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Anton's Research Ramblings


A completely unrelated picture I took today of my "Fire the Lazar!" T-Shirt

Staying Motivated and Productive
(and Lifting Heavy-Ass Weights)

I see people talking about personal motivation strategies lately. I thought I would share mine, because I think I come from a different perspective to most of my peers. The similar part is that I have these two motivational struggles:

My line of work and interest requires creative thinking. If you are stressed you cannot think creatively. If you do not get enough sleep you can not think creatively. If you do not plan time to relax and to think about work without doing work (i.e. just pondering quietly, not reading or writing) then you can not think creatively. Running counter to this is workload throughput demand - these forces must be balanced.

You could read the entire post, but I'm an academic so you get an abstract up-front. My strategy is this:

My Muse Reception Tactics

Teaching is Time Demanding

I'm currently lecturing and making a new computer science course on-the-fly for third-year engineering students. I enjoy teaching a lot, but it is a huge amount of work and energy to generate a coherent, inspiring, course as well as presenting to and anticipating ~60 students and dealing with their feedback. It has to correctly target improving the right level of practical programming skills for the class, as well as delivering a good theory coverage for a front-page university. The work throughput demand is very high indeed - I have 3 lectures, a tutorial, and a 3-hour lab per week to organise - in addition to writing assignments and an exam. I can't afford to drop the ball. I'm doing pretty well work/stress-wise so far. I won't talk about motivation and problems of students because it's not really appropriate in this context - but I'll share some of my personal hurdles because why not.

I also like to work in my spare time on other creative activities - writing books, graphics programming, making games, trying out new things, and just practising programming. My workplace can be very noisy and distracting (and fun) - it's a big open plan, so I move thinking-heavy or creative work to the evenings at home. This quiet time in the evening is actually the most valuable time I have to build competence for all of my work. Note this point.

Dangerous Temptations

When you have a large pile of work, as I do, the most immediately effective but dangerous thing you can do is pile more hours per day into it. This may defer the ever-rising work but it means making sacrifices to other activities. These activities typically include:

  1. procrastination, goofing around, watching videos
  2. pointless meetings
  3. research and publishing jobs at work
  4. favours for others / helping out at work
  5. entertainment / TV / video games
  6. clubs, weekly meet-ups, etc.
  7. hobbies and side projects, writing in the evenings
  8. gym / exercise
  9. grocery shopping and cooking proper meals
  10. relaxation time
  11. relationships
  12. sleep

You can see that as you get more behind (or indeed more obsessed with your work) that you can work down this list, crossing things off. Some top items can probably go at no real loss, but the others actually are important to your quality of life. If you don't do them regularly they introduce problems. These problems compound. I have certainly worked my way all the way to the bottom of this list in the past. I am something of a workaholic - I believe it runs in the family. I absolutely refuse to do the obvious - a crappy half-baked job - we've all had that fill-in that reads off someone else's slides like a robot. Nothing makes me feel worse, less empowered and less useful. Some people definitely choose that option. That's okay - I have to work a bit harder or smarter then.

I find myself creeping down this list in the past few weeks - and I know the consequences, so I can not allow that. If I allow my monkey-work type of stuff to eat into my evenings then I lose my thinking time, and everything drops in quality. If you do not actively manage your workload - and make balance a priority above the work itself - then your workload is managing you.

Crashing

I think it's worth stating that I actually crashed in a past job - fully found my work limits. The workload was a shifting target that basically just grew unmanageably, and I continued labouring at it until I was permanently very stressed - and falling further behind. When this happens you get grouchy and snap at people. You make frequent mistakes. After this, if you do not take a significant break, you get depressed. You have a risk-taking, break-out social life that can quite easily get out of hand. After this stage you go to the doctor because you're basically unable to work for prolonged periods and they advise you to quit. It takes some months to recover and get back to peppy creative mode. I can say that none of these things were unusual for the workplace I was at - a systemic problem that could or would not respond effectively. You just can't do anything in this situation so the best course was to move on, and work somewhere else. The thing you miss the most when you allow work to take over your life is that thinking time and quiet practise time - this is the womb of your creativity. Competence and quality plummets without it.

Exercise and Nerds

Okay, so here's where I differ to my peers. The up-and-coming generation is different, but most of my computer programming heroes are pretty much string-bean characters who never had to do much exercise to look and feel okay, despite the very unhealthy posture involved in their art. It would be fair to say that generally generations ahead of me tended to do feck-all exercise until major back and joint problems hit them with no remorse in their 40s-50s. I'm not like that - I have a heavier build. If I don't get a huge amount of exercise, as I found out in my teenage years, I get fat, grumpy, depressed, lose all confidence, and generally feel like shit - really, really, really shit - which is the opposite of motivated and productive. I also had these kind of back problems in my teenage years, contributed to by poor posture. I got hit hard by all of these typical office-worker type of problems very early on. And I found something amazingly successful at combating all of them, which also had all sorts of unexpected additional benefits I could't have imagined were possible, that are key to my productivity and work success.

I hated gym classes at school. I especially hated cross-country running. I was one of the smallest in the class when I was around 10. I still don't enjoy rugby, football, cricket, etc. etc. Just don't appeal to me. I was pretty sure I was going to drop all of that as soon as possible, and did. Mistake. Teenage years, hormones. etc. Fat and self-conscious. I knew I had to do something about the state of myself so begged for some funding to join a local gym with my friend Trevor. This decision massively changed my life. I was terrified of the idea of going to a gym where everybody would judge me (as everybody is). Straight away you see nobody cares or notices you - they are there for themselves. The gym culture was good - good trainers, encouraging, friendly people from the local community. I had found something that worked for my personality - individualistic strength exercise.

What I didn't realise was that growing some muscles, seeing results, ticking things off on short-term goal charts the way bodybuilders do - this would teach me some very valuable life lessons and self discipline. Your brain is an idiot - we think we are sophisticated intellects but actually we fall prey to very basic psychology. We can't deal with endless, uncertain, future goals - so we must track small steps. Not doing this is why people give up on long projects and continuous tasks. Measure results. Prove to yourself that it's working by drawing the chart and measuring the biceps. This is very empowering. Now you are in control of your body - and you know it, and you know you have a powerful system that works and will work for other things in your life just as well.

More important and surprising - teenage depression (which was pretty bad) - gone. Immediately (and came back whenever I stopped - so I didn't). Regular winter colds and sickness - gone. Posture - gradually improved. Hormones - racing. Opportunities - widening. Stress - chomped away. Self-confidence (both body confidence and belief-in-self confidence) - boundless. Leadership and ability to motivate others - dramatically improves (confidence rubs off). Motivation - insatiably hungry. I cannot understate the difference it makes to your inter-personal relations and work opportunities simply by being more confident. This also builds on itself! This all definitely helps creative drive (and well, other drives too, if we're honest).