The (IL)Logic of Self-Defeating Behaviors

Image courtesy of 89studio /

Image courtesy of 89studio /

In the US, the fall semester of most universities ends in early December with a break for the Christmas holidays. That’s not the case in Taiwan. Our 18 week semester ends sometime in early to mid-January in time for a break for Chinese New Year’s. (Which also means that, yes, I taught on Christmas). But the nice thing about the schedule here (other the fact that the semesters are 18 weeks long) is that when our break comes, I can use it to catch up on tasks that have been slipping through the cracks while classes are in session.

So I entered the month-long break with a list of things I wanted to accomplish. Now this wasn’t my usual crazy-ass mountain list where I try to climb Mt Everest, take 1st place in a cooking competition, and write my acceptance speech for a Nobel Prize all in the same afternoon. I was actually fairly reasonable, listing three major projects that I wanted to make progress on. I thought this would be a smart way to approach things instead of resorting to my typical over-achieving ways. I added a couple of personal projects that I was excited about to be used as a reward as I accomplished my goals. I even sweetened the pot by adding “fun” projects–quilting, blog posts, pleasure reading. We planned a couple of outings–a couple day trips and one overnight. A productive, yet restorative break lay out in all its promising glory.

The new 18-week semester begins on February 17, our opening faculty meeting is on Friday, the 14th. So, with less than a week of the break left, I wish I could report that my three main projects for the break have been completed, and that my “reward” projects are all moving along nicely. And that further, I’m refreshed, renewed, and ready to tackle the semester with gusto.

Instead, I am frustrated because during the past couple of weeks, I feel like I didn’t get enough done. And when I say “enough,” I mean the things that were on my “reasonable” to-do list. I sit here with one of the three projects finished, one at about 70% completion, and no progress on the third. What’s worse is aside from blog entries, and a tiny bit of quilting early on, I set those things aside. And my energy and motivation continued to fall.

With the help of a friend, I realized that I am actually being pretty ridiculous. I know the things that will energize me. Quilting, writing, reading. Working on projects that will further my long-range plans. So let me present you with two scenarios.

  1. Whenever I really invest in quilting, writing, reading, and other activities that energize me, I am able to tackle the things that need to be done. It’s like magic. I return to the deadlines and the results are very satisfying.
  2. When I tell myself that I need to finish my to-do list and THEN I can do one of the energizing activities as a reward for getting my work done, my already sluggish output eventually screeches to a halt or results in less than satisfactory results.

In the first scenario, I accomplish all kinds of things. My spirits are high, as is my motivation. I get lots of good ideas and am able to implement them without too much difficulty.

In the second scenario, I get even less done. I might slog through a few of the most critical things, but truth be told, it is not my best work.

It’s not that I need to play and take a total break. But taking significant things from my life and putting them on the back burner because they aren’t on the top of the priority list turns out to be self-defeating over time.There are things in my life that are not in the top priority list that are still a significant part of my life. Putting them on the back burner as an incentive to do the things that I “should” do first does not really work. But when I stop “thinking” and revert to automatic pilot, scenario two is the default setting.

If I incorporate the energizing activities as a regular part of life, I’ll end up being productive, less resentful. It turns out that getting everything done first before doing the things that feed us is actually counter-productive when viewed  from the moments when I feel most alive and creative.

I can’t go back and get these last few weeks back, but I can sprinkle my life with the things that will make life more colorful and energizing.

The new semester is looking brighter already.

15 comments on “The (IL)Logic of Self-Defeating Behaviors

  1. What are the standards in Education where you are now compared to the USA at present. USA at ranked 27th right now (Hard to believe huh) But this is why American hires so many Surgeons and Scientists from abroad. Shaun x

    • Depending on what statistics you’re interested in, I’m sure they’re online. I only work in language and writing. The teaching and textbook writing keep me pretty busy. 😉

  2. Very insightful! As a music lessons instructor, I will keep this “rule of thumb” in mind. Often I tell my students to use their fun piece as a reward for practicing their other pieces, but sometimes you just need to dive into the fun first to give you energy! Thanks for the thoughts.

    • That’s really true. When I taught music, I guess I did that without thinking. I always made sure, they had several things that were fun, because I knew that if there wasn’t anything to really keep there interest and attention, they wouldn’t develop that real love of music. But yeah, it seems like we really need both. It occurs to me that we need to mix things up, and not just compartmentalize–this is the important stuff and this is what we do after we’ve done the important stuff. It’s ALL important. Thanks for stopping by. 🙂

  3. So true. I really need enough time to do stuff just for me or I get cranky and frustrated. Cutting back hours and working just 4 instead of 5 days a week was probably the best decision I made last year. Not that I don’t like my job because I do, but when I feel that all I’m achieving is work related it is not that much fun anymore.
    Good luck on incorporating more energising activities in your life!

    • I think that it has something to do with accomplishing things that are you and not just those that are proscribed by others, like the work stuff. It’s one thing to accomplish everything they want from you at work, but it’s a whole other thing to do the things that you set out to do for yourself. I like your 4-day work week. 🙂

      • I can recommend the 4 day work week but only if you really don’t work on the 5th day and accept that you can’t achieve as much in 4 days as you used to do in 5. I sometimes still find that difficult but for the most part it’s working for me.

  4. I think the message we’re giving ourselves in the second scenario is that the things that energize us and enliven us are optional–meaning they’re not important. The important stuff is what has to be done. Life is drudgery and we need rewards to get through it.

  5. Funny how that works. I get more done when I keep my mind on other things instead of the job at hand. Not sure why that is, perhaps because of the left-side/right-side brain thing, but it works for me. If I work on pushing myself beyond what I can do, I don’t end up doing better but worse. Like I said, funny how that works.

  6. I came to this exact understanding several years ago when I was starting to write my second book. I couldn’t say I’m going to write this much and then go and do something that is more enjoyable. I had to mix it up, get the more enjoyable thing squeezed into the middle of my book writing goal for the day or week or whatever. It really did help once I figured that out because I’d come back from the enjoyable activity ready to buckle down again. P.S. I bet you got an incredible amount accomplished, even if it wasn’t as much as you had hoped for.

  7. I love the logic here – it makes a lot of sense. We always need to take time out to do the things that re-energize us. I personally find that if I don’t do some sort of art on a regular basis, I end up feeling frustrated and miserable – that doesn’t make for the greatest writer. 😉

  8. Very very nice analogy! Way to go! It’s kind of like reward vs. punishment thing, only you are talking about plans or responsibility. I said it a lot – balance is key, it answers to everything. May not be easier but that is what we always have to be reminded of.

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