Tuesday, October 26, 2004

It's Good to Be Finished -- But how can I do it again?

Ah, the sweet smell of success. Earlier this month, I set a goal to complete a broad set of features for peak.web by month's end. And tonight, I declared victory. It has been an interesting three weeks; an opportunity to explore the difference between the way I do projects for other people (on time, within budget) and the way I do my own personal projects (haphazardly, and rarely successful).

One of the key differences between OPP (Other People's Projects) and my own is that OPP have concrete requirements: it's normally pretty well specified what's needed, and when, with enough detail to allow me to make decisions as circumstances require. (Of course, I'm not saying that the Other People volunteer this information, but I'm reasonably skilled at extracting requirements from even the most unwilling parties.)

My own projects, on the other hand, have tended to be characterized by rather vague, lofty, and idealistic visions that are not unlike a horizon: difficult to see clearly, and no matter how far you travel, it's always the same distance away!

For this month's effort on peak.web, I had originally set out mainly intending to leverage the power of shame: by making a public commitment to implement the features, I would be embarrassed if I then failed to follow through. As I've mentioned before, I don't like missing deadlines, and loss of face is the main reason.

Until I started writing this post, however, I hadn't realized that there was something more to what I did than just go public with my intention. You see, it's hard to leverage shame by going public with a goal, unless you first specify it sufficiently to allow people to know if you did it or not! (After all, if they don't know whether you did it, how could they (potentially) mock your failure?)

Also, there's another factor being leveraged in the process: a concrete commitment. As long as the idea is just in your head, it's just an idea. Writing it down, posting it to a mailing list, or telling it to a friend as a definite statement, an already-decided thing, has the side effect of making it a decided thing. It's like that brainwashing thing where they make people write essays about communism and then defend them. Once you've written something down, you kind of own it.

To put it another way, if you just think about deciding something in your head, how do you know when you've actually decided? What distinguishes the moment where you're still making up your mind, from the moment when you're committed? After all, we think all kinds of crazy thoughts all the time -- or at least I do -- but we don't act on them (or at least I don't)!

What is interesting about this idea is that it suddenly explains for me the rationale behind lots of standard self-help advice. For example, "they" always say to have written goals. One of my previous thoughts on this was that we're all a lot like that guy in Memento: we have a hard time remembering what we were doing outside a relatively small time window. But that didn't necessarily explain why I found it so hard to accomplish my own goals even when I remembered that I was supposed to be working on them.

Another standard bit of self-help advice is to tell a friend, or better yet several, about your goal. And still another one is to "start right away; get up and do something." Still others recommend "burning your bridges" behind you, so that you have to go forward or die. What all of these pieces of advice have in common, is that they are trying to tell you to delineate between imagination and action, between analyzing and actualizing, through a concrete -- and difficult to reverse -- realization of your intent, in a form that is specific enough to tell whether or not it has been achieved.

Maybe this is the true key to switching from "think mode" to "do mode": by doing something to fix your (specific, measurable, actionable, and time-boxed) intention in a physical form that you will hesitate to reverse, due to difficulty, cost, loss of reputation, or any other consequence. I'll certainly be pondering this idea further, as I set my sights on various potential achievements for the month of November