how friable our identities are. That’s a shock.

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David Cain May 12, 2020 at 9:41 am

>I suspect what makes up our ‘selves’ doesn’t end at our skull, or even body, but extends out into the reflections of the community and environment around us. Change the community or environment and this affects our ‘self’ and how we act.

Totally agree with this. We really are not distinct from our environment, which means our behavior is never purely our will, it’s a product of many interconnected influences.

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slipperysam May 12, 2020 at 3:17 am

the inputs i am missing are the everyday ‘normal’ interactions with others, even just in passing. the choreography of navigating an intersection, a starbucks, taking an elevator, crossing the street. taking in the sounds and energy of others is the kind of input i am missing. it’s a passive kind of sensory feeding that i realize is every bit as crucial to my sense of self and well being as the food or information i consume. or what my personal routines may be. we are social animals and this unmet primal need for moving through the physical world (not virtual) surrounded by others is affecting me on what feels like a cellular level.

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David Cain May 12, 2020 at 9:44 am

That is a big one for sure. I feel lucky to live where I am, because several streets in my neighborhood have been closed to cars, which allows a lot of passer-by interaction without getting close to anyone. But on the whole the world is missing a huge volume of casual interaction, and that’s a big loss.

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Lola May 12, 2020 at 5:02 am

input is the is the data that fuels creativity . We have to find other ways to be creative. Books take you out of your situation and around the world. Take an on-line course in something you want to learn. Calling that friend you haven’t spoken to in years . Drink less of the Covide19 flood waters. Shower even though you aren’t going anywhere..Thanks David

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Rocky May 12, 2020 at 5:58 am

This is certainly a whole new way of looking at the day! Quality input equals quality output. Books, music, art, diet and exercise inevitably lead to higher performance. I would additionally put mindfulness / meditation at the top of the input list.
Many thanks David for another great post !

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David May 12, 2020 at 6:12 am

Thanks for writing this David, just what I needed to hear. Been looking after a toddler most of the day for at least a month now since being furloughed from work. I’ve been moaning the whole time about “productivity” but it’s clear if I eat better, meditate more frequently and do more exercise I’ll feel better about “only” having achieved another day of parenting (which I should see as an achievement in itself!)

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Vicki Atkins May 12, 2020 at 7:18 am

Sleep has been fitful. I’m lethargic when I want to be up and moving, and wired when I want to be unconscious. 

This is me right now. I am one of the “lucky ones” my job has barely been interrupted, I still go to work every day and covid 19 is still a stranger to my part of the world. The fear is paralyzing but also surreal . Every morning before I go I do a “self assessment.” No, not sick, but I feel exhausted all the time. I want to stay home, but to do so would end up in a situation where I must stay home for 10 days ( and I’m not sick… just tired.)
I will strive to focus on the inputs. I am living the cycle you point to, the screen time, the snacking etc, seeing it in writing helps.
Thank you!

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Jean Nickerson May 12, 2020 at 7:23 am

About 7 weeks ago, I went through a thorough Re-Qualification process of every email I received. Many long-standing subscriptions were immediately dropped. The majority for being tone-deaf and pitching self-serving agendas.

Over the weeks, I’ve continued to vet the front end process to only quality inputs. So now there’s an established process to manage quality inputs. It aligns with my philosophy about values lived, daily commitments supported and the power of progress, positive feedback loops.

You gave voice to this sentiment in your article. I believe the world needs more influential leaders with a solid purpose, benefits us all courage to step up and share their truth. Now when I see that demonstration in others, I want to actively appreciate it.

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David Cain May 12, 2020 at 9:49 am

We do have a larger problem these days of too many inputs overall, especially when it comes to information. It is so hard to pare the intake down to what’s good for us.

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Janet Tuchscher May 12, 2020 at 7:26 am

Love the picture at the top of your post and just love the topic… Just what I needed today thank you so much.

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Robin Hansel May 12, 2020 at 8:12 am

As always, David, you have written exactly what I needed to read at this precise moment. Thank you again for sharing your beautiful gift of insight. Peace, Robin

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Maryellen Symons May 12, 2020 at 8:23 am

David, you have described my life, analyzed my issues, and told me what I didn’t know I needed to know. Thank you.

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Ginzo May 12, 2020 at 8:31 am

We are in a ‘throwback’ situation. For the last 50,000 yrs; mankind has been necessarily busy with survival. We needed food, shelter, way to cook the food (fire), safety. So now, most have food short term; most don’t need fire to cook food, and are relatively safe at least for a while.
Previous epidemics like the black death in 1300’s, spurred mankind to ‘see things differently’. Taking in the new ‘input’ has to be more than, ‘I’ll do the things that make me feel good’. Where is mankind going?

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Susie R May 12, 2020 at 8:43 am

This is BRILLIANT. Well beyond the myriad think pieces currently flooding my IN box. Monitor your input and the output will find the way itself… I’m awed. Bless you for that insight: I know it will be a game-changer for me.

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Audrey May 12, 2020 at 8:46 am

Thanks, David – So true! It’s good to know I am not the only one.

I have always pooh-poohed people who say they find it “hard” to write or suffer agonies or “writers’ block”. “Don’t f*****g do it, then!” was always my response.

However, since the lockdown I have found myself doing everything but writing (including – as of today – commenting on articles….). Reading actual books is also a challenge, apparently.

I think it’s less anxiety than a sense of one’s concentration feeling shot. There is a fantastic piece by author Charlotte Medelson in the FT Weekend in which she talks about exactly this problem, neatly summed up in the line: “….I have little to do, but it takes all day.”

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David Cain May 12, 2020 at 9:55 am

Writing is a challenging activity at the best of times, and I would guess most writers have found it more difficult recently, even if they have more time to do it in. It must be a delicate balance of inputs, one of which is reading, but there are others that are currently hard to find. My primary inspiration for writing is “ordinary life,” which is kind of taking a vacation right now :)

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Jwheeland May 12, 2020 at 8:56 am

“Trust the Process!” As all Philadelphian’s know, you’ve got to trust the process. You cannot control outcomes, but you can control your process. In sports, acknowledging the role of luck and randomness is key to focusing on what you can control – i.e. how to play better (winning ultimately is a bad metric because you can’t 100% control that outcome).

Likewise, in life, there are just too many things outside our control – work, relationships, money, sex, parenting, even life, and longevity itself. You can’t control those outcomes, but you can (try) to control what you eat, how you move, the things you say or write, the effort you put out, your attitudes, the love you share, etc.

Anywho, timely and great post! Thanks so much for struggling on for us. You’re the man!

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David Cain May 12, 2020 at 9:57 am

I’m moving to this way of thinking. The process produces the results, and we set up and manage the process. I’m always trying to force things on the output end, but I don’t have much direct control there.

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Jim May 12, 2020 at 9:25 am

I nice reframing of a classic idea. Scott Adams recently wrote about systems being better than goals.

Separately, do spammers ever check the “not a spamer” box? Or does shame work as a spam filter? :-) It would be amazing if it worked.

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David Cain May 12, 2020 at 9:59 am

James Clear also talks about systems over goals in his excellent book Atomic Habits, which I’d recommend if you haven’t read it yet.

The vast majority of spammers are robots, so they are immune to shame, but somehow they don’t know how to check the checkbox. It works pretty well as a filter.

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Christina May 12, 2020 at 10:04 am

So fascinating to hear your experience of these two months of self-isolation, David, and I can relate to many of your observations however, unlike you, the greatest positive to come out of this experience is better sleep. I credit that to the downshifting of work. I realized that when I have five client projects on the go and have to shift gears between them, plus shift gears repeatedly *within* each of those projects—scanning instructions from the body of email and then from an attached PDF, checking comments in a marked up draft and implementing handwritten notes from a phone call—my brain taps out. So, to your point about inputs… yes. Without that chaos straining my brain during the day, I find myself more at ease to wind down at night. And if this shift in our new way of living has improved my sleep, it makes me wonder what else it has improved that I’m not yet aware of.

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Christina May 12, 2020 at 10:12 am

Oh yeah, and add to that emails pinging and the phone ringing throughout the day. Contrast is an effective teacher.

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David Cain May 12, 2020 at 11:50 am

Thanks Christina. We all live with a different combination of inputs, so it doesn’t surprise me that some people would sleep better under the new circumstances. One strange effect in my case is less anxiety than usual. I’m not entirely sure why — something about the solidarity effect of everyone being in uncharted territory, instead of feeling like it’s just me :)

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Christina May 12, 2020 at 12:47 pm

Oh totally. The unity of knowing we are in it together is comforting. I’m guessing meditation has proved an essential practice for you during these oddball days. It certainly has for me. Half an hour every morning with an online group.

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Nancy May 12, 2020 at 10:18 am

I have been reading your posts for several years now David and have thoroughly appreciated your insights and wisdom. This is the first time I have wanted to comment…
I have been going through a difficult time of burn out and severe depression for almost 2 years now … and have gone from working 60 hours a week in the corporate world managing a fast paced and multi-fasotted work environment to struggling to to getting out of bed every day. I used to be all about the outputs, and this health breakdown is teaching me just how important the inputs are… for me the most important input has been “self compassion” and “positive self talk”. My health is slowly improving as I focus on these inputs … thank you again for your insights, David.

{ Reply }

David Cain May 12, 2020 at 11:51 am

Self compassion is a big deficit for me too. I don’t do much self-compassion practice, but whenever I do it’s like rain into dry ground.

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LAURA May 12, 2020 at 11:16 am

Thank you for your insightful words as always. What I gleaned from the article is to just keep moving. This has been my go-to whenever I am struggling with something big or small. The precursor to that is just start. You can’t get out of the slump or get anything accomplished until you start. I don’t think about all of the things in between or even the reaching the end. I begin and keep moving.

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Deanna May 12, 2020 at 12:05 pm

Doesn’t the Input also require Output though? If I want to input health food, then I have to output a lot of planning, time spent cooking, and self-denial of more delicious unhealthy food. If I stretch/meditate/brush my teeth in the morning, am I inputting healthy habits or outputting disciplined effort? Which comes first, the input chicken or the output egg?

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David Cain May 13, 2020 at 7:24 am

They are both nebulous terms if they don’t have a context. In this context, the output is your normal level of workday productivity. When that wanes, we tend to focus on trying harder to reach that standard (i.e. maintain that output) when it would be more helpful to look upstream, and attend to the inputs that allow for that output.

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Hamlet May 12, 2020 at 1:24 pm

Reading this latest post of yours somehow reminded me of an old Raptitude post https://www.raptitude.com/2012/08/the-law-of-attraction-for-science-heads-and-secret-haters/

Maybe this latest post is the secret to the secret.

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Ran Klarin May 12, 2020 at 4:38 pm

In my world of ‘stepping back,’ I’ve noticed that as I’ve reduced BOTH input and output, my mood goes south. My work-around is to do something, anything, physical productive—cleaning the backyard, fixing a tool, cleaning the desk. Your experience is to my mind idiosyncratic.

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David Cain May 13, 2020 at 7:27 am

I don’t think I suggested reducing input, but rather turning your attention to what is going into your current workday, rather than what’s coming out of it.

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Vanessa May 12, 2020 at 10:18 pm

Your insight has helped me see that this has been my way through this time too. Focus on the choices I can make rather than events I can’t control.

At the very stressful early stage I clung to the mantra “Do what I can”. Those simple things became weighted with importance – wash hands, wear a mask, don’t go to the store.

There was a parallel universe in Instagram where people went to cafes and travelled in the countryside like there was no pandemic. It was nearly as stressful as the news.

I became very decisive. Mute those accounts. No news before breakfast or after dinner. I thought a lot about whether the actions of one person can make a difference.

Choices became crystal clear. I radically changed my diet in favour of health, sustainability and compassion. What I wonder now is why I didn’t make these changes before.

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Astrid May 12, 2020 at 11:44 pm

I like this a lot. I feel like this shifts the focus from control to care and that might be just what I need, now especially but in general as well.

I’ve been riding my own ass lately with lists and goals and rules and tracking and it just ain’t working. I’ve also been going to bed at inane hours and am emotionally exhausted from always having to be available online for my coworkers and friends. Obviously my input is all whacked out, I need some unplugged time and better sleep and better food and more exercise.

So instead of flogging myself for not doing as much as I should, I’ll focus on caring for myself better and see where that takes me.

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David Cain May 13, 2020 at 7:39 am

I’ve had a similar experience — many output-focused lists and rules, and there’s just nothing behind them. My first input-focused move was getting massive amounts of vegetables into my system. Sleep improved a little, which made exercise less of a struggle, and so on…

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Valerio May 13, 2020 at 2:31 am

I think, we don’t realize that just adapting to this new reality takes a lot of effort. We had these expectations where we could use the extra time home to “improve ourselves”, read a ton of books etc. but the reality is that it takes time and effort for our mind and body to just adapt and survive.

Re: inputs, I think everyone should read Nate Silver’s “The Signal and the Noise”, even if you’re not interested in statistics. Nowadays we are literally spammed with inputs, information noise, from the outside, and learning to separate what is useful and important from the noise is a vital skill.

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David Cain May 13, 2020 at 7:41 am

Agreed… I think one myth that has been busted for a lot of us is that a lack of time is the true reason we don’t achieve certain goals. I’d get in shape if I had time. I’d learn another language if I had time. A lot more is needed than time.

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Emilie May 13, 2020 at 6:00 am

This article puts in words things I have been feeling for months (or years), and it is especially true in this pandemic time. Thank you so much for writing it. I don’t like setting goals, dreams, tasks, and realize I am terrible at doing them when I ”have to”. I much prefer maintaining a few very simple habits, such as breathing, slowing down, meditating, doing yoga, sleeping and eating well. These help me so much more in terms of what I get done, and how I’m doing them. I love your writing, it is truly one of the best things on the Internet!

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David Cain May 13, 2020 at 7:46 am

Thanks Emilie! This comment discussion has reminded me of one of James Clear’s big points, which is that goals may be overrated — if you just ensure the fundamentals are there, it leads naturally to good outcomes. This works better at least than defining some outcome and just trying harder and harder to achieve it.

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Marc May 14, 2020 at 7:17 am

As always, David, a timely and thoughtful piece.
The switch from outputs to inputs is remarkably clear in understanding and simplicity, like many paradigm shifts.
Thank you.

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Mel May 14, 2020 at 9:34 pm

This was such a great article to read. During cooking school, a chef once said that “no amount of technique will make up for quality ingredients.” I took that to mean that if you start with subpar quality ingredients, you can only do so much to make it great. That’s not to say like chuck is bad meat. No cut of meat is bad, it’s just better suited to certain dishes than others. But if you start rotten meat, you can’t make a great dish out of it.

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Lance May 17, 2020 at 9:08 pm

Even though nothing has changed for me in terms of work schedule and location (due to the nature of my job), I have been feeling the same thing. Sort of feel like the world became instantly bizarre and input and results have become disconnected.

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