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Why Lousy Is a Great Place to Start

Handling negative emotions

I’m reading a book called Start Where You Are by Pema Chödrön, an American Buddhist nun, about meditation, coming to terms with suffering (our own and others’), and connecting to the world in a compassionate way. Much of the book is about meditative and partly spiritual practices that I won’t go into here, but there’s one particular section where she says something very striking that applies equally well to any process of self-improvement:

Start where you are. This is very important. [Meditation practice] is not about later, when you get it all together and you’re this person you really respect. You may be the most violent person in the world–that’s a fine place to start. That’s a very rich place to start–juicy, smelly. You might be the most depressed person in the world, the most addicted person in the world, the most jealous person in the world. You might think that there are no others on the planet who hate themselves as much as you do. All of that is a good place to start. Just where you are—that’s the place to start.

And later, she continues:

Suppose you are involved in a horrific relationship: every time you think of a particular person you get furious. That is very useful for tonglen [the practice the book describes]! Or perhaps you feel depressed. It was all you could do to get out of bed today. You’re so depressed that you want to stay in bed for the rest of your life; you have considered hiding under your bed. That is very useful for tonglen practice. The specific fixation should be real, just like that.

She goes on to describe how to harness these emotions in meditation, but the point I’d like to make is that they’re essential to any process of improving your life through changing the way you think. There are a few reasons for this. First, feelings like this that go unacknowledged tend to continue to torment us, because if we don’t take them in and really pay attention to how we’re experiencing them, we only have our habitual ways of responding to them, which won’t change anything (by definition, because habits are what we automatically do already). Second, if I’m going to improve my life, why should I wait for a time when I feel better? If I’m feeling bad now, then now is when improvement would be the most welcome, and there’s nothing preventing me from improving more when I feel better some other time too. And third, as Chödrön points out, strong negative emotions have a lot of juice. Someone who doesn’t feel excited (in a good or a bad way) about anything much at the moment doesn’t have a strong emotional incentive to change their lives. Someone who’s feeling something strong, whether it’s delight or love or anger or despair, has an immediate emotional reason to change things for the better.

Chödrön has specific recommendations for using negative emotions in meditation practice, and for anyone interested in Buddhist meditation, I strongly suggest the book for that purpose. For our intentions here, though, there are also specific ways we can harness negative emotions. In tomorrow’s post, I’ll talk about how to use pain and trouble to repair broken ideas.

Photo by Pensiero

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New Getting Started Page

About the site

As the number of articles here on The Willpower Engine grows, I’ve added a new Getting Started page to offer a quick introduction to the site and to self-motivation. It lists some good starter articles that provide basics of things like idea repair and feedback loops, and should be helpful to new visitors. I hope you’ll comment or contact me if you have thoughts or suggestions.


But It Started Off So Well! What Happened?

Strategies and goals


It can be truly humiliating. Maybe it’s never happened to you, but it certainly happens to a lot of us: you’ve been grappling with something for years–your weight, organization, starting a novel, getting the house in order, changing how you act with other people–and a day comes when you’re inspired to do something about it. So you do it! You change your eating habits or start running or create a strict rule for dealing with all incoming e-mails. Then a week or two pass, and you find you’re gone off the rails: your eating habits are worse than ever, or a busy day put you behind on your organization and you never caught up, or the trick you were going to use to remember people’s names has been forgotten itself. What happened?

There’s a simple answer to this and a more detailed answer. The simple answer is that we start things in different circumstances than we continue them in. A New Year’s resolution made at a party with friends on a full stomach (for example) turns into a thankless, lonely grind week after week, and it loses a lot of its sparkle that way.

Don’t worry: the detailed answer is much less depressing than the simple answer. But the simple answer reminds us of something essential: inspiration may drive us to start new things, but it’s our own efforts to rise above obstacles that get us through in the end.

Certainly there is such a thing as a badly-chosen goal, or a good idea for a goal that’s not practical at the moment. But for goals that are worthwhile, there are at least seven ways something that started well could run into trouble. Here’s what those seven kinds of problems are, and how to get past them.

1) The novelty wears off
Annoyingly, somewhere in our evolution we acquired a built-in trait that only allows us to enjoy something for a little while unless it changes. A dish that tastes “amazing” on the first bite and “really good” when we have it again in a few days continues to wane in amazingness as long as we keep eating it regularly. This is known as “hedonic adaptation,” and it means that anything that was delightful and new and exciting eventually becomes old hat unless there’s something renewing that excitement. When we first take on new goals, it helps a lot to understand that we need to not only take the steps to reach our goal, but to keep actively renewing our enthusiasm.

2) Our mood changes
Everyone has better and worse days, days when we feel we can do more and days when we’re mainly just trying to keep things from going wrong. What may seem easy to do on a good day can be the last thing we care about on a bad day. Fortunately, we can stop having bad days if we try, but it also helps to use tactics like rule-making and decision logging to keep ourselves happy with our goals.

3) Things get harder; complications arise
Sometimes we’ll start pursuing a goal when things are going well, but then things get harder: there are new demands on our time or finances or attention, for instance. It may become harder to find time to follow our goals. When the going gets tough, the tough organize and prioritize so they won’t lose track of what’s most important. Goals that aren’t nurtured through busy times tend to get lost in the shuffle.

4) We begin to forget
Goals and new habits need to be nourished and maintained by a process of regular feedback. If we don’t regularly remind ourselves of what we were doing and review our progress, our goals become vague, distant, and easy to forget. Once we’re no longer actively thinking about what we want to achieve, we’re sunk: those habits aren’t going to change themselves. Focusing on our priorities consistently can save them from being forgotten.

5) Just when we start flying, someone shoots us down
There will always be naysayers, whether they’re people who feel threatened by another person’s success or people who genuinely want what they think is best for you but aren’t ready to support your choices. If any of them get to you, figure out what it is they’ve told you that has sunk in and use idea repair to pull it up by the roots. Recruit them to your cause or harden yourself to their criticism: we’re each responsible for our own lives, so while it makes sense to consider good advice, if we’ve considered it and decided to go a different way, we don’t need to consider that same advice again: we’ll need our energy for other things.

6) A new interest takes over
Since things we’re getting used to become less exciting through hedonic adaptation, we human beings are seekers after novelty. This can be fine in a lot of circumstances, but not when it repeatedly derails us on old projects by tantalizing us into taking on new ones. We generally have the resources to undertake only one new thing at a time. After we’ve been in the groove on one goal for a long time, we might consider adding something else, but add something else too early and like it or not, the old goal will very likely go by the wayside. When you’re tempted by a new direction, think carefully about what you’ve invested in the goal you’re already working on and about why it’s important to you in the first place. Of course we have to keep some flexibility, but guard your progress jealously against all but the most important replacement goals.

7) Just announcing it was enough
One interesting psychological study with law students found that students who announced a study goal tended to do worse at achieving that goal than students who kept their goals private. One of the reasons this may be happening is that sometimes, a person can get enough positive feedback for just committing to something that they don’t feel the need to actually follow through–and very often the people who are there to encourage us when we start something aren’t going to be looking over our shoulders to make sure it gets done. Not following through under these circumstances isn’t so much a character flaw as it is a logistical error. Who knew that we would feel so much more satsified and resolved with our current situation just by announcing the intention to change? The enthusiasm for the actual change leaks away, and we may not even realize it’s happening.

If you might be in danger of falling prey to the announcement trap, the safest course is to only announce your goals to people who will be holding you accountable to them. Note that this is hard to do over the Internet; it’s too easy to avoid the subject, or the place where you announced it, or to say vaguely that you’re working on it. Someone who’s going to greet you in person every morning and say “Hey, how’s the novel coming?” is going to be much more help than an online friend who asks the same question, and someone who doesn’t listen to the answer isn’t going to be helpful to you regardless of where they are.

Starting new things and failing at them is so common in human experience that we tend to mark it down as a character flaw, to think that we “just don’t have the willpower.” Fortunately, willpower isn’t so much something you have as something you do. By anticipating the efforts we’ll need to make to move forward with our goals and by proactively handling the kinds of problems we’ve just talked about, we can keep ourselves on track and find ourselves just as committed on day 100 or day 1,000 as we were on day 1.

Photo by greekadman


Self-Motivation Techniques for Starting (or Restarting) a Big Project You’ve Been Avoiding

Strategies and goals


Not everyone has an elephant lurking in the downstairs closet, a brachiosaurus in the garage … but a lot of us do. And by this I of course don’t actually mean elephants or dinosaurs, but projects. Big projects. Big, ugly, scary projects that are disturbing to even think about because they’re so big and we haven’t even started on them (or have left them sitting around for much too long). It might be a major house repair that needs to be done so that the roof won’t start leaking, or a long overdue class assignment, or a book project that got tricky and has been sitting there on the hard drive, mocking you, for months now. Regardless of exactly what your beast is, there’s a simple, immediate way to take the first step toward vanquishing it. Unimpressively enough, it’s called “Do any little part of it … right now.”

Don’t take “right now” too literally: “right now” could be this weekend, or later today, or for two hours on Thursday. But don’t mess around with “right now” too much, either. As big as some projects are, there are very few that couldn’t benefit from a little attention very soon, even if it’s late at night and you’re tired and the project is unmentionably huge.

“Do any little part of it right now” may sound simple, and it is very easy to act on, but it has impact far beyond the effort required for it. Consider this joke:

Q: How do you eat an elephant?
A: One bite at a time.

It’s true. Humans are designed to eat things in bites, so the size of the what you’re eating doesn’t matter. To put it another way, you never, ever have to do a huge task: you only have to do small steps that over time add up to a huge task. That may sound like just playing with words, but it’s much more substantial than that: all large projects are accomplished through small steps, so the only way to do a large project is to do one small step. Then do another. Then another.

And honestly, the first small step breaks the whole thing wide open. Instead of having to say “I haven’t worked on my book in four months,” you can say “I worked on my book last night, even though it was only for 20 minutes.” Instead of saying “Someday I have to clean out that junk room,” you can say “I spent 45 minutes this morning gathering up all the spare linens I had in the junk room, and now the ones we need are in the linen closet and the rest are in the car, ready to go to the Salvation Army.” Zero small steps is a dead stop. One small step is being right in the midst of getting the job done.

Sometimes it may be hard to see what the small steps are, either because there’s so much to do that it’s all a huge tangle or because the big project consists of just doing one thing for a long, long time. In either case, there are ways to proceed. If you have no idea where to start, then the first step is figuring out what your next few steps are going to be. It’s organization, cataloging the problem. For instance, if your project is making a garden, make a list of things you need to do to be able to break ground: plan the size of the garden, choose what you’ll plant, look up the planting schedules, buy the seeds, etc. Making that list is itself the first step, and by the time you’re done, you’ll know what the second and third steps are already. If at any point you don’t know what to do next, that means that what you need to do next is figure out where you are in the project and what action needs to come next in the sequence.


And if the project is just a whole lot of one thing, then your steps are just pieces of that thing, of any size. Writers face this issue all the time, when the goal is to write a novel of, say, 100,000 words. While there might be (depending on the writer) a lot of preparatory work to do (or none at all), at a certain point the job is to sit down and churn out a lot of words. While you do that, you can count chapters, pages, words, hours at the keyboard, plot points completed, or anything else that gets you through the night, but if the project is daunting, figure out how much of some measure you need to do, then start doing that thing–and counting it.

Of course, after that first step there is always a second, and so on, and this discussion doesn’t delve much into the question of how to keep on track. On the other hand, keeping on track is much easier than getting on track in the first place, so if you have a big project you know you need to tackle, try starting in on any constructive piece of it, and if you don’t find yourself plowing ahead naturally, come back here for more ideas on how to keep the engine moving. After all, I’ve got a lot more I’ll need to post on this site over the course of years, and the only way for me to do it is one post at a time.

Elephant picture by Omar Junior.
Blank screen picture by Simon Scott.

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