This will be the first of what I hope will be a series of articles on the delicate art of self-motivation. Self-motivation is, in my humble opinion, the key denominator that separates people that perceive their lives to be meaningful and successful from those who do not.
Like most people, I have a hard time prioritizing between the “important” and “urgent” aspects of my life. On one hand, I have long term goals that I feel are integral to leading a successful, fulfilling life. On the other hand, I have day-to-day obligations that will severely derail my life if they are not accomplished. In a way, this makes the urgent tasks easier to accomplish than the important ones.
Of course, the battle between “urgent” and “important” pales when they find face their greatest enemy: “easy.” Easy is the absolute worst. It is easy to sit down and watch two hours of TV instead of, say, writing your novel or making a couch fort with your kids. It is easy to surf the web at work when you could be adding the small details to your upcoming PowerPoint (ugh) presentation that will put it head and shoulders above those of your peers. “Easy” can make your life temporarily more enjoyable, but that carefree Sunday watching an entire season of Scrubs will eventually come back to haunt you when you look at the unfinished garden in your backyard, watch that prick Jim win an award that you could have easily picked up by staying late once a week, or see the pictures from your friend’s epic mountain biking excursion on Monday morning.
For writers, this internal battle is especially fierce. Writing is mentally demanding, and it is very easy to get distracted by any urgent or easy thing that pops up on the radar.
For a long time, I made excuses to myself about why I was going through life feeling unfulfilled. I had a decent job and a great, albeit long distance, relationship, but I felt like all of the abstract goals that I had set for myself were getting nowhere. The problem was that I was filling up my time with easy activities like computer games and TV shows while neglecting things that I was truly and deeply interested in like woodworking, or learning the bagpipes, or connecting with friends and family.
That is when I decided to hold myself accountable. My then-girlfriend (now fiancée) was very excited about my project and encouraged me as I brainstormed about what was important to me.
-I wanted to be in better physical shape to meet the demands of my job
-I wanted to be conversant in Dari, the Afghan trade language, prior to deployment
-I wanted to continue to improve as a musician and expand my understanding of musical theory
-I wanted to be extremely knowledgeable about every aspect of my job
-I wanted to explore the area in which I lived, discovering exciting new places to spend the day
-I wanted to improve my understanding of my hobbies such as home brewing,
-I wanted to read a variety of books, both fiction and non-fiction, on a variety of subjects
-I wanted to keep in touch with the friends and family back home that I rarely got a chance to see
The problem with this list of “important” things that I wanted to get done was that very little of it was “urgent” and none of it was “easy.” I needed a way to keep myself accountable. I created an excel spreadsheet detailing all of the things that I needed to get done in a week to feel fulfilled. Each time I pent twenty minutes on one of these tasks, I would check off a box. Eventually, some of the items on the list became routine, and I was able to add new things to the list. Here it is in its most current form:
or if that doesn’t work
Each of these items is an “important” task in my life that I have found to be easily subverted by more “urgent” or “easy” things. The problem is that if I give into the temptation, it will only be a few short weeks before that old familiar feeling of aimlessness begins to close in around me. I generally start on Sundays, which gives me a head start going into the week, and do not allow myself to relax and do “easy” stuff on a Saturday until everything on the list is done. Then, for a few glorious hours on Saturday, I recharge by watching that TV marathon or playing Rome: Total War, or go hang out with my friends. Every four weeks, I reevaluate the frequency and necessity of items on my list, adding or taking them away as my priorities gradually shift, or the completion of an item becomes habit. This spreadsheet forces me to budget the time necessary for me to feel like my life is moving in the right direction.
Hopefully, I have at least gotten you thinking about the difference between the important, urgent, and easy things that you do every day, and how you can better manage your time to meet your long term goals and priorities. If you think having a weekly checklist would help, please repurpose the document to your own ends. If you have a hard time meeting the standards, raise the stakes by having someone hold you accountable, or donating money to a charity that you strongly disagree with should you fail to meet your goals. Whatever you do, stop choosing the easy, low hanging fruit and go after the really important stuff in the higher branches. Your future self will thank you.