I am exempting myself from writing for yesterday because I was working on another (writing) project. There, I said it.

There are good data questions out there to ask. How many acres of land lie in the jurisdiction of Home Owners Associations and could be managed by grazing animals? How many job opportunities might open up this way, especially for students interested in non-traditional (or really, ultra-traditional) learning?

How many of these HOAs, or acres of suburban land, interface with wildland areas, i.e. lie within the Wildland Urban Interface? What is that, anyway, and how is it defined? How many gallons of pesticides would be not applied each year as a result of using targeted weed management with grazing animals? What would be the dollar value of that, directly, and indirectly, through saved healthcare costs? And what types of pesticides? Because it’s not just glyphosate, of course, but atrazine and 2,4-D and a bunch of other I-don’t-know-whats.

There are other questions, like how many acres of formerly good agricultural land are lying out there salinized and desertified, abandoned and unappealing for the purposes of crop production, but offer significant restoration potential and even grazing area, even if (initially) marginal? So many “how many acres” questions, which means: spatial analysis. Which means: QGIS, and integration with R to ask more complicated questions, and eventually, tying that together with some Python script to make things really move forward.

It’s hard to know what skills to work on. Do I perfect my writing (clearly that’s not going at lightning speed), or my data analysis, or animal handling skills? My plant knowledge and soil management? Pick away at each a little each day, or dedicate a whole day each week to one of each area? Unstructured learning, post- or ex-university, is notoriously, insidiously, and perhaps even invisibly difficult: I didn’t even realize how difficult it is until now, 6 1/2 years post-MSc., I realize that by not structuring and planning my learning in some way, I haven’t really been learning much at all. I’ve been collecting stones here and there but never laying out the pattern, creating a plan with goals and checkpoints, targets, deliverables.

This whole pelvic injury thing is proving good for that. In a week, if I do my Three Things each day – PT exercises, guitar practice, and writing – then I get to buy myself a reward. I’m not going to say what it is, exactly, but it’s one that gives me a push forward. In other words, with that reward I can progress a little bit faster, build a little more strength, and have more fun doing it. In the past (okay, let’s admit it – currently, too) I rewarded myself with things that run directly counter to the goal. Finish off a great workout with a bowl of ice cream, because I elevated my metabolism enough to burn it off, right? Or finish a piece of writing late at night with a piece of chocolate, that will wire me up and make it hard to sink into a deep, comfortable sleep that would make the next day go even better. So often we work against ourselves without even realizing it.

So going forward, I have a few rules about rewards:

  1. They’re small, frequent, and regular. They have to come every couple of weeks, max. Small and numerous, with an occasional nice, big, fat reward to sink my teeth into and really celebrate.
  2. They’re proactive. Build positive feedbacks. Like the gadget I’m getting myself for doing my physical therapy every day for a week, rewards need to contribute to positive feedback loops: they make moving forward easier, rather than setting us back (like post-workout ice cream); and they make it more enjoyable, so that we’re likely to move forward faster.
  3. They’re shared. I tell others about my upcoming rewards. We celebrate small wins. I support others’ successes and reach out to them to help me support mine. Joy multiplies when shared, so I tell others about the rewards I’m working towards. It makes me accountable, too. It also contributes to a culture of joyful, positive, affirmative action; of self-motivation and interpersonal support.

So going back to the data conversation: I need to build in a framework of small, tangible, frequent rewards for building those data analysis skills; I need to plan my learning, at least 3 to 6 months out, so I know what I’m aiming for; and I need to place it into a bigger context that lets me get a bird’s eye view of where it’s all headed, roughly, so I can course-correct when needed.

Plan, reward, work toward context. One step at a time.

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