Let the calendar decide

Bacon Cheeseburger and Teriyaki Burger - The H... Oliver Burkeman writes the weekly This Column Will Change Your Life for the UK Guardian. The column is a brief, cheeky, well-researched survey of self-help topics of all sorts, from philosophy to life hacks. Burkeman is himself an author of a self-help book that is on my personal wishlist.

He had an interesting confluence of topics recently: one on “triple constraints” and one on adopting a 12-week, rather than 12-month, perspective on goal-setting.

The “iron triangle” is that eternal triad of choices from which only two can be selected. The classic triple constraint is “You can have it fast, good, or cheap. Pick two.” Burkeman lists constraints for other domains, such as home cooking (“tasty, nutritious, or easy to make”) and vacations (“exotic, cheap, or relaxing”). Resources are limited and choices have to be made. As Burkeman says,

…[H]istory is littered with the corpses of businesspeople and politicians who foolishly thought they could ignore [the triple constraint]. Respect it, on the other hand, and even the sky may be no limit. When JFK promised to get a man on the moon within a decade, he wisely didn’t also promise to get it done cheap.

But the triple constraint isn’t the only model for this kind of choice theory. David Sedaris writes about meeting a woman who went to a management seminar where she was told that everyone has four burners in life: family, friends, work, and health. Turn off one of those burners, and you’re a success. Turn off two of those burners, and you’re a big success. The woman Sedaris described had chosen to focus on work and friends — and she was a big success.

James Patterson wrote about juggling five balls: family, friends, health, spirit, and work. The work ball is made of rubber while the others are made of glass. If you drop the work ball, it’ll bounce right back. But if you drop any of the other balls, they’ll scuff or scratch or shatter permanently.

As Burkeman says, the idea is to realize that you can’t have it all, that life is about trade-offs and you have to make choices. But some people, when faced with this menu of choices, paralyze themselves and decide not to choose. And because they refuse to choose, they may endure suffering worse than the momentary pain of having to give something up. Even if the giving up is only for a little while. And so instead of moving forward even a little bit, mindful of constraints, they choose to stay in place.

Is there a way to make that choosing easier? In an earlier column, Burkeman described the psychology of the “goal-looms-larger effect”: that burst of extra energy you get finishing all that work just before leaving on vacation. By the same token, the further away a goal is, the less urgent it appears and so the less hard you work towards it. This inclines us to slack off and think, “Oh well, that’s months in the future — I’ll start tomorrow. Or next week.”

The 12-Week Year argues that a year is simply too long of a timeframe to work with. The goal is so far away that one never feels the emotional juice to run toward it. And too many unpredictable events — health crises, home emergencies, sick family members — over the course of a year that you can’t predict or plan around.

So the authors instead suggest breaking the calendar year into smaller 12-week “years.” Scale your goals and tasks to fit inside that smaller box, create a list of weekly tasks that you can check off, and you stand a greater chance of meeting your scaled-down “annual” goals. By the end of the calendar year, you’ll have likely accomplished far more than if you’d spread the work out over the standard 12 months.

This isn’t a new idea to me. JD Meier, in his book Getting Results the Agile Way, and on his Sources of Insight blog, has long recommended adopting three major accomplishments for the year, each quarter, each month, each week, and each day. It’s not hard to see how one can take a large goal, such as losing weight or finding a new job, and then break those big amorphous goals down into smaller, more concrete quarterly, monthly, weekly, and daily tasks. The 12-Week Year authors have taken that chunking-down idea and packaged it in a smarter way. (I’ve not read their book, so I’m sure they’ve added their own flourishes and enhancements to the process, too.)

So maybe one way to reconcile oneself to tough choices — whether triple constraints, four burners, or five juggling balls — is simply to timebox. Pick a period of time — whether it be 12 weeks, from now till July 4th, from March 15 to April 15 — make the hard choice and try it out. Play with it. Leave one of the burners off, drop one of the balls. You can do it knowing that it’s possible to pick them up again in the next time period. This way, you can rotate through each area of focus throughout the year, knowing that your choice is both firm and not forever.

This reminds me also of Steve Pavlina’s “one week on, one week off” idea, which he attributes to Napoleon Hill. Go full out for an entire week — writing, programming, cooking — and then take the next week off.

These issues are alive to me at the moment because, of course, I have choices to make and focus is sometimes hard for me to achieve. Too many wonderful things to do, not enough time for everything I’d like to do, and no optimal blend that will balance everything on a daily basis. So the solution that bubbles up for now is to not try to balance things. Pick an area or project, focus on it during my evening project-time, and let go of those things that don’t fit in the timebox. When the project is done or at a place where it can be maintained with minimal effort, then see what else in my life needs that attention. Look for balance in the long-term.

That’s the plan, anyway. We’ll see how it goes.


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If you have concluded that “Ignorance is bliss” and prefer to cater to your perverted appetite with your favorite predigested food, which is so tempting, so sweet in the mouth, so easy to gulp, so smooth to swallow, so stimulating, and so fashionable, then lay this book aside until you have learnt through disease and pain that it pays to adopt the natural and moral diet.

Two or three things I know for sure, kinda sorta

In all the year-end roundups on the various blogs, I enjoyed David Cain’s 16 things I know are true but haven’t quite learned yet. I already knew and practice #2 but several, like #s 1, 3, and 6 – I still struggle with those. (But substitute MacBook for smartphone.) It made me think of a few things I know that I am still learning are true for me.

  • Getting up earlier makes my day go better. I’ve known this for years: getting up early, giving myself time to wake up, exercise, read, etc. makes me feel on top of the day. I simply feel less rushed when I’m able to do self-care, write, make a leisurely breakfast, etc. and so, when the world descends on me, I’m in a better mood overall.
  • It’s about systems and processes, not goals. Relatedly, as I’ve been reading  for years from Scott Adams and Ramit Sethi, I need to put systems and habits in place to increase the chances that I’ll do what I want to do. I’ve restarted my 3x/week kettlebell workout and it’s good to know that’s pretty much on auto-pilot. But I don’t have a routine or system for those nights when I wake up at 3am or never fall asleep at all. I want to improve my sleep habits this month because I usually end the week feeling more and more tired, and this affects my mood.
  • One thing at a time. One of my issues with my sleep schedule is that there’s always more I want to read, write, see, do, tidy up, etc. before going to bed. I simply can’t stop adding one more thing to the pile. Do I try to tweak that habit first? Or should I set a firm wake-up time? Maybe both? Maybe start clearing the decks earlier in the evening and turning off the computer by 9pm?  And this isn’t the only issue on my mind: what about my creative projects? My career? But fixing my sleep habits isn’t enough, I need to start that freelance thing. And buy the food for that diet and work out the meal plan for each day of the week. And look at all those novels I’ve put off reading! And so it goes…I know that there are 374 barns that are burning and my mind wants to take care of them all. But picking one habit to establish or one project to work on, and minimizing the multitasking – letting the barns burn because they aren’t really burning, are they? – usually makes my life better.
  • Getting started #1: Use time-boxing to break down a project. I sometimes don’t start doing things because I don’t have the minimum 4.6 hours required to do it properly. What I’ve found at work is that small time boxes of 5 minutes, incrementing to 10, then 15, etc. are enough to help me just wallow in the material for a while till patterns start to emerge. Mark Forster’s book Get Everything Done and Still Have Time to Play has some good time-box patterns, like 5-10-15-20-25-30-25-20-15-10-5, which means you wind up working for several hours but it doesn’t feel like several hours. Often, it’s little tricks like this that can break a creative block for me.
  • Getting started #2: Lower my standards. The first draft doesn’t need to be the final draft. Do it messy and clean it up later. Another workaround for my procrastination/perfectionism. I heard this advice from the poet Robert Bly on Bill Moyers’ “The Language of Life” series.
  • It’ll all be OK. Worry and anxiety feel like the background radiation to my life sometimes. A career coach told me one time that my personality type – INTJ – likes having a problem to solve. And if I don’t have a problem, then it will create one. Actually, my life is blessed and I want to spend some time this year recognizing that fact and reveling in it.

  • If it feels bad, I’m doing it wrong. This goes for sex and most other things in life. My first coach, PJ Eby, said this a lot and it’s one of his many comments that swim up from memory. I often accept feeling bad as “that’s how it’s supposed to be.” Well, no – if I’m hurting from the kettlebell swings, then I need to go back to basics. If I’m freaking out when I cook a meal, then maybe I need to lower my standards and take my time and renegotiate with myself what I’m trying to accomplish. If I’m feeling bad, it’s me making me feel bad.

  • I like to take my time. One of my favorite analogies for my time in the PhD program was that I felt like I was yelling at a tree to grow faster. Except I was yelling at myself. Today, for example, I gave myself very few things I had to do. I also gave myself time to do the things I needed/wanted to do at the pace I wanted to do them.
  • Reading books does good things for me. On our recent trip to Florida, I had some books on my Kindle and a hardback of How to Live. I would take a morning to drink my  coffee and read a chapter in the Montaigne book, which required relaxed and focused time. Reading a book can slow my mind down so it isn’t racing so often. And, books just have a heft that all the web pages I read cannot approach.
  • Creating stuff feels good and is its own reward. I’ve noticed that when I’m not writing stuff – even blog posts – my mood darkens. Exercise helps my mood, sure, as does sleep. But sitting down to write a post or a story or even a letter to a friend makes me feel more useful and complete.
  • It’s about creating and maintaining. Cairene, a coach I worked with a few years back, makes this excellent point. When life is all about maintenance, life gets dreary. When life is all about creating, the dirty clothes and dishes pile up and the car doesn’t get inspected. You need to come to an agreement with maintenance and find ways to do the drudge things that have to be done so you can free up the time and energy and attention to do the creating you want to do. For productivity nerds like myself, coming up with reminder systems for maintenance is fun but they can quickly take on a grotesque life of their own. The maintenance is there to support the creation, not the other way around.
  • I know enough. I am enough. My friend Mike and I sometimes help out friends with their computers or writing projects. We’re usually surprised that others don’t know what we consider to be basic information. It’s easier for me to berate myself for what I don’t know and haven’t done. But it may be that, for the things I want to do in 2014, I already have all the information, time, and energy I need.

I also find it sad that because his book is filled with a whole bunch of nonsense, that’s why it’s a bestseller; that’s why we’re talking. Because that’s how you get on the bestseller list. You promise the moon and stars, you say everything you heard before was wrong, and you blame everything on one thing. You get a scapegoat; it’s classic. Atkins made a fortune with that formula. We’ve got Rob Lustig saying it’s all fructose; we’ve got T. Colin Campbell [author of The China Study, a formerly bestselling book] saying it’s all animal food; we now have Perlmutter saying it’s all grain. There’s either a scapegoat or a silver bullet in almost every bestselling diet book.

[audio http://tempblogfood.files.wordpress.com/2013/12/tumblr_lxb1uvnmyj1qz6f4bo1.mp3]


Kenneth Koch reading “You Want A Social Life With Friends“ (2000)

This was recorded by Amy Krouse Rosenthal, author of Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life. Here’s what she has to say about it:

One of my favorite poems appears in the book on page 144. It is called So You Want A Social Life With Friends, and it is by Kenneth Koch. In the fall of 2000, I had the privilege of recording Mr. Koch reading this poem in his Upper East Side apartment for an audio magazine project I was working on. I used a tiny Radio Shack tape recorder, and take full responsibility for the lack of high sound quality. (But I do admit I like the crackling and soundproof-lessness.) He was an impeccable, flawless reader—we were finished in two or three takes. Though he had been reluctant to agree to our session, once underway, he was a gracious, charismatic host. He had set up a nice tray with glasses of grapefruit juice. Fitting, because the whole thing was bittersweet. Mr. Koch died a year later. I believe this is one of his last recordings.

Amazing! One of my favorite poems, too.

It’s a cycle. You start a story, and it’s stupid. You don’t have any ideas. You’re washed up. Finished. And then you get a sliver of an idea, but it’s kind of dumb. Ugh. Then you start working it, and it becomes, oh, maybe. Alright. Yeah, I am going to finish this story. I did finish it! It’s not terrible! [Then] you don’t have any ideas. Is that what life is? It’s just a series of enacting the cycle. Lately, it’s become kind of wonderful to say, ‘Yeah, so now I’m at the point where I don’t have any ideas. Is is a crisis? No, it’s not a crisis. You’ve been here before. And maybe even you could enjoy that moment when you’re bereft of ideas… The goal would be to keep enacting that [cycle], live to 190, and put the period on the best story ever.

One of the things I learned about the world of art,” Teller says, “is there are people who really want to believe in magic, that artists are supernatural beings—there was some guy who could walk up and do that. But art is work like anything else—concentration, physical pain. Part of the subject of this movie is that a great work of art should seem to have magically sprung like a miracle on the wall. But to get that miracle is an enormous, aggravating pain.” To see Vermeer as “a god” makes him “a discouraging bore,” Teller went on. But if you think of him as a genius artist and an inventor, he becomes a hero: “Now he can inspire.

If I step back from it, then of course it’s complete nonsense. But I always think that it’s important that when you watch Doctor Who, you are completely invested in it. You’re emotional: wiping away a tear, frightened, laughing your socks off. All that stuff.

There’s a saying about fridge logic - that when you go to the fridge afterwards, you’re thinking ‘ah, that didn’t really work’. My response always to fridge logic is: who fucking cares? If you’re still thinking about it by the time you’ve got to the fridge, the show has already won.