Week 2 – Post 1: On the Brain, Our Goals, and Our Contingency Plans

It is Day 9 of Writer’s March, and I have to admit, I am off to a rough start.  Today, when I woke up staring at the 11am on my clock (Damn you, Daylight Savings!), I started wondering about why one keeps goals, why one doesn’t keep goals, and what the heck I was going to write for today’s Writer’s March.  And, of course, paired with that, how the heck can I get back on track (with the March, with my writing, with my writing life)?

And so I went to the Internet, and found the first useful tidbit I could: an article by Gregory Ciotti on Life Hacker that offers useful bits of information (based in scientific research!) about the linkage between productivity and the brain.  The result?  5 pieces of advice that – for me, at least – are important to remember at the start of Week 2:

1.  Stop fantasizing and live in the here and now

The main idea here is that you need to distinguish between expectations and fantasies.  A study put out by the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology shows that having positive expectations (judging a desired future as likely) are good.  These expectations makes your ability to achieve your desired goals more likely, but fantasizing about what you want/will accomplish (experiencing one’s thoughts and mental images about a desired future positively) actually has adverse affects.  As Ciotti explains,

…this is not to say that visualizing goals is necessarily a haphazard strategy for achieving them, it’s just that we need to be aware of the dangers of excessive fantasy. Instead of being entranced with what the future may bring, we need to learn to love the work here and now. [emphasis mine]

In short, the idea here is simple: if you become so encumbered with your goals for the future, you are unable to exist in the present.  If you are unable to exist in the present, you are unable to accomplish the goals of the here and now.  Recently, the concept of “mindfulness” has been popping up everywhere – and this is just another example!

2.  The only way to beat procrastination is to get started

This seems like one of those “duh” moments, but isn’t it nice when the things we intuitively know are backed by scientific research?  The main idea here: if you get started on a task, you are more likely to finish the task.  Apparently, the “seemingly small milestone [aka putting your butt in the seat] appears to be the most important one to overcome if you wish to defeat procrastination.

In other words, the writer’s life would make for a boring plotline if we just let our brains do what our brains want to do:  the writer wants something.  He/she sit down, and just the act of sitting down is enough to overcome the obstacle of writing.  The end.

3.  Our brain is “geared towards a call of ‘Abandon Ship!’ whenever we come short of our goals.”

This phenomenon should feel familiar.  It goes like this:  you are on a diet and you decide to cheat.  After you cheat, you say, whatever, I cheated anyway, bring on the pie, the bag of oreos, the chocolate milkshake, cheesy-puffs, and the $12 serving of Menchies Frozen Yogurt.  If you failed a little, you might as well fail a lot, right?  I mean, the diet is already done for, and if you can’t go big, you might as well go home.

Frankly, this feels an awful lot like how my own Writer’s March has started – I’ve missed my goals so many times, I’m ready to just throw in the towel (goals?  What goals?  Writing daily?  Ha!)  BUT,

…the best way to combat your brain from signaling ‘Mission Abort!’ after you’ve missed a short-term goal is to re-frame what just happened.  Yes, you did fall short or maybe mess up this time, but remember the progress you’ve made….

Research tells us that this is the best mindset to take for misfortune and failure in general: your progress and achievements go so much farther than that slip-up; don’t let your brain convince you that all is lost!

In other words, there is a reason we make long term AND short term goals – you might miss the short term one, but you are still on track for the long term!  And if you are remembering the journey (and not the end) this helps, too.

4.  Beware: we distract ourselves into feeling we’ve made progress when we actually haven’t

This one is a word of warning – pay attention to yourself and notice if you are doing this.  If you are, then stop!  As Ciotti explains,

The busy work is often a mechanism our brain uses in cohesion with avoiding big projects… instead of diving into the difficult tasks we KNOW we should get done, we’ll instead float around doing semi-related (read: barely related) menial tasks to make ourselves feel productive without actually getting anything done.

In other words, yes, you have to get your butt in the seat, but should you really be on the Facebook?  The Twitter?  The Internet spending forty-five minutes navigating through Google Maps in order to write that three sentences on a street that you already remember?  Stay on task – your brain might tell you you are being productive, but you really aren’t.

5.  When it comes to the brain, “winging it” isn’t a good plan.

(Sometimes I really like when the research gives me another reason to think this Writer’s March is a good thing…).  This idea is, as you would expect: having daily goals helps you meet the monthly one.  But additionally,  the research has found that

…not only do well laid plans seem to get accomplished more often, but planning for failures along the way (“In case of emergency…”) helps people stay on task under duress….

Instead of “winging it” and letting your brain crumble to it’s likely response…have a backup plan ready to know what to do when failure strikes.

What might this backup plan look like?  Well, in the dieting scenario, it might be that you have to go for a short run in the morning after you trip up.  For a writer?  Maybe its that we have to wake up fifteen minutes earlier the next day and sit down for an additional freewrite. Or maybe we don’t let ourselves hang with the friends they next time they call you out.

So it makes me think that  for the Writer’s March, perhaps I should embed the “emergency plan” idea into the month.  As in, here are my daily goals, here are my monthly ones, and here are the consequences of meeting my daily goal.

Sound too punitive?  Well, really this “punishment” is a form of letting yourself shred the guilt you feel when you don’t accomplish the things you say you will.  The guilt is yet another hurdle we need to overcome, and for people out there like me (cue the Catholic upbringing!), letting go of guilt is  HUGE.

So, what now?

Go write!

Oh, and if you want me to add in your emergency plan, send me another message!

2 thoughts on “Week 2 – Post 1: On the Brain, Our Goals, and Our Contingency Plans

  1. Great and helpful post! I run into number four a lot. I’ll forget a name or a bit of information that will take awhile to look up. Suddenly it’s fifteen minutes later and I’ve lost the flow of what I was writing. I’ve started to battle this tendency by writing “X__________” or “(double check)” and moving on.

    • I”m a fan of the ________,too!! And mine really is the google maps thing. I start thinking about the walk from a hypothetical house to a hypothetical bar, and suddenly I’m google mapping the entire journey!

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