January 25, 2020

Planting Bugs (Motivation, Part 2)

3:49 AM

I am not particularly bothered by unfinished projects, especially ones with no real deadline. As far as I’m concerned, they contain a substantial amount of progress and very little mistakes. Of course, they aren’t complete, but that will be solved in the near future. I’m not delivering this project to anyone but myself, so there’s no rush. Because the project is never actually due, I can always wait until tomorrow to finish it. A very large number of tomorrows pass, each one the same as the previous, until the project is either no longer relevant or overshadowed by new ambitions.

And just like that, what had the potential to become something is left behind to waste away, slowly forgotten and forever unfinished.

Many of my creative projects, ideas, and ambitions have died under this line of thinking. It is so much harder to motivate myself to work on my own projects and creations in my free time when the majority of my days are populated by “real” assignments and tasks I have to do as a student or as an employee. And by the time I finally get the opportunity to make some progress on my personal things (usually at the end of the day), I’d much rather relax and do something that I’ll enjoy rather than attempt to work more. Working on my own projects usually comes with the creation of mistakes in the process, and the last thing I want to do after a long day is to create more problems for myself to solve.

Logistically, this shouldn’t make any sense. The issues I run into while developing a project are natural and often necessary in order to achieve a working final product. I am also aware of the fact that I must use my free time productively in order to have any chance at shipping something to completion, even if that means utilizing multiple free time chunks over a long period. My desire to create things and get drastically better at skills should be more than enough motivation for ditching the videos and games in my free time, just like my desire to purchase a Nintendo Switch would be naturally accompanied by a conscious decision to eat out less in order to save money. It’s just the way things are supposed to work.

I understand all of this. However, putting it into practice is a whole different ballgame. It is easy to put together a tight schedule that supposedly maximizes the efficiency of your day, but when the time actually comes, unexpected things get in the way: a simple mistake puts you 10 minutes behind, a friend invites you out when you’re supposed to be getting work done, a task takes longer than you’d expected, et cetera.

But the most common thing that gets in the way is my own mind and its notable ability to get distracted. I’ve had it happen all too often: I give myself a goal in the near future assuming that I will be in the mood to finish and complete it when the time arrives, because I am currently motivated and inspired as I am setting the goal. However, by the time a day or two passes, I am no longer as motivated as I was to complete the task. I sit in front of the computer knowing that I gave myself this assignment, but I’m just not in the mood. Instead I opt to give myself a bit of downtime, wiling away the hours that were previously designated for working. At the end of the day, I realize that work was supposed to be done, and so I set another goal for a future version of myself to complete.

The cycle repeats from there. There’s just no simple way to ensure that I’ll be motivated to finish what I started when I myself am aware that the unfinished task does not make me anxious.

I had to find something that got me out of my seat. Something that actually bothered me enough that I couldn’t help but continue working on the project if I did not want to remain unsettled.

So a couple weeks ago, after a long day of coding my portfolio website, I planted a bug in the middle of my otherwise pristine work. As I was beginning the next section of the project, which I usually start off by creating a sketch or a skeleton, I deliberately broke the styling of it so that it was unbearably ugly to look at. Because while I can ignore a blank canvas that is waiting to be used, I simply cannot keep looking at such a blatant mistake without wanting to fix it somehow.

I left the page open for the next few days so that every time I turned on my computer, I would be greeted by this website-breaking bug. And the craziest part is that it actually worked. I stopped putting off completing that section and devoted every ounce of my free time into finishing up the rest of the website. If I fixed the planted bug and cranked out some significant progress, I would leave myself another mistake - just to give my future self a little bit of incentive.

I’ll admit that I do have ambitious dreams for myself. But to use that grand scheme as my only motivation for getting things done was a one-way ticket to achieving absolutely nothing. On a day-to-day basis, I’m not really thinking about how my actions will affect my future in the long run. My everyday mind is far too simple and volatile to be able to sustain such a large burden on its shoulders. So instead, I opted to give myself tangible, relevant motivation to work: in this case, fixing something that actually got on my nerves.

Does this work for everyone? I don’t know. I don’t even know if it’ll still work for me. I’m in between projects right now, so I’ll have to do a bit more testing to see what happens. But if my gut feeling is correct, this remedy probably won’t solve my distraction issue forever. While it may be a good short term solution to anyone who needs to give themselves a little incentive boost to complete a specific project or task, I don’t think it can take the place of those big picture goals that drive an individual forward.

I know eventually I’ll have to come to terms with the disconnect between my dreams for the future and my desire for comfort in the present. But for now, I’m okay with introducing a little discomfort for myself to work through from time to time.

Anything to get the job done.

- Sam