Another quick observation about motivation:

I was lying in bed just now, tired and thinking of sleep. I picked up the book I’m currently reading (the 2008 Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror anthology, if anyone cares), thumbed to the next story, but barely made it to the end of the second paragraph before giving up.

I was about to get up and turn of the light, but for no apparent reason, I picked up a random paper that was sitting on the pile of books next to my bed. I didn’t intend to actually read it – after all, if high quality short fiction can’t hold my attention, dry academic writing certainly won’t do any better – but for some reason I ended up flicking my eyes through the abstract. I wasn’t taking much in, but for some reason I stuck with it long enough to encounter some survey results that were quite interesting, enough so that I felt like writing some quick notes about it in Evernote. So I did.

But then something interesting happened. The motivation I had for my original note-taking gave me a little momentum, and instead of turning the laptop off and going to bed like I originally intended, I suddenly felt like doing something useful, in this case, writing a paper review that I’ve been putting off for about a week, and then writing this.

Why’s this interesting? I’m intrigued by the idea of motivation having momentum. That by getting excited about some small, easy task, I can carry that over to feeling motivated about some larger task. Thinking back, this is definitely something that’s happened before, and that I think I sometimes take advantage of, but never explicitly. I should try to employ this more often.

Actually, thinking on it, this relates to some great advice I got once about writing. If you’ve got some big writing task that’s really hard to start on, just commit to sitting down in front of the computer, loading up the word processor, and looking at it. You don’t have to do anything more than that. More often than not, you’ll want to write a few words down, and sometimes, you’ll get sucked in. Here, like above, the momentum of defeating a small task carries you into defeating a larger one. I think I’ll have to write more about this in the context of writing some other time.

Oh, and by the way, the paper was about the sociology of strategy board games. You can bet I’ll write something about it some other time

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This week, I decided to make sure that Sunday was a day where I wouldn’t have to do any work so that I could actually relax.

Normally, I’m really bad at relaxing. I’ll spend most days stressing about work, and this saps my motivation such that I get less work done. In turn, I stress more, and my motivation lowers even further. And so on. This is neither pleasant nor productive, and is one of the central stupid things about the way in which I function. So, I’m trying to change it.

The plan is to take one day a week where I don’t stress about work. What’s important is not that I don’t work, but that I don’t feel I have to work. Nor is it even specific to work – I want it to be a day where I don’t feel I have to do anything – where “I just don’t feel like it” is a valid excuse.

The idea is that, by doing this, I’ll be less stressed through the rest of the week, have a little time for reflection, and generally be happier and more motivated. It’s really just the third (or fourth) commandment taken as practical advice – “Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy”.

This morning, then, I woke up, had breakfast, listened to music for a while, and generally just chilled out. But then, something interesting happened – I thought to myself, “Y’know, maybe I might just read that paper I’ve been avoiding”, then ended up reading it through thoroughly, taking notes and everything. By way of contrast, during every previous attempt to read it, my mind was constantly looking for a way out, and no distraction was too small. Today, though, it didn’t even feel like work.

The conclusion I want draw, then, is that, for me at least, motivation has a lot to do with choice. If I choose to do something without coercion, then I feel better about it, do better at it, and generally get it done faster. I’ve heard this idea before and I vaguely recall seeing it mentioned in a paper on motivational theory I read a while back, but I’ve never seriously applied it to myself before.

So, for the next month or so, I’m going to try to treat Sunday as my own personal holy day, even though I’m not religious.

As an aside, I wonder if this is partly why I find task lists so useful for motivating myself. That is, I wonder if part of their value is the fact that they with choices of what task I should do, improving my sense of ownership over the decision to do them, and therefore my motivation.

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