I’ve been thinking about the day-in, day-out process of creating stuff and trying to make it good. Not just a piece of work in particular, but the lifestyle of creating. What’s required?
Category: Writing (Page 2 of 6)
As I’m trying to launch a new career (fiction writing), I’m also taking stock of an old one (producing electronic music). I signed my first track in 1992, at the age of 23, to Mega-Tech records (an offshoot of the famous San Francisco disco label Megatone). I released my latest record, a reggae/breaks hybrid track, a week ago.
Breaking in wasn’t easy. I remember vividly sending out cassette tape demos in padded mailers to record labels in New York City and Los Angeles, following up via phone, and getting shot down by arrogant label runners (I’ve made a point to never be mean, running my own record label, even though our signing bar is very high).
I remember the moment I felt the most frustrated with my music career. It was well before my music career had actually begun. I had a middle-of-the-night radio show at a college station, a Macintosh Plus and D-70 keyboard in my dorm room, and big dreams. But none of my demos had gotten any love from music labels.
The moment: I was crossing the street, padded envelope in hand, preparing to drop yet another cassette demo in the mail to yet another label. I needed, and felt like I deserved, a cathartic release to the pent-up frustration I was feeling. Success must be right around the corner. This had to be the track that got me signed.
Well, it wasn’t. Nor was the next one. Or the one after that.
It’s a cliche that success is “right around the corner” from disappointment, rejection, paralyzing self-doubt, and abject failure. It’s not true, most of time. Usually what follows peak frustration is more frustration, hard work, more rejection, deliberate and painstaking improvement of skills, and eventually, possibly, small incremental successes. “Big breaks” which to an outsider seem to be based on phenomenal luck are more often the result of throwing enormous amounts of competently cooked pasta against the wall. Some of it will eventually stick.
I did eventually sign a couple tracks to a San Francisco disco label that was branching out into house and techno. Then I signed a track to a major label rave compilation.
Then more demos, more rejection.
It’s not like you reach a certain level of success and you no longer have to deal with being rejected (or worse, ignored). If you’re in the arts, it’s part of the territory. You can pretend you don’t care, but everyone cares. You might not care about the money or fame, but everyone wants to be acknowledged.
To get to my big break (John Digweed discovering a self-published Jondi & Spesh vinyl release in a Berkeley record store bin) I had to write a bunch more tracks, find a music partner/co-writer, put out half a dozen releases on our own credit-card funded imprint, be completely ignored by local tastemakers and scenesters for years, and generally fuel my efforts with youthful bravado, stubbornness, and plastic.
What followed was a pretty damn good couple decades, the dividends of which I am still enjoying today. Top-charting dance tracks, major TV and videogame licensing deals, US and European DJ tours (fancy hotels, limo rides, big venues and crowds), and co-hosting an epic dance music event that had a line stretching around the block every week. Though music is no longer my #1 focus, I still enthusiastically produce tracks and co-manage Loöq Records.
So what is my #1 creative focus? Writing. Fiction writing, specifically. And in that area, I’m enjoying/enduring a good run of frustration and rejection. I’m older now and I have a few life accomplishments under my belt, so the rejection doesn’t hurt as much. But it still stings! I’m currently writing and submitting science-fiction short stories to pro markets and my rejection notices just entered the double digits. Ha, that’s nothing! (think veteran writers). I don’t know if I’m at peak frustration yet. I’m not naive enough to assume that success is right around the corner.
Starting a new creative career over age 40 might be called quixotic. Less generously, deluded. More optimistically (and how I choose to frame it): an attempt at reinvention, mid-life learning, and hopefully, eventually, meaningful contribution (entertaining and inspiring readers).
I guess I’m writing this to encourage you, if you’re in a similar space. This post from Ferrett Steinmetz gave me the courage and fortitude to make a serious attempt at writing (and more recently to start submitting my work). Incidentally, the author of that post is having a great run. You can purchase his debut novel here.
Thanks for joining me on my own ride.
Recently I’ve become fascinated with learning and implementing techniques to replace destructive habits with helpful ones. I’m particularly interested in giving up the habit of aimless web-browsing and other forms of online procrastination in order to become a more prolific writer. I not only want to write more words, but also to increase the intensity of my attention and quality of focus so that I can create higher quality work (I believe the two go together; increased quantity leads to increased quality).
I’ve made some progress over the last two years. I’m regularly reaching my goal of 15,000 words/month on my current novel, in addition to writing 2-3 blog posts a month. I’m curious to see how those numbers will change if I’m able to effectively implement all of the techniques below. Right now, if I were to give myself a grade in regards to how effectively I use my writing time, I’d give myself a C- (barely passing). I know I can do better.
The Problem: I either delay or interrupt my own writing process by distracting myself with email, checking social media feeds, checking link sites like reddit, or reading news and opinion articles.
The Ideal Behavior Pattern: Start writing without delay around 8:45am. Take breaks as needed to stretch, pace, exercise, and think, but don’t go down the internet rabbit hole.
The techniques below can be applied to any kind of desired behavior change, including quitting smoking, eating more healthful food, drinking less alcohol (or none at all), not fighting with your children or partner, etc.
Technique 1: Align Your Emotions with Your Intent by Asking the Hard Questions, then Commit
This is an area that I was neglecting until I read Awaken the Giant Within by Tony Robbins. I bought my copy used for $0.01 on amazon and it’s worth every penny. Just kidding — even though there are many references to events in the nineties, the psychological techniques discussed in the book are as relevant and valuable today as they were fifteen years ago. You can download the eBook for free using the link above.
The basic idea is to associate pain with not changing the behavior and pleasure with changing the behavior. What do you stand to lose if you don’t change? In regards to smoking and other health-destroying habits, the stakes are high; you could lose your good health, and/or twenty-plus years of your life.
Web-browsing might not sound as serious as smoking, alcoholism, or destructive drug-use, but when I asked the hard questions, I realized there was a lot of potential pain associated with NOT establishing good concentration and work habits. Any chance at establishing a new career from scratch (regardless of age) depends on intense focus, productivity, and the ability to resist distractions. I really would like to call myself a novelist one day, and if I don’t take full advantage of the free time, clear mind, abundance of ideas, good eyesight, and otherwise ideal circumstances that I am fortunate enough to be experiencing at this time in my life, I will regret it.
It was more fun to consider the pleasure side of the equation. Writing prolifically is a key part of fulfilling a major childhood dream of being a novelist. There’s also the immediate, daily satisfaction of completing a great writing session (I’m on top of the world for hours). When I write well I feel like I’m fulfilling my potential as a human being. Whether it’s blog posts that might inspire other people, or science-fiction that could entertain, inspire, or even add to the collective imagination of what humanity might become, writing lifts me up and expands my mental horizons.
I don’t get that feeling when I fritter away valuable hours and only manage to get a few anemic sentences down.
So those are the stakes. The last step of this technique is committing. Was I ready to commit to being a prolific writer? To raise the bar from should to must? Yes, absolutely. Carefully considering the stakes made that decision easy.
Is there a change you’re gearing up to make in your own life? A habit you’re ready to change, permanently? Do the exercise above and you’ll be ready now.
Go ahead. Bookmark this post, stop reading, and do the exercise above. What pain is associated with not changing? What pleasure is associated with changing? Do what it takes to gain the emotional resolve, then commit.
Committing isn’t the end of the process, of course …
Technique 2: Make the Good Habit Easy and the Bad Habit Difficult
This is the part where we use our natural laziness as human beings to our own advantage. Making a bad habit even slightly less convenient (or the converse, making a good habit more convenient) is hugely effective. Google demonstrated this principle by putting candy in opaque jars and healthier snacks in clear ones. Over a seven-week period Google employees consumed 3.1 million calories fewer of M&Ms.
Before I start writing, I disable the WiFi on my computer (unless I’m working on the blog — then I need the internet in order to create links within posts). At other times I’ve used site-blocking software like RescueTime and Freedom to curb my internet use. These tools work pretty well.
On the “more convenient” side I always keep a shortcut to my current manuscript right on my desktop, so I don’t have to dig around in folders to open it.
Other examples that could apply to other habits:
- keep free weights in convenient locations around your house, so you can pick them up and do some sets anytime
- keep fruit visible, and junk food out of sight — this simple decision can affect weight (on average) by up to 30 lbs
- make the decision at the grocery store: only buy healthful foods
The “make bad habits harder” strategy works pretty well, but I’ve run into limitations. If I’m not fully committed to behavior change, I can always find a way around these “soft” restrictions. Maybe you have a friend who has halfheartedly decided to “smoke less” and therefore only bums cigarettes instead of buying them?
Other issues arise when your family or cohabitators aren’t on board. Maybe you’re ready to give up chocolate but your wife isn’t. Maybe unplugging the internet router would be great for you, but would through a wrench in your roommate’s workflow. In that case you need to support your behavior change with other techniques.
Technique 3: Understand the Cues, and Disrupt the Habitual Behavior
These days, when I catch myself going to a website or checking email or Twitter when I should be working, I make a loud siren noise with my mouth, like a fire alarm going off. Then, out loud, I describe the exact details of the offending behavior, and coach myself back to a more productive mode.
Good thing I work from home, right?
Let me explain how I arrived at the above technique …
Earlier this year I realized I had fallen into a less-than-ideal morning ritual. The experience of turning on my computer, drinking coffee, checking email, and looking at Facebook, reddit, nytimes.com, and other sites (I’m sure you have your own list) had become comfortable, easy, and habitual. This wouldn’t have been a problem if the web-browsing only lasted for five or ten minutes, but I often found it difficult to break out of this “easy web-browsing mode” into the more mentally strenuous work of writing, revising, etc. Major time wasted! I might still cram in some work before lunch, but many mornings I would end up frustrated with myself, even angry at myself for wasting so much time. Yet I felt powerless to stop it.
My first attempt at breaking up this pattern was to NOT start my day with turning on my computer. Instead, I used a pen and notebook to sketch out my ideas, plans, and thoughts about the day. This resulted in a more conscious start. It’s a good habit and I’ve easily maintained it since I wrote that post back in April.
My second attempt at breaking the pattern was to manipulate the cue of drinking coffee. I recognized that drinking coffee had become a cue for web-browsing, so I experimented with not drinking coffee until I was actually working on fiction-writing. This worked reasonably well and increased my word count, but it wasn’t the ideal strategy. Coffee drinking was a trigger, but it was also a reward, and sometimes I just delayed coffee drinking until I got a minor caffeine headache. The process started to feel too convoluted and unpleasant, so I abandoned it and went back to studying how habits are constructed from cues, behaviors, and rewards.
Charles Duhigg, in his book The Power of Habit, explains that a habit is constructed of a cue (or trigger), a behavior, and a reward. If we can develop an awareness of what sensory inputs trigger the behavior we want to change, we can modify our response to the cue.
So far I’ve noticed several cues that precede my habit of internet browsing, including:
- turning on the computer
- finishing a chunk of work (a scene or even a paragraph)
- hitting a mental block … not sure how to proceed
Now, if I find myself starting to go down the internet rabbit hole, I use what Tony Robbins calls a “pattern interrupt” to disrupt the behavior (thus the siren noises and out-loud verbal self-coaching).
So far this has been very effective. But it only addresses part of the habit — the cue or trigger. What about the reward?
Technique 4: Understand and Reprogram the Reward
For lasting habit change I knew I needed to identify the reward I was getting from self-distraction, and find an alternate means of getting it.
Getting a better understanding of the triggers helped me understand the reward. I think the reward I get from self-distraction is a break in intensity, a rest for my brain.
The problem with using the infinite entertainment and distraction potential of the internet is that a five minute break can turn into a twenty or sixty minute break all too easily. Also, I don’t get the full benefits of a break, like moving around, looking at something besides a screen, doing a quick household chore, or even briefly exercising.
A household chore as a reward? Really? If you don’t understand this, you’re not a writer. 😉
Even worse, if I check email there’s a good chance my brain won’t get any rest at all, but will be pulled into a different problem. Too many times I’ve lost writing momentum because I read a client email, and my brain got sucked into how to solve that problem. It’s not fair either to my creative process or to my client to give each half my attention.
So if I feel the need for a break, I give myself a break. I might sit in a chair in my yard and soak up some sun, or do some pullups on the plum tree, or sit and meditate for a few minutes, or get a water or coffee refill. Ideally I try to keep it physical and short, then get back to work.
When I took a break from drinking, I found I was able to achieve many of the associated rewards without actually consuming any alcohol. San Pellegrino in a wine glass went a long way: something a little fancy, treating myself well, hydrating, mouth sensation, etc. Sometimes I found the craving for wine was actually a craving for sugar … adding a little juice to the carbonated water helped satisfy that need. The substitutions I used for wine, beer, and scotch help me understand that when I thought I was craving a drink, at times I was craving something else (water, sugar, being nice to myself, relaxing, time with family or friends). I probably drink about half as much now as compared to before I took the break.
Technique 5: Repeat and Reinforce Good Behavior
Eventually a good habit rewards itself. When I changed my eating and supplementation habits and eventually was able to breathe normally, the idea of going back to my old lifestyle habits held zero appeal. Nothing beats breathing.
But when you’re just starting to change a bad habit and/or establish a new one, it’s important to reward yourself immediately when you do something right.
The rewards don’t have to be big. But at least pat yourself on the back. I use out-loud verbal coaching to this effect, congratulating myself when I take a minor step in the right direction. When I reach a major milestone I usually treat myself to something … a small purchase or a nice meal.
It’s important to keep rewards simple and immediate. A complicated reward (like a trip to a foreign country) requires a great deal of work to implement. Your mind might not perceive it as positive reinforcement by the time it happens.
The most effective reward schedules are intermittent and variable. Don’t always reward yourself for good behavior, and mix it up both in terms of the kind and size of the reward. After a good writing session I’ll sometimes reward myself with dark chocolate, a walk around the neighborhood (sometimes I’ll stop by the local record store). If I finish a draft I’m going to splurge on something. My brain is going to know I did something right.
I guess there’s some possibility of creating a new bad habit by reinforcing a new good habit. You’re not going to replace smoking with candy bars, or drinking beer with drinking soda, are you?
Line ‘Em Up, Knock ‘Em Down
It’s not a bad way to approach life change. Line up the bad habits and turn them into good habits, one by one. After I kick the aimless web-browsing habit I have a few more in the queue.
What habit are you committed to changing in your own life? Step up and comment below.
No more than a dozen times in my life, I have experienced a state of what I call “super-momentum.” For days, sometimes weeks at a time, I operated at a extremely high level of energy, excitement, and creativity. I became so absorbed in my work that becoming distracted wasn’t an issue; I was distraction proof. I slept less and ate less, but had more energy. At times ideas came so quickly that I struggled to capture them, getting up in the middle of the night or pulling over in traffic to write them down.
There’s a clinical word that describes aspects of this psychological state: hypomania. But whereas hypomania is often associated with distractibility and thrill-seeking behavior (gambling, shopping sprees, sexual promiscuity, etc.), I associate super-momentum with extreme focus in a single work area, and the application of 100% of the excess energy to the work in question.
There are multiple advantages to having a singular focus. With project immersion, the subconscious mind is always engaged with the material (though other life areas may suffer from lack of attention and processing power). Project progress increases because there is less “loading” time; since the mind is continually engaged, you don’t have to “remember where you were” when you start working. You already know! This also reduces initial resistance/willpower expenditure for starting each work session. Instead of knowing and dreading the mentally strenuous work of reviewing your work for half an hour (or longer) to “get back in the groove,” you just pick up right where you left off the night before. You’re already in the groove — you never left.
Super-momentum is similar to Csikszentmihalyi’s flow, but I consider super-momentum to be more agitated, more based on heightened physiology (dopamine, sex hormones), and less reliably triggered. And while flow is characterized as “enjoyment in the process of the activity,” I would describe super-momentum as an ecstatic, near-frantic, inspired, completely focused work hustle.
It’s a great drug, and I’d like more of it. But it’s not something money can buy.
So, the questions:
- Is super-momentum worth triggering? Does it actually result in value being created? Or is it just another high to be chased?
- Is it possible to trigger super-momentum, and if so, how? What circumstances lead to this explosive burst of energy, enthusiasm, motivation, and productivity?
- Are there negative effects of super-momentum, in terms of psychological strain, physical stress, and general wear-and-tear? Is the comedown painful? Is “project completion letdown” inevitable?
Is Super-Momentum Worth Triggering?
Absolutely yes. While not every period of super-momentum in my own life has paid off in every way, all have paid off in some way. To list just a few examples:
- I spent weeks in a state of super-momentum writing an artificial life emulation program that took my programming skills to the next level. I still sometimes reference the source code of this application when solving similar problems.
- For at least a full month I became complete absorbed in Minecraft, sleeping very little and thinking about the game constantly. My brain was so “activated” that I made major breakthroughs on completely unrelated problems (client work) during this period of time.
- Momu and Grayarea collaborated during a very short window of opportunity. A sixteen-hour work session led to a week of very intense follow-up work, resulting in the track “One” which has generated thousands of dollars in royalty income.
In the long-run, these brief periods of super-momentum are mere blips when compared to productivity and results from consistent daily disciplined work. But still, these blips interest me. Not only are they fun when you’re in them, but many artists and writers I respect and admire seem to be able to consistently generate super-momentum, dramatically increasing their productivity during focused periods of being completely ON.
Is it Possible to Trigger Super-Momentum? If So, How?
Since flow is a possible subset of super-momentum, what have psychologists already determined are the prerequisites for the former?
In order to achieve flow, Csikszentmihalyi lays out the following three conditions:
- Goals are clear
- Feedback is immediate
- A balance between opportunity and capacity (the task is sufficiently challenging but not overwhelmingly difficult)
On most days I can enter a flow state (as characterized here) for at least a few hours. But I don’t know if I can consistently generate the heightened physiological state I associate with super-momentum. As a start, in terms of reverse-engineering, here are the factors (in addition to the above) that I associate with super-momentum:
- a great idea
- competition (personal, not abstract)
- a crush/a muse
- hunger for success and recognition
- decent tools and working environment
- an inflexible deadline
- powerful collaborators or helpers
- creating something that will really help or inspire other people
- breaking new ground (in terms of knowledge, style, or genre)
- some drugs (modafinil, bromocriptine, caffeine, etc.)
- being in good physical shape and generally healthy
- incremental success (power-ups)
- emotional intensity (including heartbreak, joy, grief, love)
- working hard, playing hard
- terrible consequences if I don’t succeed
- a big payoff if I do succeed
- getting “amped” because of excitement around an activity or an upcoming event or release (anticipation)
- extended hyperfocus (for example videogame immersion)
- an extended period of quiet solitude or near-solitude, time and space to completely relax, decompress, reflect, and even become bored
It may not be generally known, & it is not an exciting thought, that, ideally, for a writer, protracted periods of "boredom" are the secret.
— Joyce Carol Oates (@JoyceCarolOates) October 18, 2014
I have personal experience with all of these factors except for modafinil (which I am curious about, but wary of). Some of these factors are within personal control, but just as many aren’t. Part of super-momentum might simply be utilizing the enormous energy that comes with momentous life events (births, deaths, falling in love, getting dumped, etc.).
Drugs are within one’s personal control, but to me that seems a dangerous route (for example, I could imagine quickly and efficiently writing an absolutely worthless one-thousand page novel under the influence of modafinal). I once tried bromocriptine (which increases dopamine levels) as an experiment, and once was enough. I consume a moderate amount of caffeine from dark roast coffee, but medium roasts leave me dehydrated and jittery — I’m not interested in increasing my caffeine intake.
What other factors are controllable?
- Setting an ambitious but achievable goal
- Agreeing to a tight, inflexible deadline, such that other people are depending on you to deliver
- Choosing subject matter than can potentially have a real impact or break new ground
- Maintaining and optimizing your infrastructure and work environment so that when inspiration and energy do strike, you are not slowed down with mundane “fixit” tasks and distractions
- Underscheduling and undercommitting, so that you end up with “empty space” in your life (and not filling that space with distractions like television — get bored enough so that your mind starts racing for its own entertainment — see Oates tweet above)
- Engaging in a rich social life (ideally centered on or related to your work area) so that you increase your potential exposure to mentors, muses/crushes, rivals, and collaborators, all who can dramatically spur your motivation and amp up your nervous system.
This is the first time I’ve thought about this analytically. I’m surprised by how many super-momentum associated factors are potentially controllable. Maybe super-momentum can be engineered.
Can you Create Your Own Motivation and Excitement?
According to Neil deGrasse Tyson, yes.
“The problem, often not discovered until late in life, is that when you look for things in life like love, meaning, motivation, it implies they are sitting behind a tree or under a rock. The most successful people in life recognize, that in life they create their own love, they manufacture their own meaning, they generate their own motivation. For me, I am driven by two main philosophies, know more today about the world than I knew yesterday. And lessen the suffering of others. You’d be surprised how far that gets you.
– Neil deGrasse Tyson’s response on Reddit when asked “What can you tell a young man looking for motivation in life itself?”
What Tyson doesn’t explain is how. How do you go from sitting on the couch feeling blah to firing on all cylinders?
Exercise generally stimulates dopaminergic systems, which generally increases motivation (though the neuroscience is complex; higher dopamine in some brain areas increases motivation, while higher dopamine in other brain areas increases awareness of the costs of certain behaviors).
So daily exercise is a must if you want to boost your “get up and go,” with the caveat being that you don’t want to overdo it and end up in a state of chronic inflammation. Lifting heavy weights or going on long runs every day will just exhaust most people. Walking or bicycling or yoga everyday plus short bursts of more intense exercise (sprints, weights) is probably a good balance.
But brisk walks won’t get you to super-momentum. You need to be excited about your work.
Well, what if you aren’t excited? Can this be changed?
Author Rachel Aaron has a good perspective on this. In this blog post she describes how she went from writing 2000 words a day to 10,000 words a day. She breaks her approach into three core requirements:
- Time (track productivity and evaluate)
- Knowledge (know what you’re writing before you write it)
- Enthusiasm (get excited about what you’re writing)
She has valuable insight into all three areas. I’d recommend her post to all writers. But for the more general purposes of this post, her insights into generating enthusiasm are the most relevant. From Aaron’s post:
The answer was head-slappingly obvious. Those days I broke 10k were the days I was writing scenes I’d been dying to write since I planned the book. They were the candy bar scenes, the scenes I wrote all that other stuff to get to. By contrast, my slow days (days where I was struggling to break 5k) corresponded to the scenes I wasn’t that crazy about.
This was a duh moment for me, but it also brought up a troubling new problem. If I had scenes that were boring enough that I didn’t want to write them, then there was no way in hell anyone would want to read them. This was my novel, after all. If I didn’t love it, no one would.
Fortunately, the solution turned out to be, yet again, stupidly simple. Every day, while I was writing out my little description of what I was going to write for the knowledge component of the triangle, I would play the scene through in my mind and try to get excited about it. I’d look for all the cool little hooks, the parts that interested me most, and focus on those since they were obviously what made the scene cool. If I couldn’t find anything to get excited over, then I would change the scene, or get rid of it entirely. I decided then and there that, no matter how useful a scene might be for my plot, boring scenes had no place in my novels.
This applies to all creative/innovative pursuits — not just fiction writing. If it’s boring, why are you working on it? Skip ahead to the good part or the interesting part.
You may need to come back to the “boring bits” of the project later, but if you’re already in a state of super-momentum, you’ll blast through them effortlessly.
Are There Negative Effects of Super-Momentum?
Obviously, being amped up physically and mentally for an extended period of time (even if drug free) is going to take its toll. More free radicals, more stress hormones, and accelerated aging are probably inevitable to some extent.
Super-momentum is not the fountain of youth. It’s burning the candle at both ends. Even if the high is natural, all highs are followed by a low.
In addition to physical and mental stress, focusing all your energy and attention on a single life area means that other parts of your life (household, relationships, children, eating well, sleeping well, other work areas) are going to be temporarily neglected.
In addition, when you come down (and you will eventually come down), you won’t have the energy to energetically deal with these neglected areas. You’ll be drained. After expending an enormous amount of energy and delivering or otherwise completing your project (or possibly abandoning it), you’ll experience letdown. While life coaches and therapists might distinguish physiological depression from post-project depletion, they feel about the same.
The advantage of going through the latter is that you know why (you just pushed yourself like a maniac, and now you’re out of gas), and you know that with rest and recuperation, you’ll bounce back and regain that life spark.
So pursue super-momentum at your own risk. There will be downsides. A near constant state of super-momentum without corresponding periods of rest and recuperation might lead to gigantic leaps in terms of career success, but long-term health life effects might include:
- obesity, from sleep deprivation and circadian disruption
- insulin resistance, see above
- chronic inflammation, manifesting in joint pain, back pain
- chronic depression
- drug and alcohol abuse
- damage to personal relationships, from neglect and/or volatile emotions
- self-doubt, loss of sense of purpose, “Why am I doing this?”
To these risks you might say “So what?” In the famous words of a super-momentum enthusiast:
“Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming “Wow! What a Ride!”
– Hunter S. Thompson
He was a man true to his word.
On the other hand, there are equal or even greater risks to not pushing yourself, to eating and resting too much, to not discovering and stoking your inner fire. These risks are both physical and psychological. Chronic stress is terrible for health, but acute stress is necessary. A sedentary life devoid of all challenges is a fast track to obesity, heart disease, cancer, and dementia. Consider:
- prolonged sitting is deadly
- acute sleep deprivation can reduce physical inflammation
- working through breakfast and lunch can have enormous health benefits
Work “sprints” (via super-momentum) are not necessarily bad for your health as long as you take some downtime to recover. Here are some basic life and health precautions to take if you are chasing the dragon of super-momentum:
- stay super-hydrated
- get at least five hours of sleep a night
- eat at least one healthy meal a day
- don’t use stimulants stronger than tea or coffee
- rely on “natural” sources of motivation (see above) instead of drugs (including all so-called “smart drugs”)
- start with “money in the bank” (literally, but also in terms of relationships, core infrastructure, etc.)
- take extra care to be polite, patient, respectful, and considerate to your loved ones (your agitated, hypersensitive, hyperactive state will make you prone to snapping and snap judgements)
- when its time to come down, come down gracefully (sleep more, eat well, decompress, pamper yourself, recuperate, thank everybody who supported you during your sprint, return the favor)
This cautionary tale from author-turned-cocaine-and-videogame-addict Tom Bissell is worth reading. It’s possible to amp yourself up into a state of hypomania and hyperfocus that feels like super-momentum, but moves your life backwards instead of forwards. While I’ve never gotten into recreational drugs, I can relate to the lure of videogames. These days I have a simple rule of “no entertainment during the workday” (including web browsing) that keeps me from falling into false “feeling productive while doing nothing productive” traps.
So Who Wins, The Tortoise or the Hare?
Well, we all know that slow and steady wins the race. There is no substitute for establishing rock-solid daily habits that inch you closer to your goals, day by day.
But there is a place for sprints, for extremes. Especially to reach the heights of artistic or innovative greatness, these sprints might be required.
So the tortoise wins the horizontal race, but the hare gets more air.
Or maybe, once in awhile, the tortoise bursts into a sprint.
Early this year I wrote about how goals should provide (not require) motivation.
Setting the right kind of goal is tremendously important. A good goal is:
1) Purpose drive (the goal helps you express your life purpose, it resonates with your answer to “Who am I?”)
2) Specific (you’ll know, without any ambiguity, if you’ve achieved this goal or not)
3) Energizing (thinking about the goal propels you to action)
A recent post on Eric Barker’s site opened my eyes to two additional factors.
Calibrating Your Specific Outcome
First, Barker points out that imagining a specific outcome for a goal can sometimes decrease motivation.
It turns out that for a specific outcome to increase motivation, you actually have to believe that with effort and a little luck you can achieve it.
A few years ago I was reading a book by a bestselling fantasy author who I will not name. I finished the book, but was left unimpressed by the prose. Somehow, this experience was incredibly motivating. If he can do it, I can do it, I thought to myself. The experience of reading a successful but mediocre novel got me pumped to continue my writing and pursue my own writing career. Write better than Author X became my standard.
On the other hand, when I read an author like David Mitchell (I’m reading The Bone Clocks now), it’s deflating to think about trying to write like that. Maybe, in five years, things will be different, but at the moment shooting for that level of brilliance in my own prose seems unattainable.
Certainly it’s possible to aim too low. You should think as big as you can realistically believe is achievable. How do you know the limit? If visualizing the specific outcome pumps you up, that’s a good sign. Try visualizing the “next level.” Still pumped? Or does the next level feel “pie-in-the-sky”? Not everyone can be an astronaut.
If a specific outcome feels unattainable, that doesn’t mean you should necessarily shoot lower. Consider moving left or right instead, to a specific outcome that is just as (or even more) ambitious, but also a better fit for your particular talents and personality. A great example of this is Peter Diamandis, who abandoned his goal of becoming an astronaut in order to create the Ansari X Prize (which helped jumpstart the private space industry) instead. (Tim Ferriss recently posted a good interview with Diamandis and Tony Robbins.)
The second post from Barker’s post that resonated with me was that imagining obstacles and roadblocks on the way to achieving your goal (and planning for them) also increases motivation.
The idea is that if you plan for contingencies, when you hit the (almost inevitable) obstacles, instead of deflating and giving up, you think “I knew this was coming” and your plan kicks in.
Gretchen Rubin refers to this strategy as “safeguards” and “planning to fail.” When establishing a new habit, anticipate what will probably trip you up, and decided ahead of time what you’ll do in response a trigger.
The same strategy applies for bigger-stakes games. What am I going to do when I start submitting my fiction work and (almost inevitably) receive rejection slips, or no response at all? I’ll do the same thing as I did when I was a fledgling music producer — keep sending out material and not take it personally if it doesn’t connect. Creative rejection isn’t failure — it’s feedback. Rejection means either 1) your work needs to be better, or 2) you sent it to the wrong person/publisher/outlet, or 3) for whatever reasons your work doesn’t fit into the current zeitgeist/popular taste. Maybe it’s time for revisions, or maybe back to the drawing board with a brand new idea, or maybe it’s just time for a fresh envelope and a new stamp. Whatever your creative pursuit, rejection is going to be part of the game. While rejection never feels good, you can learn to consume it as a sort of food that gives you energy. All obstacles can be used to increase motivation if they are expected, and fit into your mental picture of your path to success.
Daniel Coyle describes how the Green Berets use negative visualization (as well as positive visualization) to prepare for missions. They rehearse a mission with every possible thing that could go wrong, going wrong (the Murphy’s Law version), and a later rehearsal where everything goes smoothly.
Reconsidering Multiple Life Goals
Previously I wrote about the value of having a single goal. I’ve changed my approach somewhat since I wrote that post. I still believe in having a single life direction that defines what you are trying to do or become. I am x becoming y, or I am attempting to to this or that in the world. But after some experimentation I have found that there is synergy and energy created by pursuing multiple goals simultaneously. I would agree with Peter Diamandis’s 3rd Law: “Multiple projects lead to multiple successes.”
In terms of tracking, I still use the same methods described in that post (specific outcome, evaluation date, reward, kick-in-the-butt motivator).
Will Any of This Make You Happy?
When considering goal-setting, it’s important to remember that achievements generally don’t increase happiness (at least not for very long). Achieving your goals will move your life forward and perhaps make the world a better place, but if you want to be happy, there are more direct ways. In fact, happiness helps you be successful more than being successful makes you happy.