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Soft re-entry

If you find yourself gritting your teeth and trying to muster up all of your self-discipline and determination in order to start doing something, it’s probably worthwhile to consider whether what you really need is to take the opposite approach. Around here, we call it soft re-entry. Imagine yourself, say, training a puppy rather than metaphorically kicking open the saloon doors, antagonizing all the patrons, and potentially starting some kind of gunfight.
We originally wrote this post for our 2019 summer Studio Scholars, so it’s framed in terms of summer’s specific weirdnesses, but the concept of soft re-entry turns out to be really helpful at all times of year and in all kinds of contexts.

Whereas the struggle to clear space for writing during the school year is often about competing work demands, summers tend to involve more travel, houseguests, stretches without child care, and other “opportunities” to practice transitioning in and out of work mode. And that, in turn, can create an especially infuriating combination of feeling really lazy/unmotivated and really anxious. There’s also a slightly different variation in which somehow when you get up in the morning it feels like you have plenty of time, but at the end of the day or the week you freak out at how little time is left … only to forget it again the next morning … until suddenly you actually don’t have any time left.

All of these feelings create fertile ground for procrastination, and at the same time, make the stakes feel really high.

One thing we see often is people investing a lot of energy and hope in the idea that they will come charging out of the gate and keep up that pace. That is a great Plan A and it definitely works sometimes. If you’re in a position where it will work for you, do it!

The problem (as with many things) is that it can be debilitating when Plan A doesn’t work, and in fact it can set you way back. Either you try it and you feel defeated when it doesn’t work, or you never feel entirely ready to come charging out of the gate and you postpone it for one more day, over and over again. So—as with many things—it helps to have Plan B, or at least Plan A version 1.1, right there at the ready. (We are big fans of all the ways of working in a Plan B frame of mind and wrote about a whole ’nother variation here.)

And in fact in this case I usually suggest that people go directly to Plan B.

Plan B is what I call soft re-entry. The idea is that you start off, not guns ablazin’, but gently. You can grow momentum as fast as you want after that. Just make the first thing something easy. Tell yourself that on Monday morning (or whenever it is) you’ll just clean off your desk and open the document you plan to work on. Or make a list of the things you want to do. Or, if you have a substantial draft going, just reading what you’ve already written is a great starting point.

You can totally be a superhero and keep going after that if you want. But you’ll still be a regular hero if you don’t keep going. The important thing is to do something—and preferably also to be at least somewhat cheerful about it.

Laura is currently training her puppy Eevee to hold a sit position until she’s given her release word. As you’d expect, over the long term this training involves getting her to hold a sit for a very brief period and then gradually increasing the duration, distance, and distraction challenges. Over the short term, (1) they don’t start right where they left off during the previous session; they basically start at the beginning, “warm up” quickly, and then advance from there; and (2) Laura’s main frame of mind is to push gently on Eevee’s resilience, while also—always—setting her up for success. This is reward-based dog training 101, recognized as optimal not only because it’s the most compassionate approach but also because it’s the most effective one. Those two guidelines for building that behavior are basically no-brainers when it comes to dogs. We read them, and they seem pretty obvious. Of course it doesn’t slow things down to start at the beginning each time; they just escalate faster to get to the highest-performing level. And of course we want to tee it up for Eevee so she’ll succeed virtually every time, which won’t measurably slow her progress down, but will measurably increase her confidence—which again, is very obviously a clearly important outcome.

But humans don’t tend to apply these rules to ourselves. We worry that if we set the bar too low on Day 1, we’ll slow ourselves down forever—as if we’ll never make up what we lost on that first day—or that we’ll be establishing standards that are too low. We at AWS feel reasonably confident that of the people who said that on Day 1 of their work they were going to start by reading their most recent draft of their article, and then went ahead and did that, pretty much no one, ever, went on to be like “welp, I guess I don’t need to do more than that kind of thing on subsequent days.”

We’re also reasonably confident that of the people who say that on Day 1 of their work they’re going to start by working for 8 hours and really setting a perfect tone for the remaining days, a significant number end up being disappointed, and that whole approach backfires on them because they feel shittier at the end of the day, not better. And seriously, even if you did manage to accomplish that, it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to sustain that roll. You want to feel like you’re getting better at getting your stuff done, not like your glory days began and ended on Monday. So start off by cutting yourself some slack.

Academics generally feel like they are weeks, months, or even years behind where they’d like to be in their work, so it can be hard to embrace the idea of not just hitting your work as hard as you possibly can, as soon as you have the opportunity. But there are several very compelling reasons to pull back from that impulse, even just a little bit.

Think about the last time you transitioned from a period of time when you weren’t working on your research to a chunk of time when you were. How did the first day go? What was the relationship between the intentions you set for yourself and what ended up happening? How did you feel about yourself and your work on the first day, and how did that carry over into the days that followed?

Some people’s answers to those questions will validate that their approach was effective. And that’s fabulous! Don’t mess around with what’s working for you. But if your responses to those questions give you pause, consider seeing how a soft re-entry works for you (or even just a softer one). It might be that what your self-discipline most needs is for you to cut yourself some slack.