I decided that I wanted to write a blog about self-management, productivity, and the like a few months ago, and ironically enough, it took me this long to actually do it. What really got me the starting energy I needed was an article put out by a university writing department on the topic of writing productivity. The article had a number of tips on how to get started writing, but they seemed to be off the mark.
The first two suggestions for a struggling writer were to “write every day” and to “write for at least 90 minutes a day.” That was it. Those were the magic suggestions. As if just saying it would make it happen! If you are having trouble sitting down in front of the computer and knocking out a few pages your solution is to just sit down and write a few pages. This got me inspired to sit down and write out my thoughts, not because they were particularly effective suggestions, but because it made me realize that I actually have something to say on the topic.
While these are good suggestions for a writer who is already relatively productive and wants to get better, the article missed the fundamental problem that many of us grapple with when we are starting out a new task or have been reaching toward some sort of goal. Typically, just saying “you gotta do it” is not enough to get something done. Instead the key is in the contingencies you set around getting to your goal. This article made me think “yes, that would be great to sit down and write for 90 minutes every day, but what is going to get me started doing that in the first place?” So here are my tips for starting a task. And these can be applied to most tasks, not just writing, with limited modification.
1. Clarify what exactly you want to get done
This is a great first step because it is easy to do and will really get the ball rolling. In the organizational arena this is what might be called “strategic planning” or creating a vision, but you don’t have to get that grand. In fact it is good to have a lean plan, that way you allow yourself the flexibility to change direction or adjust your approach without feeling like you have failed. Simply ask yourself “What will success look like from here?”. When I decided that I wanted to start writing regularly I focused that down to the goal of starting a blog in which I can post at least bi-weekly and preferably weekly, good content. This means spending the time every day getting something written out, and whenever I feel like quitting I have that goal to turn back to (as well as some of the things listed below). Set your direction first and you will go a long way to reaching your goal.
2. Make a public commitment
Once you have your direction set it is time to figure out how to get started. Few things burn deeper than the sting of social disapproval, or even the perception of disapproval. If you really want to get something done and you have already clarified with yourself what success will look like then start to tell others about it! Be careful here because at this point it is easy to become the “boy who cried wolf.” Everyone has a friend who always talks about how they are going to do the next great thing, or has awesome ideas but never quite follows through. To combat this make sure that you follow through on the next three steps listed here. Stopping at this step can make it harder for you to stick to your plan and make it much hard to accomplish your goal. Don’t get me wrong, it can be done, but why make it harder than it has to be.
So for example, I had been talking for a long time about wanting to get in better running shape, but had never really got around to doing it in any committed manner. As with our writing example it is easy enough to apply those ineffective tips to a budding Prefontaine, “just run every day for x number of minutes.” But this doesn’t quite sound reasonable does it? So I decided that I needed some sort of public commitment that would hurt to break. I signed up for a half marathon with my cousins and started to tell everyone. If I backed out or did poorly I knew that everyone would hear about it. This gave me that first push to get really serious about it and get the ball rolling.
3. Enlist the help of a friend
This is where you can really get some serious firepower. If you have a friend who is willing to serve as a good contingency manager you can go far in accomplishing your goal. You can do this either before or after you have committed publicly. For example I started with this step when I decided that I wanted to write this blog because I was too nervous to make a public commitment right off the bat, and I thought it would be more useful to have the focused contingencies from one person than the vague focus of the masses. Some goals large groups of people can get behind, with others it just doesn’t quite work out. So when choosing a friend make sure that they are completely willing to help out, and make sure they have some sort of power over you! It has to matter to you in some way if they know you are doing great or slacking off. In my running example I enlisted a friend who is an avid runner and gave really great encouragement every day when I finished my workout. This helped immensely with the day to day, especially in the beginning before running every day became a habit.
It worked great except for on big flaw. Me. I was the weak link in the chain, and this is where you have to be very careful when choosing your performance manager. This whole process is a two way street with your performance manager, and we had not built in any incentive for me to choose a new charity each week and stay on top of tracking his behavior. It took time and energy, and as other demands started piling up this fell to the wayside.
So the key point here is: enlist the help of a friend to help set contingencies for you, but don’t forget to build a way to keep your friend on board!
4. Start small (or more specifically, start reasonable)
This tip is especially salient in the academic world. I cannot even begin to say how many nonstarter research ideas I have had. Most recently I decided that I wanted to take a popular book, Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People” and dig up all the research related to his list of “how to make people like you.” I wanted see whether in the 80 years since publication his ideas had been supported by the relevant literature. Seemed like a reasonable undertaking, but quickly I realized that I would need to dig into years of unfamiliar research literature and familiarize myself with hundreds of articles. The idea quickly floundered.
My mistake here was that I started too grand. My research publication history is pretty limited, and it is easy to get carried away with these grand ideas, especially when you see others doing such cool research. A better bet would have been to start with a smaller more reasonable goal. I am still looking for that smaller more reasonable academic paper idea. When I find it I’ll let you know, but until then I will try to keep the overly grand ideas at bay.
One of them was again the self management planner, but I also had an excel spreadsheet my cousin sent me, as well as a workout schedule my performance manager made me. This constant evaluation of my progress kept me on track so well that I am proud to say I never skipped a day of training (except when I rolled my ankle on a walnut, but that doesn’t count) and performed above my expectations on the day of the race.
6. Dive in deep
Sometimes you need to get some skin in the game to get really motivated to do something. There is only so much that a contingency manager or faceboook can do to get your behavior going. Sometimes you need something bigger. One of my favorite ways to do this is to “put my money where my mouth is.” I have always wanted to learn more about the stock market, however after years of simply being curious I finally (with the help of a good contingency manager!) decided to commit to it. One summer I saved a substantial amount (well substantial for a summer intern) of money and set it aside for use in the stock market only.
This money was going to have to be invested, and it had to be individual stocks, no cheating with a mutual fund. If I didn’t take the time and the energy to figure out how to pick stocks and do my research my money would go down the drain. So over the period of a few months I picked 4 stocks and put my money where my mouth was. I was motivated to stay on top of the goings on in the financial world because I had skin in the game and it mattered. I am proud to say that it paid off. The first year over year gain for those 4 stocks was just above 30%, and I often spend time reading up on financial news and investment books. I chalk that up to following several of the tips listed above.
It is usually not enough to get a behavior started by simply saying “just do it.” The key is in arranging your environment for success. You may find that there are ways that you do this that are different than the ones listed here, but so long as you are setting up your contingencies to support your progress you will be successful. And I guess we'll see how well I stick to these tips in keeping to this blog. Fingers crossed. If you have any tips of your own I would love to hear them. Thanks for reading.
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