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Steve Bein on Handling Multiple Projects

Self-motivation examples

Steve in Antarctica in 2008

Here’s a response my friend and collaborator Dr. Steve Bein, a professor of philosophy, black belt, martial arts teacher, Writers of the Future winner, and adventurer whose first novel comes out (I believe) next year gave to a question about handling multiple projects at once.  The context was writing specifically, but the advice seems to apply much more broadly than that.

I’ll give the advice I followed when writing my dissertation: write whatever’s easiest that day. Writing a dissertation is a huge pain in the ass, but if you write whatever’s easiest on any given day, sooner or later you will get the hardest part written too. (Sooner or later today’s hardest part becomes easier than some future, harder part.)

The primary problem this solves is that of motivation. You always get to feel like you’re getting away with something, and you always get to feel like you’re making forward progress.

The above is actually the second-most important piece of advice I could give you, and it only works if you follow the most important advice, which is this: WRITE EVERY DAY. No exceptions, not even your birthday.

As Steve has successfully completed projects like short stories, novels, philosophy papers, and a PhD dissertation, I feel he knows whereof he speaks.

Steve in the desert in Namibia, 2010

Photos courtesy of Steve Bein

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How to Make Habits Form More Quickly

Habits

While it always takes time for a habit to form, if we want to encourage one to take hold, here are some key things we can do:

  1. Do it more often. Each repetition of a behavior helps to strengthen the neural connections that can make that behavior automatic.
  2. Skip the excuses and exceptions. While nobody’s perfect, it’s important to keep in mind that any time we skip a day or decide to let things slide because of “special circumstances” sets things backward and delays the formation of a habit. (See “How Not to Make Excuses“)
  3. Plan in advance. Sometimes we don’t have a lot of attention to spare to think about a goal at the times when we need to make key choices. By planning ahead when we do have a few moments to think, we can have the right choices mapped out for us and increase our chances of making them.
  4. Think, visualize, discuss, daydream. The more time we put into thinking about our goals and imagining the payoffs, the easier it is to tap into motivation when we need it. Use a daily commute, time waiting for appointments, time in the shower, and even conversations with friends to spend more brain time on your goal.
  5. Simplify. The more we make our desired behaviors simple to manage, the more likely we are to be successful managing them. Use tools, regular events, well-thought-out systems, and repeatable behaviors to stay on track.
  6. Find the appeal. It’s much easier to keep to a course of action when it’s something we think of ourselves as enjoying instead of something we think of as a chore or limitation.  Focus as much as possible on the things that make a behavior appealing, and be willing to try to find some enjoyment even in circumstances you’re used to thinking of as unpleasant, like feeling hungry or getting organized.

Photo by Maia C

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Willpower as Caring About Lasting Happiness

States of mind

Another way to look at willpower is to think of it as focusing on lasting happiness over short-term pleasure. It’s tempting to think of pleasure and happiness as the same thing, but happiness, which comes from living in a way that satisfies our real needs, is not the same thing as gratifying a momentary urge (for more on this, see “The difference between pleasure and happiness“).

So for instance, willpower to clean up a junk room at home means caring more about how we’ll feel once that room is reclaimed–or even how we’ll feel once we’ve gotten over the initial hump and are making exciting progress–than about the potential discomfort or annoyance of getting started. Willpower to stop smoking means caring more about having good health than about quelling a momentary urge or giving in to a craving to smoke. Willpower to work harder on schoolwork or at a job means caring more about the satisfaction of getting the most out of our daily efforts than about the great number of whims and distractions we’re presented with from moment to moment that sometimes seem more appealing than working.

Looking at willpower in this way doesn’t mean postponing the benefits for months or years: lasting happiness can start surprisingly soon. For instance, with the junk room example, within ten minutes we can start to experience pride and elation at finally making progress on a long-postponed job. The nagging concern about getting that work done also lifts, providing almost immediate relief.

It’s strange that things like a doughnut, which will be gone and maybe regretted in just five minutes, or avoiding a task, which skips the trouble of getting involved in the work but often ignores the fact that the work can be interesting and satisfying once we’re in the groove, can tempt us. After all, temptations and indulgences offer an obvious but very limited kind of enjoyment not at the time that we think of them, but a short time in the future, typically, while focusing on longer-term happiness often offers a less flamboyant but still meaningful kind enjoyment in only a slightly longer period of time. Why do we sometimes fall for satisfying the imbalanced needs of ourselves a few minutes in the future instead of taking care of the versions of ourselves that will exist only a few minutes after that? Why do we so often go for pleasure in five minutes when it’s going to lead to regret in ten?

Regardless, thinking about willpower in this way gives us a simple practice we can use to improve our self-motivation: when faced with a short-term choice that we know we’d like to make a certain way, whether it’s a temptation we want to avoid or a task we want to face, focusing our attention on lasting happiness and how we’ll feel about a good choice will make us more likely to choose the option we really want, while focusing on short-term pleasure will make us more likely to follow paths we won’t be glad we took.

Photo by h.koppdelaney

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If You’re Not Happy Where You Are, Where’s Your Mind?

States of mind

As human beings, we have a unique ability: to project ourselves into a future situation, memory, or even an imagined situation, so that we almost feel like we’re there. We can close our eyes and picture being somewhere else, some time else, even someone else. And this can be very handy–or, depending on the situation, it can make life miserable and tedious.

What’s wrong with daydreaming?
The danger of daydreaming about somewhere else we’d like to be is that it tends to make it very difficult to connect constructively with the time and place we’re currently in. For instance, if I’m out mowing the lawn and can only think of going swimming when I’m done, I’m naturally going to tend to be impatient and dissatisfied with what I’m currently doing. While I’m not suggesting that the swimming won’t be nice, nor even that an occasional thought about swimming can make lawn mowing more enjoyable, what I am suggesting is that focusing on swimming for any period of time is likely to make the lawn work feel unpleasant.

You may respond that mowing the lawn is unpleasant–which can be true, but only when we maintain thought patterns reinforcing that feeling. We can experience things as unpleasant automatically just as we’re experiencing a new stimulus, but long-term negative emotions are usually maintained my mental loops: see “How emotions work.”

Getting more happiness right here, right now
Because thinking about wanting to be in another place or at another time tends to make us unhappy with where and when we really are, the most effective way to become happier in those situations–when you’re watching the clock for the end of the work day, or stuck in traffic and wanting to get home, or having financial problems and picturing a wealthier future–is to let go of the daydream and come back to the present. Once in the present, the thing to do is to find something absorbing about that present–a challenging task, an engrossing conversation, or a way to relax–that makes being then and there rewarding. True, burning through a stack of paperwork at the office is unlikely to be as rewarding as playing with the kids at home, but it will tend to beat the pants off sitting there and not getting that paperwork done while becoming progressively more miserable about being stuck there.

Useful daydreams and not-so-useful daydreams
There’s such a thing as constructive daydreaming, a practice that helps you connect with what’s rewarding about your goals, but the difference between this and get-me-out-of-this-moment daydreaming is that constructive daydreaming is a brief visit to something you hope to accomplish, not an extended retreat from what you probably would be best off doing right now.

The essential question boils down to this: what is there about where you are right now and what you feel would be best to be doing right now that can engage, excite, or fulfill you? Find that thing and seize on it, and the hours will pass much more quickly and happily than they would trying to be someplace you aren’t.

Photo by akeg

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7 Kinds of Dysfunctional Eating

States of mind

In an ideal world, we would all eat exactly the things that our bodies needed in exactly the right amounts, and those things would be incredibly delicious to us. Unfortunately, of course, many of us don’t live in that world. It’s not uncommon to come up with any number of reasons to eat that have little to do with what our bodies need–and surprisingly enough, often little to do with even enjoying our food.

But if we become more aware of why we’re eating when we’re eating dysfunctionally (those of us who eat dysfunctionally sometimes), then our options improve, and it becomes easier to make choices that will increase our happiness and health. This is a way of practicing mindfulness: noticing patterns in ourselves that, once seen and understood a little, can be changed.

These patterns are useful to notice not just for eating more healthily, but also for taking more pleasure in what we do eat. Many of these patterns contribute to eating food that is meant to be pleasurable in a way that prevents it from providing any enjoyment–and what good is that?

  1. Compensation eating: Eating as a consolation prize because something went wrong. Some examples are eating something we usually like because something we ate earlier was disappointing, or eating when something goes wrong (“I can’t go to the concert, but at least I can eat this huge bowl of ice cream.”)
  2. Add-on eating: Continuing eating during a meal or snack even when we’ve had as much as our body needs at the moment. One of the reasons add-on eating happens is that it takes our bodies about 20 minutes to feel full even when we’ve eaten a substantial meal. Another reason is that eating something sweet starts a cycle that creates a craving for something else sweet.
  3. Automatic eating: Eating because something is in front of us, not because we’re enjoying it a lot or because it’s something we need. Automatic eating is a good reason not to have conversations at the snack table at parties and not to open a bag of chips when sitting down to a movie: you look up after half an hour and realize you’ve eaten twice your body weight in junk food without really noticing or enjoying it.
  4. Bounty eating: Eating because there is so much there to eat. College students (for example) often run into this problem at any event that offers free food, and sometimes it can occur as a result of having just stocked the cupboards to bursting or from being at an event where a huge amount of food has been put out.
  5. Social eating: It’s not uncommon to eat in order to appease someone, to appear polite, to fit in, because everyone else is doing it, or to have something to do with our hands.
  6. Supposed-to-be-delicious eating: Eating a favorite or very attractive-looking food not due to actually being hungry for it, but on the general idea that it’s desirable food and that therefore we should be enjoying it. Yet sometimes foods we like just aren’t what we need or even want at the moment.
  7. “I just can’t resist” eating: Telling ourselves that although we wouldn’t be best served to eat a particular thing, we “just can’t resist.” This is an example of “all-or-nothing thinking”, a broken idea. In fact, there are almost always options.

Readers: have any patterns to add?

Photo by brotherxii

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How Are Your Friends’ Habits Changing You?

Habits

One of the books I’m reading at the moment is  Tom Rath and Jim Harter’s Wellbeing: The Five Essential Elements, which summarizes the findings of ongoing research by Gallup over a number of years on the subject of wellbeing and happiness. In the section on social wellbeing, Rath and Harter point out an important influence on our lives that’s often ignored: our friends’ habits.

Habits of friends have a profound effect on us, often even more than habits of parents or spouses. For example, when I was much younger (and more foolish), I smoked, though not heavily. When I moved to a new town where I’d be spending time constantly with friends who didn’t smoke–and who didn’t like smoking–I stopped. I literally smoked right up until the day I moved, then quit cold turkey and never picked up the habit again.

There are some useful ideas that emerge from understanding the power of friends’ habits, ones that impact our own self-motivation and give us more tools to help people who are close to us.

1. Buddying up makes habit change easier
Working together with a friend who wants to make some of the same improvements you do helps encourage habit change in at least three ways: first, any kind of social support makes us more likely to follow through with the changes we want to make in our lives. Second, any gains our friends makes help encourage and influence our own improvements. And third, changing habits together with someone whose company is enjoyable makes the change and the new habits more attractive, which makes it easier for the new behavior to become permanent.

2. Improvements in your life can help improve your friends’ lives
If you want to help make your friends’ lives happier, more successful, healthier, or more fulfilling, one of the best possible things you can do is acquire a good habit yourself. The change in you has a good chance of being noticed and admired by your friends, and it’s possible some of them will make improvements in their own lives inspired by your example. Additionally, making a positive change in part for the benefit of friends offers you an additional, very meaningful kind of inspiration to succeed.

3. Pick your friends carefully
If you spend time with people who are stuck and unhappy with their lives or who have bad habits you don’t want to pick up, your own quality of life is more likely to worsen unless you have so much support from other parts of your life that you’re a much stronger influence on your friends than they are on you.

Simply being aware of the impact friends can have on our habits and wellbeing can help bring out problems that were hidden and offer new possibilities for making things better.

Photo provided by freeparking

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The High Cost of Not Liking Your Job

Strategies and goals

As far as I can tell, most Americans consider it normal to be unhappy with their jobs. The idea seems to be that you have to put in your time during the week, suffer through having to do tasks you don’t feel like doing, then get in some fun over the weekend if you can.

This is not a recipe for happiness. After all, most of us spend a huge proportion of our waking time working. If we don’t like our work, than that’s a lot of time spent unhappy and stressed.

For some people, certainly, the solution is getting a different job, even if expenses need to be scaled back to make that possible. But the key to happiness in a job isn’t always what we’re doing: sometimes it’s just how engaged we are.

The new Gallup book (from the people who do the polls), Wellbeing: The Five Essential Elements by Tom Rath and Jim Harter, makes the argument based on extensive research that a fulfilling life is one where a person is doing well in five areas: career, social, physical, financial, and community. “Career” in this case can mean employment, self-employment, full-time parenting–even a hobby. Regardless, happiness in a career turns out to have a lot to do with engagement.

Rath and Harter distinguish between people who are generally engaged in their jobs (interested in what they’re doing, focused, involved) and people who generally aren’t (distracted, waiting for the day to end, dissatisfied, bored). They employed a series of pretty clever tracking techniques, including a device that would beep at certain times during the day and prompt subjects to record what they were doing and how they were feeling about it; heart rate monitors; and monitoring cortisol levels in saliva. (Cortisol is a chemical in the body that is closely linked with stress.) From these and other data, they offer a chart measuring happiness over the working day for an average engaged person versus an average not-engaged person.

Of course the people who were engaged were happier, but the specific comparison is striking. Unengaged people come in unhappy, get unhappier after the first hour or so, become more interested and less unhappy during the middle of the day, and then experience a slide in happiness throughout the afternoon that only stops with a sudden burst of comparative happiness at the very end. The least unhappy point in the day for these folks? Quitting time.

By contrast, the engaged people are as happy when they walk in the door in the morning as unengaged people were at the end of the day–and the engaged people keep getting happier from there. The most tedious and unpleasant time in an engaged person’s average day as happy as the most thrilling time in an unengaged person’s day! Weirdly, people who are trying to entertain and distract themselves at work by stretching coffee breaks out and reading e-mailed jokes are having much, much less fun than people who are getting excited about their work.

Admittedly, it’s not always easy to get excited about one’s work. It’s especially hard if you have a manager you don’t like, if you’re doing something you don’t believe in, if you have serious concerns about how the organization operates, if you don’t like your coworkers, or if you don’t have what you need to do your job effectively. In these situations, it might make sense to look for a new job.

In other situations, it can be interesting to ask yourself “What could I do to feel more involved and interested in my work?” There are some suggestions in my article 6 Ways to Be Happy at a Job You Don’t Like.

Photo by oso

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A Solution to Depression?

Guest posts

Today’s guest post is from Kari Wolfe, whose blog Imperfect Clarity passes on everything she’s learning as she works toward building a writing career, interviews fascinating people, parents her daughter in ways she never expected, and forges her own habits of success.


For years, I complained of back and knee pain.

For years, I received the same advice from lots of well-meaning friends and family: go on a diet, lose weight, breast reduction surgery, walk more.

I ignored the advice.  And my muscle pain became worse.

In April 2010, I started a 12-week-long session of physical therapy.

And everything began to change.

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My assignment, should I choose to accept it…

My physical therapist gave me exercises to do, every night, six nights a week.  And I did my exercises.

Begrudgingly.

I did my exercises, focusing on the point where they would not only be done.  I stretched all the muscles that I needed to stretch, worked all the muscle groups I needed to work.

I’m still doing my exercises.

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Well, while I’m working on this, I want to do this too…

Strangely enough, (I thought at the time, anyway) once I started focusing on my physical problems, I started paying more attention to my life.

I started focusing on an idea for a business.  My writing, both fiction and non-fiction.  I started looking for motivational material, books< and blogs, to read, to get my spirits up and centered on what I wanted to do.

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Is there a solution to depression?

The solution to depression isn’t always a pill.  While medication can be helpful, it’s honestly not the “end-all, be-all” wonder cure for depression.

The downward spiral of depression can convince you there is nothing out there.  If you take a walk, you’ll just end up walking back.  If you exercise, you’ll look funny and people will laugh at you (my very own problem).  If you try to solve the problem, you’re going to fail.

Or if you have back and neck problems, what you really need is a drug to numb the pain.

I’ve been there.

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My solution, thus far.

The solution to depression can be as simple as getting up and going for a walk.  Or starting an exercise routine.  Or tackling a long-existing problem and working toward it’s solution.  It’s not so much exactly what you do, but what you focus on.

Oddly enough, I think I like exercising when I wake up in the morning.  Yep, first thing.  Just don’t tell anyone.  Please–I don’t want to ruin my reputation.

Once my heart begins to pump faster and my physical needs (shhhh…) are met, I’m ready to rest for a few minutes and then start to take on the day.

Kari Wolfe is a stay-at-home mother of a very curious three-year-old daughter who happens to be autistic. She is a writer and maintains her own blog, Imperfect Clarity where her focus is becoming the best writer (and person) she can be by living her life to the fullest 🙂

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Don’t Economize in the Wrong Places

Strategies and goals

We all have a limited amount of resources: limited time, limited money, limited attention, limited skills … and so naturally we economize. To save our resources we take choose things to do without, select more modest alternatives, focus on one thing instead of another, share with other people and so on. And these are necessary skills: being able to spend $20 less on a grocery trip or to free up an hour in your day for something important give us greater power, flexibility, and control in our lives.

Yet economizing is a tricky balance, one that’s easy to lose in either direction. For example, if I try getting a cheaper brand of something at a grocery store, sometimes it will be a good find, but other times we’ll discover we’ve just gotten a really good deal on something no one in the house wants to eat–and a good deal on something you don’t need is always a bad deal.

It’s this way with anything. Putting too much time into “productive work” at the expense of relationships can undermine those relationships so that the support and even reasons for doing the “productive work” gradually erodes away. The classic example of this is the workaholic whose family falls apart due to time not being put in.

It’s difficult to know how to balance all of these requirements. Heck, it’s difficult to even figure out a seemingly simple limit, like exactly how many calories to eat per day when trying to lose weight (because of needing to consider variables for amount of muscle and fat, height, build, lifestyle, types of food, amounts of weight to lose, and so on). This doesn’t mean that we can’t put limits to good use, only that it’s good to question the limits we put on ourselves to make sure they’re still serving the goals they’re supposed to. If this idea turns into constantly revamping tactics so that goals are never reached, it’s destructive–but if it turns into a slow process of fine-tuning our choices and priorities, it can speed us toward our goals more effectively and more enjoyably than if we try to economize too much or in the wrong ways.

Photo by wenzday01

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7 Tricks for Starting in on an Unappealing Task

Strategies and goals

 

In a recent article (How to enjoy the dullest tasks) I talked about ways to make a dull task enjoyable and appealing. In response, friend and fellow writer Oliver Dale posed this question: “Once I’ve started the drudgery, completion isn’t usually an issue. What do you have for getting up the steam to start?”

It’s a great question. Even granting that dull tasks can be enjoyable, how do we face down the initially unappetizing prospect of jumping into them? Here are 7 tricks that can help a person launch into a task that may not be the most appealing possible option. For a wider treatment of getting motivated on short notice, read Don’t Feel Motivated? 10 Ways to Find Motivation Right Now

  1. Visualize doing it. When we picture ourselves doing something, our brains tend to become inclined to do that thing. It’s easier to act on an intention when we’re already picturing the experience.
  2. Focus on the most appealing thing about the task. How appealing a task is often has a lot to do with what aspects of it we’re thinking about.
  3. Get in a habit of doing the task regularly, in the same circumstances, on the same schedule. Unpleasant tasks tend to lose their harsh edge when repeated regularly and done with less conscious thought.
  4. Add something pleasurable: for example, put on some music to listen to while doing tedious paperwork, talk to a friend while doing dishes, or watch a movie while folding laundry.
  5. List every reason you want to get the task done. Motivation tends to increase when we are more aware of the purposes and intentions of our actions.
  6. Focus on the first physical step and just do that. It’s easy to get bogged down in objections and internal debate. If you know you’d like to get something done, sometimes the easiest and most direct approach is to take the first physical step and proceed from there–take out the papers you’ll need, put old clothes when about to clean the attic, pack your gym bag, etc.
  7. If you find yourself mentally resisting, figure out what you’re telling yourself and repair your thoughts. For instance, you can change “Ugh, I hate cleaning the fridge” to “If I get started now, in 20 minutes I’ll have a clean fridge.” See the posts on detecting broken ideas and repairing them for specifics on how to neutralize negative thoughts.

Photo by basegreen

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