Practice

The Practice of Identifying Tolerations

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!

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