Oct 15

One of the my favorite strategies towards being productive and undistracted is tunnel visioning on a well defined task and making its completion the focus of my existence. This has been working great to keep my focus on the task at hand and not be tempted by distractions. But once the task is completed, I tend to experience a kind of energy drop that allowed procrastination and laziness to creep in. I knew what my next task is, but having exhausted my attention and energies on completing the current one, I just didn't feel like getting on straight to the next.

What we do is important, otherwise we wouldn't be doing it, right? But sometimes our subconscious is not on board with this, and the goal behind the tunnel visioning technique is to convince every part of your brain that what you're doing IS important. But there's a missing component - if this task is so important to get done, why is your reward for completing it is just.. Another task?

No wonder the subconscious is resistent to falling for the same trick twice.

I've been toying with a new strategy to deal with this down period and I think it shows great promise. I like to call it...

the mental carrot

The mental carrot is simply a non-physical reward I give myself whenever I complete a task. I allow myself to stop for a moment, look back on what I did, and feel good about it. Maybe even allow myself to crack a smile while I'm at it.

There is something quite magical about non-physical reward that bypasses problems of physical ones. When I set myself a physical reward, for example, "when this is done I'm going out for coffee and croissant", I'm setting myself up for enjoying what I'm doing at the moment. The task becomes a nuisance, the roadblock that prevents me from going out and getting my coffee.

On the contrary, I find that when I reward myself by simply appreciating what I did and the very fact that I did it, I don't get this out of place feeling of "I shouldn't be doing this, I should be out drinking coffee in the sun". I find that I enjoy the moment more, and I am recharged faster, ready to take on another task. I would say that often the mental carrot outperforms a physical carrot as an incentive.

Enjoying the moment

The mental carrot was born in a time of my life between jobs, when I had spare time to work on my personal projects. I've been working on 3 different projects, pushing all of them quite aggressively, and had to deal with some types of problems that are not my favorite when bootstraping a project from scratch (server configuration, environments configuration, syncing data formats between client and server frameworks etc.). But having isolated each such problem and allowing myself to be proud of completing them, I had a pretty good time doing it, and I haven't lost steam at all for a period of about 2 months of daily work on my projects. On the contrary, I was looking forward for an opportunity to open my laptop and get cracking at the next task.

Carrot prerequisites

Right now I think that the mental carrot works best when there's a discrete task at hand, with well defined start and finish criteria. And the task mustn't last more than a certain period of time (within the scale of hours).

I've been prepping to move, and I had to go over a lot of my stuff to decide what stays and what goes. This process is kind of fuzzy, as it's very hard to separate this process to discrete tasks. I've been trying to sell my furniture, so I put on a lot of ads. But I have to continue keeping track of them, adjusting the price if no one shows interest, making sure they're still listed on the front page, looking for more avenues to post them, etc. Until the furniture is out of my house, the task is still going on. I can't give myself a mental carrot just for posting them, or just for iterating over the ads and bumping them, because I know I'm not really done. The mental carrot doesn't shine in tasks where it's very hard to put something completely behind you.


This mental hack is still under scrutiny. I'm curious to see how it performs in my new work place.

However, I have a strong feeling that the mental carrot complements the tunnel vision strategy: In order to make a task the sole occupant of my conscious and focus, I have to lift its importance to me to very high degrees. Therefore it's only natural that I allow myself to feel accomplishment and satisfaction when I complete an important task. Without this moment of triumph, it's hard to keep on making subsequent tasks the focus of my attention, as the brain feels it is exerting energies on important tasks but getting no reward for achieving them.

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