Browsing the archives for the projects tag.
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How to Recover When You’ve Completely Blown It

Handling negative emotions

train wreck

Let’s say someone has been working on losing weight, but over Thanksgiving gave up and ate way, way too much. Or they were going to write 50,000 words this November for NaNoWriMo, yet here it is a few days from the end and they’re only 28,000 words in. Or they’ve gone back on a promise, done something they had vowed to stop doing, failed to stick with a new habit that they really wanted to keep up, or in any other way completely wiped out.

Often in situations like this, we’ll start telling ourselves in one way or another that whatever plans we have are now ruined. The promise is broken, the diet has failed, the project has flopped. It’s easy to lose all enthusiasm at this point and give up, to conclude that people who are successful at achieving difficult goals don’t have these kinds of setbacks. That conclusion would be wrong.

It’s true that failures on the way to a goal can cause a more than their share of trouble. If I’m trying to build a new habit, interruptions to the thing I’m trying to make habitual will make it take longer for the habit to form. If I suffer a setback, it can often create additional obstacles, because slip-ups erode momentum in the same way that taking initiative builds momentum.

Yet it’s clearly typical–in fact, I’d hazard a guess that it’s almost inevitable–for a person to have some failures on the way to successfully building a new habit or pursuing a goal if that goal is sufficiently challenging. For example, according to the American Cancer Society, “most of those who attempt [to quit smoking] cannot do it on the first try. In fact, smokers usually need many tries — sometimes as many as 8 to 10 — before they are able to quit for good.”

Another way to put it, as strange as it may sound, is that the kind of person most likely to succeed at a goal is someone who has already been working on it but has failed one or more times.

Yet knowing this probably doesn’t make you automatically feel like a winner. What will do that is getting back to working on your goal right away. It’s easy to fall for reasoning like “I’ve blown it anyway–a little more won’t hurt” or “I’ll recharge my batteries before I take another crack at it,” but that kind of logic is usually flawed, because whenever we let a setback “give you permission” to stick with old, bad habits for a while, or to stop something we were working on, we are strengthening and refreshing the behaviors we don’t want and letting the behaviors we do want fade in our minds. The neural connections we’re building by prolonging the interruption will make it easier to make wrong choices and harder to make right choices. We’re also often doing more damage that will have to be repaired once we get back on track, making restarting even harder.

We can learn from setbacks by analyzing what went wrong and coming up with ways to act differently in future. And we can cut off failures, keeping them to the shortest span possible, so that they become just blips on the graph. In practical terms, all a setback does is take away a little progress and lower our spirits. We can gain that ground back and raise our spirits at the same time by renewing our plans to pursue our goals and not letting the problems claim any more of our lives than they have to.

Photo from Cornell University Library.

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Dealing With Distractions You Can’t Prevent

Strategies and goals

Two kids

This series of articles on distraction is adapted from my eBook on Writing Motivation. In previous articles, I’ve talked about the high cost of distractions and four tactics for reducing them: choosing location in one article and managing responsibilities, devising rules, and erecting barriers in another. This final article in the series covers the question of what to do when distractions can’t be prevented.

Distractions as opportunities
If an interruption makes it through despite your plans, you can sometimes turn it to your advantage. Once the distraction is taken care of, take a moment to figure out if there are any other distractions in the making—an impending bathroom break, a family member who just needs a minute of your time, that cup of tea you’ve been wanting—and take care of them in your post-distraction time rather than letting them spawn their own interruptions a little down the road.

An interruption can also be a useful moment to reflect on the direction the project is going, how happy you are with your progress, whether you have any nagging concerns you want to examine, and whether there are other steps you should consider, such as reviewing your work so far, brainstorming alternatives, or getting help.

Distraction pitfalls
However, it’s essential not to use interruptions as excuses to get off track. It’s generally a bad idea to decide that because you’ve been interrupted anyway, you might as well check your e-mail, fold a few of those clothes, or call to check in on a friend. If those activities really have priority, this is fine, but it’s easy for such things to serve as excuses to not get back to working on your goal after being temporarily diverted. Don’t fall into that particular trap.

Be sure not to use the possibility (or inevitability) of distractions as an excuse to skip working on your goal. Of course it’s more efficient to get things done when there are no distractions, but not only is some progress better than no progress, but the more you get used to making progress despite distractions, the better you’ll get at ignoring those distractions.

Responding to distractions
In responding to distractions, especially when frustration builds, it helps to have a planned response you can fall back on. This connects with some ideas discussed under the managing responsibilities topic. Having preset wording helps prevent frustration from determining your wording for you, and can help remind you of how to deal with the distractions. It can also minimize the effort (and attention) you need to invest in the distraction and sometimes provide a way to head the distraction off or cut it short.

Learning from distractions
If distractions teach you nothing else, they can often at least supply information about how to avoid them in the future. If you experience a lot of distractions or have the sense that some could be avoided with better organization, trying jotting down a list of distractions as they occur (after all, you’re already distracted) and then reviewing it in the near future to come up with ideas for heading those distractions off.

Photo by Shermeee

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Handling Distractions by Managing Responsibilities, Devising Rules, and Erecting Barriers

Strategies and goals

snowball_fightThis series of articles on distraction is adapted from my eBook on Writing Motivation. In the first article in the series, I talked about the high cost of distractions and mentioned four things we can do to minimize them. The second article delved into how location choice can help prevent distractions. The next article will consider some ways to deal with distractions that can’t be prevented, while this one covers three prevention tactics: managing responsibilities, devising rules, and erecting barriers.


Manage responsibilities
Managing responsibilities means using planning and negotiation to minimize interruptions. If you want to set aside time every night from 9:00 to 10:00, tell everyone you know that you’re busy during that time and would appreciate no phone calls or spur-of-the-moment visits. If you’re a parent and have a spouse or partner, offer to take full responsibility for the kids during certain periods in exchange for your spouse doing the same thing during your pre-arranged work times. Almost anyone who might either interrupt you or be a means to head off interruptions is a good person to negotiate with to help keep these times undisturbed.

Managing responsibilities may also mean finding ways to keep yourself from being distracted by other obligations. In my interview with her, writer and entrepreneur Nancy Fulda talks about the effectiveness of taking care of small, nagging tasks before tackling the larger, more consuming ones: “The problem with that was that all those unfinished tasks weighed on my mind.  It was like a mountain of work hanging over me, this big dreadful pile of Things That Needed Done, and it sapped my energy like a vampire … The thing is, that huge dreadful mountain tasks seldom took more than an hour to complete.”

Devise rules
Devising rules means thinking about possible interruptions and coming up with solutions to head them off before you even get started. The resulting solutions are ones you can adhere to without thinking, for instance “Never answer the phone while practicing” or “When decluttering, never stop to read anything: instead, put anything of real interest aside in a ‘to read’ pile.” Rules have to be clearly planned so that there is no thinking involved. If one of your rules is not to open your e-mail program while you’re working on your finances or not to watch TV until your housework is done, then you’ll know that you’ll need to be strict about those rules in order for them to work. When you have preplanned responses like this, dealing with the situations you’ve anticipated does not take a large amount of attention, and therefore doesn’t require the wholesale reorganization of thoughts a full-fledged distraction would have forced.

My article on the value of rules in motivation is here

Erect barriers
Erecting barriers means taking physical steps to guard your work area from interruptions: a sign on the door saying “Please come back after 2:30 PM,” unplugging your phone or your network cable, putting on music that you work well to, and using earplugs are all ways to use barriers to temporarily shield your environment from the infinite distractions of the outside world.

Photo by mahalie

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Locations That Prevent Distractions

Strategies and goals


This series of articles on distraction is adapted from my eBook on Writing Motivation. In the first article in the series, I talked about the high cost of distractions and mentioned four things we can do to minimize them. This article follows up by discussing the first of those four, choosing your location. 

Location, location, location
To the extent that you have some control over the times and places when you are focusing on a goal you’re trying to achieve (like getting your finances in order, learning a language, or writing a book), good choices of working environment will help you work better and with fewer interruptions.

We don’t always consider the power a location can have to minimize distractions, but once we do, the kinds of locations are fairly self-evident: favor locations where there will be few distractions, and try to avoid places where you might run into friends or be expected to respond to people or events. The most accessible and convenient locations–your home or usual workplace–are often the most vulnerable to distractions because people will expect to find you there. But places where you’re less likely to be distracted, like a friend’s spare room or the library (when those kinds of places are options in the first place), often involve extra time and effort to reach, and therefore may discourage work on your goal or cut into your productive time.

While there’s no way around being bound to a location for some efforts, like decluttering, avoid being completely dependent on one location if possible: the more times and places you can use to work toward your goal, the more progress you’re likely to make.

To the extent that you have a choice, try to prefer working on your goal at times when you’ll have minimal distractions, as long as those times don’t offer other problems—for instance, late at night can be a peaceful and productive time to work, but not if you’re always exhausted by then, or if it will have a serious effect on you getting enough sleep, or if  your work would wake somebody up.

Sometimes it’s possible to get more uninterrupted time to work on your goal by shifting around more interruptible activities, like housecleaning. 

Mental work environment
Your mental work environment is also a key factor. You can prepare your brain by committing to the project you’re about to work on and setting a minimum amount of time to focus on it. Avoid shifting around among different kinds of tasks within one work session when possible–for instance, working a little on your business plan, then answering some correspondence, then coming back to the business plan–since when you make these shifts you’re effectively interrupting yourself.

In the next article in this series, we’ll dig into the other three strategies for minimizing distractions: managing responsibilities, making rules, and erecting barriers.

Photo by girolame

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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


Is Taking on a New Goal Stressful?

States of mind


The conventional wisdom for taking on something new in your life is that it’s best to wait until everything’s going smoothly. This comes out in statements like “I can’t deal with that right now” or “It’s hard enough just keeping my head above water” or “I don’t need another thing to worry about.”

Assuming you’re not already involved in diligent work on some life change or major project, though, there are some compelling reasons that taking on that kind of goal might be one of the most beneficial things you could do. Here are some of the doubts that come up about taking on new goals, examined a little more closely to reveal reasons to reconsider.

“I already have enough stress: taking on something new will just add more.”
There’s a pretty common idea out there that effort equals stress, but in fact the reverse is probably more accurate. Research on stressful situations suggests that the most stressful ones are those in which we don’t feel we have any control. Taking action by its nature gives us a greater sense of control, and making progress gives encouragement and self-confidence that each are doubly valuable in times of stress.

In addition, many kinds of goals–fitness, better nutrition, improving sleep, incorporating meditation into your life, cleaning up your home or work space, organizing, addressing financial problems, and sorting our personal conflicts, to name a few, can directly address some key sources of stress in your life and/or make you physically more resistant to stress. Exercise particularly has been proven time and again to relieve stress, and not getting enough sleep has been identified as a key culprit in creating anxious moods.

“I don’t have time to take on something new right now.”
Only you can decide what you do and don’t have time to do, but any number of goals can be pursued in just a few minutes a day. For example, studying vocabulary for a foreign language for five minutes three times a day is an excellent way to rapidly expand your mastery, because we learn best when we’re given the same material several times with a few hours between exposures. Other examples of goals that can be pursued with just a small amount of time include a 15-minute-a-day meditation, beginning to get an office organized by filing just a few papers at a time, and even certain creative activities, like writing or practicing an instrument. Small blocks of time may not be what you’d picture as an ideal, but they do allow for noticeable progress and even have some special advantages over larger blocks. (Thanks to Robin Dickinson, who started learning Chinese in one minute a day, for comments that contributed to this point.)

“I’m too worried about other things to think about a new goal right now.”
One of the benefits in taking on a new goal that you’re excited about is that it gives you something positive to think about, something that can even distract you in helpful ways from thinking too much about a negative situation from which you might need a little distance. If you choose a goal that’s truly inspiring for you, you provide yourself with a means to turn anxiety into creative work.

“I don’t need to pile on more responsibilities.”
Goals certainly can create stress–and often wind up completely unsuccessful–if they’re taken on grudgingly, out of a sense of obligation. For instance, thinking “I really should lose some weight” (or worse, having someone else goad you into trying to lose weight) tends to be one of the worst mindsets you can bring to a fitness goal. What kinds of goals work better? As mentioned here, doing things because of the immediate benefits to your quality of life is usually much more successful than doing them because of a distant goal (especially if you have trouble believing you can reach that goal). Taking on a goal that makes you truly happy adds an enthusiasm rather than a responsibility to your life. If you’re feeling like you’re responsible for too many things but aren’t already pursuing a constructive goal in your life, consider whether there are any constructive goals that would deliver immediate benefits to you on a regular basis, perhaps even benefits that can help make your other responsibilities easier.

“I’ll get to it when things are easier.”
One final reason to consider taking on a goal even during difficult times is that easy times don’t necessarily come around very often; it’s much more convenient to turn bad times into good times than it is to wait for the good times and only do constructive things when everything else is going smoothly.

Photo by danepstein.


Entrepreneurial Motivation and Creating a Business from Scratch: An Interview with Nancy Fulda


Nancy Fulda is a writer, editor, entrepreneur, Web developer, and mom who created AnthologyBuilder, a service that lets people edit their own anthologies of short fiction by professional writers. Creating this service from scratch took a lot of doing, and is a useful illustration of tackling a big task with no immediate payoffs along the way. I interviewed Nancy about that process and about some of the unexpected insights into her own motivation that came out of it. The rest of this post, except for headings, is in her own words.


The idea: a site where people could create their own anthologies
AnthologyBuilder is a custom anthology web site. Let’s say your nephew is fascinated by genetics and asks you for stories about geneticists. You’re not likely to find anything like that at the bookstore, but you can come to and choose stories for inclusion in a mail-order book.  You can pick your own title and cover art, too. The finished anthology costs $14.95 and looks just like any other book.

I started AnthologyBuilder because I was tired of buying magazines and books where only a few of the stories interested me.  “What I want,” I said to my friends, “Is a do-it-yourself anthology web site that let’s me pick whatever stories I want.”  The response was so overwhelmingly positive that I decided to build it.

I had a pretty good idea what the initial effort would be.  I was a bit surprised, later, to discover how much work goes into maintaining and improving a project like this on a daily basis.

The first major obstacle
The hardest part was finding a programmer.  I have some background in computing, so I had a pretty good grasp on what the site would need to do, and I was surprised and dismayed to discover that there weren’t any programmers willing to take on the job for rates we could afford.

“It’s not that hard,” I kept griping to my husband.  “I don’t know why no one wants to do this.  I could almost program it myself.”

And in the end, that’s what I did.  It required teaching myself PHP, figuring out how to encode PDF documents, learning to purchase and administer web hosting, and brushing up on internet commerce, but after three months of work, the first prototype of the web site was ready to go.

How she stayed motivated
I think what helped most was keeping the Big Picture in mind.  At the beginning, the web site wasn’t much to look at, but I tried to see it for what it could be instead of for what it was.

I made mistakes, of course; everyone does the first time they try something new.  But I tried not to let those mistakes discourage me.  I’d tell myself, “It’s ok, I can fix this.  It will all work out in the end.”  And so far, it has.

Starting a business from home, with kids
The home environment [was] an ideal work locale for me; I have the mornings to myself while the older kids are in day care.  Afternoons get a bit crazy sometimes, but I often manage to sneak in an hour or two of work during the afternoon.

I tend to focus on one task at a time.  There’s a weird sort of rhythm that I get into when programming.  Some days, I can code up several web pages in far less time than it takes me to write a page of text.

My most productive work times — and this is going to sound odd at first — happened on the days when I spent the most time with the kids.  Happy kids make for better work sessions, you see.  Crabby children interrupt me more often, and I can’t concentrate well because I’m too busy feeling guilty.  I learned pretty quickly to put the kids’ needs first even if there were five urgent emails in my in-box.  I get more work done that way.


Dealing with distractions
One of the biggest hindrances at first was the number of internet communities I belonged to.  I enjoy hanging out with my online friends, and I’d spend up to two hours catching up on blogs and discussion forums before actually settling into the work day.

After a while it became apparent that I was going to need to change something.  It took some effort, but I finally convinced myself that I didn’t have to stay up-to-date on every thread of every discussion forum.  In real life, I miss conversations all the time, so why should I feel the need to be a part of every single thing that happens online?

I also learned that I prefer to take care of the ‘little’ tasks of the day before settling into the ‘big’ one.  By ‘little’ tasks I mean things like answering emails, paying the bills, and so forth; individual items that take less than five or ten minutes to accomplish.

I used to be so enamoured of the current project that I’d push all that little stuff aside and dive right into the ‘real work’.  The problem with that was that all those unfinished tasks weighed on my mind.  It was like a mountain of work hanging over me, this big dreadful pile of Things That Needed Done, and it sapped my energy like a vampire.

The thing is, that huge dreadful mountain tasks seldom took more than an hour to complete.  I learned that if I cleared that stuff off my plate first, I’d face the rest of the day with only a single (albeit large) task looming over me.

How things changed once the business was launched
AnthologyBuilder seems to run in one of two modes: “Coasting” and “Renovation”.

In “Coasting” mode I spend 5-10 hours per week on housekeeping tasks: reading submissions, processing orders, responding to customer emails, and so forth.  AB goes into Coast mode whenever life gets frantic.  It’s a comfortable, familiar pattern that requires little emotional or intellectual investment.

“Renovation” mode comes along every two or three months and tends to last for about a month.  This is where I implement new features, run promotions, rework the site design, and otherwise try to push the site to its next level of potential.  Renovation mode requires 15-30 hours per week and sucks up a lot of brainspace.

When I’m in Renovation mode, I’m bursting with excitement and new ideas.  I’ll find myself jotting notes down during breakfast or planning a new feature while playing with the kids.  This saps energy and attention away from the family, which is why I try not to let Renovation mode continue for too many weeks in a row.

I envision my various projects (AB, family, work-for-hire, and so forth) as a connected system, kind of like push-buttons that pop up when one of the other buttons is pressed down.  Whenever one project is the center of attention, all the others are Coasting.  I try to swap it around and make sure every project gets its fair share of attention over time.

Sometimes I wondered whether AnthologyBuilder was unfairly sapping resources the family needed elsewhere.  Every time I discussed it with my husband, though, we both felt strongly that we should stick with it.  So we made adjustments and kept plugging along.

I would have abandoned the project without a second thought if I’d felt that AB was causing too much stress or that the family structure was cracking under the strain.  I firmly believe that knowing when to let go of a good idea is just as important as knowing when to snatch one up and run with it.

Advice for entrepreneurs
I’m often asked what advice I’d give to young entrepreneurs.  Two thoughts spring immediately to mind:

(1) Just because an idea doesn’t pan out doesn’t mean it was a mistake to try it. You gain skills along the way that will help make subsequent projects successful.

Perhaps more importantly, trying and failing brings a peace of mind that failing to try never can.  Okay, so it didn’t work out, but at least you know that.  You won’t spend the rest of your life wondering what might have happened if you’d tried.

(2) Don’t risk anything you’re not willing to lose.  This includes, but is not limited to, money.

Family picture courtesy of Nancy Fulda.


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


How to Get a Lot of Different Things Done Without Going Crazy

Strategies and goals

ducks_in_a_rowAs I write this it’s Saturday, the beginning of the first mostly-free weekend I’ve had in about a month. Because scheduled things take up almost all of my time during the week, I’ve amassed a list of about 30 tasks, large and small, that I’d like to get done this weekend. They probably won’t all get done, because there are only so many hours in the day, and that’s OK as long as I make good use of my time, enjoy the weekend, and get the most important ones taken care of. The question is, what’s the best way to do that?

I’ve gotten better and better at juggling multiple tasks over my lifetime, especially since I started intensively learning about the psychology of self-motivation, but it wasn’t until I came across a section on attention in molecular neurobiologist John Medina’s book Brain Rules that I understood why I’ve been getting better at managing a lot of tasks, and how to improve even more.

When Medina talks about attention, he describes how we change our focus from one thing to another: for each separate activity, we have to send a message throughout our brain telling it to first search out, then activate all the neural resources we have for that particular activity, letting the resources that have been active for whatever we were just doing go dormant. This is called “rule activation,” because as we learn, our brain developes specialized rules for how to act in different circumstances. Rule activation takes several tenths of a second, Medina says, and we can only activate rules for one task at a time. (What about multitasking? That’s a special case, and I go into it in more detail in the post coming up on Wednesday, “How to Multitask, and When Not To.”)

So why should this switchover matter? After all, if our brain can change modes in less than a second, we should be able to move from one thing to another with only a tiny hesitation. And that is possible–but only after we decide what we’re going to do and focus. Until we decide, until we’re certain about what we want to do and start to focus our attention on it, our brains don’t switch over: we’re in a holding pattern, still hanging onto the tools for the last thing we did and not sure what the next thing is. Just thinking about doing a thing is not the same as being ready to do that thing, even though we can very quickly move from thinking to committing if we try.

In other words, in order to get something done, we have to choose one and only one thing to concentrate on, discarding uncertainty and distractions. The problem with this is that our lives don’t present us with one and only one thing to do at a time: often we’ll have several things that need our attention, all of them important, with new ones coming in all the time. How do we reconcile our single-focus brain with a wide variety of tasks? We need to narrow our focus to only one thing at a time, and to do that we need to temporarily dismiss everything else. We also need to have an easy way to move on to the next thing once we’re done the current task.

We often don’t do this. Often we start one task, shift to another task, check e-mail, remember something we wanted to get out of a drawer, get up to get it, get involved in a conversation, forget what we got up to fetch … in other words, we let our attention shift from one thing to another, requiring a complete brain reorientation every time.

The discipline of getting a lot of different things done, then, is a discipline of choosing one thing and ignoring everything else. If you don’t know what the one thing to choose is, the answer is easy: focus your attention on prioritizing your next selection. Putting the extra attention in the choice makes it easier to focus once you move on to doing the thing you selected, because you’ve already had the chance to consider and reject all the other things that you could be doing for that moment.

To get an extra boost of productivity from there, it’s sometimes possible to keep a queue of maybe up to three or four things in your mind. As soon as you’re done the first one, focus fully on the next, and so on. This can be fluid: you can change the order before you start doing something, but once you start, try to stick with it to the end unless things change drastically. Once you get your focus on something else, it’s not always easy to bring it back, so each time you focus your attention, focus it completely and confidently, knowing that you’ve chosen the object of your attention carefully. The secret to doing a lot of different things is to not try to do them all at once.

This process of focusing isn’t just efficient: it’s relaxing. What’s stressful about having a thousand things to do is having to deal with all of them at once. By prioritizing, you really are dealing with all of them while still freeing yourself from having to think about all of them at once.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s time for me to schedule this post and put my attention in exactly one other, entirely different place.

Photo by Jonathan Caves

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Why Tackling Big Tasks Doesn’t Have to Be a Big Deal

Strategies and goals

Some of the tasks that are hardest to get ourselves to do are the big, overwhelming ones like cleaning out a junk room or garage, doing a full-scale edit on a novel, or organizing papers or files. Often we think about these kinds of tasks as requiring one big push, a big chunk of time that we imagine will be available sooner or later.

That kind of approach to a task can work out badly in at least two ways. First, a task that we think of like that may never get done. Second, even if we do accomplish the task, before long we may find things quickly getting back to the same situation we were in originally. When these kinds of problems rear their ugly heads, it’s time to think about breaking the big tasks down, not only into smaller pieces, but into habits.

What I mean about breaking a task down into a habit is looking at what kind of regular behavior can make the problem go away permanently. For example, regardless of whether older papers are filed or not, if new papers keep piling up, there will always be something out of order, and more often than not it will be a big stack (or three, or twelve …). This kind of situation calls for adopting a new habit, possibly even a new rule, about how new paper is handled, regardless of the old stuff. The new habit can be based on an event (for example, every time a new paper comes into the office that isn’t actively in use, it gets recycled or filed) or on a schedule (for instance, all papers get filed every Thursday morning).

Notice that this new habit doesn’t require old problems to be taken care of before it comes into play. It’s easier to be motivated when no old problems are looming, but not letting a problem get worse is still a meaningful and relieving change from ever-renewing chaos.

New habits can even help take care of old problems. For instance, with filing the new habit might be to file each new thing as it comes in along with at least one old paper. In this way, the filing gets done slowly but also fairly painlessly, and it reinforces the value of the new habit. What’s more, doing a little bit of a task that used to seem huge and unmanageable can be very freeing and empowering, often supplying the necessary motivation to get a lot more of it done.

Alternatively, old problems can be handled in small chunks separately from new habits. For instance, you might tackle a junk room or a filing job just 15 minutes at a time whenever you have a free moment.

Regardless, clearing the old problem away can be enormously freeing in terms of the pressure it relieves. Strangely enough, under the right circumstances taking care of something you’ve been avoiding and perhaps even been a little fearful of can be powerfully enjoyable, if you can push past the initial jitters and focus on the progress you’re making and not the problems you may have had in the past.

Photo by f1rwb DClik.

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