How to complete projects without last-minute panic

I struggle to complete longer writing projects without last-minute panic. If it’s an email or a short blog post — something I can finish in one sitting — I’m okay. I can sit down and do the thing like a productive human. But if it’s a longer essay or report that might take ~20 hours to complete, I’m reliably unreliable.  The only time my success rate for longer projects is high is when I have a believable deadline with real consequences looming imminently. When that’s the case I’ll finally force myself sit still and grind out the writing, and I’ll often complete it overnight in a state of panicked desperation.

I want to be able to complete these projects during normal working/daylight hours without requiring last-minute panic to motivate me. But since college (~14 years ago) I’ve been unable to reliably do so.

What’s causing this? How do I fix it?

In the Bay Area Rationalist community, they might say that my problem is one of “urge propagation”. I’m able to feel the urge to reach the end state — delivering the completed piece to its audience. But somehow that urge fails to propagate back to the instrumental steps that would lead to the end state. So I don’t feel intrinsically motivated to, for example, complete an outline, then complete a draft, then revise that draft, then seek feedback for further revisions.

I suspect that every time I start on a well-intentioned plan to complete some big writing project (say by creating an outline or a first draft) but then fail to complete the project, my System 1 takes this as evidence that creating an outline or a first draft does not lead to the desired outcome. And as a result the back-propagation channel that passes urges from the final outcome back to the early steps becomes more attenuated. My long history of false starts would explain why in the present day my System 1 is so thoroughly disinterested in those early steps.

Another metaphor — one used by people working on reinforcement learning in the artificial intelligence community — would describe this as a problem of “credit assignment”. My brain isn’t doing a very good job of doling out rewards (to itself, in terms of good feels and a sense of accomplishment) as I take each progressive step along the path toward completing the thing. In other words, when I reach the final outcome state and deliver the finished piece, my brain recognizes this as a Very Good Thing and I experience lots of good feels. But when I make progress on one of the early steps — like writing a first draft — my brain is like “meh. Don’t really see what’s the point of that.”

So what to do about it?

Both of these metaphors point to a similar kind of solution. I need to help my brain see and feel (and believe) the connection between early steps and the final outcome.

How might I do that?

Here are three things I will try (I already have a project with a looming due date).

First, I will explicitly break the project into discrete chunks at the outset. I typically have some vague sense of these chunks in my mind (eg outline, first draft, feedback, revise, done) but I need to make them explicit. Seeing them written down, and scheduling them in the calendar, and checking them off as I complete them, will help me to feel a sense of accomplishment and forward progress as I work on the thing.

Second, I will review that chunk list with a trusted advisor. Part of the issue is that my brain doesn’t believe that “create a first draft” is necessary or even valuable for getting to the final outcome. And often enough, my brain is ostensibly right: I create a first draft, but don’t wind up getting to the final outcome. If I review my chunk list with a trusted advisor, we’ll have a chance to review and edit that list. We can improve it and make it more believable that by completing the chunks I’ll be making real progress towards the desired final outcome.

Third, I need to give myself rewards for completing instrumental steps. I like chocolate and candy and chocolate chip cookies. Each time I START a chunk I’ll give myself one reward. Each time I COMPLETE a chunk I’ll give myself another reward.

A step I may experiment with later is adding an accountability coach into the mix. Therapists practicing cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) will have plenty of experience helping clients with problems like this one. Online services like Joyable and CoachMe might be a good fit.


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