November 18, 2012

Motion is not Progress

I've put about 40 hours of my free time into writing a technical book.

There's one caveat though — I haven't actually written any of it.

There were several evenings of researching and evaluating existing material. I had to figure out a marketing strategy, obviously. I needed a blog to write posts to establish credibility and drive traffic to the sales website. The blog needed to be styled just right. I thought up and registered the perfect domain.

I worked on the cover design — an important part of making a sale, I figured. Of course, I had to think up a clever title that wasn't already being used by the major publishers. I added a new tag for design related tasks to my Trello board.

I researched where and how to sell the book. There was an option that handles all the billing, but I couldn't control the landing page. How would I run A/B tests and conversion optimization? I read testimonial blog posts from other ebook authors about all the major platforms.

It was slow going, but at least I was making progress!

Except I wasn't.

I was just fiddling, doing busywork that was tangential to my goal under the guise of progress.

Progress requires motion, but not all motion drives progress.

It is easy and appealing to mistake motion for progress. No one wants to feel like the work they've done is useless. And in the moment, fiddling certainly feels like progress.

Fiddling seems based in Daniel Kahneman's attribute substitution. Instead of performing a difficult task, we will substitute an easier one. The easier task might be to just thinking about the hard task, yet we still get the same mental sense of achievement (and spike of dopamine) as if we had finished something!

I struggle with this on a lot of my projects. I tell myself to just move my feet and to create instead of consume, but if I am not mindful and deliberate on what tasks I work on, they can end up not furthering my progress.

If you find yourself fiddling on one of a project, step back and re-evaluate. Maybe your brain is signaling that you aren't motivated enough to tackle the hard parts. Put the project on hold and come back when you do feel motivated.

There is nothing worse than burning yourself out, only to have nothing to show for your efforts.