Your brain on four paws

This is a technique I developed when I was working on a cool personal project (mobile app) I was excited about, but wasn’t getting anywhere fast because of the, you know, job. Long work days meant not only I was wasted when I got home, but also that when the weekend came, I was keen on getting some rest and when I could, live a little. That meant no time to spare.

I am now able to keep my work days short (yet just as productive), get a good hour or two of work on my personal project(s), and even exercise after work! Plus I get more fun time as I’m less tired at the end of the week. So tag along, this will be useful.

At first I’ve set the bar low for myself: half an hour of work on my project during each workday, shouldn’t be too hard, right? This is a good starting step because the beginning is always the hardest, so setting an apparently easy to reach goal should get you moving and into a rhythm from which you can move to greater things. What matters the most is to do it consistently. Skipping a day and counting on the fact that you’ll make up for it the next day doesn’t work.

But this is something I discovered later on. What I discovered then was that I was often too tired to even start, and once I lied down on the couch I wouldn’t get myself doing something productive again. If I was too tired or too lazy I’m not really sure, what’s certain is that I often found excuses for not doing it, telling myself I’ll start tomorrow and never ever skipping a day again, promising myself I’ll make up for the lost time, but that never happened.

I’ll be productive, I promise! Starting tomorrow

It was clear I needed some motivation, so I decided I would blackmail my brain: I decided I would stop eating chocolate (my favorite kind of sweets, and I love sweets) and only eat some after I have successfully worked the half an hour in my target. That’ll show my brain who’s boss! So what I would do is that I would get home, relax a bit, have something to eat, and when I got in the mood for some desert, I would tell myself I would only get that after I do the work. This idea is based on the Reward system, basically there’s a part of your brain that makes you feel good when you receive rewards, it’s what the whole gambling industry is based on.

Soon enough it started working, and it worked better the more I did it. As I kept completing my half an hour a day goal, it got easier, repetition is key. My mindset started to change, I was no longer arriving home impatient to get lazy and relax, I was thinking about what I was going to work on next. My attitude changed, I was eager to do things and try new stuff, and I was shocked to discover that part of my fatigue was actually only in my head. While you can’t feel 100% not tired, you’ll find out that you can actually do a lot of things in the hours after work when you felt like only lying down somewhere.

This is one of the biggest barriers to pass in the search for the energy to work on something after work: changing the mindset from expecting an evening of just relaxing to doing something productive, even for as little as half an hour. And as I said, repetition is key in doing so, as the brain is a lazy sloth when it comes to changing habits.

For me, half an hour soon became less than what I wanted to spend on my project. So I started expanding, I went to one hour, two hours, three hours, and as I burned out I discovered the meaning of the phrase “your ego is writing checks your body can’t cash” (Top gun reference here). As with all things in life, you must strive for balance, if you go from all free time is for fun to no free time is for fun you’ll see your productivity plummet. And, like me, you’ll have to take a few days off.

After expanding as far as I could, it was clear I had to cut down on those overtime hours. This was harder to do than the half an hour challenge, but luckily I had some experience training the dog by now. Using the same principles of reward and repetition I managed to cut down on distractions and dead times (buy bye facebook and 9gag) and squeezed the same amount of work in less hours. Good boy!

And because I was on a roll I decided I should exercise more, but I really had trouble with this one. Even if I was set on working out in the comfort of my own home, I quickly found out it was a real drag for me, and the rewards weren’t working on this one. By trying different variations I finally got the way to do it: right after work. In that sweet spot I was happy to shift the focus from my mind to my body and it actually helped me clear my head. The point is, perseverance is key, as not every goal will work out the same.

I should also dedicate a bit more attention to the rewards. I told you about my first try with them but that was not the only one, because I get bored sooner or later and it stoped working. As I took on different challenges/goals I used different rewards, be it piggy banking money for a new gadget or video game, getting pizza, ice cream or whatever else I could think of. If that wasn’t enough I would take something I would like doing (eg playing the video games I bought earlier) and only do it if I completed the challenge. Try and see whatever works for you.

To recap, my method is based on 3 stages:

  1. set a daily goal
  2. set a reward for achieving it
  3. keep doing it until you’re happy doing it

It really is that easy, but you must have the will to do it consistently. The reward is great though: you’ll be more productive, more organized, and happier. Good luck with the training, may the force be with you!

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