Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Sucked In

How easy is it to get sucked in?
How does it happen that one gets sucked in?

We usually think of getting sucked in to things that we don't want to do, but that are tempting. How does it happen? We get sucked in to watching TV and we get up an hour or four later feeling worse for it, usually. We get sucked into one too many drinks, perhaps, or one too many hands at the blackjack table, or too many bon bons, or books or whatever kind of temptation we fall into.

But do we only get sucked in to things that are bad for us? My experience is that I can be sucked into many activities. Some days it's hard to get started writing or to get started on an editing project, but I find that once I'm involved in the work, it's not nearly as difficult as I anticipate. The interest inherent in the work will take over if only I give it enough chance.
Part of making it happen, I think, is having low expectations (which is very different, of course, from having low standards) for the moment. I don't expect to solve all my problems, or even to solve one big problem; I expect only that I will give it an honest effort for a little while. Often I can get started on writing something by saying "I'll just jot down quick notes." That, indeed, is the case with today's blog: I was resisting writing it--telling myself I would do it later--after all, writing a whole blog entry might take thirty minutes, or an hour even, if I get caught up in it. But "I'll just jot some quick notes so I won't forget what I was thinking about," and here I am, a couple of paragraphs in.

I read an article recently (sadly, I have no link and no citation) that described a recent study that showed that people were poor at anticipating how much they would enjoy things, finding both that people often enjoyed things they anticipated disliking, and that they disliked things they anticipated enjoying. I think work is something that we often anticipate disliking, and so we avoid it. But we often enjoy it, once we start.

Recently I decided that I wanted to work on reading music (which I do a very poorly and slowly), and decided to spend fifteen minutes a day practicing reading music with a metronome. I do have a trouble starting, but when I do start, I often find myself working for longer than I planned, just because the challenge of working on it sucks me in: I want to master it, or at least get better at it--mastery, I think, would take several hours of practice a day--a friend who was a professional musician told me once that he had to practice six hours a day to be able to play what he needed for his gigs. This is a worthy comparison: the writer can productively spend fifteen minutes writing--especially with practice. But to master a project, it will take the writer hours every day, for weeks or months.

Another important factor in getting sucked in is to feel that the process in which you engage is one that serves a purpose for you. And is not one that you feel you are doing out of some externally imposed obligation. If you feel that a task is worthy, then engaging in that ask will actually have a self-reinforcing factor: you'll feel good for having accomplished something, and that will be conducive to working more. On the other hand, if you are feeling that a task is only an external obligation, there is a constant resistance due to your sense that the task is not meaningful, but is only being done for someone else.

Anger at having to do the task probably isn't helpful in getting sucked in; anger is draining. In the long run it would be nice for the writer to have the experience of getting sucked in and of having the task of writing and research be so fascinating that you do not only get sucked in on the small scale (where you start working for a short moment and that stretches to several minutes or hours) but you can get sucked in on the large scale (where you start to view the opportunity to work as an actual temptation).

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