I think when it comes to love, we are too willing to accept the short version of the story…I would propose we ask some more difficult questions, questions like: How do you decide who deserves your love and who does not? How do you stay in love when things get difficult, and how do you know when to just cut and run? How do you live with the doubt that inevitably creeps into every relationship, or even harder, how do you live with your partner’s doubt?

Mandy Len Catron

I seem to be on a streak of finding new questions that are absolutely interesting and worthwhile and entirely without easy answers. Most recently I watched a TED Talk by Mandy Len Catron, who wrote an article in the New York Times about a study I’ve written about before: Dr. Arthur Aron had complete strangers ask each other increasingly intimate questions, followed by staring into each others eyes for four minutes. The results were significant levels of affection between the participants – to the point where two of them got married.

Ms. Catron tried that experiment as well, and guess what? Science happened, and she did, in fact, fall in love with her friend that she was trying it out with (I wonder if perhaps doing this experiment with someone who is already a friend makes it more easy to fall in love). She wrote about it in the Times, the article went viral, and as she began to be asked about it, she was continually faced with the same question:

“Are You Still Together?”

It’s kind of a funny thing. Lots of other experiences we have with the expectation that they will be temporary: roller coasters. Most jobs that lead to retirement. Books. Movies. Thanksgiving. Vacation. And when people ask about these things, they tend to ask about the quality of the experience: Did you have fun? Was it good? Did you enjoy it? Yet if people find out that you fell in love and then learn that you are no longer together, their response is almost always sympathetic, except when it’s bitterly triumphant. Oh, that’s too bad. You were too good for him anyway.

Why is that? Why do we cling to this idea that in order to be successful, love has to last forever? Especially when it won’t, no matter what – but to view the only “successful” love to be “til death do us part” is setting a pretty narrow and ridiculous bar. How about we change the narrative, whether they’re together or not? What is something you love about her? What was the last thing he did that made you smile? Tell me about something you laughed at together. Instead of jumping on what, admittedly, is usually the painful part – breaking up – why don’t we try helping people remember the good parts of the relationships?

I want the happy ending implied by the title to my article…But what I have instead is the chance to make the choice to love someone, and the hope that he will choose to love me back, and it is terrifying, but that’s the deal with love.

Mandy Len Catron

The clickbait-type headline is actually a bit of a cheat; while I do believe that if you can answer these three questions, you’ll be able to more clearly navigate through life, they aren’t easy questions. If they are multiple choice, it’s something like:

What Color is the Sky?

  1. Blue
  2. Azure
  3. Where?
  4. 50 Shades of – dammit, they really ruined that metaphor, didn’t they?

But I’ve come across these three simple questions relatively recently from various sources, and they do make me think deeper about life and help me respond rather than react to things that happen.

  1. “What is your why?” In an article about productivity (time management in particular) Chris Guillebeau quoted an interviewee: “It’s less about how do I find time and more about why do I find time. You’ll always find time for things that have a strong enough why.” There are lots of corollaries to this: finding ways to strengthen your why, discovering your inner why, etc. But if you’re looking for motivation to overcome procrastination – or perhaps wondering what to do next out of your giant humongous to-do list – finding the why could be a good start.

  2. “What kind of game do they think we’re playing?”
    This was from the excellent short read A Spy’s Guide to Thinking by John Braddock, formerly of the CIA (sorry, Dad). He talks about interactions with people that could possibly be adversarial, and recommends this question instead of the more traditional What is it they want? Instead, figure out if they are playing a zero-sum game (winner and loser), a positive-sum game (winner-winner), or a negative-sum game (everybody loses but the winner loses the least). It pairs well with what I’m reading in Finite and Infinite Games and Reality is Broken, and gives a different perspective and new strategies for interactions.
  3. “What do you get from it, what’s the comfort?” This was directly from a friend with whom I was discussing the idea of habits – both positive and negative. This is the question she recommended when changing a habit becomes difficult – either in the process of or in the aftermath of success. For example, if you are trying to stop eating desserts, rather than just slap on a rule – no desserts! – examining what it is you get from dessert gives you a different strategy. My nutritionist recommended, for example, having a piece of dark chocolate, mindfully eaten, instead of a sundae gobbled down in front of the TV. It fulfills the same gustatory need while being much more healthy. My friend termed that theory “inviting rather than pushing back.” But first you have to figure out the right invitation – much like herding cats.

There you have it. Three questions to ask in situations that, if answered correctly, will help you understand your circumstances better.

Good luck.

Last week we talked about the presence of tolerations in our lives and the ways we can identify them. I even talked a bit about what it was like when I “de-tolerated” a part of my life. It wasn’t “OMG AMAZING” but it wasn’t bad, either – a definite improvement.

I can’t give you much of an update on it, as I’ve been climbing trees in Maryland all weekend, but I’m betting that when I do get home late tomorrow afternoon I’ll look at my desk and there will be a little tinge of satisfaction – seeing it arranged in a way that works just for me.

I suspect that, like Tony Stark looking for a secret door, when I see those things just so, there will be a tiny “Yay!” inside my head.

Celebration Awareness

That’s the flip-side of tolerations: celebrations. And let’s not mix those up with “gratitude practice” or some “count your blessings” mantra. The former is a blatant attempt to reprogram your mind, and the latter is somewhere between religion and privilege awareness. None of that is bad – but no what I’m talking about.

Celebrations, like tolerations, are tiny aspects of your environment, consciously or unconsciously put there, that make your life more enjoyable. The feeling of a favorite coffee mug. The balanced feeling of a familiar yoga pose. Getting into a car you like, looking out of a window to the landscape of the place you call home. Any of these can be celebrations.

Like tolerations, they can be easy to miss. But just as tolerations take advantage of a lack of slack, celebrations are a buffer against shocks – recognizing them can help you shrug off the next bad thing that comes your way, rather than let it slide you that much closer towards a bad mood.

Take a quick check now: around you, what celebrations do you see? If you don’t see enough, or any, that means one of two things: either you’re out of practice (and need to get better) or else you have some work to do.

A reading of posts from Sept. 21-25, 2015 on “Love. Life. Practice.” .

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New Episode of the Love Life Practice Weekend Roundup Podcast!

There’s an important reason that I didn’t talk about tolerations (gosh-durn-it, I still like “micro-annoyances” better) being applied to people. There’s a couple of reasons for that: one is that something that seems endearing one moment may seem unbearingly irritating the next, and even further down the road may seem wistfully nostalgic (especially if the person or relationship is gone).

The other reason is simply because hinging your own happiness or peace of mind on the behaviors or habits of others is not a very efficient way to manage your moods. It’s much more practical to focus on things that you have control over: your actions and your responses. Notice I did not say “your feelings” or “your reactions”. No matter how much you work at it, your neurochemistry is faster than your conscious thought. We’d like to think the sequence of events is Something happens – Decide how to react – React but it’s actually more like Something happens – React – Rationalize and justify the reaction.

I know, it’s annoying. But it’s also science.

On the other hand, we can be pro-active about it. We can decide that we’re going to create little bubbles of joy in other people’s lives. Random acts of kindness – holding the door for someone with their hands full, smiling non-aggressively, moving over to let someone pass you. Yes, yes, the big things are good too – donating to charity, writing a recommendation, endowing a scholarship.

But those are typical things. What if instead of being typical, you were a kindness superhero? Where you identified places where tolerations might be sneaking up on people and then find ways to zap them away? One of my favorites – instigated by my stashbelt, in fact – is to leave a bigger-than-usual tip for someone in the service industry.


courtesy CharlieFace via DeviantArt

What’s the Ninja Got to Do With It?

I recommend that whatever acts of joy you commit you do in stealth mode. Why? Much like the reasons I mentioned above: if you’re doing things to elicit a specific reaction from someone else, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment. Think of the perfect act of joy being the one that the person never actually realizes happened – you made their life so much better that they never even knew it could go wrong. Truly skilled you are, Jedi of Love!

The other reason is because you get the benefit of your intent. If something doesn’t work out then if someone knows what you’re trying they may be disappointed. On the other hand, you know that you had that intention – and that in itself can make you feel pretty gosh-darned good.

I hope you go into this weekend with an eye for opportunities for being a Superhero Ninja of Joy. Because tolerations are out there everywhere, just waiting to pounce – and that’s intolerable.


The De-Tolerated Life

Shortly after writing my post about de-tolerating your environment, I took on the elements of my desk that were most aggravating me:

  • I dusted the swords on top.
  • I found a better place for my glasses.
  • I used an old IKEA shelf as a cord manager.
  • I found better homes for both my hard drives and for my fancy poker chips.

And that meant that when I sat down at my desk, those five things that had been bothering me were gone. That meant that I could work in idyllic peace having achieved my productive utopia, yes?

No. But, Kinda.

See? Tragedy begets beauty! Promise. (not).

See? Tragedy begets beauty! Promise. (not).

Here’s the thing: much like the point of this blog, which is practical tools to make hard times happier, the point was not to make everything perfect- it was to make everything better. To create a bit more of a buffer between me and the shocks that may come, and increase the “slack” available in my work environment. Think of it as the “broken-window theory” writ small.

The thing is, I actually had a physical manifestation of it working while I was making the changes. You see, I had a cup of coffee on my electric mug warmer, and while fiddling with the cables and such I knocked it over – spilling it across my desk. Thankfully not across anything that would have been damaged, but it was my last cup of coffee, and it was exactly the kind of thing that would make someone swear, decide it was a bad day, throw up their hands and yell out “F*** MY LIFE!” in First-World angst.

At least, that’s how sometimes react. Maybe it’s just me. I certainly started to react that way – it’s that whole “amygdala responds first!” thing, and given the choice of fight, flight, or freeze, I tend to lean towards the former – which is why anger management was the first life hack I experimented with. I felt the surge of adrenaline, I felt the flush of anger – and then I laughed, because how silly would it be to get angry while you’re doing things designed to de-stress your environment? Ridiculous!

I chuckled, I got a towel, I cleaned up the coffee, and finished arranging the cables. The shelf is wonderfully convenient while hiding the cables I do use, and the tray for my glasses is both convenient and aesthetic. They are tiny things, and no, they haven’t made my life the perfect incarnation of workplace bliss – but life is made up of tiny things, many of them, and every one I can improve also improves me for the trying.

How about you? Any tolerations you’ve banished? How did it go?

OK, I give up. I like the term “microannoyances” and also “microaggravations”, but it turns out that the concept has been already more eloquently labeled by no less than the father of life-coaching, Thomas Leonard. He called them “tolerations“, and I suggested in my last post that you take a look around at the things that you don’t love. To put it in a KonMari context, the question was: what things in your environment do NOT bring you a spark of joy?

An image of my messy corner desk.

Puzzle Time! How many tolerations can you find in this picture?

I’m going to thrust myself into the role of guinea pig here, and take my immediate environment (my desk at my house) and do a quick catalog of the tolerations:

  • The top of the desk is dusty, and in fact there’s a spiderweb stretching from the tip of the antique sword that I have up there.
  • I have several power cables stretching from behind my monitor to things like my iPhone and other devices. It’s convenient, but the messy chaos bugs me.
  • There are three hard drives stored under the desk that are haphazardly set there, some not even plugged in.
  • The fancy poker chip case I bought with the idea of “poker nights” is leaning against the side of the desk; ditto my yoga mat and new zabuton. All of these need better places.
  • I switch between my reading glasses and my “regular” glasses during the day. There’s not an easy way to store them, and switch between.

That’s it. If your response to these is What’s the big deal? that’s exactly the point. That’s exactly the power of tolerations. They seem so tiny, so insignificant, that just about anything seems more important than actually dealing with them. And when things are going great, they really have very little power at all. When we are coming from a place of strength and happiness, dismissing them is not a problem.

It’s when things are not going great that they suddenly loom large. When we’ve had a bad day, and we are using all of our willpower to keep from just losing it or giving up. We run into decision fatigue, working hard to counter all of the shocks that come with a “bad day”, and as Sendhil Mullainathan put it, we run out of slack to handle shocks:

“Many systems require slack in order to work well. Old reel-to-reel tape recorders needed an extra bit of tape fed into the mechanism to ensure that the tape wouldn’t rip. Your coffee grinder won’t grind if you overstuff it. Roadways operate best below 70 percent capacity; traffic jams are caused by lack of slack. In principle, if a road is 85 percent full and everybody goes at the same speed, all cars can easily fit with some room between them. But if one driver speeds up just a bit and then needs to brake, those behind her must brake as well. Now they’ve slowed down too much, and, as it turns out, it’s easier to reduce a car’s speed than to increase it again. This small shock—someone lightly deviating from the right speed and then touching her brakes—has caused the traffic to slow substantially. A few more shocks, and traffic grinds to a halt. At 85 percent there is enough road but not enough slack to absorb the small shocks.”

The tiny shock of a toleration can be the prototypical straw that breaks your camel’s back. More than that, if you continue to “tolerate” – that is, don’t fix these tiny things – they add up. To continue the camel theme, it’s like the tale of the Bedouin in the sandstorm, whose camel asks to take shelter in his tent. Just a nose at first, then the eyes, then the ears, then the neck…and then the tent collapses, and both of them are getting dusty. Tolerations are even more insidious: I really should find a better place for my glasses. Yeah, but those cables are a mess – I’ve been meaning to fix those even longer. Wait, I have to finish this blog post first! I’ll do it later… The super-power of tolerations is their projected Field of Procrastination that keeps them alive.

Tolerations’ Kryptonite

The funny thing is, it’s really easy to overcome the power and danger of tolerations. Simply take action. For example, while I have been writing this post, my pomodoro timer told me it was time for a break. I used that break to dust the top of the desk, set up a nice tray for my glasses (and a handy cleaning cloth), and put away the poker chips in the obvious place (with the rest of the toys and games). Desk tolerations reduced 60% in five minutes! One nice thing about making that “list” of tolerations is that you often have a easy way to give yourself a string of productivity victories when you need a pick me up. That big project seems overwhelming? Pick out three tolerations to vanquish, and then see how it feels. Ditto for when you can’t think of what to do next (a common occurrence when your to-do list is long).

What happens when you start eliminating these tolerations? Well, what you’re doing is creating a buffer, some slack for those “shocks” that will happen. You’re improving your quality of life – but that’s a Wednesday topic, and one that I’m going to again use myself as the experiment. As soon as this post is done, the cables and hard drives get sorted, and we’ll spend a couple of days with a “de-tolerated” desk. I’ll let you know what happens!

Gray gives a rebuttal to Henry Wismayer's "Cynic's Guide to Writing the Perfect Medium Post", tries to puzzle out the difference between constraints and boundaries, and begins a series of posts on "micro-annoyances."

Gray gives a rebuttal to Henry Wismayer’s “Cynic’s Guide to Writing the Perfect Medium Post“, tries to puzzle out the difference between constraints and boundaries, and begins a series of posts on “micro-annoyances.”

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New Episode of the Love Life Practice Weekend Roundup Podcast!

A while back I mentioned the idea of “micro-annoyances” here on the blog, planning on following up on them later. Today’s the day!

In case you don’t have time to click the link, the idea of “microannoyances” is working alongside the term “microaggression”, defined as:

…the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership.

That’s a whole bunch of social and historical stuff that is, happily, not the province of this post. Instead, the idea of microannoyances is something like the “the everyday environmental irritations that register consciously or unconsciously based solely upon the systems and environment a person inhabits.

I want to be clear: I’m not talking about things people do. That’s a whole other thing! I’m talking about things like my old coffee cup.

I loved that coffee cup. I bought it when visiting a mentor and friend in San Francisco, and it was expensive. It also didn’t work terribly well. It didn’t hold very much coffee, the base was too wide to fit in most drink holders (including the one in my car), and the lid was prone to leak. Actually, there were two lids, one to seal it up tight (i.e., only leak sometimes) and one for when I was drinking coffee (i.e., leak and/or spill at the slightest provocation).

Oh, and did I mention that the perfectly cylindrical form meant that it would roll quickly and erratically across any flat surface, often spilling hot coffee everywhere? I learned to be extra vigilant when I used that coffee mug, because I never knew when things would go terribly wrong…

So the question becomes: why did I keep it? If it caused me that much stress, why did I keep it around?

The answer is: because I loved it. Or, rather, I loved what it represented to me.

The Shattering Desymbolizing

Kon-Mari-ing the kitchen helped me look at that travel mug in a different light. Did I really love the mug? Or did I love what it represented to me? The answer was pretty obvious: what I loved was my mentor, the things I’ve learned from her, the conversations and friendships we’ve had

By transferring that love to an annoying little object, I was actually tarnishing the affection. In fact, I was connecting it to a lot of stress, to inefficiency and worry and even scarcity (remember, it didn’t hold much coffee in the first place). Recognizing all of that as part of the KonMari process was pretty liberating.

As an added bonus, it was a gift from another friend, so there are happy thoughts associated with it as well.

Best. Travel. Mug. Ever.

It wasn’t just coffee mugs, of course. I did it with everything I owned. But the coffee mug makes a good example, because I got rid of every travel mug I owned except for two – one, the StoJo that I backed on Kickstarter and that makes plane travel immensely more convenient, and two, a Starbucks mug that is the exact opposite of that other one: it’s stable, it holds lots of coffee and keeps it hot forever, it’s stylish, it has a handle that doubles as a clip and it even can be configured for left-handers like me.

Can you imagine what a pleasure it is to drink coffee out of that mug? What a reversal of the experience

Monday I’m going to be recommending a practice, but for now, let’s just take a look around at your environment and ask: what don’t I love? What are the irritations that I overlook everyday, the things that drive me just a little nutty but don’t seem like enough to really take action against?


The list might be surprisingly long. Don’t worry about it; we’re not saying you have to do anything about it. Just being aware is enough.


For now.

Constraints vs. Boundaries

Brigadier General E.A. Cruickshank Reviewing Scouts, Calgary 1915

Ah, to return to those carefree happy days of Scouting…

One of the problems with being a dilettante personal-development blogger is that you come across things that seem amazing and new and intuitive – but they end up being things that have been around for decades. For example, I recently read of the story of Herbie the Boy Scout from The Goal by Eli Goldratt. The book is a novel about productivity written decades ago. The particular vignette about Herbie is an illustration – a parable within a parable, really – illustrating the Theory of ConstraintsOur hero, Alex, is in charge of getting a group of Boy Scouts on a hike up and down a mountain in time for supper. As Slate writer Seth Stevenson summarizes:

 Alex notices that the single-file line of scouts never manages to maintain consistent spacing. Instead it always spreads out, with the speedy kid at the front zooming out of sight. I found myself shouting in my living room, “The fat kid is the bottleneck! The fat kid is the bottleneck!” And indeed, once Alex realizes this, he sees that the group as a whole can only move as fast as poor little Herbie, the chubby scout who’s clogging things up in the middle of the line…So Alex puts porky Herbie at the front of the line and distributes everything in Herbie’s backpack to the other kids, lightening his load. The faster kids behind have no problem keeping up with leader Herbie, which means they won’t pant and run out of steam while hustling to maintain the pace.

Now, fat-shaming aside (note to Seth: as an experienced Boy Scout and guide, it’s not always the overweight that are the slowest) the point of the parable is two-fold:

  1. Rather than try to make people do things they can’t (walk as fast as the fastest scouts) focus on the things they can (walk as fast as the slowest scout).
  2. If it’s true that you’re only as fast as your slowest member, then what you need to do is make your slowest member as fast as possible (in this case, by lightening his load).

I could think of a lot of other ways to get Herbie to go faster, some nice and some, I confess, leftovers from humps we did back in the Corps. The story was mentioned by David McKeown in Essentialism as an example of the way a single component (Herbie) became a constraint on the whole system – and by removing or improving the constraint, the entire system becomes better. McKeown suggests that it is a useful Essentialist tool to examine and look for constraints – in short, to remove problems rather than add solutions.

I’m still working on the idea of what, in my life, functions as a constraint. It’s hard to wrap my head around. Especially when it gets confused with another thing that’s designed to limit: boundaries. How can we tell the difference? Both are limits to action and/or attention.

Same Idea, Different Effect

I’m going to lay out what I think is the difference between a constraint and a boundary, but it starts with the idea that the former is a negative and the latter is a positive. That’s right, I’m putting value judgements on them! Take that! More than that, I’m going to use the metaphor of a big field: you are at one end, and that thing you want (to have, to be, to accomplish) is at the other end of the field. Both constraints and boundaries take the form of fences in this metaphor, which I admit is not very imaginative.*

Constraints are things that:

  • make the path to your goal longer and sap your energy.
  • lead you towards things that distract you from your goal.
  • make the path so confusing or blocked that it seems your goal is impossible.

Boundaries, on the other hand:

  • provide a more direct path to your goal, or even a shortcut.
  • help you focus on the goal, as well as the path to get there, keeping distractions at bay.
  • keep the path to the goal clear and understandable, so that it’s not only possible but inevitable.

That’s what I’ve got so far. Still having trouble figuring out what the actual constraints are; I keep on just coming back to bad habits, and it seems to me it’s the causes of the habits, not the actions themselves, that are the problem. Similar to the idea that it’s not Herbie that’s the problem, or even the speed Herbie can walk – the problem is the heavy pack that he’s carrying.


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