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My Never-Ending Project Is Now Finished

Luc's writing projects

Talk the Talk 2006

My First Published Book–and Publisher Problems
My first published book was Talk the Talk: The Slang of 65 American Subcultures, a dictionary of and guide to subculture slang in the U.S., appearing in bookstores in 2006. I received a small advance and an education in traditional publishing. My publisher’s royalty statements tended to be late when they came at all, and they didn’t appear to be very consistent or accurate. Eventually the publisher put out an entire separate printing, a hardcover version, that they neglected to mention to me–or pay me for. I didn’t know about it until I walked into my local bookstore and saw a bunch of copies of my own book. “Hardcover?” I said. “This was never released in hardcover!” Of course, it had been.

I did eventually get paid some of those royalties, but as the book came to the end of its life cycle and it started appearing on bargain tables, I turned my thoughts to rights reversion. Reversion is when a publisher assigns all of the rights for future editions of the book back to the writer, whether due to a prior arrangement, out of the goodness of their hearts, or perhaps as a peace offering to a writer whose book they have published in a separate hardcover edition without his knowledge or permission. Whatever the reason, Kindle books were starting to make a splash, and I wanted to make a proper Kindle edition of Talk the Talk.

The publisher did, kindly enough, agree to revert the rights for the book to me, and I started on an updated edition that I could release in paperback and for Kindle, figuring that I could probably have it out in a month or two.

Out with the old
Two and a half years later, I’m finally finished with that new edition: after a long time spent editing, updating, programming, formatting, checking, and tweaking, and with a cover based on a design very kindly donated by my talented artist cousin Nicholas, I’ve approved the proof, and the book is available for order.

The new edition is Talk the Talk in as ideal a form as I can imagine. The original edition was beautifully designed, with a sort of Soviet Rodeo aesthetic throughout and I thought it was very snazzy, but unfortunately it was also difficult to read and wasteful of space. Because of that design, I had to cut out a lot of material out from the original edition. I was also concerned that it wasn’t too comfortable to read in large sections (for people who wanted to do that), however pretty the design was.

interior of the original 2006 edition

interior of the original 2006 edition

In the new edition, I’ve dispensed with the Soviet Rodeo design (which I probably wouldn’t have had the rights to use anyway) and made the book much clearer and more comfortable to read. I restored a bunch of material that I’d had to cut out of the original, and removed a section the editor had really wanted that I didn’t feel belonged in the book because it was more popular culture than subculture (I’ve made the original version of that section, on hip hop slang, available for free on the book’s Web site at www.subculturetalk.com). I added some new sections on subcultures like geocachers and scrapbookers and painstakingly sourced and included well over a hundred photographs illustrating people, concepts, and items from the many subcultures in the book.

Talk the Talk 2nd editionThe old edition is 5″ x 7″ and 422 pages. The new edition, which I really like, is 5.25″ x 8″ and 620 pages. The ebook is much less expensive than the original, and the paperback costs a little more than the original did.

Shouldn’t I Feel Triumphant Now?
Completing the book doesn’t feel real to me yet. It’s true, I didn’t work consistently the whole two and a half years just on editing, expanding, illustrating, and formatting this book–but I did spend many months at all of that work. Everything took much longer than expected. Once the Kindle eBook was finally ready in January, I figured it would be a walk in the park to use the database system I had created for the book (which automatically managed cross-references, synonyms, indexing, and alphabetization) to output a paperback version. Many, many working hours later, I realized it wasn’t so simple: I needed to spend a lot of time defining and perfecting formatting for all of the different kinds of information in the book, including “see also” terms, synonyms, warning symbols, terms, definitions, examples, photographs, subculture introductions, table of contents, index entries, photo credits, and a lot more. Also, I was very, very picky: I tried to do everything in the best way I could devise.

There had briefly been a Kindle edition of the first edition put out by my original publisher: someone there had apparently forgotten to tell someone else that the rights had reverted to me, and they had just dumped their original layout into a file that made a terrible eBook. I contacted the proper authorities when that appeared and had it taken down, partly because they no longer had a right to publish the book and partly because I thought their electronic version was a mess.

Thew edition, however, has been available for Kindle since January, and the paperback went up for sale today; it will start appearing on Amazon next week.

It’s Hard to Stick With Hard Work
I tried starting several new projects while working on this book, but after a short time on each I always forced myself to stop and go back to finishing Talk the Talk. After all, the book was already “finished,” money lying on the table ready for me to scoop it up–at least, that was the idea. In any case, if I’m going to commit to a project, it doesn’t make sense for me start conflicting projects, no matter how appealing they may be, and no matter how much drudgery needs to go into the current project. Trying to do two such projects at once would only delay both of them. Still, from all of my other writing during this period I now have two mostly-completed non-fiction books in progress, a novel I started and set aside, and many completed short projects (flash fiction, short stories, and plays), some of which were published or produced in this period. I also published a collection of science fiction and fantasy short-short stories called Bam! 172 Hellaciously Quick Stories and a previously completed novel set in my native Vermont, Family Skulls.

Was This a Good Choice?
I’m proud I stuck with Talk the Talk, but it may have been stupid to do so. After all, the amount of work I had to put into the new edition was hugely more than I expected. I’ll have to sell at least a thousand copies to be adequately compensated for all the time I put into just this edition, and that’s getting nothing yet for the value of the book as it existed in the first edition.

When I started, I can’t imagine how I could have known how much labor was going to have to go into releasing this second edition. Given what I didn’t know, the choice to go ahead was obvious. If I had known the amount of work involved, I’m not sure I would have proceeded. Fortunately, I can enjoy having the book out in this form now regardless of how much time and effort it took.

Will I Be Able to Sell It On My Own?
I do have a promotion plan, one that’s quite different from what I’ve done with other books to which I own all rights, but it’s kind of hit-or-miss: it might bring many, many new readers or fail utterly. After all, I don’t have the ins that my previous publisher has. If you have any recommendations for reviewers, magazines, Web sites, or radio shows that might enjoy the book, please comment or contact me through the contact form. If the book gets extra exposure because of you, I’ll send you a free, signed copy.

interior spread from a digital proof of the 2nd edition

interior spread from a digital proof of the 2nd edition – click to enlarge

To my great frustration, the original publisher never sent the book to any reviewers or promoted it as anything other than a writer’s reference. It is a useful reference for writers, but I’d argue that it has even greater value as a surprise-packed thing to browse through for fun; Cory Doctorow on BoingBoing.net agreed, calling it “The kind of quirky thing that is endlessly fascinating and full of odd insights into worlds you never suspected existed.” Still, they did get it into bookstores and offer it through their book club, and by my best guess (recall that the royalty statements had some problems, so I will never know for sure) they probably sold about 10,000 copies–no amazing feat, but the book earned a good deal more than its advance, even though by my reckoning they never paid me some of the money I was due.

What have I gained?
I think there’s some real benefit in having seen the project through to the end, even if the payoffs turn out to be greatly diminished (they might) and although the work was many times longer and harder than I had planned or expected (which it certainly was). What I’ve learned through years of studying motivation and productivity has paid off well in helping me finish this project, and now I can reap whatever rewards may come: I know that I’ve persevered and conquered a difficult task. I know that this strange and arguably fascinating little book won’t vanish, out of print and inaccessible. I can even hope that the book finds a real audience–whether of original readers who want the updated and improved edition, new folks who never saw the original, or both–and that it will actually start helping support my family, as the small advance I received from the original publisher did in 2005 and 2006.

Most amazingly to me, I can now move ahead to my next book project with a clear conscience. Ironically, it’s very likely that finishing these next two nonfiction books, which are each probably somewhere between 2/3 and 3/4 complete, will take less time for both together than Talk the Talk: The Slang of 67 American Subcultures, 2nd edition did for the one book. Heck, I probably could have completed a couple of novels in the time it took to revise and put out this book, especially since I could only work in certain situations due to the need to use the database I’d set up. The idea of just writing in a Word Processor is intoxicating–although both of the non-fiction books, as with most of my large non-fiction projects, are in Scrivener, which is not quite as accessible as, say, Google Docs.

It’s strange that completing a major project should feel more like something I need to recover from than something to celebrate. Still, maybe I’ll start connecting with some new readers, in which case there may be a celebration after all, a little further down the line.

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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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To Make Better Choices, Create a Protocol

Strategies and goals

Willpower as a series of choices
The real challenge of willpower often comes down to making good choices–a lot of them. One of the best ways to make a good choice is to come to a decision before you actually need to act: for instance, making firm plans to start cleaning out the closet at 3:00pm (ideally with an alarm or reminder in place) instead of coming to an opportunity to start and deciding between that and watching TV; or planning and packing meals for the day rather than choosing something to eat after you’re already hungry.

But for the choices that come up without planning, there are many other tools we can use. As opportunities or temptations come up, we can take time to envision accomplishing a current goal (visualization), focus on immediate positive benefits of a good choice, look for broken ideas, use distraction to steer away from a temptation, or focus on the mechanical steps of  acting well (for instance, see my post called “Just Don’t It“)–to name a few techniques.

Seizing the moment
What’s tricky about this is that bringing these tactics to mind takes special focus and a little time, commodities that are often in short supply when there’s an immediate choice to be made. If we wait to figure out what we can do about the situation, often by the time we are recollecting how to detect broken ideas or have come up with a good visualization to use, the opportunity has passed, the doughnut is already being eaten, or the procrastination has already begun.

The solution to this is to develop a protocol, a set of steps to follow every time you possibly can when a choice comes up that requires willpower.

How to create a protocol for choices
A protocol is short list of pithy reminders about willpower tactics: 3 to 4 items is good. It should contain the techniques you think have the best chance of getting you on track on short notice, summarized in a way you can memorize and bring to mind immediately when a situation comes up.

Once you think of your protocol, don’t hesitate: apply the first technique. If that gets you to the good choice you want to make you’re all set, but if it doesn’t seem to be working, switch to the second technique. No single technique is likely to work all the time, which is why having several already thought out is so powerful. Having too many, though, begins to get difficult to remember and hard to apply. Your protocol can swap out elements over time, but try not to overload it.

It can help to include both high-power techniques that require some time and attention and quick-draw techniques that you can apply immediately, since you want to have the big guns available but may not always have the time to deploy them.

Some examples
Protocol elements should be stated in a positive, encouraging, brief way. They should always be directed to plug into your motivation and long-term happiness and never to inspire guilt or to try to force yourself to do something you know you don’t want to do. Rather, these elements should redirect your thinking so that your actual desires in the moment change to make you want to pursue the best choice. There are many such techniques on this site. Here are a few examples. The terms in quotes are the kind of thing you might memorize, while the rest is just explanation. Your protocol elements might be much more specific to your goal than these general examples.

  • “What am I thinking?” – Search for broken ideas and repair them: see “All About Broken Ideas and Idea Repair
  • “Just go ahead” – Focus on the mechanical steps of doing the thing you want to do. If the task at hand is making a telephone call you’ve been avoiding, go through the moment-to-moment tasks of looking up the telephone number and dialing each digit instead of trying to get up enthusiasm. If it’s to stop eating, focus on moving your dishes to the sink, closing food containers, putting things away, washing up, walking into the next room, etc.
  • “Picture finishing it” – Use visualization to get some immediate happiness out of a long-term goal.
  • “Write it out” – Use a feedback loop to reorient yourself.

There are many more techniques you could use in a protocol, and I’ll see if I can’t get together a reference page of them to help. In the mean time, try browsing the complete post listing for this site, where you’ll find articles on a wide variety of willpower tools.

Photo by blythe83

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Little by Little or Big Push?

Strategies and goals

Over the past few weeks I’ve been through a major effort to go through all of my earthly possessions and get rid of everything I really don’t want or need. I used the “In what kind of realistic situation would I actually want to pull this out and do something with it?” test to decide what needed to go, as mentioned in my recent article “Some Tips for Getting Rid of Things.”

The things I set aside to get rid of went to a variety of places, some like the ones I mention in my article  “Clearing Your Mind by Cashing In.” Many items went to ReSource, a terrific local non-profit that provides a household good reuse store, building materials reuse store, and other departments while creating jobs and teaching job skills. Other materials were sold through Craigslist, given away through Craigslist and Freecycle, and set aside to be sold on Amazon and eBay. Of course our trash cans and recycle bin were also given a thorough workout.

The process, which is still in progress for me (I still need to finish going through books, primarily), took much longer than I would have imagined–but it also yielded a lot more things to sell or give away and freed up a lot more space than I would have imagined. Best of all, it has been taking innumerable little pressures and worries away: things I’ve held onto to fix or reuse somehow that I finally realized were trash, projects of going through things that are now done, and so on. Physical clutter can create mental clutter.

Coming to the end of this big push, I now have to ask myself: would it have been a lot easier on me to do this little by little over time? Or did I need to do it in one big push to do it at all?

The big push approach
The big push has some significant up sides. One of the biggest is that I didn’t have to reorient and remind myself of what I was doing every time I restart, which meant I could work efficiently. Another is that I could attack one part of the house, pull out everything in it, and take over as much space as I needed until I had sorted through all of that material. I also was able to easily keep focus on the job once I had started.

Yet another thing I like about the big push is the sense of accomplishment and catharsis. The change in my house was drastic, fast, and visible.

When doing a big push, it’s generally necessary to plan in advance and carve out time during which not only do you not have your usual responsibilities to attend to, but you won’t be badly distracted by other things you could do with the time, like socializing or relaxing. Big pushes generally require clearing the schedule, locking the door, and unplugging the phone.

The little by little approach
As great as the big push is, little by little has one killer advantage, which is that big pushes have a bad habit of never happening. For instance, if I were to wait until I actually had time to go through every piece of paper I own to get my papers organized, there’s a good chance that would literally never happen. Going through my things has taken about five full days so far–and I do mean full!–and that’s not counting the time I still need to put in selling off some of the things I’ve identified to get rid of. Being able to take that amount of time for organization alone was a rare opportunity, one that I jumped at, and for me, such opportunities come along often.

Another advantage of the little by little approach–and this too is a major plus–is that doing something consistently makes it into a habit. This is very useful for things that we’ll need to keep up once we get to our goal state. For example, if I were to do a major landscaping effort on my yard, doing it little by little would get me in the habit of working on the yard, which would be important to keeping up everything I had done in the initial effort.

Deciding on which approach to use
So if you’re facing a monumental project and are trying to decide whether to crank it out all at once or to do it little by little, here are some questions to ask yourself and some ideas to guide you based on those answers.

  • Does it need to be done at all? Even though the project may be a worthy one, are you willing and able to devote the time it will require? For instance, it might be nice to send Christmas cards to 200 people this year, but is that project high enough in your priorities to be worth the time it will take?
  • Does it need to be done very soon? If so, you may have no choice other than a big push.
  • Is efficiency of the essence? Big pushes tend to be more efficient than going little by little because of not having to stop and restart.
  • Are you going to learn as you go? When doing something little by little, you have a chance to reflect on and refine your methods. This can lead to great improvements in how you handle your project.
  • Can you free up the amount of time a big push will need? If not, little by little is your only option.
  • Will this be something you’ll need to maintain once the initial work is done? If so, little by little can do a better job of helping you develop the habits you’ll need.
  • What if the project goes over? For most large projects, estimates are more guesswork than reliable prediction. If you were to set aside an amount of time for a big push and at the end find you needed twice as much time, what would you do? On the other hand, if you were going little by little and found out the project would take twice as long as you thought, would that push completion too far away into the future?
  • Will you be getting help? Some help is better suited to big pushes, as with decluttering or physical labor. Other help is better suited to a little by little approach, as with processing documents that arrive through e-mail or working with people who don’t have large chunks of time available.

Whatever your approach, connecting with why you want to do the project will help you remain motivated.

Photo by druid labs

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Too Many Priorities

Strategies and goals

If I were to have to pick the one largest problem I have getting things done in my life, it would be having too many priorities. Maybe you can relate … though I hope you can’t!

Roots of overcommitment
Part of the problem has to do with my personality: I love to consider new possibilities and think about new ways to do things, so I often come up with ideas that seem likely to pay off handsomely if I invest some time and effort. Though sometimes that has been the case and sometimes it hasn’t, usually it’s much easier to consider whether the idea itself is worthwhile than to consider whether or not it really fits in with my primary goal at that point in my life.

And I do mean “goal,” singular. We can adopt a lot of different priorities in our lives, but if we really want to achieve something difficult and effortful, like starting a new business or losing 50 pounds or learning Swedish from CDs, our chance of success plummets unless it is the only big goal we’re currently pursuing.

Why only one goal?
Accomplishing any big change in our lives means changing habits, and changing habits takes time (see “How Long Does It Take to Form a Habit?“), effort, attention, and thought. When we try to pursue more than one major goal at a time, all of these resources get divided among the goals, and this takes a difficult but doable process and makes it so overwhelming that few of us can possibly succeed. It’s as though we are trying to defend a city with a small army that should be just barely up to the job, but then divide our troops in two or three or more parts and send them to defend other cities. All the cities may be worth defending, it’s true, but in this kind of situation, all of them are likely to fall.

When it’s hard letting other goals go
While knowing this has helped rein in my enthusiasm for new projects, it hasn’t prevented me from going in too many directions at once. Ironically, writing this blog makes it more difficult for me to let go of multiple priorities: it’s hard to write about self-motivation and not feel as though you should be able to create it in all aspects of your life at once, even if what you’re writing is that this is an unsuccessful way to proceed.

And of course all of the different project I pursue do feel very important to me. It’s hard to look at any one of them and think that I should let it go, especially after I’ve put a huge amount of work into it.

Yet sometimes letting things go–or at least putting them away temporarily–is exactly the best thing to do. Even a goal that’s put aside can benefit from this, because instead of unending effort toward too many goals that fails to ever fully succeed, we can have efforts that succeed in getting us somewhere, and once we’ve reached a certain level–the new business is running smoothly and there are no immediate crises, or new eating and exercise habits have become second nature, or communicating in Swedish is going well–then we have the mental capacity, the time, and the focus to spend on something else, which might well turn out to be that goal we had to sideline to get things going.

But getting to that point, for those of us who are used to trying to juggle lots of new projects or priorities, is hard. My natural response to the idea that I have to cut back on projects is that all of my projects are too important to cut back on. Yet not setting some of these projects aside means that I’m only considering them important enough to half-try and then fail at. It may be painful to give up on the car being rebuilt in the garage, the new artistic effort that had so much promise, or on the professional development effort that promises a better job but takes too much time and feels too draining–but that’s exactly what we end up needing to do if there’s something else that really needs to take priority.

Ongoing priorities
There are also things many of us do on an ongoing basis that really aren’t that important, and it’s very rewarding to experiment with not doing these. These may be things like participating in clubs or groups that don’t add much to our lives, watching TV, or spending a lot of time and effort on vacations. Many of these activities will be related to entertainment (or in some cases, just killing time), which sounds a bit as though I’m advocating a life spent having no fun, but in truth, the activities that are most enjoyable to us as human beings are often the ones that are the most rewarding, like helping out friends, engaging with our families, or doing something that you do very, very well.

However important existing priorities, even though they make demands on time and attention too, don’t need to be discarded to work on a goal. If you decide that the essential thing for you to do is to buckle down and really finish the renovations on your home, that doesn’t mean it’s time to ignore your spouse and children, stop paying attention to your job, drop out of your twice-weekly basketball games, or cut off communication with friends. These ongoing priorities are not goals in the same way that something that requires a change of habit and a significant new investment of time is a goal. While any or all of these things may slow down accomplishing a new goal, if they are already priorities in your life, they aren’t going to require new habits to develop on a large scale–and it is that brain-changing process of habit change that makes goals happen.

Photo by Auntie P

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Which Comes First: Motivation or Action?

Strategies and goals

The only seemingly logical way to think about self-motivation is that it’s something we need to have to be able to act the way we desire, yet the two can really come in either order. The exciting thing about this (at least if, like me, you get excited about ideas that can give you a leg up on improving your life) is the realization that it’s sometimes possible to do the right thing, even if it’s difficult, without being motivated first. The accomplishment then often produces a sense of satisfaction or well-being that creates motivation for doing more going forward.

Action before motivation
Here are some examples of ways to act before being motivated:

  • Focus on the moment-to-moment steps without thinking too much about the overall intent. For instance, if you want to go out running but are having trouble getting motivated, think about changing into your running clothes, tying your shoes, opening the door, etc. rather than starting a conversation with yourself about whether or not you feel like running.
  • Take part in a group where following along means you’re doing something you want to do. Go to a group study party instead of procrastinating that paper you need to research (but don’t let yourself be a distraction to your friends or vice-versa); join a support group; or get the whole family doing chores at once.
  • Make a bridge to what you want to do by tackling easy preliminaries. For instance, you may not like filing but be fine with sorting papers. If so, you can start with the painless task of sorting. When your office is full of piles of carefully-sorted papers, filing becomes both easier and kind of necessary. (Better yet, adopt a system that lets you keep control of your paperwork all the time. I’d particularly recommend the one described in Dave Allen’s Getting Things Done.)

Motivation before action
As useful as the “action before motivation” approach can be, motivation before action also works well, and is sometimes the a more useful way to go. The key with this is to focus at first not on the task you want to accomplish, but on the much simpler task of getting yourself motivated. Here are some articles that can help provide that initial motivational boost:

Photo by kaneda99

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Good Intentions Are Fine, But They’re Not the Same as Commitment

States of mind

Over time I’ve noticed a clear difference between the goals I consistently follow through on and the ones I don’t: commitment. I might have the same intention to repot my long-suffering ficus as I do to wash the dishes, for instance, but my dishes get washed while my ficus languishes uncomplainingly (though if potted plants could talk, I imagine I’d get quite an earful). The difference is that I’ve faced the question of living in a house full of filthy dishes and decided absolutely that I don’t want to do it, while I haven’t made the same commitment to my ficus.

Here’s what I mean by committing to something instead of just intending to do it:

  • If I’m committed to something, I’m willing to hold off on other things in order to get it done. Many of us have a lot more we’d like to do in a day than 24 hours can actually hold, so if we don’t make a special effort not to try to do everything, then the things that are most important to us can be lost in the shuffle.
  • If I’m committed to something that isn’t a habit yet, I’ll think about it practically every day and find time to work on it regularly–not just in big pushes every once in a while.
  • Being committed to a goal means that I’ve decided to look for ways to do more toward that goal rather than excuses to not do it. For instance, if I’m committed to exercising, then when I go on vacation I’ll think “What are some special opportunities I’ll have to exercise?” and not “Well, this is going to totally disrupt my exercise routine–I guess I’ll just start up again when I get back.”
  • Being committed means that I’ll want to pay attention when it’s time to make choices about my goal. If an opportunity to make a choice comes up, I’ll want to take the extra time to be mindful of what’s going on and to use all of the abilities at my disposal to make a good choice.
  • If I’m committed to building a habit, then that means I’ve decided ahead of time that I’m OK working on that habit virtually every day for a couple of months or longer. Factors like how complicated the behavior is and whether I’ll be doing it in about same environment every day can make the period of time longer or shorter until the habit develops. (See How Long Does It Take to Form a Habit?)
  • Finally, a commitment means that I’m willing to at least some of the time to prioritize my goal over things like relaxation, entertainment, and less important tasks (even if those less important tasks are right in my face and insisting on being done right away). I don’t have to give up all enjoyment, but I do have to get comfortable with the idea that pursuing my goal may not always be convenient.

These thoughts and practices aren’t all that complicated, but it’s easy to come up with an intention and not think through what it would really mean to commit to it. Pursuing a goal takes time, effort, and attention. Yes following through in this way with a well-chosen goal can make an enormous difference in our happiness, self-confidence, and success.

Photo by darkmatter

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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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How to Become More Focused and Enthusiastic, Part IV: Daily Involvement

Strategies and goals

In previous articles in this series, I’ve talked about being distracted versus unenthusiastic and about whether a goal feels possible; meaningfulness and the ability to judge progress; and willingness. This fourth article in the series expands the topic from ways of thinking to ways of both thinking and acting.

The principle of daily involvement is based on a few important facts about how we become more or less interested in something. One of these facts is that we have an easier time getting involved in something that we’re used to, something that has become or is becoming habitual. There are fewer questions to answer, fewer preparations to make, and less confusion when we do things that we are used to doing regularly.

A second fact is that the more we think about something, the more likely we are to do it. In many situations, just thinking about doing something activates the same parts of the brain that are engaged when actually doing that thing. Thinking about an activitity is a lot like actually beginning to do it, and therefore creates momentum.

A third fact is that our brains can only really focus on one thing at a time. When we’re engaged in a particular activity, like budgeting for a vacation, certain brain centers are activated that have to be shut down or used in a different way if we interrupt to do something different, like stopping to read e-mail. Our brains then have to change around again when we go back to budgeting (if we get back to it at all).

Fourth, the more we think about a task, goal, or project, the more problems with it we are likely to come up with solutions for, the more ideas we’re likely to have, and the more clarity we’ll get on what exactly we need to do next.

Taking these facts together, we can begin to see how getting in the habit of thinking about project on a daily basis–and preferably more than once a day–can make it easier and more rewarding to work on that project, and how working on a project even a little on a daily basis makes it easier to continue working on it compared to, for instance, doing a lot of it at once and then letting it sit for a long time.

So one of the ways we become more focused on and enthusiastic about a project is to schedule in some time to think about it and work on it every day, even if it’s literally just for a few minutes. This practice keeps the project on the front burner in our minds and prevents getting hung up on starting the work. Staying engaged in the project like this helps direct our thoughts about it toward creative solutions and continued progress. And making progress daily, even if only a small amount, helps improve confidence and satisfaction. These good feelings about the project in turn change our associations: instead of anxiety and guilt, the feelings conjured up when we think of the project begin to tend more toward pride and optimism. Thus all of these factors support each other to slowly (or sometimes even quickly) make a change in the way we experience working on the project so that it becomes more interesting and enjoyable–just by getting involved in that project every day.

Photo by Tricky

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Why bother organizing papers?

Strategies and goals

In my recent article The Eight Things You Can Do With a Piece of Paper, I talk about some principles for taking the stress and difficulty out of organizing the piles of paper that can sometimes grow unwanted around our homes and workspaces. But that article didn’t really address the question of why someone would want to put the time and effort into organizing papers in the first place. For instance, if a person has been used to living in the midst of stacks of paper for years, why shouldn’t that person just continue doing so?

Well, certainly not everyone needs to organize papers, and even people who can benefit from it might do better to avoid it if by doing so they can get some more pressing things done. For instance, if it’s between organizing papers and working on broken ideas to address a serious problem with anxiety, I say let the papers pile up.

Still, here are some benefits of organizing papers for those of us not in that kind of position:

  • It helps you capture tasks, responsibilities, ideas, and resources that otherwise might be hidden or forgotten
  • You will probably find you can get rid of a lot of papers you don’t need, freeing up space and simplifying your environment
  • Organized papers look better and are more motivating for most people than piles, drawers, or boxes of papers
  • Things you didn’t know you had or forgot about can often surface during the organization process, not uncommonly including money
  • The wonderful feeling of “THERE that thing is!”
  • When you actually need some of the material you’ve organized, it will be easy to find it
  • You can make much better use of information you have on paper when it’s collected by subject and easy to find
  • Even a small amount of organizing work can help create a sense of satisfaction, order, and empowerment

Keep in mind that just organizing papers once in a major effort isn’t success: success is building a habit of keeping papers organized as they come in so that they are immediately available when they’re needed. Conveniently, this habit can be built up by regularly–ideally, every day–grabbing a few papers and taking care of them. You don’t have to make a massive initial effort to get things organized; it can just become a regular part of your day.

Photo by jasra

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