DRMacIver's Notebook

Making Success Trivial

Making Success Trivial

When trying to acquire some habit or perform some practice, it's worth making your bar for success extremely low. Essentially, if there's any question of whether you're able to do it at a given time, that should be a sign that you're significantly compromised (ill, depressed, dealing with a crisis, etc).

The classic example of this is in meditation practice: Success is putting your ass on the meditation cushion and closing your eyes for a breath. Maybe you'll do a two hour sit after that, maybe not. You can feel good about it either way.

Other examples for me:

In general I expect to do a lot more than the bare minimum for the first most days, and I expect to be right on the edge of the bare minimum for the second (update: I was pleasantly surprised to discover that I actually wanted to do more today and did a full half an hour of cleaning). That's OK, both are success.

A daily writing practice can also be made trivial, but it requires a bit more setup work.

The first is: The metric for success is that you have written something, in the place where you said you would write it. You probably shouldn't even set a minimum word count. You definitely shouldn't set a minimum quality count. All you need to do to succeed at writing is write.

The second is: If you can't make the task intrinsically easier, having a repertoire of strategies for achieving it can be very helpful. For things where the practice might require thought, it's useful to have tools for minimising that. For example, the approach of picking a random passage from a book, copying it out, and writing a few thoughts prompted by it, is one that guarantees that I can succeed at my writing practice if I feel like I don't have any thoughts to write about. The Tarot prompts work in a similar way.

Once you've made the practice trivial, a couple things can happen: Everything can go great, you might discover that you don't want to do it, and you might discover that you want not to do it.

What you do if you don't want to do it depends a lot on the task. You might be getting paid to do it, or otherwise need to do it (I certainly don't want to clean my room right now, but I want the clean room, so...). Or you might decide that actually this isn't worth doing unless you want to do it and abandon it. That's fine too.

Wanting to not do it is different though. This is when you have a negative emotional reaction to the experience, possibly despite also wanting to do it. You're trying to do it and then the brakes come on.

This is generally a sign that you need to get debugging and figure out why you're having that reaction. In broad strokes there are two reasons why you have a negative emotional reactions to things: Something is actually wrong, or the situation looks like something that you've learned in the past is bad.

In equally broad strokes, there are two solutions to negative emotional reactions: You can change the emotion, or you can change the situation.

(There's probably an interesting 2x2 to draw here but I haven't got around to creating a good way to add those to notebook posts)

Changing the emotion can be hard but roughly involves figuring out where it comes from and bringing it in line with reality or acquiring a certain amount of discomfort tolerance. My recommendation is that for the goal of making success trivial you should not set out to do this. Instead, you should understand the nature of the emotional association, and try to find strategies that work around it.

The one place where changing the emotional association is important for triviality is to add self-compassion: Making sure you understand that this strategy is OK. That it is better to have a recurring habit of trivial successes that you elaborate on as much or as little as you want than it is to have no habit at all, and to avoid punishing yourself for not meeting a higher standard. Getting comfortable with the method of trivial successes is important to avoid putting an ugh field around the whole subject.

In terms of changing the situation, two things seem to be important and and common here:

One non-obvious way that you might experience the process as unsafe is if it feels like an unbounded commitment. It's important to avoid the "Oh gods, I have to keep doing this forever?" reaction, and keeping the level of commitment way down is helpful for doing that. In particular, you might be tempted to ratchet up the difficulty level - to say e.g. that once you're confident that you can read a page a day, you'll increase your minimum commitments, etc. I think it's probably a bad idea to do that, because you'll be aware that you're tricking yourself, and that you're creating a greater commitment for future you, and that might feel overwhelming.

Another emotion that can be difficult here is not wanting to start because you don't feel like you'll be allowed to stop. One way to deal with that is to give yourself explicit permission to stop. If it's awful, you don't have to keep doing it, you're just trying it on to see what it's like. If that doesn't work out, it's not a bad thing, you've learned something, and it doesn't imply anything permanent or bad about you, you can always try again later.