Some Notes on Starting from Scratch
When was the last time you were a beginner at something?
For me, it’s been a while. I’ve enjoyed the experience of being not only good at most of the things I did but also so busy doing them that I really didn’t have a lot of time to do anything else. Often when I would delve into things that pushed the edges of my skillset – blues guitar, for example, or computer programming, or sketching – I would be enjoying myself right up until that little voice in my head said “Hey, dude, you gotta pay the rent, and this isn’t going to do that – better get back to what you’re good at.
And then I’d do that, and just accept that I “wasn’t very good” at whatever had momentarily distracted me from my Work That Paid the Bills.
Until, of course, the Work didn’t. Or, at least, not on a stable enough basis, and I realized – about a month or so ago – that I need to find a different Work.
In other words, I have to start over. Just shy of half a century old, and I’m looking at what we personal development types call a “career pivot.”
I’m starting from scratch, in other words, working on being a newbie, on building even the most basic skillset in a career field where there are shining stars and people who create things of such beauty and competence that I could just weep.
Me, I’m not quite at “adequate” yet. I’m a rank beginner.
The Space to Be a Beginner
There’s certainly a level of privilege involved in being able to do this. If I had four small mouths to feed, or an oppressive mortgage, I’d definitely not have the room to be a “beginner” – I’d need to find something that drew on my current skillset in a way that brought in immediate cash. The thing about that kind of work is that it rarely aligns directly with your personal goals and hopes – and that’s ok. That’s part of being an adult, accepting that there are needs and responsibilities beyond yourself.
I talking with some other people who had gone through similar transitions, and noticed a theme: regret. Given the choice between a “safe” career (whatever that means these days) and taking a chance on being bad at something for a while, even the people who took the safe route were wistful about what might have been. They never regret taking the “responsible, mature” route – they simply wished that could have included their dreams as well.
I’m at a point where I have some room to be a beginner…and I’m gratefully taking advantage of that, beginning to train as a graphic recorder – perhaps even, eventually, a graphic facilitator (at that point my expertise in facilitation may dovetail back into the job, but that’s a long way off).
It’s exciting. It’s interesting. It’s even fun, sometimes.
But it’s been a while since I’ve been bad at something. And it’s not a fun place to be.
The Discomfort of Conscious Incompetence
A social worker friend of mine framed things perfectly for me:
When you start something, you’re in a state of “unconscious incompetence.” You’re bad at it, but you don’t care, because you don’t know it – it’s just fun. Then as you learn more about it, you start to understand just where your weaknesses are – and you get into the state of “conscious incompetence” while you develop the skills but you know just how bad you are at them. That’s not a fun place to be.
That’s exactly it. The number of things I need to work on, the separate skillsets from “basics of lettering” to “dynamics of large-group facilitation” is daunting.
In case you’re wondering, there’s two more phases to what she was talking about. There’s the point where you are able to do the skills as long as you’re concentrating – that’s “conscious competence”. And past that is when you no longer have to think about it, you simply are good at a thing – “unconscious competence.” That’s where experts are, and why they often make the worst teachers – they forgot how hard it can be to do things, because it’s no longer hard for them.
I used to think I was pretty humble. Why, I was one of the most humble people I knew, especially within my demographic, because I was so humble that…Oh. Wait.
That’s been the side lesson in this new career path. It’s a crash course not only in accepting that there are things I am not good at but also that the things I need to learn are in spaces where I need to just shut up and listen to people smarter than me. We live in a culture that is pretty much designed so that people who look like me don’t have to be in situations like that. Our mythology – Iron Man, The Last Samurai, Laurence of Arabia, Tim Ferris – is that the True Man will not only learn the skills of the different cultures he visits, but he will excel at them, becoming a leader, and in a fraction of the time that most take to develop mastery.
This is not that story. I’m not going to fill these posts with shortcuts or three-step listicles* or clickbait titles.
But I will be talking about things like Deliberate Practice, and training habits, and the joy of developing better visual representations of abstract concepts. There will also be more than a little about markers, pens, paper, notebooks, and probably a lot of blue tape.
Beginner’s mind sucks. But it also carries with it all the anticipation of a long journey into an exciting and foreign land, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
* except for things that actually take three steps.
Breakups are hard.
Even good breakups are difficult — the ones where you both say “hey, this really isn’t working, let’s stop wasting time and energy and it’s agreed upon. Because any relationship that has ventured far enough into intimacy to where a break-up is possible did so with the hope of something. A hope of deeper connection, or security, or support, whatever it was, at the point where you stop trying to make it into that thing there is a sense of loss. A door closed, a possibility that is no longer.
And that’s unfortunate, because in order to get there in the first place, things had to change. Why can’t they change the other way?
Escalators Go Both Ways
Think about it: first you are strangers. You don’t know each other, because you haven’t met yet.
Then things change, because you meet. At that point you have become acquainted, which makes you acquaintances, and you may or may not like each other. Whether you do or not really doesn’t matter, because it’s not based on anything other than conditioned responses, biases, and good-old-fashioned biological imperatives.
Because you don’t know each other yet. But you may decide it’s worth finding out more, and so things change again. Maybe it’s dating, maybe it’s friendship, maybe it’s working together on some project, maybe it’s all three. But again, it’s a gradual thing, full of I never knew that about you and wow, me too! and thank you for sharing that.
If you’re into what’s known as “the relationship escalator”, the analogy is that things keep taking you higher. I’m not a fan of that metaphor, myself, because of the hierarchical nature and the way our society tends to equate height with virtue.
I’m also not fond of it because there’s this idea that you’re traveling up smoothly and that’s all good…but never an acknowledgment that escalators go down, too.
Taking a Journey of Love
Let’s try a different metaphor. Let’s call it the Love Road. When you start on the love road, you’re coming out of a comfy house — maybe it’s a prior relationship, maybe it’s your parents’ home, maybe it’s something else — but you find someone to go on the road with you, and in the beginning, the only shelter you have is the Car of Acquaintance. It’s a very easy thing to get in and out of, it can go a lot of places, but you don’t really spend a lot of time in it, and when you do you’re pretty alert for dangers.
Maybe at a certain point you decide it’s worth making a stop on the road to relax a little more. Maybe this is a tentative date, like pitching a tent overnight at a campground, or maybe it’s a more fancy place like a resort, but either way it’s just a temporary bit of fun, not a place you’d stay forever, or something sustainable. That’s when we’re putting our best face forward, trying to impress our partner but also trying to hide the imperfections that we fear will alienate them.
At some point we have to leave the resort, and get back on the road…but if that short respite was fun, it’s natural to think “Maybe we could do more of that…longer?
And that’s when you (in this metaphorical journey of love) rent a place together — you’re in a relationship, you’re not quite at that big commitment phase, but this is making a shared space together. Maybe it does get to the point where you have enough security that you have a relationship house together, built to include closets and basements and cubbies to store the things you only take out for special occasions.
With any luck, you’ve built well, and you can stay there for a long time.
But no matter how well you build, nothing is forever.
Moving Relationships to New Homes
At the risk of making the metaphor even more ridiculous, people have to move for any number of reasons. Maybe rent got too high. Maybe the house has three stories and they can’t go up the stairs. Maybe the climate is no longer suitable. Whatever the reason, people have to leave their nice houses.
The question is: do you leave and go your separate ways, forever on the road? Or do you find another place to live?
Either one is a valid decision. Sometimes it’s not smart to try and maintain a giant mansion with servants and more rooms than you can count. Downsizing sometimes improves the quality of life, or the quality of a relationship, with the knowledge that some people are much better lovers than partners, or friends than lovers, or acquaintances than deep friends.
I guess the idea I’m trying to promote here is that instead of looking at tents and hotels and apartments and houses and mansions as better or worse than each other, maybe look at them as each good for a particular kind of experience. And the journey of love is a long road with stops at all kinds of domiciles, and just because you’re in one doesn’t mean you won’t end up in another at some point, and that’s ok.
If you have the privilege of being able to pick out the experience you want to have, don’t hamstring yourself by assuming that any change represents loss.
Change is change. And a lot of whether it’s bad or good depends on the metaphor we choose.
Life rewards those who move in the direction of greatest courage. – Franklin Veaux
“I have a suggestion, and you’re not going to like it.”
“Ok…” She knows from the tone that I’m talking about a Task of Uncomfortable Growth, and braces herself for this particular TUG. I feel a little bad, because I know what’s going to happen.
“I think you should leave your phone in the other room at night instead of having it next to your bed.”
I wait and watch as it sinks in, and her eyes, even in the little Wire video window on my screen, look huge and possibly tear-filled. Her mouth literally makes an “oh…” of terror, and I hear strange syllables as she tries to express the horror at the thought.
Don’t laugh; imagine if I was coaching you, and I said to you: What you really need to do – right now – is turn off your phone until tomorrow. Some of you would shrug and say “No biggie!” and then weasel out of it by using your friends’ phones or your tablet, cleverly sidestepping the usefulness of the TUG.
Others would try it, and within a few hours the anxiety of emails missed and memes lost and opportunities to “like” something would be making their hands itch. But after about eight hours that goes away (especially if there’s sleep involved). They will wake, and breathe deep, and realize that they really don’t need that constant dopamine jolt all day – that the world is actually just fine the way it is!
Happy in the joyful pleasure of kicking the habit, they’ll pick up their phone just for one quick check on twitter…
The Chicken-and-Egg of Habit Change
Sometimes it’s necessary to quit things “cold turkey”. There’s a lot of arguments for and against this, based around ideas like “willpower depletion” and the like. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple; while some studies indicate that yes, our power to make good decisions is a finite resource, other studies indicate that it’s only finite if we choose to let it be.
In a study conducted by the Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck and her colleagues, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Dweck concluded that signs of ego depletion were observed only in test subjects who believed willpower was a limited resource. Those participants who did not see willpower as finite did not show signs of ego depletion.
Yep, you can decide you are “recharged” (I’m picturing Green Lantern reciting his creed in front of his lantern) and suddenly you’re back to making good decisions!
Of course, you have to decide to recharge, and if you are too tired to make that particular decision…
That’s the problem with trying to make it an internal process. We have far less control over our neurochemistry than we pretend to have, and the idea that our brain is somehow separate from our bodies is as silly as the idea that our bodies are not actually part of the physical world around them. “I know it’s below zero outside, but I don’t need a coat – I’m just going to not let it change my body temperature.”
However, we can change our habits by leveraging that in the other direction: structuring our environment so that it is easier to reinforce the good habits than the bad ones. Possibly the most stunning example of how environment change affects our compulsions and addictions came after the Vietnam war, when the government was bracing itself for the huge numbers of heroin-addicted soldiers coming home.
But instead, those last two words are what really mattered. They’d been addicted to heroin as a way to cope with the horrors of the war. When they got home, those horrors were gone – and so was their need for heroin. In fact, the percentage of soldiers who remained addicted was right about on par with the number of addicts you’d find in the general population.
All it took to kick one of the most addictive substances in the world cold turkey was a complete change of environment. What does that tell us? Well, for one thing, if you suddenly decide “I’m going to do yoga every morning”, your chances of success are better if you replace that comfy chair where you surf the web every morning with a yoga mat. And set up some kind of timed release for a yoga video – and look, there’s an app for that!
In other words, you’re breaking the chain of events that keeps you in the path of your bad habit and replacing it. Preferably with something constructive, but hey, you can also choose “less destructive” (which is why there are a lot of smokers in AA; smoking is unhealthy, but not as destructive for most people as alcohol).
Me, I got into a journaling (and later blogging) habit by linking it to my morning coffee. And my personal assistant lays out the yoga mat between my bed and my desk, so that I literally trip over it before I can sit down and get into work.
Meanwhile, my friend who I was coaching did try to leave her phone outside of her bedroom…but found it too unsettling, and so compromised by putting it in the bathroom, so that if she can’t bear it she can still get to it. However, she has also acquired a small glowing analog clock which is now how she checks the time if she wakes up – thereby breaking the chain of reaching for her phone in the middle of the night and succumbing to the temptations of the social media gravy hose.
Go Out and Break Something
We all have something that we want to change in our lives – whether that’s something we want to do, or something we want to stop doing. Far too often the way we manifest that desire is to simply say “I’m going to do this!” as if our willpower (or won’t-power) alone is enough to change it.
Think of it this way: if simply thinking about it was enough to change that part of your life, you would have already changed it. It exists (or doesn’t exist) because something about your environment is making it that way.
Change your environment. Make the easiest path the one towards the life you want. Even if it makes you cringe with terror. Courage is the fuel that powers the practice that takes you into the life you want.
Like many other writers in the personal development field, I’ve been eagerly awaiting Gretchen Rubin’s new book Better Than Before. In fact, purchasing it was basically tax-deductible for me; I write every Monday about practices and habits, so a book all about how they’re formed would be essential to my work…right?
Even better, I recently had some minor surgery on my ankle which seems to benefit from clean, dry dressings and elevation which means I am basically chairbound for a while. The perfect excuse to do what I call “deep reading” and spend some uninterrupted time inside Gretchen’s amazing mind.
Well, I can’t say that I’ve sat down and read it cover to cover. Nor can I say that I’m terribly good at the whole “taking it easy” thing with my ankle – I mean, when you’ve gone from a full wrap down to basically a big band-aid it feels silly to keep sitting there. After all, surely the Doctors were talking about “most” people who have this procedure, not all people, and I’m not the rest of those people, right?
As it happens, the parts of the book I have read also talk about what “type” of person you are in terms of maintaining your practices. She divides them into four groups:
- Upholders: People who maintain habits purely for their own sake, both those expected of them by others and those generated internally.
- Obligers: People who want to do what is expected of them socially, but may not really be motivated intrinsically. For example, blogging on your own may not be important, but if you have a writing buddy to work with every week, you show up and write because they expect you to.
- Questioners: The other side of the coin from Obligers, the Questioners will only maintain the habits that internally make sense to them. If they go along with the crowd, that’s fine – but there has to be a reason. The fastest way to get a questioner to not do a thing is to answer their “Why?” with “Because that’s how it’s always been done.“
- Rebels: These are the contrarians; the ones who will avoid doing things simply because it’s what’s expected, whether it makes sense or not.
If it seems that I’m writing these with some value judgment attached, please disregard the tone; all four have their advantages and disadvantages. Gretchen Rubin states in her book that she addresses many different techniques and methods for habit change, and it’s not all connected to this “sorting hat” of habit development.
I found myself musing, as I changed my ankle bandage, as to where I fit in. I think I’m more of a questioner, because I have proven that I can develop habits when motivated by what I consider hard data. But I also have been known to deliberately burn my bridges when I get to them simply because I see everyone else going across them. If everyone’s doing a thing, I’m usually suspicious that it’s more a matter of conformity than a good idea – even though this has proven to be a ridiculous personal flaw on more than one occasion.
So perhaps I am more rebellious…but if I wasn’t really just questioning, would I have dedicated a third of my blog to the question of how to develop practices?
About that time Natasha walked into the bedroom, saw the discarded cotton ankle wraps from the hospital and, being the helpful partner she is, picked them up to throw them away so I would have less walking to do. I smiled, because once again she had been my muse. For that moment, at least, clearly –
- I was a rebel without a gauze.
For the record, I blame my father, my grandfather, my daughters, and my best friends for the direction this blog entry took. “Better Than Before“ is turning out to be an excellent read, and I heartily recommend it. Also, this week’s podcast will include an interview with HoopCurrents owner Traeonna, talking about flow, family, entrepreneurship, and all kinds of other neat things. Get the full interview by becoming a patron of Love Life Practice!
One of the ways to change your habits – whether to remove or add them – is to trick yourself into doing it by connecting it to some other abstract ritual. It feeds into our natural human tendency for pattern recognition – for example, the famous self-help guru Jerry Seinfeld recommends “chaining”, which is simply to put an “X” on a calendar everytime you do a particular habit that you want to continue. Did you exercise today? X on the date! After a while, you begin to see a chain of X’s for each day that goes by…and you feel a visceral desire to keep the string going. “Breaks” in the chain feel terrible.
It’s purely psychological – there’s not a physical connection between the X’s and the action you took, aside from the fact that you put it down. It’s the action of putting it down that reinforces the habit change, the satisfaction both of adding to the “chain” and then seeing the results of your actions. You can also see the results in a mirror, or in the way that you feel after working out…but those are less immediately rewarding as a big black “X” filling a square.
Thanks to our Amazing Electronic Devices there are also apps that “gamify” this kind of technique. They vary so much that you really can just pick the one that suits you. Are you very into the woo-woo style of daily affirmation? The friendly style of “Coach.me” might appeal to you, and they do have all the right buzzwords: Productive, challenge, skill, relationships, get fit. I confess to being a little skeptical in their recommendations of diets such as Bulletproof (which has been pretty thoroughly debunked) but they also recommend the Mediterranean diet, which my nutritionist recommends, so…
You see? How easily it happens? That digression into the rules, into the ephemera of the game. I remember arguing about interpretations of the rules of Dungeons & Dragons or the merits of the Smith & Wesson .45 vs. Beretta 9mm or whether Graham technique was superior to Cunningham. The only thing people like better than patterns, it seems, is arguing about what those patterns mean.
Role Playing, Old & New
Of course, it’s not as if the iPhone invented this kind of idea. Before that there was Getting Things Done, and before that there was…well, let’s just skip all the way back to Franklin’s Virtues, why don’t we? My friend and prolific photographer/blogger ABMann is currently tackling his own version of living up to that list of attributes and is documenting his successes and failures over on his blog. Not because he’s being paid to, or because at the end of the book he’ll get a prize. No, because it’s fun.
Because that little book that Franklin kept, where he put in dots on the days that he did something right (or was it when something was wrong?), that’s just another version of creating a game out of your life, of trying to manufacture a “score” by which to measure life. I am pretty sure that if you handed Benjamin Franklin a mouse and showed him “HabitRPG” – a D&D-style habit journal – he’d be right at home.
There’s nothing wrong with any of that – really, it’s just trying to live up to your idealized version of yourself. For some it’s a Virtuous Man. For others it’s an 8th level wizard. For others it’s Jason Bourne. For the most part, I think it’s great to continually be improving yourself – why else would I be writing this blog?
But. There are two problems that I’ve found that happen when I’ve tried to gamify my goals:
- Guilt: Unless I’m really into the system, I start to feel added pressure during my time. I’ve had a very busy day, for example, and then suddenly my phone pings me saying that I need to workout. Or Coach.me reminds me that I set a goal to learn to how to code. Or MyFitnessPal reminds me that I’m 37 calories over my goal. It’s not that these are bad things – that’s what they’re designed to do. But for whatever reason I internalize them as stress, as failures, and that’s not a positive thing. I do a good enough job with my monkey mind yelling at me not to need another reminder.
- Layering: On the converse side, as I mentioned in my podcast with Elyria Little of Home Harmonizers, I tend to look at various kinds of organizers and motivational systems like some people look at porn – as an idealized version of something I will never have, where everything is perfect and shining. This can lead to kind of absurd layerings of organizational systems, like setting a goal in Coach.me to update my HabitRPG.com which has the task of doing my 5 minute Journal as a daily task. At a certain point, instead of doing life you are simply keeping track of it, and you end up with a recursive loop and the imminent collapse of the universe upon itself.
Or, maybe not. What it comes down to in the end is that you should use the practices that work for you and discard the ones that don’t. As I’ve mentioned before, the 5 Minute Journal? Rocks. For me. On the other hand, HabitRPG just seems too convoluted – while my friend Koe uses it with her sister and has a great time leveling up as she builds her own business.
It’s an ongoing exploration. I know that when I first found TheBrain (as recommended by the great Demigod of Organization, David Allen himself) I thought I’d found the holy grail. Then I saw the price tag, and thought “Well, nope!” OmniFocus for Mac didn’t work so well for me, but on the iPad, for a while, it was a godsend. And currently Trello has my attention for managing projects.
What tools have you used? What tools do you wish you could use?
While working on a collaborative presentation with a friend and colleague recently we were reflecting on the non-traditional nature of our relationship. You see, we’d dated for over a year, quite enjoyably. We aren’t dating now. But there wasn’t ever really a “breakup.” Nor was there a “fading away.” We actually care for each other more than ever now, I think.
I’m not going to even try to take any kind of credit for this – my other relationships have usually followed the traditional narrative and there’s nothing to say that I have any inherent skills in that area. It would be so nice if I could take this one particular instance and figure out what made it work…
When we talked about it, we decided that part of the reason came from some time we spent at the very beginning of the relationship defining our goals. Sometimes these are blatantly spoken: I’m looking to start a family. I’m just looking for someone to have fun with. I want a dancing partner. Sometimes the problems with relationships occur because they are never spoken, but only assumed. What do you mean you never want to have children? You can’t quit your job, we need the money! I was never planning on us spending the rest of our lives here…
In our case, we had a single goal: to be a positive force in helping each other achieve our dreams. That was it.
Letting the Flux Mellow
We live thousands of miles apart, with many other responsibilities and connections, and so over the course of the relationship the times we could be physically together were precious. While we made use of many technological marvels like pen, paper, and the USPS to maintain contact, there were other draws on our attention, crises that were frustratingly difficult to support each other through, and droughts of attention.
And there were those things that normally break up relationships. Miscommunications, passions waxing and waning, health issues, other people coming into lives. What was it that let us change from hot couple to loving colleagues with a minimal of bump?
She claims that at a certain point, when there was some big change coming along and we didn’t know what to do about it, I’d suggested that we do nothing. That instead of trying to control the changes that were happening, instead of reacting to them, we just watch things as they changed, let them roll and eventually subside and then decide what to do about it. Apparently (because I don’t remember this) I phrased it as “Allowing the flux to mellow.“
What does that look like? We believe it lies in recognizing that the changing relationship didn’t need to be “fixed” or spelled out, or labeled, or even “established” as something particular. Rather, it could be allowed to be what it was, and recognized as that thing. Above all, by keeping the original goal in mind, it became easy to look at any action and ask Does this help my partner achieve their dream? The right action to take was always readily evident.
The moral of the story was summed up by her beautifully: if you don’t want to end up like the pre-packaged relationships media tries to sell us, “don’t try to fit in a box. Work together to build a box that fits.”
Getting Out of Your Groove
Recently one of my favorite authors, John Scalzi, wrote a column in the TOR newsletter about how he challenged himself with his latest book, Lock In. It wasn’t a huge challenge, on the surface: he simply did not allow himself to use semi-colons. For most non-writers and perhaps even most writers, this would not be a big deal. For Mr. Scalzi, though, it was quite the challenge:
…you don’t understand. I don’t just like semicolons; I love them like kids love cake. And I don’t just use semicolons; I slather them all over my writing. I will write sentences with not just one, not just two but three and even four semicolons in them…I am a semicolon abuser; God help me, I adore them so.
Aside from his history of punctuation abuse Mr. Scalzi also enjoys a tremendously successful reputation as a writer. His novel Red Shirts won the coveted Hugo Award last year, and his Old Man’s War series replaced Heinlein and Bujold as my favorite military sci-fi. That begs the question: why would he change things up when things seem to be going so well for him?
…the point was for me, as a writer, to break myself of a habit that shaped my prose; to make myself aware of what I was doing with my writing, and how. I still use semicolons; I still love them. But now I’m using them because I intend to, and don’t use them when I don’t.
Simple Changes for Complex Benefits
How about that: eliminating a semi-colon as a tool for self-awareness! That’s always a good thing (though not always a comfortable one; personally, while I don’t have a problem with semi-colons, my addiction to commas and parenthetical asides is, charitably speaking, ridiculous). Mr. Scalzi is doing more than that when he changes things up. The self-awareness is the surface level. There’s much more going on underneath the hood.
By forcing his brain to take different paths and methods he is literally making his brain bigger and stronger. It’s true! Research into neuroplasticity has revealed that the brain is more adaptable than people would have ever expected. An example: black-cab drivers in London have a measurably larger hippocampus (the part of the brain involved with navigation) compared their fellow bus drivers. The research indicates that black-cab drivers develop this extra capacity because they have to constantly come up with new routes as opposed to bus drivers who travel the same path daily.
But wait, there’s more. Remember resilience? It’s “the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats, or even significant sources of stress.” A University of California guide to build up personal resilience includes guidelines such as “Take Clear Actions”, “Progress Towards Your Goal”, and of course “Accept Changes as Part of Life.” Like any other skill, each of these gets better with practice. Changing a simple habit gives you the power to make decisions that lead towards your goal of changing something.
No, taking out a semicolon isn’t a huge change. But it does build up resilience-muscles for when a big change might be necessary.
The Spanish Inquisition Strategy
There’s one other pretty fun and slightly evil reason to change up your habits: no one expects it! People are interested in things that change, whether it be blog pages or governments, and by being someone who tries new things you will draw attention. The literal definition of “stunt” is to do something unusual that others don’t normally do. Keep in mind it may be people pointing fingers and saying “What the heck are they doing?” but you can just smile on the inside of your growing brain with the strength of resilience.
In other words, all these little lifehacks and changes may seem silly, and many of them are. Do you really need a more efficient way to peel a banana? Probably not. Then again, pumping the handles on that elliptical isn’t getting me anywhere, either. But both will improve your ability to practice and not only survive change but thrive in it.
As another great science fiction writer put it:
is the one unavoidable,
ongoing reality of the universe.
that makes it the most powerful reality,
and just another word for
Earthseed: The Books of the Living
Lauren Oya Olamina”
― Octavia E. Butler
Time Tips from XKCD:
I’ve gotta be honest: I don’t know enough math to really understand this comic ( though I appreciate hearing about it from Karl). I believe the point, though, is that the first step in productivity is to make sure that whatever process you’re putting into place is really necessary. The lifehack threads are full of promises: Lose weight! Save money! Save time! Learn how to relax twice as much in half the time in order to be three times more productive! But rarely do they include the first step: evaluate before you practice.
The problem is that the changes themselves come at a cost. I’m experiencing that right now with my attempts to be more mindful of spending. I have a tiny app that is simply a budgeting record. It records every transaction along with simple categories which theoretically would give me a better idea of where my money is going.
The problem is that those few seconds after each transaction have an awkwardness around them that makes it inconvenient to record the purchase. In addition, being a freelance type with multiple income streams means that my influx of money is not terribly predictable, neither does it always fit into neat categories. Wrap all that into a big “try to be more mindful of your surroundings and spend less time on your phone” general life goal and you have a big problem with establishing a habit.
So I continue to try different methods to set up an environment – a portable environment, since it has to come with me – for keeping track of my money. And it’s going to take time, both in small increments and in the larger scheme of things, trying to understand the ways that my spending habits are currently functioning and how I can improve them.
Take the Time to Evaluate Before You Practice or Change Habits
I’m pretty sure I need to improve my money skills. Trust me on that. But what if I decided to add in time tracking? There are apps that help you log every minute of your day, and many productivity gurus will tell you to do just that. Should that be my next step?
I don’t think so, for one very big reason: time is not an issue with me. I recently spent fifteen minutes writing a short piece, off the cuff, and it turned into one of the most popular pieces I’ve ever written for the specialized audience it was intended for. At the same time, there were articles I’ve struggled for hours over that have barely made a ripple.
Lesson learned: time is not the factor in terms of my writing. If I took the time to track every minute of my day, and then optimized it so that somehow I was dedicating more time to writing…there is no guarantee that my writing would improve.
On the other hand, maybe putting myself in high-pressure fifteen minute production environments would be worth it…
The moral of the story is this: systems tend to self-organize into optimum modes. So before you go changing the habits of a lifetime, check and make sure they need to be changed. It’s possible you’ve set your life up the way it is for a reason.
Put another way: if it works, don’t break it.
Whoa There, Tiger
“But Gray, I thought you were going to practice the habit of posting pictures of everything you eat, in order to help follow along with the 4-Hour Body Slow-Carb diet?!? I signed up to follow you on twitter and everything – even liked your Facebook page! How could you let me down like that?”
Well, first of all, if the only reason you signed up to Twitter was to watch what I was eating…well, I think I can safely say there are better uses of the medium.
Second of all, one of the key ideas that Leo Babauta talks about with habits is that it’s a bad idea to start too many at once.
Cascading Habits, Cascading Failures
Why not start several new habits at once? Isn’t that the way that people go through transformative processes? After all, the Marine Drill Instructors didn’t say “Hey, Gray, this week we’re going to have you cut your hair, next week you’ll wear this uniform, the following week you’ll start saying “sir” before and after every sentence.”
This is true. And in some cases, such as boot camps and rehab clinics and Disneyland, they do want you to change a whole bunch of habits at once. But they also set up an environment that will support the habits that are changed. The environment may make it difficult not to maintain the habit. You can’t really sleep in very easily when there’s a loudmouthed sergeant beating a garbage can near your head screaming “GETOUTTATHERACKGETOUTTATHERACKGETOUTTATHERACK!” So the habit of rising early is pretty effectively supported, along with other things.