4/3/11

Getting Stuff Done: Learning Your Distractions and Taking Control of Them

This isn't news, but I've discovered that working as a writer is so very different from working as a lawyer.  For example:
  • The deadlines are much more self-imposed (e.g, daily word count).  
  • It's a solitary endeavor  (no high heels. Heck, no shoes ...).
  • I can work most any place (home, Starbucks, a park bench).
Which means that very quickly, I've learned how much willpower I've really got -- and I've discovered powerful, subtle temptations that regularly keep me from meeting my word count.  The fridge, the TV: sure - but it's much more than that.  It's a pattern of distractions that is undermining me. 

Psychologists Study Willpower.  Duh.

I went surfing around the web, and discovered psychologists study willpower.  Who knew, right?  Which is wonderful:  I want to know what they've found, and incorporate it into my daily routine. 

Is there a secret weapon against procrastination?  Against stopping to watch TV and get a snack every afternoon, at the exact same time?  That @#$#$@#$ Ina Garten show is on every weekday afternoon at four.  Damn her.

Metcalfe and Mischel Study - 1999 (pdf here)

One thing I found was a study done in 1999 [1] that divides willpower into two motivations: hot and cold.  Hot motivators are fueled by fear and anxiety (which brings back memories of impending filing deadlines from my lawyer days) as well as good stuff.  Hot motivation is controlled by outside stimuli that spark your reaction.  The study labels hot motivation as the "go" system. 

I think that I have a lot of hot motivation.  This is not sexy at all. 

Cold motivators are different.  Cold motivation is the "know" system in the study's vernacular.  It's your willpower, baby. 

Fortunately, I can look back over my past successes and comfort myself that I apparently have quite a bit of cold motivation, too.  Whew. 

The Psychology Behind Distractions

To get the job done, I can't fall prey to all the distractions that tempt me away from my task at hand.  As I write this post, I'm fighting a war against distractions.  External and internal, they've been categorized. 

The neighbor's dog barking is external.  The thought of making a fresh pot of tea now rather than later is internal. An image of the Veggie Sub on Flatbread from Subway floats through my mind.  These can all veer me off my path - no!!!  I have to ignore them, and keep typing.

In their study, Metcalfe and Mischel describe what I'm doing right now as exercising my willpower.  Wo Nellie.  Good for me. 

Willpower, Self-Control: What It Is

Of course, they describe this in their psychological way:  what I'm doing is exercising my ability to inhibit my impulsive behavior in order to fulfill my commitment to myself, which right now is to get this post written, finalized, and published. 

In the long-term, that willpower might be labelled "self-control."  In the Bible, self-control is a gift given to us by God [2].  In the study, they delve into self-control (over the long haul) as having three characteristics:
  • it's mental and intellectual (not emotional);
  • you have more as you age, hopefully - self-control is a sign of maturity (babies don't have much if any of this); and 
  • (warning Will Robinson!) self-control is vulnerable to stress.  

Stress is Kryptonite to Self-Control

So far, so good.  All of this makes sense to me.  I'm still looking for information that I can use as tools to help me get all my stuff done.  I found some.

1.  Planning is Very, Very Important

They tell us that for self-control to be powerful, you have to rely upon the tools of planning as well as memory, which work together to "...keep the goals in mind while pursuing them and monitoring progress along the route."  So that old adage, "those who fail to plan, plan to fail," appears to have a scientific support, right?

For me, this means that I need to get a better handle not just on my daily to-do list, but on my one-year plan, five-year plan, even ten-year plan.  It will help me get the things done today that I need to do. 

It's true:  when I don't have my task list at my side, I am easily distracted.  It's just sad how easily I'm distracted, in fact -- and I won't even admit to the ridiculous things that have successfully tempted me away from my keyboard.  My purchase history at QVC speaks for itself. 

2.  Actions that Reduce Stress Are Also Valuable

The study also recognizes that stress can sneak in and weaken your resolve.  It's easier for those hot motivators to win if you're weak.  No news there.  So, it comes back to avoiding stress.  Really?  Grrrr. 

Find some stress reduction techniques that work, they suggest.  Plan for stress and be ready to beat it.  This I can do. 

For me, walking the dogs comes to mind immediately.  Even a short walk is good -- gets me out and moving for a bit and provides the added stress reduction of watching how happy the pups are to do this.  There's nothing so fun as seeing your dog jump up five feet in the air at the question "wanna go for a walk?" -- never gets old.

3.  Hooray!! Rewards!!! 

Get this: the researchers not only suggest rewards, they've got two kinds.  I'm really pumped now.  There are the Large Late Rewards (LLRs) and the Small Early Rewards (SERs).  I cannot tell you how much I love this.  However, there's bad news with the good news:  it appears that a small reward now may turn into a distraction.  You gotta be careful about giving yourself rewards.

For me, I find that giving myself little rewards when tasks are done (particularly ones that I despise) seems juvenile, but it works for me.  So sue me, I'm immature in my mature assertion of self-control.  Sometimes they are things, sometimes they are things I get to do. 

The Large Late Rewards are the Big Deals.  You get that article published, for example.  The researchers report that those should have big treats to go with them, or you'll get waylaid by distractions -- you'll find a reward for yourself in television, ice cream, tequilla, something ... if you don't consciously acknowledge your major achievement. 

What I'm Taking From This -- Plans and Rewards

Okey dokey.  From this, I'm going to stop and take the time to go over my business plan, my marketing plan, etc. as well as set up a list of real rewards, tied to goals being met.  Much more formal than my usual approach, but this makes sense to me.  (Businesses do this, too: bonuses, profit sharing, etc., and I may incorporate some of their tactics to my writing world.)  And after I get this all done, I'm going to go get a Frap ... as my reward.


[1] Metcalfe, J., & Mischel, W. (1999). A hot/cool system analysis of delay of gratification: Dynamics of willpower. Psychological Review, 106, 3-19.
[2] 2 Timothy 1:7 ESV ("...for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.")
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