Dealing with the Project you Hate Part II: Tools to Achieve Mediocrity

Last week’s post focused on recognizing and understanding the dynamic between you and work you have come to hate. Today’s post is all about specific strategies and tools for getting work done when your heart isn’t in it. In particular I’m thinking about dissertations, theses, and papers handed down to you by supervisors. But all the advice below can apply to any avoided/undesirable activity: cleaning the fridge, exercising, getting that weird mole checked, etc.

  • Cs Get Degrees. If you have finished a higher degree, then you are probably not by nature one to do things half-arsed. This strategy is generally a good one, except when it paralyzes you. At times I’ve seen brilliant and productive writers stymied by their fear of producing sub-par work. A key lesson in cognitive therapy is that If you can’t change the situation, change the way you think about the situation. Thus the title of this week’s post… if you are wrapped up in creating something groundbreaking, perhaps you should first shoot for mediocre. Sometimes it’s okay to just put crapola on paper. Give yourself the freedom to just get started without needing to make it amazing. I’m not suggesting that we dilute the academic literature with watered-down research. Instead, make the first draft just good enough.
  • Setting the Stage. In Practical Tips for Publishing Scholarly Articles we spend quite a bit of time on preparing yourself physically and emotionally to write, including making sure you have an environment conducive to success. Putting yourself in the right mindset is especially important when you are already engaging in negative self-talk about the project. Olympic athletes know the importance of sports psychology… if you say to yourself, “I’m going to screw this up” right before an event, the outlook is pooparriffic. When I was working on my dissertation I had a ridiculous way of motivating myself to work that I can’t believe I’m about to share with the world. I used to dress in what my husband called my “Hot Grad Student” gear, go to a cafe or bar, and sit with my laptop screen facing others so that I would be embarrassed to open Facebook or watch cute cat videos on YouTube (not that I ever do that).
  • There’s an App for That. Another good way to prep for work on hated projects is through relaxation. This may seem counter-intuitive, especially for those of us who like to mainline jolts of caffeine. However, given that often the hate for unfinished projects is really covering up anxiety, deliberately inducing relaxation makes sense. Anxiety increases the fight-or-flight response, and that comes with difficulty sitting still, increased heart rate, and a generally lousy writing experience. A fantastic (and free) breathing/relaxation app is Breathe2Relax. In the interest of full disclosure, my team made it, but it does seriously kick butt. And did I mention it’s free?
  • The Buddy System. I like to work next to other people. When I’m in a room by myself, I suddenly find myself eating chocolate and researching my favorite movies on IMDb. I’ve had two buddies who have spurred on my productivity in unique ways. I’m thinking in particular of my personal writing and publishing hero, Rich Furman, who has the best attitude of anyone I’ve ever known (incidentally, he also has an excellent blog all about writing). Just proximity to Rich is inspiring. On the other hand, I would probably still be working on my dissertation if it hadn’t been for my grad school buddy Leslie who would literally yell and curse at me in the middle of Starbucks if she saw me checking my email when I was supposed to be working. It takes a good friend to embarrass me into graduating.

Next time I’ll be bringing out the big guns in the final chapter of this three part series. Tune in for Dealing with the Project you Hate Part III: Bribery and Punishment.

Now, seriously, please make an appointment for that mole. You’ll feel better and so will I.

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