I'm learning more about myself just by paying attention to how I feel in certain situations. I've recently realized that I'm drawn to activities and programs that focus on small, incremental steps of improvement. Let me share some recent examples.
I've started a bodyweight conditioning program that focuses on 6 major "master moves" (such as handstand pushups, one armed pushups and other insanely difficult things to do). Right now the thought of doing any of these master moves is downright farcicical. However, each move has been broken down into 10 intermediate steps that build on each other. The first step to doing one armed pushups, for example, is simply doing pushups leaning against a wall. And then leaning against a table. And then kneeling pushups -- and so on. The program specifically tells you to start at the beginning even if you can succesfully complete later steps. The focus is on building the body awareness, joint/ligament strength, and mental strength necessary to do the later moves. I've really enjoyed it because I have smaller goals to shoot for (each intermediate step) and I can see physical evidence of getting stronger when I'm able to complete more reps than I did last time.
Another recent example comes from a much less productive aspect of my life. I've recently been playing some video games (Starcraft 2 *ahem*) that have various "achievements" that are earned for doing things within the game. Although I've already "beaten" the game I've been playing recently, I've started going through and earning the various achievements that I didn't get the first time through. It's kind of silly how good it feels to complete an achievement and be able to scratch it off my list (this same feeling probably partially explains the rush I get when I finish something on a to-do list).
Two other websites I've been using for personal development, Duolingo and Khan Academy, also use the achievement model for tracking progress. It's nice to be able to look back and see how far I've come and to know precisely what is ahead of me. Even the website I use to track my workouts, Fitocracy, uses the achievement model. This idea of instant feedback, which is essentially what you get by earning or not earning an achievement, is the core basis for the success of this model. It makes sense when you look at Csikszentmihalyi's research on flow, as well.
One of the required components of experiencing flow is constant and immediate feedback. Video games provide this by the level of success you're experiencing in the game. Almost anybody who enjoys playing video games will tell you it's incredibly easy to fall into a flow state while playing them. A lot of times, though, it can be harder to find flow in things that are less "fun". I've been finding myself finding flow a lot more often recently and I think it's partially because of these services I've been using that provide feedback in a more visual way. Fitocracy gives me points and gives me badges when I work out. I can log in and see how far I've come in my physical strength. When I'm studying French in Duolingo I'm more likely to stick with a study session for longer if I'm at a point where I'm close to moving on to the next "level". In my bodyweight workout routine I can see where I am in the progression to "mastery" and I know exactly whether I'm moving forward or not.
There's a lot to be said for this video game model of achievement and progress tracking. There are even some apps that try to take this concept and apply it to traditional to-do lists. I haven't found one that really does it well, yet. Ideally, I could give my to-do list to a program, it'd automatically break up larger projects into smaller chunks, and would provide me with achievements like, "Write for 20 minutes 3 days in a row," or, "Make 5 phone calls in 2 days," or other goofy things like that. It seems silly, but turning my productivity into more of a game and harnessing the idea that immediate feedback helps facilitate flow could be prety huge.
It's something I'm going to keep playing with in the future and I'd love to hear any thoughts about what you do to keep yourself engaged with your work.
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