100 Day Challenges and Visualizing Progress
I recently tracked my work and ouput using a few challenges such as #100DaysofDH and #100DaysofDissertation. Now I wanted to share some of my experiences. This is, like so often, a reflection that got a bit too long. I go deeply into some stuff but maybe it can help someone. I tired to make it accessible with “multiple entry points” with the sub headings.
#100DaysofDissertation wasn’t for me
On days I work on my dissertation, I work many hours and things get super intense. However, I need multiple break days of doing something different (such as rest or administrative stuff) afterwards to recharge where I don’t want to see my dissertation at all. But a 100 day challenge gives you the feeling that you should be working for 100 consecutive days with as little breaks as possible. That’s just not how I function.
One of our dear readers, Martin, said that he had used a normal calendar to track progress, making a cross on a successful day and leaving the spot empty when he missed. I tried to imitate the method that had worked for him and it totally didn’t work for me: For me having to leave spots empty where I didn’t do anything dissertation-related felt like a punishment. I need my breaks and they are good for me and the quality of my creative output.
However, the challenge made me feel bad about myself even in weeks when I had actually done well and thus, caused me to be frustrated with myself when I really should have been proud. Maybe the problem was not the challenge but rather the fact that this way of tracking and visualizing progress didn’t work for me. I also know that many people in the final phase of their dissertations actually work every day for 100 days straight without a break. But that’s not how I function. I tried and it only put me down. And when you’re feeling depressed about “not being good enough” or not doing well enough (according to some stupid internet challenge anyway), your productivity really plummets if it wasn’t already down the draing before. The challenge was meant to inspire me and it ended up just being an additional stress factor. That doesn’t mean the challenge is bad and it has certainly helped lots of people. But it wasn’t for me.
But there are other things I noticed as well and those came from my experiments with tracking how many days I’d already completed and visualizing progress.
The way you track success days can make or break the challenge: I ended up accidentally tracking failure instead of success, thus demotivating myself
When doing the same tracking for for
#100DaysofDH, I noted down dissertation writing but also all other DH-related tasks I did. When Philip, the first person to complete the
#100DaysofDH challenge, was on his success streak, I felt like a complete idiot for not having completed the challenge too. After all, I had invented the stupid challenge to make myself more productive 😀 If tracking failure works for you because it pushes you, that’s great. But it didn’t work for me and I currently really don’t need any additional stress factors or things putting me down. I was at a loss for what to do. My plan had totally backfired at me. But those moments of desperation are those where you go back to what really works. I went back to my safe place and that’s LaTeX templates 😉 I thought “If LaTeX can’t help me solve this, then I really can’t be saved.” And, as always, I was able to use LaTeX to make things better. Lovely LaTeX, thanks for being there for me! 🙂
In case of chaos, go back to what works or your safe space: LaTeX templates
So I ended up making a LaTeX template (what else would I do, really?) for a printout where I could check off my progress. I added a 100 day overview and then 10 day compartments. These can be filled out with sub-projects or not. I added a starting and completion date. You can make a short note on what you did for each day and I also left some space to note what I have learned or wanted to remember. It turns out that unlike the good old (albeit simple and effective) calendar method, this really worked better for me. I only noted “success days” where I completed the challenge. Using the start and completion date, one can always find out the total duration should one feel the need at some point. But for now, I felt it was better to concentrate on successes. In the spots reserved for what you did, I also added the current date and – when it came to dissertation writing – the number of hours I put in.
I didn’t want to tweet excessively, so the paper template allowed me to make notes for my own record, away from digital distractions. I also loved physically crossing things off or colouring them in with a highlighter pen. I will be able to keep my notes on these sheets of paper for later reference, unlike Tweets which fade away in the Twitter abyss very quickly.
Ergo I finally did find a way of making these 100 Day Challenges work for me and I am still working on some (might update you on them at some point). The Challenge concept just doesn’t work so well for the dissertation for me and it also needs to be un-coupled from the idea of consecutive days. I commit to spend X number of days on a project. But I truly value taking time off, so I needed to adapt these challenges a little bit for my own use to accomodate that. So as long as we’re not sticking to the “consecutive days” idea of these challenges, I’m game and it’s a fun game too.
“X Consecutive Days of XYZ” Challenges work better with fun and rewarding projects than straining duties
I think the original idea of the “X consecutive days of XYZ” challenge is better for some extracurricular personal projects that’s very concrete and also not so huge that it feels “never-ending” (like your dissertation does). Using this challenge for a work project kind of takes out the fun (at least for me personally). Sticking with your commitment for 100 days straight is no easy feat and it doesn’t get easier once it feels like a chore. Also, it’s easier to stick with a more or less “X consecutive days” logic if the project is actually shaped in a way that it makes sense to do a mini-ritual instead of something longer on days where life gets in the way (like I recommened in the initial post). I felt that there just isn’t a point in doing this with my dissertation, so maybe it’s not the greatest application for these sorts of challenges – unless it really works for you, of course.
30 Days of Yoga and starting a habit loop
It’s a whole different story for my 30 Days of Yoga challenge I recently completed. Here I really only committed to doing something every day and didn’t have the expectation that I needed superhuman output for it to count (like I do with my dissertation). I think I did around 10 minutes every day and on actually quite a few days, I did more than that. But I did it because I wanted to. I came to associate the yoga challenge with a break I’m looking forward to. Something relaxing – and not a duty. And also the sense of accomplishment of being able to cross another day off in my challenge tracker template.
So I think these challenges are inherently more apt for fun and rewarding projects than they are for forcing yourself to get work done (like I tried with the 100 days of DH challenge). However, tracking progress in motivating ways can still make them worthwhile for less fun projects (like your dissertation). Essentially, it’s all about creating a positive feeling to start a habit loop. If the activity makes you feel horrible about yourself, you won’t build a habit (which makes completion so much more easy and rewarding) but will build up resistance to doing the task (probably leading you to pull the pin sooner or later). So, like always, it comes down to the question of working smarter, not harder.
Progress tracking can work wonders when you feel like you’re not doing enough
A great realization from the
#100DaysofDH and taking actual notes on paper was that I’m doing so much more than I remember. I constantly feel like “I didn’t achieve anything today” so it doesn’t count or “I’m not doing enough”, “Other people are doing cooler things”, etc. And I caught myself feeling like a complete loser when Philip was doing so well on this challenge. I litterally thought to myself “You’re a DH person. Your job is DH. And you can’t even complete a fucking daily DH challenge? (One that, by the way, you yourself invented to motivate your lazy ass???)”
Then I realized leafing through my progress printout that I had only restarted the challenge on the 20th of July and only little over a month had passed. In the meantime, I had made over 30 crosses on my
#100DaysofDH list. That means that I actually did complete the challenge practically every day except rest days about which I don’t (or at least shouldn’t) feel bad at all. My advice to you if you’re constantly questioning whether you’re doing enough, print out the template and track yourself, along with very short notes on what you did or maybe how many hours you worked on days where you where at it for really long. It’s a nice ritual and I will definitely keep doing it because it helps me realize how much I’m actually doing. That way, I can be nicer to myself and be more grateful.
Another type of challenge: 20h of Skateboarding
Also, I realized that what I really need or what really keeps me going during intense writing is learning something new that is totally unrelated to work and at best, also a physical activity. I of course still do bouldering but I’m very competetive so bouldering has been added stress for me lately. My high expectations for myself were already wearing me down with the dissertation, so not being my best at bouldering was even more straining. Which I probably wasn’t because I was stressed and suffering from low self-esteem in the first place. Crazy me.
However, I one day found myself in a store standing next to a 30€ skateboard and I had the impulse to buy it. I never learned to skateboard as a child but my surfing teachers (I only started two years ago, so I have a total of 2 weeks of surfing practice) told me it’s a good way of practicing surfing when you can’t go to the sea (thank you, Covid). So I bought the penny board and decided, I would do a “20h to learn anything” challenge. Not related to consecutive days but actually timing the amount of minutes or hours you put in. I’m nearing the end now. I didn’t have big goals either and I still don’t. Skateboard tricks never really interested me I just wanted to be able to cruise around on it and have some fun and I did. This was one of the best, most fun and most successfully stress-relieving experiences I’ve had in this writing phase so far.
It was so great to take my mind off things and have something I can remain excited about something. It’s so important for me as a person to have something that makes me light up or I’m just not myself. I think the problem at the end of the dissertation is that it has become so tedious that you run out of passion for your topic. That’s exhausting and makes it really hard to get the work done. Doing something new where there’s nothing at stake (except falling from the board maybe) was a real relief for a change.
This was it from me. What a long ramble!
How do you guys track progress and keep yourselves motivated?
See you soon,