Saturday, September 22, 2012

Motivation is Steam Powered, Not Solar Powered

Do you ever try to solve a small problem and end up solving a big problem along the way? I love it when that happens.

About four months ago a cloud of doom fell on my project, one more potent than your typical moment of doubt. For over a week I felt this hunch that I'd never finish the game. I couldn't put my finger on why I felt that way, I just felt it, deep down in my bones, and it was sapping my will to continue.

I hate sourceless anxiety, so for the next few days I paid close attention to when the feeling would strike. I found it hit me hardest when dealing with to-do lists - writing them, checking off completed items, disposing of them - basically whenever I touched the wretched things.

Yeah. To-do lists. That threw me for a loop. It was like finding out that my shoes were to blame, or my stylus. They're so... benign.

But like any useful tool, to-do lists have rules of operation. And it turns out I was breaking them. Oh I followed the basic rules well enough, we all know them:

  • Don't list tasks unless they're specific and concrete
  • Don't list tasks you can't finish by the end of the day
  • Don't start working until your to-do list is finished
  • Don't stop working until you've finished every task

But there's another rule I didn't follow, a golden rule, and that's what summoned my cloud of doom:

  • When you've finished the tasks on your list, STOP WORKING.

I said STOP WORKING. Pencils down.

If you're like me, your first thought is 'Fuck off, you're crazy.' If you're motivated, you're supposed to keep working, right? You'd be a fool not to use that energy. Who knows if you'll feel the same way tomorrow? It's use it or lose it. For as long as I can remember, this is how I've conceptualized motivation - these days I call it solar-powered motivation. When the sun's out, keep going. Because you're SOL when it's not out, and you can't control the weather.

Well, it turns out this was my big problem. And thanks to my little to-do list problem, I was lucky enough to discover that motivation is steam powered, not solar powered.

Backing up a minute, how exactly was my doom cloud summoned? Well, how about some gratuitous visual aids to demonstrate?

Every night I went to sleep feeling like crap. And every morning it felt like I was waking up to a crime scene. All because I assumed it was 'wasteful' not to work when I felt motivated. This cycle chewed up any memory of what I'd accomplished during the day and left only the bitter aftertaste of what I hadn't accomplished while pressing forward without a to-do list. Over time that dark cloud started to infect the whole cycle.

When I realized what was happening, I decided to try stopping after my last task. I really didn't like the idea of wasting my motivation, but I figured I couldn't possibly make things worse, and something had to change.

This was the result:

It's full of hot air!

Ah. Much better. (Result is in no way exaggerated to support my point.)

The expected result was that I avoided going to bed in a funk. The unexpected result was that my motivation actually built up pressure during my downtime, and by the next morning I was rearing to go. Quite the opposite of use it or lose it - by letting the pressure build, I gained more momentum. Sort of like a steam engine, right?

That was four months ago. So far the result hasn't varied. Every time I've slipped and worked past my to-do list, I've regretted it. In contrast, I haven't once regretted stopping while I was ahead.

At this point you might be wondering why I bother with terms like steam powered and solar powered in the first place. If we're honest, the analogies are weak the artificial boundary between the two reeks of the oversimplified bullshit you find in self-help books. Try the Steam Powered Motivation™method for only three easy installments of $19.95 - learn to let go of your inner solar panel.

Never underestimate how useful a quick mantra can be when trying to break an old habit, even a silly one. Whenever I feel anxious at the thought of wasting my motivation by stopping - and I still do, every time, though it's getting easier - I need only repeat steam powered, not solar powered to remind myself of everything I just covered here. Sometimes the dumber part of your brain needs to literally be told what's happening before it will relax.

I can't believe I got this far without mentioning steampunk. Why not close with another gratuitious visual?

Next post: I'll actually tell you about the game I'm making. Honest.

1 comment:

  1. Just found this post through some Reddit. Inspiring words (and wallpaper). Thank you!