The right mindset

Posted on September 11th, 2015 by The Erstwhile Developer

This is a tricky post to write as it addresses one of my own shortcomings: mindset. Getting, being and remaining in the right mindset to get my job done. I think that this inability to get into and remain in the right mindset is one of the biggest challenges I face day to day.

I’ve actually come up with a theory that a lot of this comes from hitting roadblocks, things that slow me down or prevent me from progressing at a pace that I find comfortable. When I hit a challenge, more often than not it will stop me dead in my tracks, this in turn leads me to become distracted or to give up too early - obviously bad things - and that’s something I want to change.

For me Java - learning Java - represents a good example of not being in the right mindset. I studied a bit of Java at university, I helped others implement payment processing systems in it during my first job, I spent a few weeks on a Java training course just before I moved to Australia, in fact, I’ve been exposed to the language in almost every role I’ve had and yet I still find it hard to get my head around. Every time I try I’ll get so far and then hit something that I find difficult and stop.  There many other examples too, way too many to list here but the theme is always the same, do something until it gets too difficult and then stop. This is all well and good if you’re trying to learn to rock climb, or do judo, or fencing or kite surfing (these are all activities I’ve failed to master) but when you’re talking about your work, about programming, leading, project managing, designing, then the implications of that mindset can really hold you back.

I’d be the first to admit that I’m a little skeptical when it comes to self improvement, management styles, and all that but I came across a few posts the other day that really resonated with me personally and I wanted to share it. It shows the difference between a fixed and a growth mindset:

  • http://milisaburns.com/2014/01/20/a-growth-mindset-why-we-all-need-one/
  • http://waitbutwhy.com/2013/10/why-procrastinators-procrastinate.html

There are a lots of elements in these posts that really resonate with me. Being persistent in the face of setbacks is one theme particularly true so I’ve been trying to understand why i have a tendency to lose focus give up.

My first impulse when I hit something challenging is to immediately divert my attention to something else whether that be clicking one of the tempting bookmarks in my browser, or nipping out to grab coffee, anything to delay having to jump into it. I have the same issue with cycling. At 5am the thought of getting up and going out on the bike is never appealing. Succumbing to the temptation to stay in bed is immediately satisfying but that satisfaction is short lived. What I get a lot more satisfaction from is actually getting up and taking the time to do the ride. It’s hard work - the people I cycle with tend to be fitter than me - but its always rewarding to see the gains in the long term. To try and overcome this when I find myself reaching for the bookmark bar or the snooze button, I consciously stop myself and to take a moment to address what I’m doing before and thinking about the implications of doing it. This sounds pretty stupid, but I’ve found it to be tremendously effective in keeping me on track with a particular piece of work. Real gratification comes from the long term gains of remaining focused and working though the challenges put in front of you. When I feel myself losing focus I try to remember that this short term frustration will likely result in a long term improvement in my abilities.

Something else that I’ve found useful in my work is to review each day in an attempt to gauge how I’ve done. I usually judge my days based on my mood i’m in at the end. If I come out of a days work with a bit of a buzz and a smile on my face then it’s likely that I’ve had a productive day, that I’ve managed to remain focused and that things have moved forward in a positive way. My worst days are those when I simply haven’t managed to get things together, where I’ve procrastinated, faffed and generally wasted time and have come out at the end of the day with very little to look at positively. The questions I ask myself are things like “What was the best part of your day?” and “What went wrong today and how can you make sure it doesn’t happen again?”. These questions allow me to focus on the good and the bad, and see what learnings I can take from my actions.

Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results
Einstein 

When I’m faced with a challenge I have a bad tendency to work over one particular aspect of it again, and again, and again until I conclude that it’s impossible or that I am incapable of solving it. My mind becomes like a broken record and it’s because I’m not being logical in the way that I address the problem; I’m being erratic. To try and address this I spend time stepping back and then walking through the problem bit by bit until I can understand the way forward. I like to talk these step out, actually out loud, not in my head, - yes it makes me look crazy - I also like to spend the time writing down the steps to try and persist through and find the root cause of the problem at hand. Talking to people also helps but I’m very conscious of other peoples need to focus so I am actively trying to do this less.

For some unknown reasons, challenges make me think in arguments. Maybe It's a product of my deranged and sleep deprived imagination but rather that thinking through the factual points of a particular problem I find myself in imaginary arguments with various stakeholders; Insults fly, witty remarks are rebuffed and my focus shifts out of productivity and into cloud cuckoo land. Nothing productive ever comes from these flights of fancy. My way of addressing this is the same as above. Take a step back. Talk through things logically and if needs be write down the steps. As an additional measure, I like to remind myself of “seeking first to understand” this often helps me to shift out of imaginary argument mode and into something more productive.

All this is a very roundabout way of saying that I think that having the right mindset is an important part of growing both inside and outside of work. I feel that I’ve been guilty of having a fixed mindset far too much in the past and I’m actively working to change that. I’m trying to remember that things like intelligence and achievement the product of hard work, focus and the right mindset. Maybe this has always been obvious to you or perhaps you struggle with some of the problems that are associated with having a fixed mindset. If you’ve got other tools that you use to address these issues I’d love to hear about them.

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