Motivation and Consequences

Self discipline

37, day twenty one.

I have gotten nothing done today.

I am not worried about it. It happens. I reached this conclusion about 20 minutes ago, when I realized I already had a solution. I have been doing it. This is simply the first time it has been tested.

I spent most of the day beating myself up over the fact that I have not done anything. When I was little, and I got in trouble for not doing my homework, my father used to occasionally pull out the old chestnut that “you put more effort into avoiding work than you would have if you had just done the work.” It’s the sort of thing parents say. It’s the sort of thing type A personalities say to us type F personalities.

It is also wrong.

Doing work is more work than not doing work. Doing work is more stressful than not doing work, at least in the short-term. Sometimes it comes back to bite you. Not always. Part of the reason people avoid work so often despite the potential consequences that they get away with it more often than not. The other reason is that in the moment, as you sit in front of a blank white screen and a mockingly blinking cursor, the consequences don’t matter. Anything seems better than doing the assignment. Even when it does require effort or elaborate scheming to avoid work, there is an intense surge of relief in the moment that you decide to not complete an obligation. It’s a rush.

Say, for example, you wake up one morning and really don’t want to go to work. This happens all the time, but today it is worse than usual. Should I call out, you ask yourself. You ask yourself this frequently, but this time you consider it. You don’t have any projects right now that can’t go ahead without you. There isn’t a flu going around the office that leaves them understaffed. You’ll have to make up some work tomorrow, but right now that does not sound so bad. So you call in, and tell them you have meliginioplastitus syndrome B, and that if you come in you’ll risk infecting everyone on the office and in the subways system and causing a city-wide shutdown of essential services. Then you lay back in bed, smile, and contemplate the panoply of options that just filled up your immediate future.

It’s a rush.

I am not saying you should do this. In truth, I haven’t missed a day of work in four years except for when my father died. At my last job, I couldn’t miss a day. The restaurant could barely run without me. That is not to say I didn’t want to.

Today, I have gotten almost nothing done on my daily goal list. Having a daily goal list is a good idea. People who sell books on making daily goal lists say that all successful people have daily goal lists. So it must be true.

Snarkiness aside –temporarily, I assure you – the daily goal is working for me. It took awhile to figure out how to make it work. I am not a naturally self driven individual. I am too hyperactive and too philosophical for that. My attention span has never been long unless I am obsessed with something. I cannot sit down and tell myself that I am going to be the best that I can be, and that I am going to change the world. I am not built like it. I know that such things can motivate people, and that is fine for them. I am too consequence oriented.

What do I mean by “change the world?” How do I plan on changing it? What are the mathematical chances of success as defined broadly by measurable impact on a statistically significant portion of my target demographic? Don’t I change the world just by existing and communicating and using up resources?

For me, setting and achieving goals is a tangible and realistic way to train myself to be more self-directed and disciplined. It has not been easy, but it is working. It is a slow process, but it is working. For weeks my goals did little more than take up space on my computer. Every day I wrote them, full of vigor and motivation. Every day I achieved one or two, but not the whole list. Every day I shook my head and told myself that the next day I would do better.

I despaired of the whole process of goal-setting. After all, there was no arbiter but myself. The fact that I wrote the goals down did not give me any more incentive to do them than if I didn’t write them down. It provided direction, perhaps, but no consequences.

I need consequences.

Several weeks ago I decided to try an experiment. What if I set some consequences? It might not work. There is no one to enforce them but myself. There was no one to enforce the goals but myself, and that certainly didn’t work. But there’s no harm in trying, right? I decided that each morning I would set goals, and I could not play video games until I achieved every single goal. If I didn’t achieve all of my goals, I was not allowed to play video games that day.

I haven’t missed a single goal on a single day since then.

Some days I really want to do everything on my list. My motivation spikes high on the days that it registers at all. Usually I do all of my goals and more besides On those days, I can play games at the end of the day to relax, and to enjoy the feeling of success. On other days I do not feel so ambitious. I can’t motivated myself to attack five or six separate goals. Recent studies have shown that self-control might be a limited resource . On those days, I don’t give myself five or six goals. I only have one: play video games. Everything else is a way to achieve that goal. It is much, much easier.

Today is the first day since I started that I do not think I will cross off every goal on my list. I don’t think I have it in me today to do any exercise. All day long, I tried to motivate myself. All day long, I berated myself for my lack of achievement. Should I write today off? Should I pretend I never set myself any goals and then start in again tomorrow? I agonized about it. It felt like a huge blow to my self-discipline training.

Until I realized I already had the answer. This is all so new to me, the implications of the very systems I set up for myself are not always clear. I could write today off. I could skip a day or two. I just didn’t get to play any games. I really want to play games. But I won’t. I have just enough self-control on this lazy day to achieve one goal: enforce the system. Tomorrow, if I am feeling lazy again, I will go into the day knowing that I won’t get any stress relief in the form of games. Will that motivate me to achieve what I set out for myself?

I can think of one way to find out.

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