Learning Something Every Day of 2016: COMPLETE

One year ago I set myself a goal of learning something every day for the entire year. Well I did it. Yay!

spreadsheet screenshot, things learned by date

The things I learned in December.

Previously:

Problems

One year ago, to the surprise of no one, I was feeling stressed and anxious during the Christmas and New Years holiday. Was I going to pass another year without accomplishing the personal goals I knew I was capable of?

To the internet! I googled for solutions to procrastination as I do periodically. To my recollection this has never previously provided any fruitful solutions. This time, some blog or other I found suggested The Now Habit: A Strategic Program for Overcoming Procrastination and Enjoying Guilt-Free Play. I bought it, and read it during the holidays.

I wrote about this back in January, but one of the key points of the book, a key that I had been missing for so long:

Procrastination is not the root problem.

Procrastination is a solution that we employ against other problems such as fear of failure, doubting that we can or should perform a task, or as a way to protest resentment at not living the life of leisure we so surely deserve.

And the real danger is that some of the time it works. Somebody else does the thing you didn’t want to do. Or it turns out that thing just wasn’t that important anyway, what a relief!

But it will fail critically on things that are important. In particular things that are important to you, but nobody else. At work somebody will get on your case if you’re falling behind on your responsibilities. But it’s unlikely anyone will get on your case for not following your dreams or goals that you’ve set for yourself. At home if you avoid chores you don’t like, there’s a good chance that your partner or somebody else in your household will do it instead, because they care about it getting done. Lucky! But nobody can go to the gym for you. Somebody else learning to draw or write or improving their job skills isn’t going help you improve.

If procrastination is your primary weapon against tasks you’re afraid of, or find distasteful, or are uncertain about, then you’re in for a world of disappointment.

If this sounds applicable to your situation, I encourage you to read the book. There are more important points than I can cover in this blog post. Borrow it from a friend or library (I live near one, so I know they still exist.) If you can afford it, grab it on kindle so you can start reading it this moment before you find an excuse not to or just plain forget. If that’s too much work then just harass me with questions on Twitter and maybe I can help, who knows.

Have you found other resources, books or practices that have concretely helped you combat procrastination? Let me know, I’m curious.

Solutions

As much as I found value in most of the book’s information, the author’s proposed scheduling system seemed overly complicated. His ideas were sound, but I’m a rabid simplifier. My job is complex, life is complex, critical thinking is complex… simplify anywhere you can!

So here’s my simplified version of one of the solutions presented in the book:

Choose a task you want completed, and do it for 30 minutes.

Choose a fun/relaxing activities and do that for 30 minutes.

Repeat every day.

Do whatever you want with the rest of your time. This of course assumes you have more than 1 hour of discretionary time every day. If you don’t, I’m very sorry.

Persistent Starting

The concept is persistent starting. Something that holds me back from any large undertaking is visualising the entire scope of the project. It makes intuitive sense, and it’s important to plan, but the problem is the crushing weight of a project that will take many days, months, or even years.

This is a problem that gets worse the more you learn and understand about what it is you’re doing. As a beginner, you have no frame of reference to measure how difficult a task something will be or how long it will take, so you don’t worry about it and just work away. If you’re lucky, you finish before you realise how much work it was going to be!

Once you’ve gained some expertise, you start to be able to visualise all of the steps leading to completion… but even though you can visualise them, you can’t hold them all comfortably in mind at once. They start to feel overwhelming, what if you get the priorities wrong and do something in the wrong order? Some things are going to take a really long time and be incredibly tedious, just look at all that tedium stretched out in front of you! Based on how things have gone before, maybe I shouldn’t even start. What a waste of time this will be if I don’t finish.

There’s a pessimistic truth to these thoughts that is hard to dismiss. It is going to be hard, and sometimes tedious. It is going to take a long time. But… of course it will. It’s a big thing. It will take time, and it will be hard work, so what’s the problem?

Is fitness your goal? Stephen Guise proposes a One Push-up Challenge. Commit to doing one push up every day.

I hadn’t worked out in days. I felt bad about it. I was frozen while my fitness goals ran away from me.

Then I figured it out.

I wanted to cram in a year’s worth of workouts (and the results) into one workout. I’m a fool! That’s impossible, folks. Motionless I remained, because I knew I’d never do it.

For some reason we sometimes try and complete a large task all at once, which is impossible. The only way to complete a large task is in small steps. And in order to take each of those steps you need to trust that they are worthwhile, that they will actually add up to a completed task.

The great things about small steps is that they are small. Trivially small. Such a tiny thing. You might as well just try it. Anyone can do something for 30 minutes, after which you can go back to whatever it is you thought you wanted to do instead. For me, I was surprised after only a few days how much I had accomplished.

If even committing 30 minutes sound daunting (and for some things like fitness, it might very well be), then commit to the smallest possible increment of progress.

Can’t manage to draw every day? Commit to drawing one line on your sketchpad every day.

Results

This is without question the most consistently I’ve ever been able to commit to a personal project in my life so far (36 years). Imagine if I had learned this when I was 16, that would have been an extra 20 years of getting things done! Ok, best not to think of that…there’s still time.

Summary

Goals vs Plans

Wait… you missed 22 days and you call that a success? HELL YES.

The goal is not to do 365 things in 365 days. The goal is to get anything done at all.

The plan to achieve that goal, was to spend 30 minutes every day learning something new.

Sometimes things didn’t go according to plan. The goal was a resounding success.

Compare to every personal project ever previously undertaken. You start off strong, put in a solid afternoon working on it. The next day maybe you only have a few minutes, but you do get a little bit done. Then there’s work and TV and whatever, suddenly it’s a week later. Half heartedly you put in another hour or so. And that’s it, something else comes up and you just plain forget. If you think about the project at all it’s when you can’t work on it, in the shower, on the bus. Months (or years) later you repeat the process.

That’s one of the great things about having a plan, or a schedule, or a tool, whatever is going to simplify decision making. When things go wrong, what do you do? Unfortunately, it looks like I didn’t get my 30 minutes of learning in yesterday for some reason. What should I do!? Well, the plan says to do 30 minutes of learning today. Let’s do that.

Magically, progress continues.

Observations

I started out with an unplanned assortment of items to learn. Things I had bookmarked, or just chosen on a whim. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, but I found the most difficult days to stay on track later were when I finished up learning one thing and needed to choose something else.

A weakness in my plan was that I had specifically chosen ad-hoc subject matter that required me to stop and think about my next step. On at least one day, I failed because I simply could not decide on something to do that day, I got tired, frustrated and gave up and went to bed. But the next day, I was more rested, less frustrated, and moved on as usual.

Things went much more smoothly when I chose a large topic or exercise and pursued that for many days in a row. There was no need to hesitate or mull each day what I should be doing, I just picked up where I left off.

I actually had the easiest time and made the most progress when I chose large tasks that I could complete over time. Amazingly the opposite of my experience previous to this undertaking.

Conclusion

Among some of the final projects I undertook were animating a walk cycle (~8 hours), and texturing a stylized 3D model (~9 hours).

As simple or random as these might sound, these are goals I’ve had for years. Years. I’ve fiddled around with texture painting before, but never had a consistent plan of attack to complete a project. I’ve never attempted to animate a walk cycle before, it always seemed too far out of reach.

I have to thank CGCookie for their excellent Blender content, and Wayne Dixon in particular for his Animation Bootcamp series.

I am very happy to have finally reached these goals, which now feel pleasantly like stepping stones to greater things in the future.

Simple Walk Cycle

Full Walk Cycle

If you want you can check out the playlist of all of my Animation Bootcamp exercise submissions.

Texture Painting

Checking The List

TL;DR

I did it.