Life, Personal Development

10 Keys to Finishing

I was asked to restructure my last post on Finishing Stuff as a numbered list:

1. It goes without saying that if you want to finish a project, you should commit to finishing it, and you should make this commitment as early as possible. But it’s easy to promise yourself you’re going to achieve a certain outcome and then find, weeks or months later, that the promise was unrealistic: “Oh well.” Instead of an empty commitment, what you want to make is an actionable commitment. Make a promise about how you’ll behave throughout the project. Promise yourself that you’re going to do something – a little something – towards finishing the project every day: not busywork, but work that specifically moves you closer to the end. For every moment you spend envisioning a brilliant outcome, also spend a moment picturing the daily choices that will help you get there. Imagine yourself struggling with a task that’s boring and tedious, but imagine that you’re feeling good about this task because you know it’ll move the project forward. Think of finishing as a mantra, not as a goal that you set once and forget.

2. Strip away any exceptions that might be attached to finishing. Don’t say “I’ll finish if…” but rather “I’ll finish by any means.” Ask yourself if you’re willing to prize completion more than you prize quality. This can be difficult because often it’s the dream of a high quality result that motivates you to undertake a project in the first place. You figure that if the outcome is going to be mediocre you might as well not produce it at all. Realize that this thinking is a trap: it sets you up to never finish. Try to flip the relationship in your mind: it’s not the achievement of a particular standard that should allow you to finish; rather, it’s your commitment to finishing that will propel you to achieve your standards.

3. Consider it your job as a creator or a doer to get past the obstacles of the mind that stand in your way: your own doubts, anxieties, and self-criticisms. Just as you might step around a boulder in your path, remember that you can step around your doubts, then look back at them from a distance: you don’t have to tackle each one head-on. As for whether you should succumb to any particularly convincing doubt: maybe someone else would do that, but you can call yourself a creator because you’re willing to prioritize creation over fear and indecision. Discovering ways to stay motivated — to tap into available sources of optimism — is part of the duty you accept. The people who focus on worrying about stuff instead of making stuff are the ones who aren’t making stuff, but you’re different.

4. Spend more time thinking of what you can do with what you have rather than what you can’t do because of what you don’t have. If you’re not well prepared for the project and the conditions aren’t ideal, then this point is especially important: accept it as your mission to find the hidden potential in your current self, in your existing tools, in your present circumstances. If your shovel’s broken, of course, you’ll need to fix it, or get a new one, but what if you’ve got an ugly shovel that works fine? Use it with pride. You’ve heard of a fancier one that could make you 20% more efficient — should you upgrade? There are no rules, but try to decide as quickly as you can and move on, rather than making a new project of weighing the pros and cons.

5. Identify a consumer or beneficiary of your efforts – whether it’s a large audience, or a single person, or you yourself in the future – and place their interests above your current comfort. Say “It’s more important that they receive the product I’m making than it is for me to feel comfortable right now as I’m making it.” Focus on what you want to do for them and how you want them to feel, rather than on the discomforts you’re experiencing as you work. Think of what they’ll gain if you finish, and what they’ll miss out on if you don’t. Imagine that they crave the thing you’re laboring to offer.

6. Always try to make things easier for yourself. Ask “How can I set myself up for success?” rather than “How can I find obstacles that will provide a good justification for why I didn’t succeed?” When you hit a roadblock, don’t slow down; either keep trying to overcome the roadblock or shift to working on some other part of the project that’s not blocked. Try to get simple things out of the way as early as possible, inching closer to the finish line in any way you can. For example, if you need a title and you can choose it now, choose it now.

7. Try to make the project itself simpler, cutting things out, reducing scope where possible. If it’ll budge, bring the finish line closer to you. For example, if you don’t need a title, don’t worry about choosing one. If you don’t need to write an extra paragraph, don’t worry about what it was going to say. Stay open to the possibility that you’ve already finished. Make a habit of asking whether you can release your work right now, just as it is. If you can’t release it right now, then what can you do right now so that if you had to release it tomorrow, it would be releasable?

8. Be open to executing inelegant hacks that get you to the next step. Take pride in these hacks; don’t feel embarrassed about them. Know that every project requires duct tape somewhere. Your methods of work might be very important to you and to your creation, but don’t let an attachment to any particular method of work stop you from finishing the work.

9. OK, you’re serious about finishing, but see if you can keep a sense of humor and lightheartedness at the same time. Is there anything about your situation that’s a little funny? Is there anything that’s a little fortunate? If you’ve made mistakes earlier in the project, and you’re inclined to lament those mistakes, do the opposite. If you failed at something it means you must have taken a risk, which means you must have had some courage, which you should feel proud about; obviously you survived, so now you have the chance to learn and move on – great!

10. Think of the current project not as your final statement but as part of a sequence of projects that you’ll work on as you manifest your creative vision. If this project isn’t shaping up as wonderfully as you hoped, think of finishing it as a down-payment towards achieving something more wonderful the next time around. Also remember that you won’t actually know how good it is until you finish it and step away from it for a while.

Life, Personal Development

Finishing Stuff

In thinking about all the projects I’ve started over the years – anything from essays, to musical compositions, to house cleaning efforts, to travel plans – I wonder if there’s a common reason why some of them got done and others didn’t.

The projects I have in mind are my own solo projects – efforts that I undertook by myself – but to understand why these projects succeeded or failed, it’s helpful to consider why a group project might succeed or fail.

When a whole team of people succeeds or fails at achieving a goal and you want to figure out why, you can look at how well they got along, how motivated they were, how clearly they understood their mission, and so on, but perhaps the first question to ask is whether they had a good leader or project manager. Was there someone on the team who took it as their primary responsibility to steer the project to completion? And how skillful was this person in a managerial capacity, whether they called themselves a manager or not?

When you undertake a solo project, of course, you play many roles at once: you’re the person who comes up with the ideas, you’re the person who edits and refines the ideas, you’re the person who executes the ideas, and you’re the person who makes sure that all of these things happen within the time and resource constraints at hand. But you might not put the same effort into each of these roles.

What I realize in considering the history of my solo projects is that there have been some where I accepted the responsibility of “project manager” from the get-go and others where I avoided it. Some projects literally started with my thinking “I’ve got to get this done – how can I get it done?” and others started with my thinking “Let’s explore some possibilities and see how it all turns out.” I’m going to venture to say that the projects where I took on the responsibility of “project manager” are the ones that succeeded, and the ones where I avoided that responsibility… you guessed it. But all of this can be phrased in a way that doesn’t use the term “project manager” at all.

The projects that got finished are the ones where I made finishing a priority from the outset. They’re the ones where I started thinking about how to finish from the very moment I began work. They’re the ones where I constantly returned to the goal of finishing at each step, weighing any choice I might make according to whether it would move me closer to finishing, or further away.

The projects that got abandoned are the ones where I didn’t make an early commitment to finishing. They’re the ones where I started out with a goal like exploring or experimenting or testing the waters, but not necessarily finishing. They’re the ones where I assumed that if I just spent enough time and put in enough effort and gathered enough material, finishing would happen naturally. They’re the ones where I didn’t become concerned with finishing until late in the game, and even then, my commitment was conditional, not absolute: “I’ll finish this if…”

The difference boils down to an active versus a passive view of finishing.

The active view is that you’ve got to work at finishing all the time. Finishing is part of the project, it’s one of the things you grapple with, just like you grapple with the project’s content – the sentences in the essay, the notes in the musical composition. If you’re making art, then finishing is part of the art. A way to finish is part of what you’re creating.

The passive view is that finishing comes about naturally once you’ve put in sufficient time and effort. Finishing isn’t something that you consider or worry about per se; rather, it’s the end state that you reach as a matter of course. If you simply work hard enough on the content of the project, eventually you’ll finish.

Here are some thought patterns and behaviors that typically arise when you take an active view of finishing:

You remain open to the possibility that you’ve already finished. You periodically ask “Can I release this right now, just as it is?” If you can’t release it right now, then what can you do right now so that if you had to release it tomorrow, it would be releasable?

You try to get simple things out of the way as early as possible. For example, if you need a title and you can choose it now, you choose it now.

When you hit a roadblock, you don’t stop or use this as an excuse to slow down; either you keep trying to overcome the roadblock or you shift to working on some other part of the project that’s not blocked.

You always try to make things easier for yourself. You constantly ask “How can I set myself up for success?” rather than asking “How can I identify obstacles that will provide a good justification for why I couldn’t succeed?”

You make the most of the tools you have at hand, rather than wishing you had a fancier shovel. If your shovel’s broken, of course, you fix it, or get a new one, but what if your shovel works fine? You’ve heard of another one that could make you 20% more efficient — do you upgrade? When finishing is a priority, you find a way to decide quickly and move on, with a bias to keeping what already works; when finishing is not a priority, then weighing the pros and cons of any potential upgrade becomes a new project of its own.

When you experience doubt or anxiety, you take it as your job as a creator or a doer to move past the anxiety. If you’re worried about your abilities or about the project’s worthiness, you realize that this worry is an obstacle to finishing, just like any other obstacle, and it’s your mission to get past whatever obstacles come up, including those of the mind. Finding ways to diffuse or defang your anxieties, rather than giving them more airtime and a chance to grow, is part of what you signed up for when you signed up to finish. Finding ways to stay motivated — to tap into available sources of optimism — is part of the duty you assumed.

It can seem mystifying how the same person can be so effective in completing one project but so ineffective in completing another. But the mystery recedes if you look at the strength of that person’s commitment to finishing. If they were committed to finishing from the very beginning, then they probably spent time throughout the project managing themselves: taking stock of their progress and re-calibrating their efforts to give themselves the best chance of reaching the goal. If they weren’t really committed to finishing from the very beginning, then they probably didn’t do any of that until the project had already gone on for a while, maybe spiraling out of control. In both cases, they may have worked very, very hard — it might have felt to them that they were doing their absolute best, working as hard they possibly could. It’s just that in one case, the work was aimed at finishing and in the other case, it wasn’t.

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Personal Development

How are you?

If you encountered five people a day, every day for forty years, you would have been asked “How are you?” and you would have responded “I’m fine,” seventy-three thousand times.

You tell others that you’re fine, but what do you tell yourself? For every time you greet another person, you probably greet yourself a hundred times.

I don’t mean that you say the words “How are you?” in your mind throughout the day. I mean that on a semi-conscious level, you take stock of your situation, concluding that you’re either OK or your not. You do this many times a day. For all the complexity of life and for all the variety of human emotions, your mind recognizes a binary status at any given moment.

The belief that you’re OK or not OK determines how you will feel and what you will perceive in the next moment, so it’s important. If you often tell yourself you’re not OK when in fact you’re OK, then you might have the opportunity to improve your life just by changing how you assess your status.

Let’s skip over the question of what makes a person OK or not OK and say that if you’re under an immediate threat to your health or safety, you’re not OK, otherwise you’re OK.

But here are some reasons why you might be telling yourself you’re not OK: I’m late. My hair is a mess. I’m bored. I’m a little cold. I’m unprepared. I don’t know what to focus on. I just had an argument. I want chocolate. I wasted an hour on something unproductive. I don’t feel as good as I did before. I think I’ve failed at my mission in life. I just stepped on a piece of chewing gum. I don’t like what I’m looking at. I’m tired. It’s rainy and the news is bad.

My point is not to debate how severe or threatening any particular situation might be. My point is just to ask whether some percentage of the “not-OK” conclusions that you make each day could be switched to “OKs.” I’m late but I’m OK. I’m tired but I’m OK. And so on.

If you could get even a few more OKs each day, this could translate into thousands more OKs in the coming years, which could mean thousands more moments in which you allow yourself to relax, which could benefit your health.

Suggestions:

Try to notice the conclusions you make throughout the day about being OK or not-OK.

If you can’t perceive those conclusions as they happen in your mind, consider your behavior. Are you behaving as though you’re OK or as though you’re not OK? What does your breathing and posture tell you about the conclusion you’ve made?

Consider whether some of your not-OKs could be switched to OKs. Perhaps a not-OK from before is still echoing in your mind now even though your situation has changed?

Notice how much effort you might be spending on explaining or justifying why you’re not OK. What would happen if some fraction of that effort were redirected to the opposite conclusion?

 

 

Commentary:

This is my second “personal development” post. It was inspired by my experiences in a stress management course I’m taking at the Benson-Henry institute at MGH in Boston, but the material is not from the course. In writing the post I had to work through a few things. First of all, I’m reluctant to tell other people what to do, and I don’t want to sound like I’m lecturing. So I thought about avoiding generalizations and framing the post as an anecdote about how I changed my own thinking on one particular occasion. Writing is best when it’s personal and concrete, right? But you could also say that writing is best when you get to the point. I concluded that the material amounts to a few assertions and a recommendation, that’s it. I took it as my job to make those things clear so the reader could quickly grasp them and accept them or reject them. There’s also a tendency for me to think I should have fully mastered whatever material I write about, and be able to report success in implementing whatever I propose. But I’ve realized that setting such a high bar can become an excuse for not writing and hence a reason that I never get to learn from whatever I might have written.

Personal Development

Checking News

In 2019, I’d like to overcome my habit of checking news. On a bad day, I might check news a hundred times, hovering over the New York Times, CNN, Reuters, Google News, and Facebook in search of breaking headlines and updates to trending stories. The temptation to take out my phone and read news arises when I’m standing in the subway, waiting for food at a restaurant, sitting on the toilet, lying in bed trying to wake up, or pacing around the kitchen wondering what to do next with my day. When I’m at my desk, I might have a dozen browser tabs open to different news sites and articles I’ve started reading in between other tasks. Sometimes while I’m checking news online, the news is also playing on the radio.

There are three reasons why I check news, not including any practical need I might have for information about current events. In truth, almost nothing I see in the news aside from local weather has any bearing on what I do during the day. And while the desire to be well-informed is a good excuse for frequently checking news, it could be better satisfied by reading books and maybe looking at the news once a week. My real reasons for checking news are not often obvious to me at the time, but they reveal themselves in hindsight.

The first reason I check news is that I’ve gotten tired working on my current task, whatever it is, and I need a break. The second reason is that I’m bored or lonely and I’m looking for stimulation. The third reason is that I’m anxious and I’m looking for a distraction from troubling thoughts. In all three cases, I’m looking for something quick and easy, and the news provides.

Unfortunately, what the news provides is never what I’m really looking for. When I turn to the news as a break from my current task, I’m seeking refreshment so that I’ll be able to concentrate again, but the news leaves me exhausted and discouraged. When I turn to the news because I’m bored, the news provides excitement, but this excitement is of a hollow kind that leaves me unsatisfied and ultimately more bored. When I turn to the news because I’m anxious, the news distracts me from what I’m worried about, but it does this by causing new worries. While these new worries at first crowd out the old ones, they eventually welcome the old ones back to join.

Every time I check the news, my emotions are basically the same: shock and disbelief, leading to anger, leading to sadness, leading to helplessness, hopelessness, and gloom. I’m left with a sense of guilt (I wasted my time checking), futility (I can’t change any of these horrible things that are happening in the world), disappointment (I didn’t really get what I was looking for), and confusion (I guess I don’t really understand the world). Often these feelings impel me to check the news again, looking for something hopeful, fascinating, or urgent that will distract me from my deepened frustration, and the cycle continues. I tell myself “I need to know what’s going on” and “maybe I missed something important” so I keep scrolling and searching. But the news just hurts more and more.

Checking the news is a way of rehearsing impatience. As soon as I’ve extracted whatever stimulation is to be found in the current news item, I start looking for new ones. I’m carried along from link to link, article to article, always choosing the path of greatest stimulation, juiciest distraction. I feel a reduced sense of volition, as if I’m being pushed and pulled around with little choice in the matter, even though it’s me who’s doing the clicking and the scrolling. It doesn’t matter that sometimes, my browsing leads me to the encounter the work of the world’s greatest, most thoughtful, courageous, and incisive journalists. I’m paying just enough attention to be frightened but not enough to learn or truly appreciate.

What is the way out? Some ideas:

First, focus on breathing. Take a deep breath before you check news. Notice whether the urge to check is stronger or weaker after you’ve inhaled and exhaled slowly. Take some more breaths. Maybe you don’t need to check?

Second, focus on a comforting, joyous image. Before you take out your phone, think about a thing that makes you happy. Take ten seconds to visualize yourself experiencing that thing. Maybe you don’t need to check?

Third, check yourself instead of the news. How are you doing? Is it possible that in fact, you’re doing fine, you’re doing OK, right now, at this particular point in your day? Try affirming that you’re all right, you’re OK, just as things are now. Maybe you don’t need to check?

Fourth, keep your phone’s mobile data and wifi turned off. If you feel an irresistible urge to fidget with your phone, try looking through your photo album.

Commentary

This is my first post in a new category that I’d like to explore here on my blog, personal development. I figure I’ve been alive long enough that I might know some stuff about life that could be helpful to others; at the same time I’m dealing with some things and I’m probably confused about some things that I could get a better grip on if I wrote about them. Writing this post and keeping it in mind over the past few days has already helped tame my news-checking urge.

My aim in this post (and future ones like it) is to address a problem without lavishing too much attention on the thorny details of the problem as if those details were the most interesting thing in the world. While I could have gone into a cinematic exposition of a specific news-checking experience, I took it as more important to reach the solutions at the end.

In writing the post, I was concerned about painting too harsh a picture of myself — maybe that’s a risk of succinctness. I felt a temptation to assure the reader, particularly anyone who might be a friend or loved one, that my situation is far from dire. I’m doing lots of rewarding things in my life, I feel joy each day, and I’m not sitting around checking news to the exclusion of all else. Rather, checking news is a habit that seems to grow and shrink according to the amount of idle time that’s available for it. However, the specific percentage of my time I might be spending on the news doesn’t really matter as far as the point of the post, and I figured that being milder and chattier in my self-portrayal wouldn’t really make the post better.