Question from a reader -
One thing that I'm wondering, and figured that I should send before I go to sleep and forget it...
For certain kinds of tasks (having discussions about more abstract goal things, writing emails to friends, commenting on LW, etc.) I'm really motivated, and need to be restrained from doing them.
With other tasks, I'm nowhere near as motivated, and have trouble starting them. Since I'm still a student, not doing this kind of work just isn't an option.
In the long term, I'm hoping to just do more of the things I'm motivated for, and fewer of the ones I'm not. I'm willing to buckle down and do work in subjects that I'm less motivated for if I see how it clearly relates to my goals (last year I spent a few hours trying to work out the geometry kinks for a robot part -- it was a mess).
Right now, I'm just reminding myself that its really not hard once I start it, and that it goes quickly if I just do it.
Is there any other advice you'd have to offer?
First, I agree with your general plan - try to minimize things in the long term that you don't want to be doing. Time tracking is good because it can show you just how much time is going into unpleasantness, and then you can ideally work to cut that down.
But in the short term, when you decide you want to get something done, I don't think there's any really guaranteed quick fix answers. Rather, I think the reasons the work is unappealing could be a few different things, and you could use a few different strategies to deal with it. There's not really a one-size-fits-all approach, you just try to get at it from a variety of different angles until you find something that works.
So, here's a few potential things you could use that might be relevant:
*Batching: Do all tasks of this type at the same time. Lay out your materials so you can do them all in order. Try to do them as fast as possible and get through it all. This decreases the activation energy to starting repeatedly, and brings a lot of satisfaction for doing all or most at the same time.
*Momentum: Similar to the above, but you can sometimes get momentum by doing something you like more, accomplishing on that, and continuing on to work you like less afterwards. For me, doing any sort of work makes me more likely to do work I don't like next. At least, far more than surfing the net.
*Controlling your environment: This one is surprisingly good. Go somewhere that the only thing you've got with you to do is the work you don't want to do. If you're in a plain, spartan cafe with a computer that has no internet access, no games, and no fascinating media, and you've got your schoolwork or whatever, then your options are - (1) stare the wall, or (2) do your work. Usually even unpleasant work is better than staring at the wall. This is what I do when I get really stuck. Just turning off the internet can help a lot, too.
*Reminding yourself you don't have to, you either choose to or choose not to: This helps a lot. There seems to be a natural mental pushback against things you "have" to do - I try to remind myself I don't have to do anything, I can either choose to do it or not do it. Paradoxically, that makes it easier to do. Try it some time, seriously.
*You can always opt not to do something and accept the consequences of not doing it: Like the above, except sometimes you actually do triage whatever it is. I remember seeing a Steve Pavlina post from back when he used to write almost exclusively on productivity. He had an A grade in one of his Computer Science classes, but he felt the final project wasn't going to teach him anything, was going to take a long time, and he'd still get a B if he didn't do it at all. So he didn't do it. It's always an option to decide against doing things if you have too much going on, so long as you can accept the consequences to that.
*Pay to have the task minimized or removed: There might be software or somewhere that you can contract out some of the project to. This might be not acceptable in an academic setting, but it works in the real world.
*Break it down into smaller actionable steps: A lot of times, projects are overwhelming and big and it's not clear what to do. So changing "Write the 10 page essay" into "Go to Google, search for XYZ topic, read the Wikipedia page, find five good articles on the topic, take a guess at what my first thesis will be, take a crack at writing the opening paragraph of the essay" - those are all much smaller steps, so it's easy to do one of them.
*Do it the first time you look at it, so as not to build up an "ugh field" around it
*You could try rewarding yourself. Something like, "After I do this task, I'll go eat some fruit/chocolate/whatever" or buy yourself something you've wanted or some such. I don't personally do this, but some people swear by it.
*You could try saying "I'll just work on this for 30 minutes" (or even 10) as a way to get going. Don't go away from the task until that time.
*Risky, but you can wait until the deadline is almost there and you've really got your feet to the fire. If you've got the basic competency and high quality isn't an issue, this can work. It's a risky strategy though, because if unexpected things happen you could miss the deadline.
I really think there's not any one particular answer, but you can try a mix of things and one of these might help.
Your suggestions for A in the comments?
One of the best books I've read on procrastination is "Eat That Frog" by Brian Tracy. The title comes from the claim that Mark Twain said (approximately) "If you eat a frog every morning, that's the worst thing that will happen to you all day." Tracy takes this further and encourages you to eat the biggest, ugliest frog you can find.
My personal takeaway from his book came mainly in the form of two actions. First, every night I make a list of all the tasks I need to do the next day in order of priority. This means the ones that further my goals the most are on top. Not that I put what I want to do on top.
Second, every morning, I start with the "ugliest frog" (the top most item on my list) and do that first. I then proceed down the list as I have time. I always accomplish my most important tasks, and the ones that never get done, well, they obviously weren't that necessary or they would have been higher up the list.
I find that this method really removes any need for motivation because I'm just following a list as opposed to making any decisions. It also allows for almost every technique that you touched on in this post.
I think this is my first time commenting on your blog, Sebastian, but I should let you know that I read every article and almost always find at least one point relevant to myself. I really appreciate your the effort you put in here.
Could you do genius quality work?
I know the word genius gets thrown around pretty casually these days, I certainly throw it around pretty casually. But honestly, I don't think it's very hard to do genius-quality work, if you decide to try. Most people don't try. But if you did try, I think you could do some.
What's genius quality work? Hard to define. Let's try, though. "Something that makes a large, permanent impact on an important field." That's not quite right, but it's close enough for now.
Here's the interesting point, here's why I wrote this post: I reject the notion of a person who is a "genius" - you're either doing genius quality work or you aren't. Regular, normal people (you, me) who keep trying to make large, permanent impacts on important fields are likely to do so at some point, and that's genius-quality work. Yes, most people won't try. But if they did try, they'd probably get around to doing some genius quality work sooner or later.
Now, there's a whole other level - timeless quality work. That, I'm not so sure we can just do that. That's the kind of work made by da Vinci and Socrates and Tsai Lun and Confucius. That's Special Relativity and the Parthenon and things like that. Timeless work, I don't know if anyone can do timeless work.
I used to dislike to work. I saw how most people lived their lives, slogging through work that they hated, and I was determined not to fall into that trap. I made the mistake of generalizing, lumping all work together in the same bucket.
Since then, things have changed. In terms of monumental personal life changes, becoming a hard worker is the most recent one I've undergone. About a year ago, for reasons I touched on in this post, I decided that it was imperative for me to become a hard worker. I didn't do it because I had suddenly fallen in love with work, but rather because I had began to feel as though I was behind. And believe me, it wasn't love at first sight.
To fall in love with hard work, you must understand why it's necessary. When I was young I was told that sugar was bad, but I never understood exactly why it was bad, so I kept eating it. Only when I learned how it chemically affected my body did I finally give it up. The same is true of work-- if you don't know why you have to work hard and love it, you'll probably never actually do it.
Work is your gift to the world. That sounds corny, but it's true. And believe me, you owe the world a gift or two. Think of all of the various things that millions of people around the world have done for you to enjoy the life you have. They made up languages, invented stuff, procreated at the exact right times to create your ancestry, and managed to not kill each other in the process. We're lucky to be here, and the high standard of living we all enjoy now is only because of those who came before us. Some, like Einstein, had huge impact, but even people you don't notice, like the janitors, are making your life better.