Self motivation for Cat People

I don’t know about you, dear reader, but I love to do projects of my own volition, not under instructions from others, to satisfy my own internal desires.

The problem is, to do this you have to be entirely self motivated. And that, as we all know, is hard. No one’s threatening you with a stick or holding up a carrot. If you don’t proceed, no one may know, and it’s pretty much guaranteed that no one will care.

Now there are some hackneyed old truths that people bandy about for self motivation. Set goals! Commit yourself publicly! Collaborate! These things are all methods of adding extrinsic motivation to the mix, so that you are, in one way or many ways, now beholden to other people to do your thing.

Those methods might work awesomely well for dog people. Dog people live for external validation, they want people to think they’re good, that they’re dependable. They care about values like loyalty, reliability. Their own sense of self worth is based in (their estimation of) other people’s estimation of them.

But for cat people, they are doom.

Brando in The Wild One
What are you rebelling against? What have you got?

Cat people are fundamentally rebellious. Rebellious against what? Against everything really. “Don’t tell me what to do!” It’s a bit childish, but it’s how some of us are constituted.

Mostly, we seem to rebel against ourselves.

Really, what we are against is the tyranny of extrinsic motivation, even though we rely on it in much of our lives (eg: work).

But personal projects are often all about exercising instrinsic motivation, deny extrinsic motivation. The satisfaction is in the doing, and that’s largely from success without external motivators.

So, methods that are about adding extrinsic motivators wont work. What can we do instead?

Here’s my short list of rules for motivating yourself, as a Cat person. It’s all about the capricious, sometimes downright malicious beast that is instrinsic motivation.

1 – Keep it short!

I wrote a whole blog post on this point a while back, called Mr Squiggle’s Guide To Project Management. The gist is, you don’t have much of an attention span. So, you’d better do things in the smallest pieces possible. Break your project into bite sized pieces. But, there are constraints here: each piece needs to stand alone in your mind, more or less, as useful/satisfying in itself.

Why does this work? Firstly, your instrinsic motivation might be wild and strong, but it is also fleeting. You need little mental rewards to help you keep going. From experience, I find that finishing a big project in one massive go is very difficult, because there is no reward along the way (just a rising sense of despair at the seemingly endless desert through which you are travelling), and if you do somehow finish miraculously, you’ll get a day at most of satisfaction buzz, then it’s “what’s next?”. It could be a year long project, you get one day of internal reward.

OTOH, if you do a four hour project, and end up with something useful, you’ll get mental reward for the rest of the day.

So, if you can break your project into bite sized chunks, you’ll feel good about it all the way along.

2 – Eat your icecream before your vegetables

This is the reverse of what every good parent, or teacher, or mentor, has pounded into us over the years. The instinct to do the stuff you don’t like first clearly comes straight out of the protestant work ethic, which is reason enough to be suspicious. And, it’s the death of intrinsic motivation.

Why is that? It’s because, well, you end up having a bad time. You need to enjoy yourself to get the psychological rewards to stay motivated. Every minute you spend chewing that spinach is a minute closer to project doom, because your Mum isn’t there to tell you to stay at the table until you’ve eaten your vegetables, young man! Meanwhile, you’re still going “f*ck you I wont do what you tell me”, and before you know it, you’re playing Playstation.

Relevant bit is from 4:11. Watch it while you’re playing Playstation!

Really, everything in the project needs doing, so it’s not as though doing the fun stuff is wasting time. However, doing the boring stuff might be…

That’s because, a project is often partly an exploration of the space. You don’t really know down to the last detail exactly what needs doing; probably that’s why you’re doing it at all, to find out what needs doing by doing it. Often, a lot of what we thought needed doing doesn’t need doing, and some things we hadn’t thought of need to happen.

So, the longer you can put off the boring stuff, the more likely it is that it’ll just go away on its own. You might discover before you get there that there’s a way around it, or it’s irrelevant, or you might redefine your project entirely and now it no longer applies. That’s a win!

I also believe there’s something subtle here, which is that the emotional landscape overlaying your project is trying to tell you something. The stuff you don’t like, you often don’t like for a surprisingly good reason. Some bit of you knows it’s a waste of time, or that you’re making unwarranted assumptions, or that you’re doing it wrong.

Given all that, the best policy is to do the things you want to do. Even if they are a waste, you’ll still enjoy them! You’re not trying to deliver a project on time and on budget, remember? You’re trying to have a bit of fun, and a bit of life satisfaction.

3 – Procrastination is ok! In fact, it’s useful

“Wait!” I hear you cry. “You’re telling us about motivation, and yet you’re ok with procrastination? Isn’t that the very thing we’re trying to avoid?” Ah, dear, gentle, foolish reader.

Procrastination is you trying to tell yourself something. Superficially, that thing is “screw this, let’s play Counterstrike”, but look past that. What’s it really saying?

Maybe it’s saying “I don’t really know how to proceed”. This next bit of project is most likely poorly defined, and something key isn’t properly understood. You’ve made some kind of reasonable sounding pronouncement like “adjust the floobit so the assembly is quieter” or “integrate with the glumwhatsit” or “get some press coverage”, but you don’t actually know how to adjust the floobit to do that, or really anything about the glumwhatsit, or why you want press coverage and what you’re trying to achieve.

There’s a variation where it’s saying “you’re missing the bigger picture”. Somewhere along the landscape has changed, and this bit is no longer important, or necessary, or even coherent. Or, maybe you actually are changing the concept of what your project is, and need to go back a step to think about it some more, resteer a bit. Maybe it’s morphed into something entirely new?

If you think the procrastination really is just superficial (Call of Duty is awesome, after all), then a bit of pushing yourself is ok. But only a bit. Inside all of us is a very, very lazy guru who knows what needs doing and isn’t having a bar of doing pointless crap. Listen to him, he’s got the good oils.

4 – Have multiple projects running

Instrinsic motivation is powerful, and fleeting. It comes and goes without warning.

If you actually want to be productive (and I’m a bit unsure about whether that’s a worthy goal, but I’m going with it for the moment), then what you want is to be working on something cool and fun and possibly useful as much of the time as possible. But as a cat person, you’ll never stick to one thing. Eventually (in fact really soon) you’ll begin procrastinating, which is fine as we’ve seen above. Pushing yourself is bad.

But equally, playing Mario Kart all day will just induce self loathing.

The really stupidly simple answer is, to have a lot of projects.

Creative people often find they procrastinate by dreaming of new projects to do instead of the one they’re on. Don’t fight it, just start the new thing.

Eventually, you have enough different things on the burn, that you’ll find yourself procrastinating from one project by doing more work on another one you’d previously dropped.

For example, I’m writing this post as procrastination from making the prototype of the Deep Learning system I described in the previous post. I often feel I’d like to blog more frequently, so this is a win.

In the end, it’s all progress.

Tying it all together

These points work better if you do them all.

Procrastination is better if you have multiple projects as procrastination fodder.

Multiple projects are more supportable if they’re done in small, stand alone chunks, in between which you can drop them indefinitely, and not require lengthy sessions to pick the threads back up.

Eating your icecream first is easier if you have a lot of projects; there’s got to be icecream in there somewhere, right?

Eating your icecream first means you last longer before procrastination switching time. So, those small project chunks don’t have to be smaller than they naturally want to be.

That’s about as much as I can cope with. Now I want a game of Starcraft II. But I’m good with that 🙂

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Self motivation for Cat People