500 Words, Day 15 / by dan turner

How do you spark motivation without a deadline or pressing to-do list? I asked this question on Twitter, and got zero responses. Perhaps I should have set a "reply by" time.

This can be a more acute condition for freelancers, but it can occur even when overemployed (say, juggling a full-time job with freelance work). In general, early symptoms include you feeling like you should get Getting Stuff Done while being unsure what constitutes said Stuff exactly, and what would let you know it's Done. This can result in complications such as Paralysis, Task Metastasis, Avoidance, and in some cases, Minor Self-Disgust. Maybe the last is just me.

When you're overemployed, this is a less chronic condition, because pretty soon someone will yell at you. And it's clearer what preventative actions you can take before things get to that point: break down large tasks into small ones (for example: "build a house" starts with "stand up from your desk"), figure out if team members are going to need anything from you and in what order, etc.

But when you're, say, freelancing (and in a young, Protean, and interdisciplinary profession such as UX), this condition can be both chronic and acute. You may need to prove to a prospective client any of a dozen competencies – or you may not know what you want to focus on when you grow up. You know there are basics to further master, and every day you see people doing amazing things with tools and processes you didn't know existed – so maybe you should hop on that, too! For example, in the last year I've started (though far from finished) CSS, JavaScript, jQuery Mobile, Python, the history of objectivity in journalism, data-driven journalism, color theory, The Functional Art, and countless specific apps and tools; I've also worked on sharpening skills in interaction design, ethnography, prototyping (see "countless specific apps and tools"), usability testing, presenting, and facilitating design teams. And those are just the known unknowns.

Even without the unknown unknowns, we're talking a serious paradox of choice. When I don't have a pending project, I've no idea which way to turn. It's all potential, and any choice might preclude another path taken. It can get existential up in here.

It's like Walker Percy's Hurricane Theory.

Why do people often feel so bad in good environments that they prefer bad environments?...Why is a man apt to feel bad in a good environment, say suburban Short Hills, New Jersey, on an ordinary Wednesday afternoon? Why is the same man apt to feel good in a very bad environment, say an old hotel on Key Largo during a hurricane?
— The Message in the Bottle

When, say, a baby is in peril, we are free to act because we know we must. But if we're hammocked on a sunny afternoon... what do we do when we don't have a "must"?

How do you figure out what you need to do when you don't need to do anything?

And that's 500 words.