Charles Duhigg

Make Your Work Compelling

The difference between compulsory and compelling is huge.

Compulsory sounds negative. You must do something, whether you like it or not.

That’s enough to put you off most compulsory stuff. The psychology is all wrong.

Compelling sounds great. You must do something, because you’re excited to keep going. You’d hate to stop.

Zen at work

University involves a lot of work, so it helps when you want to do it. But when you have deadlines to fulfill and the need to submit thousands of words, it’s easy to switch your attention to what’s compulsory.

Do yourself a favour and concentrate on the reasons why you’re interested in your work. The more compelling you make it, the easier you’ll find the less savoury points.

Terry Anderson sees possibility in this through self-paced learning, especially through “sophisticated social networking contexts” that let students discover each other and interact in realtime as well as through past comments and artifacts from previous students on a course.

You may not have this luxury on your degree for most, if not all of your assignments. But there are other ways to turn your attitude from plodding to probing.

Regain Your Enthusiasm

  • Start with an interesting question – What makes you tick? What would you like to know? Where do you want to explore today?
    Thinking about word counts and submission dates will only fill your mind with stress points. Bring your focus to the assignment itself, not the logistics.
  • Don’t overthink it – Once you’ve asked interesting questions, keep working on them until you start to grow tired of it. When you feel things dragging, stop right there. Pack up. Do something else. Even the most fun activities get boring when you don’t stop. So learn to let go.
  • Team up with others – Deconstruct, discuss, debate. Five minutes may be all it takes to uncover talking points that get you enthused about the task at hand. Whether or not you like to work in a group, an academic chat can get the creative juices flowing. If you’d prefer to do the actual work on your own, that’s fine. Once the urge is there, your mission is to stay in the mood to work with a spring in your step.
  • Space things out – The nearer you get to the deadlines, the more you focus on the compulsory aspect of your work. You avoid this by starting early and doing the work bit by bit. Not too much in one go, and certainly not all at once at the last minute.
  • Make it a habit – The longer you procrastinate, the more likely you’ll see the compulsory over the compelling. As well as spacing things out, as I mention above, find ways to develop habits to ease into the work. Habits can be different for everyone and is enough to be the subject of many texts, including Charles Duhigg’s recent book, The Power of Habit.
    Duhigg says that you should identify current routines for habits you would like to change. What is the cue that leads to your habit taking over? Next, choose different outcomes (it doesn’t really matter what they are) to work out what cravings are truly driving the routine. Then isolate the cue. Are you reacting to your location, the time of day, how you feel, what happened just beforehand? In time, you’ll find a pattern will emerge. Finally, have a plan. Commit to a new habit that you feel is better placed for what you want to change. From first-hand experience, Duhigg found embedding a new habit to be a challenge, but it was worth persevering.

Let the subject excite you and stop the admin from getting you down. So much of the change from compulsory to compelling is in the attitude. Set things up for an activity you don’t want to stop doing. And when you do stop, you’ll miss it.

That will make a change from never wanting to see it again, eh?