Wednesday, January 01, 2014

Accomplishing your major academic (or project specific) goal

I have a former student working toward a major academic goal in her life.  I shared this insight with her  and wanted to archive and share it here.
When I was "stuck" - not writing my Ph.D. Dissertation - these things helped me.  While personal to my situation, I hope there is pragmatic experience here that might help others achieve their academic or project specific goals!
Four insights and practices from my life that helped me finish my academic goals - specifically writing my dissertation.
First, it was really helpful to me, after learning from Tony Robbins when I was stuck in my dissertation work, to think about The Christmas Story in order to succeed.  Yes, Charles Dickens, Ebenezer Scrooge, Christmas Story.  Here is Tony Robbin's insight, that's perfectly clear in the story, that helped me.  In the three night visitors that Scrooge had, he was able to see the possibility of his future, in light of his past.  And, most specifically, when Scrooge saw the pain that would come in the future, from his own choices and actions, Scrooge was able to chart a new course in life.  As Robbins points out, when we associate enough pain with a certain future - and/or - enough pain with a certain other future - the "pain/pleasure" of the possible future can motivate us to move on.  When I was desperately stuck in my dissertation work,  on many occasions I used the "pain of not finishing my dissertation" and/or the "pleasure of finishing my dissertation" to motivate me.  I actually had the pain issues written down - and knew I did not want them - as well as the pleasure issues - and knew I wanted them!
Second, also from Robbins, and helpful on many occasions.  I created a kinesthetic-audio-prompt to motivate me to work when I couldn't or otherwise didn't want  to work.  It was not just a playlist of music- it was an action-oriented-set of motions that put me in the "place" to work.  Imagine a concert pianist.  They don't just sit down to play the piano.  They wear certain shoes (or not) - and they tighten or loosen their belt or suspenders in a preprogrammed way - and they approach the piano dressed to perform - not in their gymnasium workout clothes, etc.  These habits "turn the brain on" to the kind of work the body is now going to engage.  In a similar way - though different - there is something about simply lacing up one's shoes to run that puts a person in the physical and existential space to actually start running, even when the mind may not want to do it.  This was not always helpful to me, to be honest,  but on occasion it was helpful.  On more than one occasion, as silly as it seemed, I would physically bounce-up-and-down like the prize-fighter-Rocky as I "ran" in place to the "Eye of the Tiger" playing in my head or literally playing from a saved mp3 file! On occasion, this helped me.  [Though, one has to be careful to not set up too much of a scheme that just becomes another way to procrastinate!  If you have to get all your pencils and desk objects in perfect alignment every few minutes - you might be procrastinating and not practicing a habit that helps you get work done!]
Third, setting "next action" goals changes everything when you're stuck.  I've blogged about this over the years, so more about this at these links from my website entries.  It's simple.  When stuck, instead of focusing (or losing focus) on "everything" that needs to be done that is overwhelming . . . Instead(!) write down the specific next action (with a good verb) that needs to be accomplished.  And then do that ONE thing.  That one thing is progress.  Then, write down the single next action - and do that ONE thing.  This will get you unstuck - and get work done - one simple, small actionable verb at a time.  I did not know about GTD principles when I was writing my dissertation, but I did have a sense of it with the way I framed my project management.  GTD is a great system though, that helps!

Finally, perhaps the most important insight I learned is something I "knew"  - but had to discover in a new way and it transformed everything for me.  I've always been a "night-owl" - and I can explain it about me for energy, my FOMO (fear of missing out) disease, and just my "chemistry" and personality.  But I did not truly understand the depth of what it means for me to understand my body's internal, natural and unique circadian rhythm.  Since "everyone" gets up to work in the morning, I have to get up, too . . . but it's not my best energy times for many reasons.  When I was working on my dissertation, I lost some computer files and several weeks of work.  Out of frustration for my loss, I developed a new format for archiving my files when I saved them to my computer's hard-drive for my backup files. Essentially, I used a date and time stamp system in my naming nomenclature so that if I was working on my dissertation in some 4 hour block - I might save my dissertation 10 or 20x in that 4 hour period, clearly saving too many back-ups but insuring I did not lose data again.  After doing this for about four week, I noticed a clear pattern to my archived work being accomplished.  Every time I was working on my dissertation, actually making progress, it was after 10 p.m and up to about 3 a.m..  The demonstrated work archive of my files revealed to me something I already "knew" to be true about me (I was in my early-30's after all!) but something I had not really "owned" and that is the fact of my unique existence, namely, that I do my best work after everyone is at rest and when my mind is clear and I'm uninterrupted and my energy is still alive - at night!  Again, I've known this for all of my life - my family tells stories of me being up late as a child, and I was this way decisively in High-School.  What the saving-files-to-my-hard-drive-process revealed to me was "how true" it was in "measurable" ways that I *really* *only* do my best work at night.  And, what this specific insight did best for me related to my afternoons!  When I realized that I really, truly do my best work at night - I began to give myself permission to "not worry" about my dissertation during the day - and - even more powerfully, I gave myself permission to take naps during the afternoon.  I had always felt like this was "being lazy" or it was "frowned upon" by others, be so lazy as to nap in the middle of the day.  And, of course, taking a nap during the day is not always easy with kid and family schedules and "normal meal times" for a family, etc.  But, when I was finally free to realize "I do my best work at night - and that is genuinely who I am" it freed me up to take intentional naps during the day and relax during the day, precisely so that I could MOST maximize my best study/writing hours. 
These insights helped me move my dissertation from no progress, to starting progress, to completion - and, once I really locked in on "who I was" in what I wanted for goals and a future - and taking the next immediate actions - and the best times for how my body works . . . I finished. 

I hope these tidbits of my unique experience have some helpful resonance for you as you plan toward your successful goals in life!

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