Sunday, May 11, 2008

Have Confidence

Photo by: chris.merwe

I’ve noticed a pattern. A large amount of productivity literature, blogs, and “hacks”, in the end tell a single story: Have the confidence to jump right in to your work. Often, they notice that there are certain barriers (self-created, or not) that are blocking your confidence or clouding your judgment so you simply cannot see clearly enough to have confidence. They then proceed to provide some tips on getting rid of those obstacles and get you back to jumping right in. That is, they modify the above phrase to: Take care of that garbage, then jump right in.

Let’s look at some favorites in the GTD, Lifehacky, blogging, and student communities and see what obstacles to confidence and getting started they wish to clear:

  1. Getting Things Done – David Allen: David Allen’s whole philosophy is based on “knowing what you’re not doing.” Another way he’s phrased it is having the confidence that what you are doing right now is exactly what you should be doing. Keeping list after list of next actions and projects is simply a way to make sure that when you’re performing a certain task, that’s exactly what you should be doing right now. Unfortunately, many of us get so enraptured with the process that we forget the doing altogether. Don't do this, it's deadly. You think you're being productive, while you're really just wasting your time. The obstacle is uncertainty due to a massive amount of "open loops", clear that quickly and get start working on something as soon as you can.

  1. The Now Habit – Neil Fiore: This book is a gem and is all about having confidence. Niel Fiore, however, is not removing the hundred and one day to day obstacles that are cluttering your head like David Allen, but rather reaching for things deeper ingrained: the constant feelings of self-doubt, guilt, and fear that lead to procrastination. He advocates not pretending to be working all the time and scheduling in guilt-free play as ways to have more confidence to start and finish your projects (by habitually starting).

  1. Inbox Zero – Merlin Mann – 43 folders: In the same style as David Allen, Merlin argues that clearing your inbox (most often email inbox) and properly processing all the input, leads the way to clarity and confidence in what the hell it is that we should be doing in this email-ridden world. Massive email in your inbox is a huge confidence shaker as all the messages keeping nagging at your brain, trying to convince they contain the true tasks to be done right now. Clear the inbox obstacle, but then don't sit there and come up with a million crafty ways to filter your email world so a monkey could process it, just get started.

  1. MITs – Leo Babatua – Zen Habits: I of course love the idea of having a small number of things you need to do each day and write these tasks on my notecard for the day. Leo likes this idea too. This idea is simple, know what the absolute most important tasks of the day are and simply do them. Don’t do anything else until they are done. This is hardest when you don’t have confidence in the outcome. That’s why having them clearly written and immediately accessible is a useful tool in helping you not find other things to do to feed your fear of your most important tasks. Again, clear the obstacle of uncertainty and doubt ("I have so much to do, where the hell do I start?") by consciously deciding on the most important tasks, and starting on them as soon as possible.

  1. Fixed Schedule Productivity – Cal Newport – Study Hacks – I’m quite envious of this schedule: 9-5 M-F and a few hours on Sunday. Really? That’s it? I seriously have trouble believing this post, and I don’t mean that as an insult at all. I doubt he’s lying, it’s just that impressive. I try every week to do this and almost always fail. Inevitably I’m not as productive as I wish to be from 9-5, and convince myself that I “should” or “have to” work in the evening and/or the weekend. This of course leads to a cycle of feeling overworked and thus working less efficiently. It’s miserable, I know. Sometimes, however, sometimes, I succeed. I’ve found that the days I do are the days I do not hesitate with what I should be doing. I simply grit my teeth and get started. The best part is, that invariably I don’t have to grit my teeth for long, for as we all know, formidable tasks are like bullies, once you stand up to them, they quickly back down. The part of Cal’s post that should tip you off to needing confidence is that he “starts early”. In other words, he doesn't waste any time before telling you to "jump right in." That means there’s no time for tossing around ideas of what you’re going to do for days to weeks before actually doing it. You gotta have the confidence that you won’t suck.

How Easy Would It Be to Start If You Knew You Wouldn't Fail?

I fail to understand why I still worry about the outcome of so many projects instead of just diving right in. I should give myself more credit. Invariably when I’ve dived in and started working, I’ve realized that the bully is actually a coward, that I have some good ideas, that I’m not the only one that doesn’t understand, or that it really won’t take as long as I thought. I imagine your experience is the same.

There's simply no alternative to having the confidence that you won't suck at the impending task. You either push aside doubt and start, or you don't start at all. Decide whether the second option is realistic, if it is, hooray, you've identified an unnecessary task. If it's not, recognize from the above 5 examples and any others you can think of that all time management and hacky literature says the same thing: get rid of obstacles to confidence, and immediately get started.

The faster you start, the more worrying you skip, and the less stress you get for a given project. If you broke down the causes of stress for a given project, how much would be related to actually doing the project? Unless the project involves an uncomfortable conversation or working with that one annoying bastard in class, usually very little. The stress comes from thinking about the project while you’re not doing anything. So if our goals are to minimize the overall stress a given project imparts on us, why not skip the thinking without doing, skip the worrying and self-doubt, get our confidence on, and get right to the doing?


Cal said...

It's true; I really do work a 9 to 5 schedule. Basically, I'm synced to my wife, who has a real job. I like to get home when she does because I have more fun with her than doing work, and I realized, long ago, as a student, no one keeps track of when I'm here or what I do, so long as I'm doing good work everyone's happy. (Here's the secret: the amount of work facing a grad student isn't really all that bad...)

Perhaps one of the most influential lessons I learned was from a professor here at MIT who told me that the best thing that ever happened to her as a grad student is that she had a baby. This took away her ability to work until midnight every night, and she soon realized she didn't need to do. The baby changed her "script"; she just started things earlier, got them done a little quicker, often while changing diapers, and didn't take on too extra activities: she's tenured at MIT now, so I think you know the ending...

Bdizzy said...

Cal: That's inspiring indeed. I've also been thinking that a given grad student's schedule must be heavily influenced by group culture. If everyone is working 9-5, it's effortless to do so, but if everyone is working 10am-12am, then leaving at 5 is harder. But I agree, students can easily get into this self pity mode where they pretend they're so much busier than they really are. Though I suppose if you tack on the ever-open Facebook and Gmail windows you may indeed need to stay till midnight everyday.

Cal said...

I think your "how to act productive" series really hits it on the head when it comes to the bluster behind busyness. I have a post in the works that's going to use it as a big example...great stuff!

Daisy said...

thanks for this post!

it's the push I need to get into my harder study material.