When things are worth doing, they are worth doing badly

Why I haven’t posted anything lately:

I’ve never been the person with the highest sense of self-esteem. Feelings of inadequacy are a part of the human condition- most of us if not all of us have felt that we are not good enough to do something, at some point in our lives. The latest bout of such feelings came about when I was faced with an honest critique of my writing. The criticism was quite understandable, in my excitement, I decided to forego making multiple drafts and carefully re-writing everything. I just stuck with the first draft and I felt that it was good enough. What I wrote was full of grammatical and structural errors and wasn’t the best work I could have presented.

I got so excited by the subject matter, so carried away by the fact that I was working on something interesting that I forgot to remember to see it through to completion properly. I should have written and rewritten, I should have pored over the draft to make sure the grammar was correct, I should have made sure the structure was cohesive. I didn’t do any of those things because I was too excited. The response to that was inevitable and swift, and I welcomed it (or at least I thought I did). I felt that my motivation to write something and my belief about the correctness of my points would shield me from the negative feelings that come with any criticism which I expected to be minor at the most. Clearly, I was wrong about both the quality of what I’d written and the effect the criticism would have on me.

When the criticism came my way, I was devastated. Being able to express myself through writing is an important part of my self-identity and self-worth. I never thought I was world class, but I did think I was pretty good at it. When you believe something to be an integral part of your identity, your public face, your “personal brand” if you will, having that put into question shakes your foundations. The question was not only if I was good enough now, but if I ever was any good at all at any point in the past.

The criticism itself was pretty easy to understand. My emotional reaction to it took longer to fully understand and process. The rational mind would say it is a good thing to be given honest feedback but the sheer bluntness of it really shook me to the core. I was good at writing one moment, and in the next, I was just not. Was this just an isolated mistake? Am I really any good? Was I ever any good? Did I ever improve? What have I been doing all these years? Will I ever actually be as good as I thought I was?

All this turmoil made me hesitant to write for several weeks. I needed to articulate these emotional responses in my head, but each time I thought about it, I ended up in the same spot. I realized I needed to do something different. I needed a change in perspective.

For days I kept thinking about my apparent lack of writing skill and even though I wanted to get myself out of the inertia that I had accumulated, it was difficult to put any plans into action. Days passed and I kept going through the motions of my daily routine, and I kept turning a blind eye towards the mental turmoil hoping that in time the memories of this upheaval would fade away.

But they didn’t fade away. Those comments and my reaction to them were constantly on my mind. I was able to push them away during the week when I was occupied with work. Whenever I found myself with free time, however, the feelings rushed back to my mind and occupied center stage.

Trying to get to the bottom of things:

I decided to look back at why I wrote the piece that started it all- my post about the self-determination theory. I looked at the reasoning behind why I felt I was intrinsically motivated to write. When I was truly engrossed in writing, the act of writing was its own reward. Whether the writing was any good was not a part of that equation at all. I understood that although the act of writing is what I truly love to do, I am also drawn to the feeling of validation that came with showing off the writing to others. The process of writing on my blog, sharing it with the world and watching the page views grow by the day is integral to my sense of accomplishment and also my self-worth.

My intent of writing about self-determination theory was to understand some of the different factors that motivated my writing in the past. As I mentioned before, I got carried away by those thoughts and the post was not vetted as well as it should have. It was rushed. That left me to ponder over why the blunt feedback affected me so deeply.

To try and understand my thoughts, I wrote them down in a journal. The simple act of writing the things that were on my mind had helped me on multiple occasions in the past. All it takes is a pen, paper and a stream of consciousness emptying itself out from your brain and into the physical realm in the form of the written word. Journaling my thoughts helped me through a lot of tough times, especially as a student living in the United States, away from my friends and family.
An entry in a journal doesn’t have to be perfectly worded and devoid of grammatical errors, it doesn’t have to be drafted and re-written in order to form a cohesive story for others to read. It is a means by which you can get your thoughts out of your head and in front of your eyes to see. It turns an intangible, nebulous swarm of thoughts into something physical, which frees the brain from the entanglement of those thoughts.
Journaling my thoughts definitely helped clear the cobwebs in my brain. I was done avoiding my thoughts and I had met them head-on and articulated them in as much detail as I could muster. Writing down my thoughts was definitely a liberating experience.

Now that I knew what I did wrong, and had come to terms with my reaction to the feedback I had received, the only thing I needed was a little nudge in the right direction.

The A-ha moment:

A new perspective on this whole situation dawned upon me when I was watching a video by Jordan Peterson where he said: “If something is worth doing it’s worth doing well, but if something is worth doing it is also worth doing badly.”

As children, we are taught the importance of doing things the right way. Making your bed- make sure there are no creases in the bedsheets. Solving a math problem- make sure you write down all the steps properly. Cleaning your room- don’t just shove the dirt under the carpet. It is a good virtue, striving towards perfection, aiming towards the ideal, living your best life, being your best self, and so on.

The trouble occurs when you don’t think you’re good enough and you end up not doing anything, because what’s the point of writing if it’s not perfect and people are not going to like it? Well, then you’re looking at it the wrong way. And indeed, I was looking at the whole situation the wrong way. I was too caught up in trying to look smart, and the sole purpose of writing was for the feeling of validation that I got from others reading my blog. Now I realize that if you really think something brings you joy, then you do it even if you’re not good at it because it is better than not doing anything at all. A lack of motivation to write is the reason why countless blogs die, and I’m not going to let my blog become one of those symbols of discouragement getting the best of people.

This whole episode has really helped me understand myself, my reactions to things, and how best to deal with situations such as these. In fact, the act of writing this has been quite cathartic because I’m not writing this for anyone else. I’m not a great writer, I may not even be a good writer. That doesn’t matter because I’m not going to stop trying to get better. I feel like maintaining this blog is worth doing, and when things are worth doing, they are worth doing badly.

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Self Determination Theory and my writing journey

 

Introduction

I’ve been re-reading some of the research papers that I read when I was a graduate student, and now that I have the leisure of ruminating on the concepts stated in them, I’ve started to correlate those concepts with my own experiences.

I decided to start reading about Intrinsic and Extrinsic motivation, specifically the Self Determination Theory (SDT) developed by Edward L. Deci and Richard M. Ryan. I think I picked this topic because I haven’t been inspired or motivated to write about new things for the past couple of months, and every time I set out to write about something, I haven’t seen it through.

What is Self Determination Theory?

Self Determination Theory is a meta-theory, or a collection of theories about motivation, self-regulation of behavior, and personality development. Self regulation refers to the process of internalizing extrinsic or social values into self motivations and personal values. Two of the key sub-theories with SDT are Cognitive Evaluation Theory, and Organismic Interaction Theory.

Organismic Interaction Theory and the Self Determination Continuum

The organismic Interaction Theory is a subtheory within SDT, and it describes more fine-grained distinctions between types of motivation.

Self Determination Continuum

The figure shows six types of motivation. Each type varies in the amount of autonomy the person has as well as in the level of internalization (i.e. how much the person has taken in a value, or how much the person values the activity).

My writing journey through the lens of the Self Determination Continuum

Amotivation- the beginnings

I didn’t actually start writing blogs until 2012, when I started to write for a football blog. My first foray into blogging was for a football website created by a group of friends and acquaintances at college. I wasn’t motivated in any way, extrinsic or intrinsic. I started off with a regular schedule but I soon found myself lagging behind, rarely writing new posts. Even when I did manage to get myself to write a blog post, I was simply going through the motions. Writing became a chore.

I consider my initial foray into blogging as lacking motivation. I begun with good intentions- I wanted to try my hand at writing on the internet. However,I never truly got engrossed in it as I wasn’t truly interested in football, and I wasn’t getting paid. Also, because I didn’t know much about football, I didn’t feel competent enough to write about it.

External Regulation – Writing for “exposure” and monetary rewards

When I started writing technology related blog posts and articles, my dream was to one day have enough clout to receive devices for review. In pursuit of that goal, I approached many a website, and agreed to write for “exposure” or in some cases e-commerce store credit.

There was little to no autonomy because it was just about slaving away writing “hot takes” , blindly copying and pasting information about the latest goings-on in the tech space. The only reason I ever wrote was because I loved seeing my name in the by-line, getting some sort of presence on the internet however infinitesimal it may be, and hoping that the relentless grind would get me one step closer to my dream of being a gadget reviewer on the internet.

This was a recipe for burnout, and I burned out in spectacular fashion. There was no feedback, positive or negative. There was nobody guiding me, helping me find my way, nobody helping me grow as a writer in any sense. I was all just a blind rush to get the latest “Hot Take”, and get the most page views by any means necessary. I felt like a hamster in a wheel. At the end of it all I wasn’t interacting with an audience. I was simply throwing hastily spewed out words their way in an attempt to get more clicks. I was neither forging an identity and for the most part, nor was I getting any sort of proper remuneration for it [1]

Introjected Regulation- Writing for validation

There was a point in time where I used blog posts just to get validation from people. The act of actually writing the blog post was secondary to the act of sharing the blog post on social media and on messaging apps. I spammed links to my blog posts everywhere and found inventive ways of trying to get as many views as possible. I was only writing blog posts as a method of ego enhancement. I wanted to show the world that I was a writer, a content creator, who took the time and the effort to write blog posts regularly. I wanted to prove to the world I could do it, and I also wanted to show off to the world. I tied the act of writing with my own inherent self worth- I would feel guilty or anxious if I didn’t write and share it with the world.

I consider writing for validation as a form of Introjected Regulation, because even though this form of motivation may seem internal, but it’s still caused by external factors- in this case my need for validation by others, may it be through likes or comments or social media, or even the number of hits each blog post got[2]

Identified Regulation- Writing about UX

This form of regulation is more internalized as the person perceives the action as personally important. During my final semester in the Master’s in HCI program, I realized I needed to showcase my writing skills and use them to talk about concepts of UX that I was learning at school. This was because having a web presence was integral to my job search which was in full swing at the time.

I consider this a form of Identified regulation, because I valued the goal, and considered the action personally important. It was important to me because it lined up with my goal of creating a digital identity, a writer’s equivalent of a UX portfolio.

Integrated Regulation- Writing for Pocketnow

In the summer of 2015, I got the opportunity to write for pocketnow.com, a website that covers mobile technology. I was very excited because writing for a tech website was a long time dream of mine. This was different from the “writing for exposure” days because I was given increased autonomy by my editor in chief, and I was actually being paid for my work.

When I look back at those days I feel like that experience was the single most helpful thing that ever happened to me in terms of growing as a writer. I discussed ideas for articles with the editorial team, and after getting the go-ahead, they always provided constructive feedback about what I wrote[3]. Writing for a legitimate website like Pocketnow also helped me communicate with a community of readers.

I consider this a form of Integrated Regulation because writing for Pocketnow helped me really identify as a writer. However, even though I the experience was enjoyable and helped me identify as a writer, the motivating factors were still external- getting paid, gaining an audience, and improving my writing skills.

Intrinsic Motivation- Writing for myself

There are times where I write just because I enjoy it. I like the whole process – coming up with a topic, doing some research, writing, editing, sometimes rewriting. Sometimes what I write doesn’t see the light of day, but I enjoy it anyway. It’s not about the validation, or getting money, or the pageviews. It’s just about thinking about something, writing it down, and crafting something cohesive. It’s about getting engrossed in the act of writing itself, and losing track of time.

I’m at a stage now where I have a strange compulsion of sorts, to write something, anything. I use the word compulsion because there’s something that truly compels me and I can’t explain it using external motivators. I want to , I have to write because I like it. This is, in my opinion, true intrinsic motivation.

My writing journey through the lens of Cognitive Evaluation Theory

My writing journey can not only be categorized using the self-determination continuum, but also using Cognitive Evaluation Theory. Within Cognitive Evaluation Theory,  the authors mention three factors that influence intrinsic motivation:

Autonomy: a sense of being in control and having freedom.

Competence: a sense of being able to do something.

Relatedness: a sense of being associated or connected to others.

Initially during the football blog days I was unmotivated because:

There was no autonomy- others decided what I should write about, and I could not deviate from the section I was assigned

There was no competence- I had no idea if I was good enough, and I was able to capture what people wanted from a football blog

There was no relatedness- I really wasn’t that into football and hence couldn’t really relate to the other writers and their football enthusiasm

When I was writing for “exposure” , my autonomy was restricted to writing about whatever had the potential to get the most page views. I may have felt more competent, but that was because what I wrote was formulaic and had low complexity. All my initial feelings of relatedness quickly vanished because I was doing nothing to connect with other people.

As I started writing for my personal blog and even for Pocketnow, I had increased autonomy because I could decide what to write about. The subject matter was always about what I liked (technology) or what I was learning (User Experience). I felt more competent because I always got feedback from my peers, and I could see a progression in my skills as a writer.

When I write for myself, I have complete autonomy. I am confident in my ability to write, I feel competent. I try to write things that encourage a discussion with other like-minded people, which helps with relatedness.

Reflection

The path between Extrinsic Motivation to Intrinsic Motivation is non-linear:

Although the self determination continuum looks like a linear progression, it doesn’t imply that motivation follows that order. In my personal experience I have gone from External Regulation to Intrinsic Motivation, and then fallen back to one of the intermediary phases when I lacked inspiration. Inspiration is fleeting, and I feel like I’m intrinsically motivated or experiencing “flow” when I am inspired. However, there are times when I am not inspired or intrinsically motivated, and I need some form of external regulation, or an intermediary form of regulation such as Introjected, Identified or Integrated. I think the Self Determination Continuum really adds more nuance to the idea of writing as a disciplined practice versus motivated or inspired writing.

Going through the intermediary forms of motivation helped me fully incorporate intrinsic motivation:

When I started writing, I thought that inspired writing was always my best work because it was “from the heart”, a stream of consciousness captured as words and sentences. The more I forayed into writing about specific topics however, I realized that writing, getting feedback and rewriting until you have a cohesive narrative was great as well.

Now when it comes to writing, I realize how important it is to have a proper procedure. Having a stream of consciousness is great, but it needs to be channelized properly. Getting feedback from others more skilled than I am really helped in that regard. In my initial attempts at writing for myself, I didn’t really have a sense of direction. I had complete autonomy, but I had no competence, and others were unable to relate to what I was saying. In the case of writing for Pocketnow, the slight reduction in autonomy was worth it, just for the increase in competence that I experienced as a result of working with more accomplished writers.

In my writing journey, I started off like a bullet shot from a gun- I had plenty of ideas, and I put them into writing as fast as possible. Soon, I was out of inspiration. I went from intrinsic motivation to being unmotivated.  Nevertheless, I continued writing for various reasons. I slowly went through the intermediary phases and regained the intrinsic motivation I started with. I feel like my intrinsic motivation is in fact stronger than when I started writing, because I continued to write and gain feedback.

References:

Footnotes:

  1. I eventually realized this wasn’t the right way to go about writing. Looking back, I still feel quite bad about the incessant spamming of links that I used to do. A few people even blocked me on social media because of it. I wrote this blog post around that time, describing what was on my mind.
  2. Spamming friends and family with blog posts was not only a form of seeking validation, but was also a fun activity. I’m not so proud of it now that I look back at it. But I think I needed to go through that phase to get it out of my system.
  3. Shout out to Michael Fisher, Stephen Schenck, and Anton D’Nagy, the editors at Pocketnow who helped me hone my writing skills. (Also Adam Doud, who helped me learn to deal with haters/trolls/ general negativity in the comments section.)

Routines and the Quantified Self

What is the “Quantified Self” ?

These days some of us or quite a few of us try to capture certain minute details about our daily lives in a digital format. We keep a track of the amount of steps we have taken, the amount of calories in the meals of the day, and so on. The aim here is to keep a track of these things so that we may reflect, analyze and learn about what is going on with ourselves, to eventually improve ourselves over time. This has become much easier due to smart devices and wearable technology. Each and every one of us is generating tremendous amounts of data about ourselves every single day. Systems like the Nike Fuel band, the FitBit and even Apple and Google’s fitness oriented application suites want to take advantage of this current trend.

At the heart of this new “Quantified Self” movement are tiny, inconspicuous sensors embedded in various devices, that help record and log surprisingly accurate and incredibly detailed information. These sensors, combined with ubiquitous computing that allows these numbers to be crunched and presented to the users in an easy to understand format, and social networks that allow the users to share and collaborate, form the core of the new “revolution” in health and wellness oriented experiences.

Although all of this is a great example of how the latest technology can be used for our benefit, the idea of the Quantified Self is not as completely new as one might think. We have been keeping track of ourselves in various ways long before the advent of miniaturized biometric sensors and portable smart devices. Certain things like keeping a track of spending, or stepping on a scale every morning, have been a part of our lives for quite a while now. What’s new is this increased need for self-knowledge, helped by the rich and detailed information that can be recorded about ourselves.

Of course, there are still a few issues with the whole Quantified Self movement. One of them is keeping the user engaged. These systems currently require the user to constantly monitor or observe the information daily or over time. This may lead to information overload, or confusing the user because of too much information. Another is keeping the user motivated and interested in the system. It is observed that after a while a lot of people tend to revert back to their old ways because they get bored or lose motivation, and their fitness trackers end up in a desk drawer.

Routines

One of the things I realized as I read and researched about human factors, is the importance of routines in our daily lives. Certain things we do, certain actions that we perform, are so familiar to us that we do not spend too many attentional resources to complete those actions. They become “routines”. We continue to follow those routines until something unusual happens.

To understand how we can make the above mentioned Quantified Self systems better, we need to understand how to design them better. That’s where the understanding of routines comes into the picture. If the systems become a part of our routine, completely non-intrusive without too many requirements on our attention, they might just become better experiences.

Today’s solutions

Designers have tried to work around the issue of keeping users motivated in the case of fitness tracking. Gamification, or adding game-like interactive elements such as competition with others in your social network, trophies or achievements for achieving goals, or Role-Playing Game like elements such as character creation and progression, have all been tried out. The problem here is that it lacks a universal appeal to people. Some people really like Gamification, and others can’t be bothered with it.

Other attempts at helping users maintain motivation have been actual monetary incentives, such as the “Pact” app that allows you to bet money on whether or not someone will complete their fitness goals, or the “PavLok”, a wearable device named after the Pavlov experiment, which literally gives the wearer an electric shock if he/she does not complete the pre-decided goal.

I believe that the solution lies in understanding how routines are created, maintained and modified. Creating a new routine or modifying an existing one is difficult compared to maintaining an existing one, because changing certain habits takes conscious effort and attention. It takes a few cycles of the routine to fully internalize the changes. If it is too difficult, the individual may revert back to old habits. Superficial motivation like Gamification may not provide enough incentive to the user, to completely change their routine.

What I feel would be the ideal experience:

One of the key aspects of the quantified self is the focus on the individual. Self improvement, and detailed information that is specific to the individual are the key points of this whole experience. Using pre-set goals like “10,000 steps a day” thus seems counter-intuitive to this point. If every person is different, then every person should have goals as per their requirement, or their capacity. That is where biometric sensors fall short, and human intervention provides a more suitable solution. Sometimes it’s better to jog or run until you can feel your legs tiring out, for example, rather than just stopping after 10,000 steps every time.

That is where I feel this system needs to improve not only simply recording detailed information, but also to help create routines, and help you find your own way of making the best use of the sensor data. Information that can help you improve upon your fitness by showing you how much you can do, and what you should do to push your limits. The user would know when they have done enough, when they can feel it in their own bodies, without the need of a 3D avatar of themselves telling them they did a good job.