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Guest Post: How to Be a Badass

States of mind

Today’s guest post is an excerpt from Wally X. Dammit’s book-in-progress, How to Be a Badass. Wally has what you might call a very direct style, and his writing usually (maybe always) contains profanity, so I’m putting this post behind a click-through and recommend it only for people who don’t mind a little rough language and plain talk.

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My Top 1 Task

Strategies and goals

Merlin Mann on his 43 Folders site (currently posting only occasionally as he works on his book) quotes Frank Chimero asking and answering this question:

Q: How do you maintain focus (on work, dreams, goals, life)?
A: You do one thing at a time.

While I think there’s more to know, I also think Frank has hit the nail on the head. As I mention in my post “How to Multitask, and When Not To,” our brains are rigged to only really focus on one thing at a time. This is one reason task lists fail sometimes: we get the whole list of everything in there, but then we look at it and say “Aah! I can’t do all that stuff! That’s overwhelming!” Then we run and hide, or perhaps waste three and a half hours surfing the Net to find out what happened to our favorite childhood TV stars.

Even when we bravely face our task lists instead of running away, it’s still difficult to get up motivation to do something when you’re simultaneously staring at three dozen other things you need to do. My solution to this was to create a separate “At the Moment” list in the task list system I use and to put just a few items at a time in that list, the ones that I’m pretty confident I’m going to get done in the next little while, or at latest by the end of the day.

My “At the Moment” list has proven very helpful, but it hasn’t entirely solved the problem. Nor has it solved the problem of sometimes picking whichever item from the “At the Moment” list is easiest or most fun, letting myself forget that others are more important or more pressing.

So I created yet another category: my Top 1 list. I’ve mentioned before the importance of knowing the next thing you’re going to be focusing on so that as soon as you get a chance to focus on it, you can start right in instead of having to regroup. The Top 1 list just takes this idea and makes it into a practice: whatever the next thing I’m going to do is, it goes on the Top 1 list. Then as soon as I’m done whatever I’ve been doing and am free to move on to the next thing, I look at the Top 1 list–the contents of which I usually already know–and there is the thing I need to tackle. Even if that one thing is unappealing, just spending a very short time–say, 30 seconds–thinking about getting that done is usually enough to get me in gear and ready to tackle it. Having that much focus on that one item alone makes it much more likely I’ll get it done.

Of course I put a new item on there as soon as the Top 1 task is under way, feeding from my At the Moment list, which is short enough to make this process fairly painless. And choosing a task to do next is usually a little easier than choosing a task to do now, since you don’t yet have to face the task when you’re just choosing it to do a little later.

All this process does is shove a few obstacles temporarily out of the way, but often just this little advantage can make a big difference; it certainly has for me.

Photo by Koshyk

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Just Don’t It

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For years it’s bothered me that “Just do it” is in use as a corporate slogan, because it’s a practical and extremely useful self-motivation shortcut. “Just do it” can sometimes sneak you into success while your brain is still arguing the merits of failure. While you’re trying to decide whether to start working on taxes or to watch some TV, you might say to yourself “Why don’t I sift through my files and dig out all my tax-related materials, just as something to do while I’m deciding?” If it works (and of course it doesn’t always, but if you haven’t tried it, you might be surprised how easy it is to fall for this handy trick), you end up doing what you hoped to do without ever having to decide to do it.

But that’s not what I’m going to talk about today. Instead of talking about just doing it, I’m going to talk about just not doing it. Here’s how that works:

Let’s say I’m at home on a Sunday, as I was this past Sunday, and I have a lot of writing I’d really like to get done, which I did. And let’s say there’s a movie I’d like to see, which there was, and that it wouldn’t be hard for me to just go to it and carve a couple of hours out of my afternoon, which was the case.

Deep down, I knew that I wanted to be doing the writing. I enjoy the writing, and it’s important. But the movie was very tempting: it was hard to argue that it would do awful damage to my plans for the day, because it wouldn’t. It was hard to argue that it was unreasonable or damaging, because it wasn’t those things either. No, it was just a worse choice than writing. Even so, pitting the two against each other, writing would have a good chance of losing, because movies are more obviously attractive, easier to picture having fun at.

But this is where I employed the mighty power of just not doing it: as I was beginning to imagine going to the movie, just the kind of visualization that tends to make a person more likely to do something, I stopped and said to myself “Or … I could stay home and get back to writing.” I felt an immediate relief, as though I had been waiting to give myself permission to make the right choice, and thinking about the options as little as possible from there, I went back to writing and wasn’t bothered by that choice the rest of the day.

I’m not describing this situation (or the cinnamon bun one) because I think it’s impressive or especially virtuous: the usefulness of it is that it isn’t anything special. I didn’t have to build up to it or use clever techniques: I just took advantage of the possibility of saying “No, let’s not.” It’s an option I’m trying to use more and more lately, and it’s surprising to me how much I’m able to accomplish by saying “No.”

Photo by D.B. Blas

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Mental Secret Weapons versus a Cinnamon Bun

Self-motivation examples

There are cinnamon buns on the counter in my kitchen, which I bought for my son. There is nothing preventing me from having a cinnamon bun, since it wouldn’t be grossly unhealthy to eat one, and my son isn’t necessarily entitled to every single bun. But I definitely have no nutritional need for a cinnamon bun and in fact am still working hard to lose weight, so while I’d certainly get a little pleasure during the few minutes it would take to eat one, in the long run I’m likely to get more happiness by not eating one. As low-key as the satisfaction of having made a smart choice is, together with freedom from a mild sugar crash and greater ease in getting more fit it has more enjoyment to offer me in the long term than the cinnamon bun.

But, of course, I wanted a cinnamon bun. I went over to the counter and looked at them, thinking something like “These aren’t really good choices for me to eat, but I can’t resist.”

Stop! Halt! Broken idea detected!  “I can’t resist” is making the cinnamon bun issue into an absolute, as though it were an irresistable force like gravity instead of 1) mild hunger plus 2) most of a lifetime of bad snacking habits plus 3) a vague leftover sense of mild deprivation from childhood. Theoretically, staring at those cinnamon buns, I should still have a way out, even though I was strongly inclined to eat one.

Lately I’ve been trying to make a habit of pulling out whatever willpower tricks I have whenever I’m in a situation where I could make a bad choice, even if it’s a very minor bad choice. So I tried a few of the 24 anti-hunger techniques I could think of off the top of my head: “Have some tea (anti-hunger idea #11), or a piece of gum (#10),” I told myself. I don’t want tea or gum, I answered myself. I want a cinnamon bun. I actually reached for the container then.

“You’ll be happier if you don’t eat that!” I told myself in desparation (#2).

You promise? I answered. (I’m not making this up. I actually thought the words “You promise?” to myself. It was a little weird.)

“Yes, I promise,” I said. “So are we good?”

We were good. I stepped away from the cinnamon bun and drank some water (#12). It wasn’t even difficult to step away then. The effort had only had to go into coming up with a tactic that changed my thinking for that particular situation.

Changing my thinking worked because I like happiness, which was what I was able to offer myself. Happiness is good, and within pretty generous limits, more happiness is better. Apparently whatever part of me wanted the cinnamon bun was satisfied if it could trade it in for happiness. While I was surprised that this little mental conversation was sufficient to resolve the cinnamon bun problem for me, in general it makes sense. We always have a variety of dimly-seen forces prodding us to do things that ultimately we won’t be thrilled we did, but we also have available to us a wealth of secret mental weapons we can use to align ourselves with our own best intentions, including visualization, reframing, distraction, support, and others. If we get in the habit of trying a few of them whenever we’re faced with a difficult choice, sometimes we’ll surprise ourselves.

Photo by TowerGirl

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Where Are All the Other Beginners?

States of mind

When I first started exercising seriously and consistently, in 2005, I chose to run: it was free, convenient, and uncomplicated. I had recently moved to Jacksonville, Florida, a place where you can run practically every day of the year if you avoid the afternoon deluges in summer, and I lived in a quiet neighborhood near the river. Mercifully, this being Florida, my potential routes were dead flat. So everything was lined up in my favor, but one thing did make me nervous: the lack of fat people. There I was with my 75 extra pounds (down to 14 extra now, thank you very much), and there were all the runners, who collectively looked like they ate nothing but skinless chicken breast and celery-flavored air. Why were there no out-of-shape people out there running with me? Did that mean that it wasn’t possible to do it if you were out of shape, that I was doomed to be a failure as a runner?

Before these thoughts got too far, however, math came to the rescue, a particularly handy bit of math that explains why, whenever we start something, it’s often really hard to find anyone who looks as incompetent or ill-suited as we are.

Being a Beginner Who Sucks Is Normal
Part of that effect is just the fact that, when we begin at things, we’re generally bad or not well-suited for them, since as we progress, we become better and more well-suited. Being a beginner means not looking as cool as the other kids, whether we’re talking about playing violin, studying Taekwondo, running, programming computers, or raising children.

The rest is that math we talk about. Let’s compare beginners to veterans with some made-up numbers that nonetheless show real and useful information.

Quitters
First, how many people begin something and then soon give up? It varies a lot by area, but it’s a lot. Many of our fellow beginners are vanishing after just a few half-hearted attempts.

Veterans Do More of It
How much time do beginners spend at tasks compared to veterans? It’s unlikely that a beginning violin player will be able to spend six hours a day practicing like some advanced students and professionals. A beginning runner can’t run nearly as long a time, as quickly, or as far as a veteran runner. Beginners at the dojang (Taekwondo gym) where I study have access to up to 3 classes a week, while more advanced students have their pick of 8 of them (on average, I do about 4-5 classes per week).

Beginners Vanish
And what portion of a person’s total career at something are they a rank beginner? A person might run seriously for 10 years and only be a beginner for the first 6 months, and the numbers for many other activities are similar.

The Only Beginner In the Room
So beginners who stick with the activity they’re starting might on average do 1/4 to 1/2 of the amount of that activity each week that a veteran will do (let’s say 3/8 as an estimate), and they will spend perhaps 1/20 of their career as a beginner. All of which means that for every hour of a thing a beginner does, we might reasonably guess there are 53-1/3 veterans out there doing that same thing. If you walk into a gym as a beginner and there are 20 other people in that gym, by these odds it’s unlikely that any one of those 20 people will be as out-of-shape and inexperienced as you.

Although, of course …
With all that said, those numbers are just estimates, and there are complicating factors: for instance, a whole lot more people start going to a gym than keep going to the gym, so in fact the gym numbers may not be quite so daunting as 53-1/3 to 1.

Get ready to suck!
But the upshot of all this is that beginners stick out, look bad, and are often alone doing it–but this is all just a nerd gate (a term coined by cavers, who use it to describe an obstacle that only discourages people who aren’t committed–it’s one of the terms in my book Talk the Talk: The Slang of 65 American Subcultures). While there are sometimes ways around standing out as a beginner (for instance, taking a beginners-only class), the fact of the matter is that beginners often look silly and may tend to feel they won’t belong.

This is just a phase to push through. However awkward or difficult something is at the beginning, the only way to get really good at anything is to keep working at it (and there’s good science to support that statement!). Some runners started out skinny, and some violinists started out as four-year olds, when playing a barely-recognizable, ear-torturing rendition of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” is considered proof of utter genius, but the rest of us poor slobs will just need to suck for a while whenever we start something. And then, magically, we’ll get better and not suck, and people will look at us and say “Man, they must have always been that great at it!”

Photo by Martineric

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My “Use ’em If You Got ’em” Challenge

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In yesterday’s article (Motivated, Wise, Productive) I mentioned a willpower challenge I’m starting, and it deals with bringing together a lot of skills from this site. If I succeed with this experiment, it should provide some useful findings–and if I fall on my butt, that should at least provide a little amusement.

You’ve probably noticed that this site offers a lot of tools for developing and using willpower, like emotional antidotes, flow, idea repair, feedback loops, and so on. But there are at least two major barriers between being familiar with those tools and using them all the time in everyday life: one is that knowing is not the same thing as doing, and the other is that it’s very problematic to try to pursue more than one goal at a time. Sure, I know a lot of great willpower tricks (like 24 Ways to Stop Feeling Hungry), but it still takes time, attention, and resignation to use those tricks.

And yet … every time I miss an opportunity to use my self-motivation skills, it’s disappointing. My primary goal right now is using organization and time management to get more writing work done, and that’s been very useful and important to me. But that means my other goals–like having a more orderly home and improving on my fitness–have had to wait on the sidelines for quite a while, and of course I’m impatient. So I theorized that if I could get into a habit of using my immediate willpower skills every time a willpower issue came up, even if it wasn’t in the course of pursuing my main goal, then I might make a lot of progress on those secondary goals and in fact on any goal I had clearly outlined and understood well without having to take on more than one goal at once per se.

The problem, of course, is forming the habit of using all those skills. Forming habits means repeating a behavior on purpose, and it’s necessary to do that daily for months before the habit typically sets in. So my challenge is this: every time a difficult willpower situation comes up, I’ll try using one of the techniques I know to deal with it. If I succeed, great. If I succeed in a surprising, interesting, or unusually powerful way, I’ll make a note about it in a special journal. If I fail, I’ll make a note about it that same journal and figure out what tool I could have used so that I’ll be prepared last time.

There are pitfalls here: this discipline might take too much focus away from my main goal, which wouldn’t be acceptable. Or it might just be that preparation (meditation, planning, etc.) is so important that in-the-moment techniques won’t get me where I need to go. Regardless, I’m planning to find out. Off I go on my adventure: wish me luck!

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Motivated, Wise, Productive

Strategies and goals

Self-motivation has a lot to do with wisdom and productivity, but they’re not the same thing, and sometimes they come into conflict–as when I’m motivated to do something constructive, but it’s not the exact right constructive thing. For example, a few days ago I got an idea for a novel that I thought would be lots of fun both the write and to read, a playful and entertaining piece of writing, and I wanted to start writing it immediately. I guess it’s not surprising, considering how thought-intensive most of my writing work is for me these days (what with the neurology and psychology and all that), that I’d be tempted by something lighter. But I have plenty of projects on my plate right now and definitely don’t need to be writing a humorous novel, at all. It’s true, I was motivated to do something constructive, and if I had used that motivation I would have been productive, but it still wouldn’t have been a wise decision. I might have been happy with the novel I produced, but I wouldn’t be happy that I’d had to neglect other priorities to write it.

Or consider meditation, a practice that yields positive results and that takes motivation to stick to (though it’s funny that to meditate properly we have to put aside thinking, including thoughts that motivate us), but that doesn’t produce anything directly. Or work that we might do only because someone else keeps urging us to and that we’re glad to have done in the end, but that we’re not motivated to do ourselves: wise and productive, maybe, but not motivated.

The point in my philosophizing is that while it’s powerfully useful to have motivation and it’s usually rewarding to be productive, it’s also important to know how we’re directing our energies and to put a lot of thought into how we’re prioritizing all the demands on our time. If we’re moving toward our goals, are they the right goals? Are we trying to accomplish too many at once and therefore not accomplishing any as well as we want to? If we have chosen the right goals, we can harness that knowledge to become even more motivated. If we’re not moving toward our goals, is it because of what the goals are? But here we’re getting dangerously close to asking “What’s it all mean, anyway? Why are we alive, and what’s important?” which at the very least isn’t the subject of today’s post.

One thing today’s post is good for, for me, is to help me get my head on straight for the subject of tomorrow’s post, which is a challenge to myself that I hope will interest you. I hope today’s post is also interesting enough to you to make you sit back and spend just a few minutes with this question: are my goals the best goals for my life right now?

Photo by drp

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Useful tool for Nutrition and Fitness: SparkPeople

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A screenshot of part of the Nutrition Tracker tool at SparkPeople

Ever since I started seriously working on my own fitness back in 2005, I have kept track of what I eat, my weight, and how much I exercise in little notebooks that I carry around with me, at least most of the time. Recently, though, a friend showed me SparkPeople, a free nutrition and fitness site. SparkPeople allows users to track what they eat, how much they exercise, and what kind of exercise they do (including both cardio and strength training categories), weight, measurements, and other fitness metrics. It’s well-suited both to weight loss and to other fitness goals and offers charts and totals of helpful values like calories, fat, protein, cholesterol, sodium, vitamins and minerals, calories burned in exercise, and more. There are other features I haven’t used extensively, including recipes, forums, goal-setting, and tracking how much water you drink. All of these features are free; to the best of my knowledge there are no paid membership options on the site. SparkPeople is supported by noticeable but well-behaved advertising.

Personally the most useful feature for me is the Nutrition Tracker, where I can tap into a very large database of foods and record exactly what I’m eating in as precise amounts as I can figure out. This allows me to receive detailed nutritional reporting. The tracking on this site takes me a little longer than my notebook method because I previously counted only calories, and I had memorized the calorie counts of most foods I ate, but it has several benefits. One is that it gives me much more information than I had on my own, protein and cholesterol totals being especially useful to me. Another is that, interestingly, I feel compelled to track everything every day–even on the days when I exceed my calorie goal, when the total is less appealing–because if I track a partial day, it feels like I’m being misleading: it would appear that I had only eaten however many things I tracked instead of that I stopped tracking. Using my paper system, there were days that I didn’t track. I like this slight extra incentive to be consistent.

A third benefit is that I’m forced to write down the specific foods I eat rather than, for instance, writing “omelette” and estimating total calories: my numbers are more precise using this system.

While I find some of the tools a little cumbersome–speaking as a techie, for instance, I’d love to see the tool for adding foods integrated into the Nutrition Tracker page as an iFrame–all in all they have been fairly easy to use and quite useful. Of course you have to have access to the Internet to update the system, but they have a good mobile phone interface that I’ve barely used but that might do the trick for people who don’t always have access to a computer.

Speaking about motivation specifically, notice that this site provides some key pieces: one is supporting detailed tracking and regular review of tracked information, which is a rudimentary feedback loop (a more sophisticated feedback loop would just add free-form discussion or journaling about what led to good and bad outcomes and how to change or stick with behaviors for best results in future). Another is the community that’s available there for encouragement and cameraderie. Yet another is focusing attention on nutrition and exercise issues, since more attention often translates to more and better motivation.

Since there are a lot of features on this extensive site that I haven’t used, I hope other SparkPeople users will post their impressions and tips in comments.

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7 Tricks for Starting in on an Unappealing Task

Strategies and goals

 

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

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

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

Photo by basegreen

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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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