One of my favorite concepts from the Less Wrong blog is the "ugh field," coined by Jennifer Rodriguez-Müller. The idea: if you hate washing the dishes, not only do you leave the dishes unwashed, but you hate thinking about the mounting pile of dirty dishes. The more you dislike thinking about the dishes, you harder you try not to think about them at all. In other words, there's an ugh field around the dishes. (In psychology this would be called some kind of defense mechanism, probably denial or thought suppression. But I find "ugh field" so much more descriptive.)
This summer I wanted to learn to play the banjo. In the past, I've quickly lost momentum when trying to learn an instrument. My husband plays about six instruments, so I've used his method for painless musicianship:
- Keep the instrument in plain view where it's easy to pick up for a few minutes in between other activities.
- No scales, exercises, or anything you don't enjoy.
- Spend time fooling around with the instrument, playing whatever you want.
I realize that most of the best musicians do practice scales, etc., but that requires more discipline than I was willing to put into this project. Using Jeff's method means I don't have an ugh field around practice, so I've made decent progress with the banjo this summer.
When a task seems insurmountable, we're less likely to attempt it at all. I think all of us have an ugh field around the fact that there are more problems in the world than we can possibly solve. I don't think our minds can really comprehend that, even if we tried. And most so most people build a very strong ugh field around the topic.
I think it's worthwhile to chip off bits that are more manageable. I can't become a banjo expert this week, nor can I fix the Sahel food crisis. But I can decide that before I go to bed tonight, I'll put in twenty minutes. Maybe I'll read up on different charities, or maybe I'll write an email to a friend about a cause I think is important. If I keep the plan manageable, I'm more likely to actually do it.
I'll go to bed knowing I didn't do everything, but I did something. And that will make it easier to do something else tomorrow.