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Everything Sucks. Reboot? Y/N

Handling negative emotions

Every once in a while, I have a day where enough seems to have gone wrong that I’m lodged deep in a lousy mood. Sometimes I’m not clever enough to be aware of this right away, so it persists until mindfulness finally kicks in with something to the effect of “You’re in a bad mood, and there is no reason for it unless it’s somehow helping you. Is it helping?”

It generally isn not helping. So I try to find my way out of that lousy mood using one of the techniques in this post.

The human brain is not very much like a computer. It changes its own structure constantly, stores information in locations scattered throughout the brain, and even runs two different systems (one neural and mostly cognitive, the other chemical and mostly emotional) at the same time. There’s more on this in my article about science fiction and the human brain at Clarkesworld.

But even though the brain doesn’t work the way computers do in many respects, it is capable of reboots: shutting down everything that’s currently running–including bad moods–and starting from scratch. However, reboots are not always easy. There are at least two things that get in the way.

The first is called “mood congruity”: this is the tendency of human beings to have trouble really imagining any emotional situation other than the one they’re already in. If you’re in a bad mood and you picture enjoying a nice walk outside, chances are it will be difficult for you to believe in your gut that the walk will be enjoyable–even if you have every reason to think it will be, and even if it generally has been under similar circumstances in the past. Whatever mood we’re in, we tend to imagine the future fitting the same mood. This is one reason the advice “Cheer up! Things will get better” often sounds so hollow. Mood congruity can be overcome, but it’s helpful to realize that the way our brians work, they’re a little limited at imagining an emotion while experiencing a contrary emotion.

Another barrier is that generally speaking, any mental control we have over our emotions happens by thinking (cognition), but cognition can change much more quickly than emotion, because so much of emotion has to do with chemicals like dopamine, cortisol, oxytocin, adrenaline, and others. The chemical states that influence our brains aren’t capable of changing nearly as quickly as our thoughts. We can go from thinking about a horrible tragedy to thinking about a really funny joke and back all within seconds, but our emotional state would not be able to keep up. This means that any mental effort to change mood needs to be kept up for a minute or two at least to allow emotions to catch up with cognition. It also means that idea repair doesn’t have its full effect right away, a subject I’ll be tackling in another article soon.

Knowing the obstacles, what are the techniques we can use to reboot our brains? Well, computers can go through a “warm boot” (rebooting through software only) or a “cold boot” (physically restarting the computer), and the same is true of our brains. A mental cold boot can be accomplished with techniques that completely clear out what’s going on in our minds. Two excellent approaches for this are meditation (which narrows focus to a very specific subject while letting everything else kind of float away) and exercise (which creates a physiological state that tends to help us cut back to a minimum of thinking).

Techniques for warm boots change attention, immediate experience, and/or thinking. Idea repair is one very useful means to do a warm boot. Other methods include emotional antidotes; visualization; and getting into a flow state (or at least distracted by something interesting for a bit).

Regardless of which method you use, rebooting takes attention, effort, and a little time. However, it often doesn’t take any more than that, and while not every bad mood can be banished in minutes, many of them can.

Photo by rofreg

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How to enjoy the dullest tasks

States of mind

I’ve mentioned before in posts like Some Steps for Getting into a State of Flow how even as seemingly unappealing a job as doing the dishes can be not only easier, but in fact enjoyable under the right circumstances. Here are some specific ways to enjoy drudgery:

1. Get into flow. Flow is a highly focused state when we are working hard to do something exceptionally well, using all of our attention. Getting into a flow state requires knowing what you’re doing, having minimal interruption, having a specific (and challenging) goal in mind, and having some way to judge how well you’re doing. World-class violinists, writers, programmers, physicists, tennis players, and highly accomplished people with all kinds of other specialties get into it often, but it can be done as well with very humble tasks. How quickly can the dishes be washed, or how perfectly, or with how little wasted water, or how quietly? See Some Steps for Getting into a State of Flow for more information on this.

 2. If the task doesn’t require much attention, use the opportunity to focus your attention on something you really like. This was what I did today, listening intently on headphones to songs for which I wanted to learn the words. I was literally disappointed when I ran out of dishes to wash and had to stop. Some other activities I’ve done that have made dishwashing really enjoyable have been talking with a visiting friend, singing, helping with my son’s homework, talking on the phone (using a headset phone), and even watching movies on a laptop set up behind the sink.

3. Simultaneously do something else useful. Our brains are designed to pay attention to only one thing at a time, but if the chore in question doesn’t require much attention, it’s sometimes possible to get something else done as you’re cleaning dishes or dusting. An example of multitasking while doing the laundry comes up in my post How to Multitask, and When Not To.

3. Use the time to think. If your life tends toward the hectic, with few opportunities to reflect, allowing your mind to wander onto whatever subjects most interest you as you vacuum or clean dishes can provide a welcome respite. To do this, it’s necessary to give up on any kind of resentment about doing the dishes and to point your mind in useful directions if it gets caught up in unimportant details.

4. Meditate. Meditation means narrowing our attention to a very specific thought or experience. Focusing intently on just the sensory details of washing the dishes–the feel of the water, the splashing sounds, and so on–can provide a means of meditating that can aid relaxation, alertness, and serenity, and the same can be achieved with vacuuming or any other household chore that doesn’t require any significant amount of thought to accomplish. The trick with this is to get used to focusing the mind back on only the sensory details whenever it wanders onto another subject. As with flow, this isn’t a useful strategy in high-interruption situations.

Photo by Nicholas Smale


Impostor Syndrome

Handling negative emotions

I was corresponding with someone recently about the Impostor Syndrome, the feeling some people have that their successes are due to luck or oversight and that they’re likely to be identified as a fraud and cast out at any moment.

It’s not unusual even for those of us who don’t have a regular problem with Impostor Syndrome to have those feelings from time to time. When I was in high school, I auditioned on bass clarinet for the All New England Music Festival, an event that accepts only the most skilled and able high school musicians. My rehearsals with my accompanyist leading up to the audition were terrible: I wasn’t practicing consistently, and the audition piece was naturally very difficult. I practiced very hard for the last couple of days, but the chance of avoiding extreme embarrassment seemed low. I obsessed about the audition, showed up at the appointed time, went in … and nailed it. I played the piece magnificently. My accompanyist looked at me as though I had grown antennae. I got the highest score of any bass clarinetist who auditioned (admittedly, not as difficult as being the best flutist or trumpet player, but not easy either) and had my pick of positions at the event.

Of course, I felt like a complete impostor. When I arrived at New Englands, I more or less held my own, but I wasn’t as good as the other bass clarinetists there and clearly hadn’t practiced as much, either. For years I regarded that audition as a fluke. It wasn’t until very recently I understood what had really happened.

The key realization was that usually when you’re credited with doing something, it’s because you actually did it. At the audition where I got the great score for my playing, I actually played that well. That was not a fluke in the sense that it is impossible to accidentally play a complicated piece on the bass clarinet well. What probably happened was that I immersed myself so much in desperate practice those last few days that I got into a flow state regarding my playing and was able to play at the very peak of my ability–whereas those who had been practicing all along wouldn’t have needed to obsess over the last couple of days. About 16 years later, I attended the New England Folk Festival (NEFFA) in Natick, Massachusetts and did barely anything but play music for two days. By the second day, I was playing far better than I thought I possibly could, because again I had reached that flow state.

So the fact that I happened to be in that flow state at the time of the audition was a bit of a fluke: I hadn’t been trying for it or even known it existed. But the fact that I was capable of that flow state was no fluke at all. I had, after all, been practicing for years, and had enough love of music to put my heart into it sometimes. Was there luck involved? Yes. In an entirely just world (which of course we don’t live in), would I have been the top-ranked bass clarinetists at New Englands that year? Heck no. But could I under the right circumstances actually play that well? Yes. The things we accomplish rarely fall into our laps.

That’s the irony of Impostor Syndrome, actually: fear of being found out sometimes drives people to work much harder to “cover” for their “shortcomings,” which means they get better and better at the things they think they’re being overappreciated at. As Geoff Colvin and others explain very well, the people who do really well at things are the ones who practice the most.

The question becomes not one of how much we deserve for what we’ve done so far, but instead how we can repeat and build on our best successes in the past.

Photo by MissTessmacher

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Black belt

Self-motivation examples

I’ve always been interested in the martial arts, ever since I lingered over ads offering the secrets of judo in the backs of comic books I read as a kid. There’s a kind of promise in martial arts that it’s possible to do things with our bodies that are very nearly magical. This is the same reason I’ve been drawn to the psychology of self-motivation, because just as I’ve been learning and practicing the basic skills of Taekwondo (stances, blocks, kicks, sparring techniques, etc.), over the past several years, in that same period I’ve also been learning and practicing the basic skills of self-motivation (feedback loops, idea repair, visualization, reframing techniques, etc.). And it turns out that training in self-motivation can achieve things that are also very nearly magical.

Friday night, in Burlington, Vermont, I tested successfully for my first dan black belt in Taekwondo Chung Do Kwan at the Blue Wave Taekwondo Association‘s Winter Camp. This was a big win for both my Taekwondo training and my self-motivation training.

In some ways it seems as though my self-motivation training was completely unnecessary: as I describe in this post, I love training in Taekwondo even though it’s effortful, sometimes inconvenient, and occasionally painful. Since I love to do it, why would self-motivation be necessary?

But that’s a trick question: the key to self-motivation is to love what you do, whether that thing is getting your personal records in order, writing about the psychology of self-motivation, crafting a novel, or doing the dishes. This sounds both simple and useless: sure, we get things done when we love to do them, but if we don’t love to do them, we’re out of luck, right?

But of course my sense of things is that we’re not out of luck at all. It took a conscious shift in attitude every time I dragged my tired butt up the steps to the third floor Taekwondo gym after a long day at work over the past few years, changing my thinking from “I’m too tired to work out” to “I work out whether I feel tired or not.” And it’s been improved by mindfulness, like when I had begun my testing Friday night and consciously brought myself to realize that while there was definitely pressure to do well (especially from myself), I was having the time of my life. I had told people before testing that I wasn’t nervous yet, but that I thought I would be at testing. As it turns out, I wasn’t nervous. I screwed some things up (though fortunately not badly enough to threaten my succeeding), but when something did go wrong, I just did my best to collect myself and move forward. I may have been a little hyper, and my attention was certainly scattered at times, but I wasn’t nervous: I was profoundly content.

The secret about learning to love doing something–like testing for black belt or starting a workout when you’re really tired–is that even things that seem unappealing to us at first, if they’re really furthering goals we care about, tend to become more interesting and enjoyable once we resign ourselves to doing them and get started. Loving to do something sometimes comes naturally, sure, but a lot of the time it takes work, which comes in the form of using the skills and practices I talk about on this site: idea repair, feedback loops, visualization, identifying mental schemas, and so on.

The phrase “black belt” is often used to mean mastery, but in Taekwondo at least, becoming a black belt is just the beginning. As my instructor, Master White (who is profiled here and who also tested on Friday–incredibly, for his seventh dan black belt) says, “black belt” means that you’ve gotten down the basics and are ready for the real fun to begin. And although I think the real fun began long ago, I am definitely ready.

Photo by Mr. Lloyd Blake, via Mrs. Carrie Blake

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Finding Exercise You Love: The Taekwondo Example

Self-motivation examples

With fellow Blue Wave students after earning our black stripes (last rank before black belt), October 2009

After flirting with consistent exercise for two decades, in 2005 I took advantage of being in Florida to finally start running regularly. That experience, which I talked about in a

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for Jacksonville, Florida NPR affiliate WJCT, completely changed my understanding of exercise. It turned out that the very beginning of exercise, getting into the groove, was much harder than continuing–and that far from being unrelenting torture, regular exercise could actually be enjoyable.

I ought to have recognized this already: after all, soccer had been fun in grade school, ultimate frisbee entertained me during college, and I’d enjoyed fencing classes in my twenties. But neither running nor any of these other activities prepared me for what would happen when I took on a new kind of exercise in late 2006. For me, getting involved in Taekwondo was to running as April in Paris is to June in Cincinnati.

Martial arts as a family sport
A little background: I studied Uechi Ryu karate for about a year at college and had enjoyed it enough that for years I had it in the back of my head that I’d eventually want to pursue martial arts again. By 2006, my son had gotten old enough that we were looking for a program for him as well. I had assumed we’d study karate, in different classes, but when my son was invited to a friend’s birthday party at Blue Wave Taekwondo in Burlington, Vermont (the town where we lived), it was immediately obvious that this was the place for us to try. For one thing, they taught classes that parents and kids could attend together, a possibility I hadn’t even thought of. For another thing, my son’s friend’s family couldn’t say enough about how friendly, well-organized, and instructive the school was. To top this off, the school was (and still is) run by Master Gordon White, a personable sixth-dan black belt who had fought on the U.S. National Taekwondo team and won medals in international competition.

I’m not suggesting Taekwondo is every person’s ideal exercise. It’s social, very energetic, rigorous, formal, demanding, and a little rough. My older sister loves spinning and rollerblading; my younger sister loves dancing; and my father prefers canoeing, kayaking, and cross-country skiing. So I’m not so much suggesting you run out and start taking Taekwondo (although it’s not a bad idea for a lot of people), but that if you don’t yet love the kind of exercise you’re doing, there’s a good chance you just haven’t found the right kind of exercise yet.

Why Taekwondo works for me
Taekwondo offers some unusual benefits that fit my needs well. I like the people I spend time with at the dojang (Taekwondo gym), which helps. Taekwondo as practiced at Blue Wave is rigorous interval training (probably the best general kind of exercise for weight loss), and it builds muscle as well as providing a lot of aerobic exercise.

Some of the greatest benefits for me, though, are mental instead of physical: the need to always improve my fundamentals (kicks, strikes, blocks, stances, and so on) exercises parts of my brain that I suspect would otherwise be neglected. And while we’re in class I’m usually so engrossed at trying to master whatever we’re working on that the time flies by. As I talk about in my post on getting into a state of flow, some of the basic elements we need to become engrossed and driven in what we’re doing are challenge, specific goals, and constant feedback. All of these elements are available when a good instructor is teaching a complex physical skill, like martial arts, dancing, or fencing. Not everyone will connect with those activities in the ways that are needed to establish flow, but the opportunity is there.

To put the same thing more simply: Taekwondo keeps me so interested, I don’t greatly care how much work I’m doing to practice it.

Why Blue Wave works for me
Not all martial arts–or all Taekwondo schools–are created equal. Different martial arts offer different advantages, such as the directed force of Aikido; the intense focus of karate; the powerful physical grappling of judo; or the flow and speed of kung fu. Different martial arts will attract different kinds of people, although it’s important to understand that different martial arts also provide different kinds of workouts: for instance, not all martial arts are very helpful for weight loss.

Blue Wave teaches forms and fundamentals as well as Olympic Style sparring, which is a very energetic, physically demanding type of contest between fighters wearing padded safety gear. Olympic Style sparring is fairly safe and is practiced in tournaments from the local to the international level, including, of course, at the Olympics. To the best of my knowledge (understanding that my experience is limited), no other martial art offers such a well-defined and safety-conscious sport of sparring.

So Olympic Style Taekwondo sparring for me is as much a sport as a martial art, which gives more direction to my training and provides more ways to enjoy Taekwondo. But many Taekwondo schools don’t teach Olympic Style sparring, or they focus on other elements of Taekwondo, or they practice a type of Taekwondo that is not based on rigorous traditional practices. None of these kinds of schools would work nearly as well for me as Blue Wave would, although Blue Wave is far from unique: there are many excellent Taekwondo programs around the country and the world.

I could go on about what I like about Blue Wave, but if I’ve done what I intended, I’ve shown at least one example of finding a kind of exercise that really fits the person doing it, enough to provide a glimpse of what April in Paris looks like. Here’s hoping you’re already there, or if not, that April comes soon.

Photo by 2nd dan Blue Wave black belt Sandra Pavlo


6 Ways to Be Happy at a Job You Don’t Like

Handling negative emotions


There are two common kinds of advice I’ve heard given to people who don’t like their jobs. One is “suck it up,” which is pragmatic but not very inspiring. The other is “then get a different job,” which is inspiring but not always pragmatic. In this post, I won’t attempt to untangle the question of when it is or isn’t a good idea to leave your job, although sometimes that may be the best call. Instead, let’s say that you’ve decided you want to stay at your current job, and the only problem is, your job is a drag. Is it possible to be happy even if you’re spending 40 hours a week (or more) doing something you don’t like? Often it is. Other people are living happy lives despite lousy jobs. Why not you?

1. Remember Why You’re There
It’s nice to have a job, to be paid, and to have something to do. You might have other reasons for your job as well. Getting in touch with them dispels the false idea that we’re forced to be at work. Sure we need to work to get money to live (most of us, anyway). But there are people who don’t have the work or the money, and it’s nice not to be in that situation.

2. Know What You Don’t Like
As with most situations where we have negative emotions, one of the first and most important steps is mindfulness. When we find ourselves reacting negatively to a situation and want to change that reaction, it helps (a lot) to figure out where the reaction is coming from. Sometimes the answers are fairly obvious (“I don’t like it when my boss comes into my office every five minutes to ask about something”) and sometimes they’re may be something that you haven’t consciously considered before (“Come to think of it, it’s this depressing room that’s bothering me the most.”) If your job isn’t satisfying to you, there’s probably more than one reason. Pay attention to your thoughts whenever you’re feeling most unhappy: this leads you to the causes.

3. Change the Details
Improving your actual job situation–negotiating a raise, getting transferred to another group, trading some responsibilities, etc.–is too big a topic to go into in detail here, but it’s well worth thinking about. Would better tools help you enjoy your work more? Creating more social ties with coworkers? Making your work environment more welcoming? Taking on more responsibilities? Sharing certain jobs with coworkers?

It’s not unsual to feel as though certain kinds of situations are unchangeable, only to find out that a simple request or a new approach can change them in important ways. Look for these kinds of opportunities.

4. Fix Broken Ideas
As human beings, we have evolved amazingly sophisticated mental systems for making ourselves miserable. Very often, we tell ourselves false (though true-sounding) stories in an ongoing mental commentary. Some examples are things like “She should have done that last week,” “I’m completely miserable here,” “This project is doomed to fail,” and “They all think I’m an idiot for forgetting about the presentation.” These broken ideas can be repaired by restating them as factually as possible, for instance “It would have been easier for me if she had done that last week, but she’s not always going to do things the way I’d like.” Broken ideas create tension and stress. Repairing them allows us to let go of negative ideas that are dragging us down.

5. Get Into Flow
The ultimate way to enjoy your work is to learn to get into a state of flow with it as often as possible. Flow is a state in which you’re challenged, but within your abilities; you’re able to focus without distractions or interruptions on a task; and you’re getting moment-to-moment feedback of some kind on how well you’re doing. Being in flow means being absorbed in the work and losing track of time because you’re so interested and involved. Not everything can be done in flow, but while it may be easier to imagine it working for surfers and violinists, it also can work beautifully if you’re washing dishes, filling out paperwork, or repairing a lawnmower.

Some tips on getting into a flow state are here. The most useful thing I can say about flow in a single sentence is that it only happens when you’re focusing on one thing, not when you’re allowing yourself to be distracted, or when you’re stopping and starting different tasks. Having fun while working, surprisingly, turns out to be easiest when you are working hard and efficiently.

6. Find a Goal
Flow experiences and most other kinds of enjoyable activity require having a goal (or goals). Just responding to things as they come is not generally an effective way to seek happiness. Even if your goal is just to improve your turnaround time by 5 minutes or to find something positive to say in every customer interaction, it allows you to focus and think about it rather than about boring, distracting, or tedious details that might otherwise take up your attention.

If you’re not happy at work it may be that you should consider another kind of job, but whatever position you have, there will very likely be parts you don’t enjoy. By remembering your reasons, knowing what’s behind your dissatisfaction, making the most of your work environment, fixing broken ideas, aiming to get into flow, and finding goals, you’ll have the best chance of being happier with your work … and taking those positive feelings with you when you go home.

Photo by chinogypsie


How and Why Music Changes Mood

States of mind


In other posts, especially Letting Your Environment Help You, I’ve talked about using music to help mood and concentration. Music can help to sometimes (not always) ease us out of bad moods and into good ones, provide relief or relaxation, energize us, distract us when we’re too wrapped up in non-constructive thoughts, help block out distractions, and even help create a flow state.

Why do we react to music?
Even understanding some of the things music can do for us, I’ve wondered for a long time why it is we as human beings react to music. After all, music is just sounds: pitches, rhythms, timbres, alone and in combination, often not even including any specific or clear information. Why should vibrations in the air create such strong reactions inside our electrical and chemical brains?

In her insightful (though sometimes dry) book Deeper Than Reason: Emotion and its Role in Literature, Music, and Art, philosopher Jenefer Robinson sheds some light on this subject, and helps explain what it is about music that we connect with and why we react so strongly to it. In a word, this thing is emotion.

How can music cause emotional reactions?
It’s weird that music, which doesn’t have facial expressions or neurochemistry or a body, should be able to not only express emotions, but to evoke emotions in those who hear it … but this starts to seem less weird as we think about the many tools music has at its disposal. It can mimic or suggest the sounds that people make in different emotional states, like laughter, shouting, sobbing, sighs, and many other human noises. It can use rhythm to suggest movement or body states, evoking strong or irregular heartbeats, marching, gliding, and bowing. It can make harmony and dissonance (that is, unharmonic sounds) by putting specific combinations of pitches together whose waveforms either fit together or conflict. It can provide a rhythm for us to fall into. It can create effects that stimulate emotional responses directly, like crashes to create sudden surprise or fear, or soft rhythmic sounds to evoke calm. It can create expectations from what we know about music, for instance when we can tell a song is building up to a big finish, and it can tap into memories and associations, reminding us of people, times, or situations long past. It can get loud or soft suddenly or slowly, be played sharply or smoothly, use instruments that wail or bray or sing or thud or rasp, yearn upward or drag downward …

Well, I’m sure you get the idea, even though that doesn’t come near listing all of the devices music can use to evoke emotion in us. The point is that music has an awe-inspiring range of ways to call out emotional reactions in us and to channel those reactions into a complex emotional experience with its own shape and path. It’s emotional experiences that are a large part of what makes music almost universally enjoyable to us human creatures (although music has some other attractions too: intellectual, cultural, poetic, social, and so on). And it’s also those emotional experiences that make music a tool we can consciously use to change mood.

How can we use music as a tool?
If we think of music as a sort of designed emotional experience and realize that not only do different people react to different musical experiences differently, but that the same person reacts differently to the same music at different times, then we begin to have an idea of what kinds of decisions we can make that will help us use music as a tool. The essential questions to ask ourselves are

1. What kind of emotional influence would be most helpful to me right now? (here we’re referring to all the things I mentioned that music could do at the beginning of this article, and more) and
2. What kind of music is likely to give me that experience, given the mood I’m in?

The second question is a trickier one. It’s easier to answer if you have more musical choices at hand, and also easier to answer if you’re used to thinking about how you’re reacting to music (that’s mindfulness again, which I mention in a number of other articles), but often the best way to answer it is to explore. You may want to poll friends, jot down notes about musical experiences you’ve had, flip through radio stations, try out various songs from your music library until you happen to hit one that works, or build Pandora stations to fit different mood needs. (I talk about the free Pandora service in this post.)

Regardless, consider when and how music may have helped you in the past, and look at your life to see if it can’t be used deliberately to help you even more in the future.

Photo by RossinaBossioB


How Tools and Environment Make Work into Play, Part I: The Example of Scrivener

Strategies and goals


Most of the articles on The Willpower Engine have to do with our mental state and not with outside things like rewards and assistance. There’s a good reason for this: in research, intrinsic motivation (motivation that comes from within ourselves) shows itself to be much more powerful than extrinsic motivation (anything that happens outside us) time and again. Carrots and sticks are nothing compared to ideas and desires.

But there are some ways we can change our environment that in turn make a big difference in our mental state, namely by setting things up invitingly. In this article I’ll talk about one specific tool (Scrivener) for one specific kind of goal (writing), but if you’re interested in how tools and environment change things, read on.

Scrivener is Macintosh-only (later edit: no longer Mac only! A Windows edition is now available) software for writing novels, non-fiction books, screenplays, and other large projects–I’m using it to write the Willpower Engine book, for example. It allows you to organize and switch around among a lot of different pieces of the same project; to add, delete, and move around these pieces; and to store research information (including pictures, videos, notes, Web pages, and so on).

So what’s so great about that? Well, nothing earth-shaking, but when you’re working on a writing project with lots of pieces–whether those pieces are chase scenes, eras of Roman history, or moments that change a character’s view of the world–one of the biggest problems is focusing on each piece intensely as you write it while still being able to keep the whole project in mind. I can be in the middle of writing a chapter when I think of something I need to include in a later chapter. Using Scrivener, I can click on the document that has the outline for that later chapter, stick in the the thought, and be back to writing within 10 seconds.

Before Scrivener, in order to prevent getting off track or distracted, those kinds of notes would tend to end up in a big document that would eventually have to be organized and re-organized, requiring me to write some, organize some, update my outline, and then go back to writing again. In a normal word processor, I have to impose organization. In Scrivener, organization is the whole idea, and in the normal course of using the program I automatically put things in their places.

It’s only a few clicks and a few seconds easier and faster than doing the same kind of thing with a couple of folders full of files, but because it’s so easy to do things in an organized way in Scrivener, I do much more more of it there than I would in any other context. This means that almost all of my time and attention when I use Scrivener is focused on what I’m writing or planning out at that moment, and it also means that as I finish one thing, the next thing to do is often sitting there, ready for me to plunge into it without having to go back and figure out where I’m going next.

If you’ve read many of my other posts, you might begin to recognize these pieces as being the kind of things that help a person get into a state of flow. Flow, briefly, is a state in which you’re highly focused on a task, working enthusiastically at your highest level of skill, to the point where the time just seems to fly by while you get things done. As you can imagine or may know from experience, it’s both very productive and a ton of fun.

I don’t mean this article to be an advertisement for Scrivener (although it’s a great tool, and I recommend it for writers who have Macs), but when we look at how for some writers using this program instead of even a very good word processor affects getting things done, it’s clear that the right tools can do a lot to create a productive and enthusiastic mental state.

Later addition – If you do happen to be interested in Scrivener, you can get 20%-50% off with this offer. There’s a 30-day free trial available on the Scrivener site.

So what kinds of tools help make work inviting, improve focus, and boost productivity? Search out tools that

  • keep your work organized with little or no effort, like tool trays for graphic artists
  • let you break your work up into smaller pieces, like a long workbench that offers room for a series of components to be spread out
  • are attractive or appealing, like a comfortable pen that makes a good line
  • work smoothly and effectively all the time, like a top-notch pair of hair cutting scissors
  • keep your tools or components in front of you (rather than hiding things you might need to remember or find), like pegboard
  • are intuitive, like an iPod

In Wednesday’s article, I’ll turn the discussion to work environment itself and what kinds of changes we can make to turn a space where we’re trying to get something done into a space that actually helps us get things done–and make the process more enjoyable. And I’m curious about tools that you’ve found help motivate you. What’s the most exceptional tool you own?

Multitool photo by 2:19


How to Multitask, and When Not To

Strategies and goals


In my last post, “How to Get a  Lot of Different Things Done Without Going Crazy,” I mentioned molecular neurobiologist John Medina’s point that our brains are structured so that we can only focus on one thing at a time. In Medina’s book Brain Rules, he asserts, “the brain cannot multitask.” It’s a really important point, but he is making it in a confusing way, because Medina goes on to say he’s only referring to “the brain’s ability to pay attention.” As you know if you’ve ever driven the wrong way because your mind was on something else, doing a thing doesn’t always mean paying attention to it. Medina is telling us that we can’t multifocus. Multitasking is not only possible, it’s a terrific way to get dull things done without getting bored, if used in the right way.

But since we can’t focus on more than one thing at a time, that means that if we’re multitasking, we can have at most one thing tying up our attention at a time: past that first thing, anything else we do can’t be something requires attention: it has to be something we’ve done over and over the same way.

I like folding laundry, because I always use laundry folding time to watch a movie with my son. We dump all of the clean laundry in the middle of the living room, sit around the pile, and gradually transform the pile into neat stacks of folded clothing. We take our time, talk about the movie a little when we feel like it, and when we’re done we hardly feel like we’ve done any work. It’s my son’s favorite chore, and I count it more as leisure than work.

unicyclerBut it’s easier for me than for my son, because I’ve been folding clothes for decades, while my son has only been doing it for a few years. Several times every folding session, I’ll notice he’s stopped folding, his attention fully on the movie. Usually this happens with a trickier item of clothing or with a particularly gripping part of the movie. Not being as used to folding as me, he can’t do it entirely on automatic, so his brain needs some of his attention for the folding, and his attention is already taken up by the movie. Since he can’t pay attention to two things at once, the clothes folding just stops, and since he was doing it automatically, he may not even notice: he may just sit there holding the shirt, transfixed.

“Fold,” I remind him, and he takes the few seconds necessary to focus on the clothing and start folding it, at which point his brain can go back to the movie.

I can understand if you don’t think of watching a movie and folding clothes as multitasking (though since I write a lot of fiction and analyze movies for plot, character, pacing, and emotional impact as I watch, watching movies for me is fun work instead of just fun), but even using our attention for fun can make boring work enjoyable.

So multitasking is simple, but multitasking attempts are doomed to fail unless the extra tasks being done are near-automatic ones. In terms of prioritizing tasks if we want to get a lot done, this suggests that it’s helpful to save the really mindless ones for a time when we’re doing something else with our mind: planning, talking on a headset phone (they’re not expensive, and they’re a good way to get housework done painlessly for some people), or even relaxing with a movie. But since even automatic tasks require a little bit of attention from time to time, we generally can’t focus intensely on one thing while automatically doing another: for example, we can’t multitask and still expect to get into flow.

I’m not suggesting we need to fill every moment of our lives with as much productivity as possible, but when we have a lot of things in front of us to do, it can help to know that some of the dullest tasks can be done while our brains are elsewhere. While there are other good ways to accomplish boring tasks, there’s a certain satisfaction in getting two things done at once: it makes us feel organized and confident, and that feeling itself is a great motivator.

Replicated guy cleaning photo by waveking1
Photo of unicyclist Tom James by Elsie esq.


A Surprising Source of Insight into Self-Motivation: Video Games

Strategies and goals


I’m not particularly interested in playing video or computer games, and you may well not be either, but taking a close look at them can provide us with some surprisingly useful information about how we motivate ourselves. And although in most cases, video games don’t motivate players to do anything particularly constructive, the lessons we take from them can be applied to virtually any kind of goal.

To get an idea of why we would care about video or computer games, think about the times you’ve seen someone who was very involved in one. They may play for hours at a time, postponing food and drink and bathroom breaks, accomplishing difficult tasks despite regular failures and setbacks, disregarding most of the world around them in favor of singleminded attention to a goal. A hard-core gamer might do this every day they can, week after week. Even children with ADD and ADHD seem to be able to focus intently on video games, according to research.

When this kind of attention is directed at video games, it’s a little disturbing. Having fun is great, but being obsessed with a video game is probably not the healthiest way to live. The interesting part comes when we imagine this same amount of focus and perserverance applied to some other task, like practicing the violin, studying algebra, building a house, or examining a patient in a health clinic. In fact, the description of someone who’s absorbed in a video game sounds an awful lot like the description of someone experiencing flow. Are there lessons we can learn from video game playing to understand better how to focus on other, more useful tasks?

Sorry, that’s a dumb question. You’ve probably read the title of this post, so you already know the answer is “yes.” I hope you’ll accept my apology for wasting your time with that kind of rhetorical silliness: I know you’re busy. Let me cut to the chase.

What is it about video games that engages attention and brings out so much focus and determination? It’s a combination of factors, each of which can be applied to self-motivation. Don’t be fooled by the fact that the video game is external to the person playing it, because there is no real carrot or stick. The forces driving a determined gamer all occur within their mind: they are the exact mental triggers that can potentially make any activity compelling.

Challenging, but Not Overwhelming
Video games strive to be hard enough that the player always has to focus attention in order to survive or succeed, but easy enough that eventually almost anyone who keeps trying can become skillful. The initial difficulty makes the later accomplishment much more gratifying, and ensures that the player can’t turn attention away from the game without sacrificing success.

When we want to accomplish something in our own lives, it can be helpful to array the job in front of us so that we have to dive in and work hard. This means creating goals that are difficult to achieve. Instead of having a goal of “cleaning the house,” you can have the goal of “making the kitchen spotless in 45 minutes.” If your kitchen would normally take you an hour and fifteen minutes to clean well, this is a difficult goal. You’d have to focus hard and work at top efficiency, ignoring distractions. When the kitchen is clean, level 1 has been cleared, so to speak. Whether or not you managed to complete the job in 45 minutes barely matters once the kitchen is actually clean. Then on to level 2 …

The Next Thing Needs to Be Done Right Away
In most good electronic games, there’s always another monster lurking, another disaster that needs to be averted, another question to answer. You can’t complete one thing and then relax: you complete one thing and immediately turn your attention to the thing after it, because your only other choice is failure.

In the same way, if you’re working on starting a home business, the most productive way to go about it is to know exactly what you need to achieve–probably in the form of a to do list–and to go about methodically completing one thing after the other. You write the business plan. As soon as that’s done, you immediately start on the financial projections, and then launch directly into the marketing plan, and so forth. The easiest way to keep these tasks going is to not just to keep a task list, but to make sure that the next task to do is already at the top of your list . This takes active management of the list to handle the changing situation. If you have a reliable queue of things to do, you can concentrate on one at a time and work through them without having to hesitate or lose momentum due to not knowing what to do next. If you finish a task and the next one isn’t already identified, make prioritizing your tasks itself the next thing you do.

Always Knowing the Stakes
In life, bad choices often don’t make any immediately noticeable impact. If you decide not to work on your novel today, or to ignore the argument you had with your significant other instead of considering how you could work it out together, everything may seem fine for now–but the long term effects could be a book that doesn’t get finished (or takes much longer than you wanted it to) or a relationship that becomes painful and frustrating.

In video games, by contrast, bad choices usually bring immediate trouble. If you don’t send your peasants out into the fields, your city starves and production grinds to a halt. If you don’t bother to keep an eye out for traps, you could suddenly end up impaled on something. These kinds of results tend to be very motivating: you put out your peasants or do regular scans of the area automatically to avoid trouble and prevail in the game. Creating automatic behavior is the power of a good feedback loop.

We can apply this motivating factor to our lives by reminding ourselves of the real consequences of our actions. If you have the choice of either filing your papers at the end of the work day or letting them pile up, you can focus on how enjoyable it will be coming in the next morning to a clean desk. If we want to avoid buying a bag of potato chips, you can imagine what you’ll look like the next time you put on a bathing suit if you are carrying on a love affair with Pringles. To motivate yourself to do something, think about the pleasing results. To motivate yourself not to do something, think about the unpleasant results.

Engineering Our Own Motivation
Developers of electronic games put enormous effort into designing game play, making a game as appealing and involving as possible. A relatively small amount of planning in our own lives can allow us to accomplish the same thing with our goals.

Photo by Shelms.

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