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The Macaroni and Cheese Project

The Macaroni and Cheese Project
Macaroni and Cheese

If you live in a civilized nation (especially the United States), chances are you’ve had occasion to make yourself up a batch of Macaroni and Cheese. It’s something of a staple of young adult life, especially in college dorms where cash is scarce and any meal that costs less than $2 to make is just fine. And even though it’s a multi-step process, most people can hammer out a plate of this stuff with little effort after just a couple of attempts.

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Personally, I found the making of this pauper’s delicassie to be a rather excellent example of how to effectively manage a “project” (in the GTD sense, a set of two or more physical actions which produce a well-defined outcome). Here are a few tips to illustrate what I mean more clearly:

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  • Know your outcome – A bit overly simplistic when talking about Mac n’ Cheese, but something that’s often overlooked when planning a project. What is your goal, exactly? Or, to use the parlance of The David, what would the successful completion of this project look like? In this case, obviously, it’d be a steaming plate of cheap pasta with some cheese-like dressing all over it. The important thing is to avoid ambiguity when defining your project outcomes (like, for instance, “Learn to Dance”).
  • Be Prepared – You wouldn’t set out to make Mac n’ Cheese without the proper ingredients and utensils, would you? Selecting and gathering the appropriate tools and information needed to complete a project should be part of the project itself. If I decide to make Mac n’ Cheese, the first thing I’d do (beside actually getting the box from the grocery store) would be to make sure I have the milk and butter. Next, the sauce pot and strainer, and so forth. Again, sounds extremely obvious, but I know I’ve personally set out to complete projects for which I was absolutely ill-equipped! Like going and buying an orange tree to plant in my backyard without having ever verified that I had a functional shovel waiting for me (don’t laugh). When you choose that Next Action, make sure you’re actually ready to perform it when the time comes!
  • Spice it Up and Be Flexible – If you’ve committed yourself to learning how to program in Ruby, for instance, you don’t necessarily have to follow your Ruby text’s tutorial instructions exactly. If you come to a point where you’re thinking “I wonder if I can do [something]”, give it a shot! Same thing with our old Mac n’ Cheese. In addition to the normal “box” preparation, there are countless ways to trick out your meal (fresh ground pepper and a whole bunch of parmesan cheese – and thank me later). Bottom line, be ready for your project to take slight changes in direction based on intermediate outcomes or changes in priority. And you never know what enlightening little tidbits you’ll pick up if you manage your projects creatively!
  • Monitoring your Progress – Very few projects (especially Mac n’ Cheese) are “set it and forget it” operations. You need to keep an eye on the state of affairs to make sure no funny business is going down while your back is turned. How many overly-confident Macaroni chefs out there have overcooked the noodles because they were off reading RSS feeds? Or let the pot boil over because they didn’t adjust the post-boil temperature correctly? No, the conscientious cook knows that, after the first few minutes, you need to pull a noodle out every 30 seconds or so to see if they’re ready to come off of the heat. In a very bohemian sort of way, this would be like doing your weekly review – except you’re tracking the progress every few minutes instead of once per week.

Again, a somewhat silly example, but once you’ve allowed the GTD mindset to pervade all of your practices and procedures, it really is quite amazing how these principles will shine through, even from the most unlikely of situations!

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Brett Kelly is a computer programmer, coffee roaster and productivity geek from Southern California. In addition to driving his wife crazy, he also provides relevant, practical (and often humorous) tips on GTD, Technology and Productivity at The Cranking Widgets Blog (feed).

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Last Updated on July 17, 2019

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

What happens in our heads when we set goals?

Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

The Neurology of Ownership

Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

The Upshot for Goal-Setters

So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

Reference

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