Ditch control to find resilience and motivation

Resilience and motivation are closely connected. When we lose resilience, we get stressed and negative, with lower energy and motivation. Being highly motivated, we recruit people around us to help us, we make sure our body is up for the challenge, we feel pleasure and purpose in what we do. I suggest reading further here, here, here, here, and here.

The overhead of control

Staying in control has its toll. Consider my interpretation of how we usually stay in control when we are involved in a big project:

  1. Set up SMART goals and a detailed plan.
  2. Establish a follow-up mechanism.
  3. Fight procrastinations and deviations from the goal.
  4. Constantly check the progress vs the milestone.
  5. Establish and maintain a coordination and support mechanism.
  6. Check the assumptions and modify the plans if needed

This is a full-time job for a project manager and usually 20% overhead on everybody else in the team. Probably for a sufficiently large project with demanding timeline there is simply no viable alternative. What if the project is small or can be delayed, or involves only one person? We will still want to be in control but without the overhead. We will usually keep a simplified scheme:

  1. Quickly formulate some amorphous goals without writing them down.
  2. Set up reminders in TO DO list.
  3. Try to make ourselves work on the project even if we do not feel the urge to do that.
  4. Miss all personal expectations due to some new information we discover half-way through.
  5. Beat ourselves or others for cutting corners and not delivering.
  6. Accept the situation as-is and decide to improve in the future.

We may get lucky and the project may converge to our satisfaction, but often we use say 20% of our time obsessing about something we forgot to do and imperfection of the final result. This is not optimal, but very human.

Both the correct control mechanism and its comical alternative require our attention, often demotivate us when we need to work and do not want to, sometimes make us argue with people we love or give up on something we believe in. As a result, both our motivation and resilience will suffer.

I argue that in some situations there may be a better way, only it requires ditching some amount of control.

Switch from goals to values

Suppose we know quite well what we like and want, while we do not need a specific outcome. It is easier to define values than goals. Values can serve us longer, and we can easily reuse them in different activities. The priority of the values we set for ourselves can guide us in conflict situations. Values keep us motivated: this is something we truly believe in, something that makes us passionate.

It is easy to define bad values, much harder to find good ones. Which values are useless?

  1. Values accepted by society, but ones we do not believe in.
  2. Improving status at the cost of integity or happiness.
  3. Something so abstract it generates no emotional response or practical implication.
  4. A generic value which is commonly accepted by all people.

Personal values should be pretty specific. We should be able to visualize at least three situations which agree with our values, and three situations which disagree. Each situation should be sufficiently emotionally charged to make us passionate. We should be able to visualize positive and negative role models, people who live with similar values and people who live with very different values. And the values should be sufficiently down-to-earth to make us want to act upon them immediately.

It is OK to have between 3 and 6 values, reviewing them and changing their priority weekly. Common values include personal wellbeing (sport, diet, sleep), family situation (education/kids, recreation together, resolving conflicts), work dynamics (acquiring skills, completing projects, collaborating with colleagues). For example at the time of writing:

  1. Spending time with children and allowing the spouse to spend time with children.
  2. Improving personal vigor via sports.
  3. Mastering a new methodology of machine learning.

For each value, I have very strong and personal visualization, which are also sufficiently private that I cannot share them in writing. I have many other values, which I did not write down, simply because this week I do not really need to work with other motivations. Unlike SMART goals, there are no success criteria or plans here, just motivation.

Using spontaneous activities

It is reasonable to believe, that most of my time and energy will be spent on big projects with well-defined goals and daily rituals which I will do almost automatically. Some of my actions will be spontaneous and mindful, and I want to realign these actions with my values. Suppose I have a 20 minutes time block which I am free to do whatever I want. I have many such blocks: between meetings and obligations, or when a neural network is learning on new examples, or simply when I get tired of what I am doing and need a change.

Now I ask myself: what I really feel like doing right now and to which extent it aligns with my goals. This is a fun creativity exercise. It takes me 20sec to come up with 10 activities, out of which probably one satisfies both criteria. If I feel that what I came up with does not energize me sufficiently to start doing it, I repeat the process. If within a minute nothing good comes up, probably I simply need a break.

Accepting the results I cannot control

Now I spent 20 min doing something. Maybe I made some measurable progress, or maybe the progress cannot be accurately evaluated. I still need to believe that the 20 min spent doing the right thing were not wasted. Positive results include new understandings, new experiences and new products which can be used later. Negative results would include frustration, disorientation, procrastination. Either way, it is best to accept the result – this is something I cannot control. What I can control, is how I will spend the next 20 min I have to work on the subject.

Since I do not come up with well-formulated expectations, I can never be totally happy or unhappy with the result, so I need to accept it as-is and try to learn from it. Validating our emotions should not take much time.

Humor is probably the best tool for acceptance: if the result is negative humor improve the way we fell about it. If the result is positive, it will not allow us to get pompous, self-righteous, or overconfident.

If the result is negative forgiveness is important, both to ourselves and the others. For the positive results, gratitude is a good emotion to practice. Some people keep diaries, for both. For me, it feels sufficient simply to register and acknowledge the feeling to myself.

Setting limits

Doing something we love, it is easy to get carried away and spend way more time on it than on other things. It is important to have limits. A big goal, a daily meal or a prior obligation typically take precedence over the projects that do not have a well-defined timeline.

Setting up the right limits is a strange art to master. We balance our motivation and resilience, vs our social status and obligations. If we set up no time for things that are important for our true values and purpose, we will end up being demoralized. If we set up too much time for our projects, we may lose our ties to the society.

The society is very important for our social status, emotional support, financial stability, and happiness. Yet the society has its own values which are only partially aligned with our personal values. Typically a ratio of 80% work for greater good vs 20% of work for personal satisfaction is acceptable. Quite often this means working harder overall to fulfill all obligations. It is important not to take obligations beyond what we can handle.

Prioritizing means the need to say “no” and miss opportunities, and many of us are uncomfortable with it. There are many ways to say no, from “good idea I will consider in the future” through “there is something I need to do in higher priority” to “this does not align with my experience and belief system”. Either way, some priorities need to be set.

Get perspective

We cannot expect to handle ourselves the same way we treat other people. So we need to get a perspective. There are many ways to do that.

Through distancing, we can be more objective. How would I react to a person who acts this way? What will I say about myself 10 years from now? What would my friends say?

Alternatively, we can ask someone with whom we have an honest relationship to voice their thoughts and emotions. The perspective of another person is equally subjective and unbalanced, so maybe it is best to ask several people.

Occasionally things will start loosing their meaning. If this happens, the values need to be reviewed. Maybe same values will get a different meaning, and maybe different values should be developed.

There are many drivers for motivation. Some people accept their strengths and find motivation within. Others are driven by inferiority and the need to make up for something. Greed and fear are strong motivators, and quite often they are reformulated as positive values of creating a safe environment or making the world a better place.

When we review and reformulate our values, it is important not only to set a good value but also to identify the emotion behind it. Doing the right thing for the wrong reasons is not that bad, yet it is more fulfilling to do it for the right reasons.

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