Sunday, 27 March 2016

Tricking my brain to think long term

Recently I have been thinking a lot about how to start to force myself to act more concretely towards the long term. I have long felt that given a series of choices about what to do on a given Sunday afternoon, there are some things which will be nice in the short term (like eating icecream and watching a bad tv show) and there are some which will be less nice or even nasty in the short term, but very nice in the long term (like getting in shape or, in my case, practicing my writing).

Clearly this is a spectrum of benefits. For instance by my standards watching a bad tv show is much worse than watching something good which I can learn from and which might even teach me something. In some ways this is a choice, a decision which we all need to make about what is important to our long term growth. Having the desire to be a great chef will prioritise a completely different set of activities than that to be great dancer*. The important thing is that there is a choice to be made and a part of that choice is about deciding where you would like to be in some number of years.

The problem then, as far as I see it, is that making this choice is only the first step. I have said for many years that I want to be a great writer. I knew that was what I wanted to do, but for years I just wrote maybe one short story a year. That was the equivalent of someone saying they wanted to be an Olympic runner and then only training one day a year. To get to long term goals you need to make plans and then you also need to be able to act upon those plans. In some ways I think how to find the drive to act is pretty much the defining question of the 21st century**. I know that I personally have struggled with this a lot. I thought then that it might be interesting (for you and for me) to talk a little bit about what I do to motivate myself to do things.

The first one is that I get numbers involved. I have written hundreds of thousands of words every year ever since I set myself yearly targets and started tracking how much I was doing on a spreadsheet from day to day. I think that this did two things. The first was that it gave me a target to aim for, but not a target which I could fail at. What I mean by that is that it wasn't as though I said 'I will write a thousand words a day' (which my yearly target often amounted to). A target like that could be failed and then I would most likely give up. By making it a yearly target I could do nothing for an entire month and still have the potential to catch up (in fact one of the biggest numbers I track in my spreadsheet is how many words per day I need to do now to reach my target). The second big thing which this spreadsheet does is that it gives me a sense of achievement. Partially I can achieve by beating my target for the day and feeling good about that, but also I can look back on what I did manage to do in the past year and see undeniably just how many words I wrote.

The second big thing I did was that I made a concerted effort to think through my long term goals as though I was planning them for someone else. This is a process I return to every now and again and it is useful for a number of reasons. One is that it allowed me to look at my list of things I wanted to improve at and see that it was far too big and needed to be pared down. Another is that it allows me to see where I am going wrong and where I'm falling back a bit and I can re-plan to account for that. Finally it lets me find new targets and re-plan my approach based on both what works for me, but also what I have read about as good ways to learn the skills I want to acquire.

The final tactic which I have begun following a lot recently is what I do in the local time when I have that brief choice of fun thing or hard thing. I really like the approach that says you do the hard thing for just two minutes, no more, and then you make the decision. Normally what happens in that situation (as it did with this blog entry) is that I find there is no longer a choice to make, I did the hard thing for as long as I wanted anyway***.

I want to finish by saying that this is, I think, not advice you should necessarily follow. Rather I believe that this is an area where every person has to find there own way of doing what they want to do. Each brain is different and if you want to trick your brain to work in the long term then you need to find smoke and mirrors which will work on you specifically.

* (Though I am generally of the opinion that picking up a broad range of more general skills and knowledge is a good thing for you as a person. I've known too many scientists who didn't read or know anything about politics. Having said that, I think that is also a choice to be made).

** (For the first time we have access to a huge amount of education for free. If I wanted to learn chemical engineering I could probably get a very large percentage of the way there without spending a cent more than the cost of my internet subscription. That's amazing, but it's also tough, we can't hide behind barriers anymore, we just have to accept that we don't have the willpower to do things).

*** ('Do the hard thing' is actually one of my main... I suppose the word would be mottos. It is just so significant now that we have so much leisure time and entertainment at our fingertips)

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