“Bring yourself back online…“
When I pumped the brakes on my daily writing routine last year, I had designs on some other interesting projects to spend time on that the daily demand wasn’t giving me space for.
Throughout 2019 and 2020, I’d built a decent muscle for repetition and managing good habits through the accountability of publishing monthly reports on each goal. The first of each month I’d put together my stats on progression. I never shared them widely, but the act of putting it out there on the open web on a regular schedule created a forcing boundary to go through the motions of self-reflection. I was writing a post each day (with a fairly low bar for what constituted a post), running regularly to hit an annual miles target, meditating, and tracking the books I read.
In the fall I started writing Res Extensa, a newsletter project on some deeper themes, which is something I’d wanted to do for a long time on the blog, and occasionally did, but the need for the daily heartbeat of publishing didn’t give me the breathing room to spend much time on longer pieces. Time is precious for most of us, and for me it was all I could do to keep up with the goal commitments I made for myself, without trying to make additional promises about a weekly, biweekly, or hell, even monthly newsletter-writing schedule on top.
For 2021 I decided not to repeat my annual ritual of goal-setting in the same way that I’d done for ‘19 and ‘20. I started to lose steam and wanted to take a breather after I hit the two-year mark. In my November update from last year, I wrote how it was feeling like going through the motions rather than driven by excitement and motivation. To some degree that’s the whole point of accountability forcing functions like this for habit-forming: do the reps even when it’s not fun. But beyond the rep-fatigue of many goals, I’d wanted to try working on some new ideas. While I’m down with being aggressive in pursuit of goals, there’s a thin line between aggressive and overcommitted. Overcommitment results in poor performance on all fronts. Focus, by definition, requires fewer targets.
With reading I’d decided not to set a goal as I had the past 2 years, with a book count target for the year. For obvious reasons it’s sort of imaginary to quantify meaningful reading and learning through a raw count of books. If you measure to hitting 40 books per year, you might shy away from deep, challenging reads in favor of quicker ones just to hit a number. This is the nasty downside of bad measurement — you start performing to the measure rather than in service of an underlying goal. In this case, reading interesting things is the real mission; tracking a count is just a way to keep enough pressure on yourself to spend time on it1.
Running was a goal that I was doing mostly fine with from a time management perspective. Unlike writing or learning, the time input required scales linearly, so it’s easier to fit in. One’s fatigue level isn’t consistent — some days you’re exhausted and really don’t want to do the miles — but at least 30 minutes of time results in 30 minutes of running. 30 minutes of time writing doesn’t guarantee 30 minutes of actual, readable words! My issues with consistent exercise in 2021 so far have been more due to schedule mayhem than anything else. Buying the house and moving earlier this year, plus readjusting and getting settled resulted in not much time left for putting in the miles. I’ve started getting back to it the past few weeks, but exercise is an area I need hard targets for to push myself consistently.
So back to the reboot.
I’m getting back on the horse of writing regularly here, and planning to set some reasonable targets for other goals for the remainder of the year. My thought that eliminating the hard personal goal targets would make space for other things was logical, but paradoxically made me get less done, reducing motivation overall to work on any personal projects. I thought having more time available would make a biweekly newsletter pretty easy, but it’s done the reverse. There’s literature out there on this topic, and many of us have experienced this firsthand: having a compressed schedule of availability focuses our attention on the things that matter most. When we have too much time, things can happen “whenever”, which turns out quite often to be “never”.
In the middle of 2019 when I was hitting all my goals regularly, I don’t remember feeling overwhelmed at all. Time management was better. I wasn’t thrashing my time away with other meaningless activities telling myself “I’ll get to that article later”.
The shift away from hard goals was a worthy experiment to see how much my habit-forming tactics of the previous 2 years worked. It turns out a habit goes away when you stop doing it. I learned that the hard number staring me in the face expecting to be hit is an excellent motivator for me personally, whether I like it or not. It’s okay though, the point of it all is the delicious sausage at the end, not how the sausage gets made.
Inspired by Julian Lehr’s quantified self system, I started to track time spent reading as an alternative to book count, which is actually a more objective-aligned number to work from. Something worth talking about in a future post. I’m nowhere near as advanced as Julian on this, just using a system like this for a few things. ↩