A Cheater’s Guide to Self Improvement

So, guilt is a powerful motivating force in my life. I’m pretty adept at performing complex mental ninjutsu on myself to weasel my way out of things I should be doing, that are good for me, but I’ve got no burning desire to do. Take flossing, for example. It’s a trivial task that has a pretty substantial benefit in terms of reducing the guilt I feel about generally boycotting my teeth after losing my retainer some time towards the end of high school, and reducing the number of days per week brushing a bit too hard yields slasher fiction levels of upsetting sink imagery. Yet, there’s a routine I’ve developed to work myself around and out of the desire to floss. It’s like taking a mental detour around my sense of duty and pragmatism which usually arrives at the junction of dorking around on the internet and checking my email.

This is why I create structures outside of myself for enforcing the things I want to nail down, and shunning the stuff I want to get rid of. The way I see it, the distance between an action you want to perform and the final result is a kind of switchboard. Some of the terminals are in your brain, some are in the outside world. Your own willpower is one of many factors influencing what can actually get done, and it’s a fragile, fallible, and prone to fatigue, as one famously counter intuitive study proved. Relying on it alone is a mug’s game.

Did you ever notice how “new direction” and “nude erection” sound nearly identical. I guess most people differentiate them using context clues.

Say your goal is to accurately store a long string of numbers. You could try and do this in hundreds of ways. You might write them down so you could retrieve them later. You could create something like a PAO reference system to store the data mentally by converting fairly meaningless digits into imagery that sticks easily. You could try and extend the mental tape you write numbers on, called digit span, by temporarily cross wiring it with bits of your brain that manage remembering things you hear: repeating the numbers to yourself out loud. Interestingly, people who have damage to Broca’s area, a part of the brain that is associated with forming speech, are often rendered mute. However, they are often able sing what they’re unable to say. There’s a pretty detailed article on the effect up on PubMed.

My favorite system for getting my “me” to do things I want to have done but don’t want to do is to inject a new flavor of guilt into the mix. I seem to have become immune to my “you should really do this because it’s good for you” vector, but seem to have no such antibodies for the “other people are counting on you” strain. Therefore, committing to do something with a group of people who all help enforce a reasonably strict framework of deliverables and deadlines makes the motivation problem pretty trivial. I feel compelled to do the thing because letting other people down is much less palatable than letting myself down.

That’s why a group of friends (@waaronw, @ohthatnumi, and myself) created #blogclub. Essentially we all agreed that we were bad at writing. Not that we are having trouble getting our thick Cro-Magnon foreheads around grammar and syntax. More, we’re bad at the finer art of fluently expressing what we intend using the written word. We all want to get better at conveying, committing, and knowing when to stuff the inner editor that tells you you’re crap down into a hole with poisonous snakes. Also, we all want to be able to share our perspective, what we’ve learned, and what we’re excited by. We figured the best way to get better was to bite the bullet and get some practice in, hopefully generating some sophisticated pieces in the process. So, every Thursday we each post a substantial piece of writing up on our respective blogs and alert the world via twitter.

It can be intimidating having a finely tuned sense for the skill you want to posses, but lacking the expertise and practice to pull it off. That’s what caused me to neglect writing for so many years. I new what I wanted and it only reinforced how far behind my own work was. Ira Glass has some beautiful advice on closing the gap between your taste and your skills without editing yourself into the ground.

I find that touching base with incredibly motivated, productive people helps replenish my will to get shit done. I find that setting weekly goals, planning out my time in advance and putting it on my Gcal, and keeping a constantly updated list of pending tasks to filter in when the biggest and most pressing stuff has gotten tackled helps keep me moving forward and keeping my momentum up.

Having someone to do progress reports with is also incredibly useful. It helps me be honest with myself about what I can actually get done in a week. I have the habit of imagining I’m about twice as smart and productive as I am, but when I’ve got to give a summary of what I’ve accomplished in that time to another person I’m much more realistic about my goals. The intimidatingly talented and productive @willowbl00 has been an enormous help on this front.

If I knew wringing tears from the oppressed and downtrodden could come back to bite me in the afterlife I wouldn’t have based my business on it.

After you’ve set up a system, plumbed the depths of your character for all the little nubs you need to rub to get the most out of your various strengths and nuances, and set off on a trajectory of maximum productivity, it’s important to remember that you’re still human and will inevitably screw up. You need to plan on what you do when stuff breaks down. You need to add in padding for when you get sick, get struck with a bad case of slack, or completely misjudge a project and the whole thing balloons out of control. Don’t let the past failures weigh around your neck like bricks in the swiftly rising tide of doubt. Let them be little promises to yourself to keep moving, to keep building, and to never let failure swamp you. Make them count. I find that going back to failed projects and publishing them, warts and all, helps lift the weight off of me. They become less haunting specters and more avenging angels, beating back the tendrils of suck that can drag me down.

Once again, I’m going to leave you with Ze:

Let me think about the people who I care about the most and how when they fail or disappoint me  I still love them, I still give them chances, and I still see the best in them. Let me extend that generosity to myself.