The Lizard, Blogs, and Self-Incentive

SUMMARY: Convincing myself to work on long-term projects with no immediate gain is difficult, and I write out some thoughts on why this is. Partly it’s due to the lack of definition, a lack of desire to redefine for the umpteenth time, and the lizard-like part of my brain that is concerned with conserving effort. But perhaps by maintaining focus on the the act of blogging itself, I can resolve all these issues at once.

Lately I’ve had the itch to revamp my productivity tracking systems, because my focus has changed. I’ve been trying to figure out, though, what exactly HAS changed. So I thought I would write out the problem as I thought about it.

I’m at Starbucks right now, around 830PM with the sun still casting a few last rays into a cloud-specked sky. I have my 5×8″ Cachet Classic Graph notebook, my Lamy Al-Star fountain pen, a cup of decaf coffee, and am pretty comfortable except for the mosquito bites on my feet. I’m sitting here wondering what the hell I should do first.

There’s nothing stopping me from launching into a productive frenzy, but on the same note there also is nothing PUSHING me into a productive frenzy. If I were to describe my mood, it would be mildly itchy. This is due partly to the mosquito bites, and it’s also due to the desire to DO SOMETHING EPIC. There, I’ve actually identified an urge: the desire for epic accomplishment.

The lazy part of my body is saying will take a long time, and the imaginative part of my mind is not even sure what that epic achievement would even look like. However, there’s a list of things in my notebook that have been there for quite some time:

  • Digital Downloads for Sale – At least I signed up for eJunkie, but there’s a big website that I need to make.
  • Revamp the Website so people can find stuff more easily – This requires a redesign and a retooling of the underlying blog engine, which is not something I look forward to.
  • Design some new forms – I have several ideas for them, but am feeling blocked and am not sure exactly what they are.
  • Work on the Design website – My services have changed to something more complex again, and again I’m not sure how exactly I’ll phrase it.
  • Affiliate Marketing – I have been emailing companies that make products I use and like, so at least I’m collecting info. However, I also need to redesign the website.

The common blockages I’m noticing in this litany of non-productivity is that I am saying there are design prerequisites that need to be defined before I can start work. And I am not even sure yet what the parameters of these prerequisites are, though I do know from experience that this is likely to take a long time.

I think one way I can interpret my reaction is that the primitive part of my brain that assesses when something is worth doing is not being triggered. Without a boss or a other pressing need, it feels better to sit here and enjoy my coffee than thrust myself into a world that is uncertainty and doubt, even though intellectually I know that the outcome will be worth it. My lizard brain remains utterly unconvinced of what my higher brain insists is true:

“Show me the rewards. Or describe them,” the lizard brain challenges. “Well, I don’t actually have a diagram or a plan, but empirical studies show that people who are making things generally are more productive and happier”, sputters my higher cognitive functions. “That’s not much of an incentive, these vague promises based on unnamed sources and anecdotal evidence”, says the lizard brain. “But for the sake of argument, what would you have us do?” “Um, well, I was kind of thinking that we would work that out after we started”, stammers my higher brain function. “The right lobe says that artists work this way all the time, and that discovery is part of the process. The journey is the reward, right?” A chilly silence descends upon the conversation, but after a long pause the lizard brain speaks: “So you want me to work for unspecified rewards based on a ‘plan’ that you will make up as I work, using two cliches as our template to guarantee a success which is currently completely undefined?” The higher brain, ever hopeful, nods. “Sorry, I don’t do spec work”, says the lizard brain, which promptly goes back to sleep.

Although I recognize how silly it is to have this conversation with myself, I am convinced that there is some accuracy here. It’s tough to work for unknown gains unless you really BELIEVE in it or have a powerful incentive driving you. Being successful is actually not much of an incentive for me, though it’s a state that I’d like to achieve so I have the resources to do more things. But those things? They’re still too abstract.

Ways Out

The common wisdom is, as always, definition definition definition. Definition makes these abstract thoughts into blueprinted structures and strategies. This I know fully well, and yet I am still unmoved to action. Partly this is because I am still don’t really know what I want. There’s stuff that I can IMAGINE would be cool, such as teaching some simple courses in design at the local art school, or developing some software. But I also know that these activities are not at the heart of what I want to do. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say they are equally interesting and uninteresting, resulting in a net zero of motive force.

Not knowing what you want, of course, is not really an excuse for inaction. You might as well try SOMETHING that moves in the right direction, or is at least beneficial in that it brings in a living wage or creates something you can show to people. After you’ve done it 3 or 4 times it starts to get really old, and you start to lose faith. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve tried changes. You can give up trying new things and go back to the compromise old thing that at least rewarded you with money or sex in a predictable manner. Or you can do it again, wondering if you’re being a fool.

This is where I am right now, and if you’ve been here before you know that what you want in your heart of hearts is SOME KIND OF SIGN. Something that tells you yeah, you’re on the right path. It has to be clear and simple, readily grasped in the mind and in the hand in the blink of an eye. The last thing I want to see? A complicated definition or business plan, executive summary, mission statement, balance sheet, or white paper that outlines another damn procedural treadmill. This is one of those moments where you look up into the sky and shake your fist, seemingly in vain, to express the frustration boiling out of your every pore. Or, you just sit in a coffee shop watching the sun set and try to write a blog post to work it out.

It’s occurred to me that the one thing that the lizard brain understands is that a lot of good stuff has come out of just making things for the blog. In fact, much good has come of it professionally and personally. While I’ve avoided “monetizing” the blog directly, I have just realized that I have nevertheless been thinking of it as an asset to be, uh, “assetized”. And this is distasteful to me, because the lizard brain does not consider “possible future gain” as a powerful-enough incentive. The lizard brain mentality is concerned with conserving, not creating. Any expenditure of energy is considered a loss first, and it can be surprisingly subtle. Loss of freedom? Loss of the fantasy to reality. Loss of choice.

Lizard Bypass

Ordinarily by now I would be ready to start pushing on some work, but something I said earlier about the blog is resonating with my desire for the clear-and-simple sign that I’m on the right path. Like I said, the blog has brought a lot of good things to my life, and the lizard brain has already reaped the rewards. It may be that the crazy but simple focus is to formalize my energies completely around the blog? There will always be things that stem from the work I do here, and those will get taken care of. But the simple thing to do might be to designate the blog as the center of all activities. That way, I have just one criterion for assessing whether what I’m doing is worth doing or not:

Will it make my blog better?

Everything else, perhaps, will fall into place, and I won’t have to argue with the lizard brain anymore.