Last week I was reminded of this by the daily stoic passage
In the end you are what is in your head. So what if you cut down on media consumption and worry about external events? Would there be more room in your head for other things? Say yourself? Or things in your control? Yes.
This is the same message of mark Manson’s new book and the 40 years of zen program and the core idea of stoic thought. Be very conscious of what you give a fuck about. Fucks are expensive cognitively. Free up headspace spent on external events, the past and the future and you have more resources for what is right in front of you. Your life.
Stoicism came of age in a time of political turmoil much like today. Remember that Stoicism isn’t about judging other people. It’s not a moral philosophy handed down by a perfect god that you’re supposed to project and enforce onto the world. No, it’s a personal philosophy that’s designed to inform how to live a quality life. Remember, there is no “bible” of the Stoics which lays out the whole thing. Stoicism was largely taught in the oral tradition and what writings there we have are lecture notes, letters, and personal diaries. These teach us to philosophies, to be a Philo (lover) of Sophia ( wisdom). And to focus on what you can control while being indifferent to what you don’t. Living life in pursuit of wisdom is a quality life.
This is why Marcus Aurelius wrote (as a note to himself): “Be tolerant with others and strict with yourself.”
Remember, he wrote this in his diary! He was not trying to start a cult, gather a following, or get Instagram likes. He was training his OWN mind. As I am in this post.
Be open to the idea that people are going to be fools or jerks or unreliable or anything else. Let them be. That’s their business. That’s not inside your control. A friend of mine who has a high public profile recently commented about “haters”, “I am indifferent to them. Why give them free rent in my brain?” The choice to engage in disagreeable thoughts about people and events is always mine.
Be disciplined with yourself, and your reactions. If someone acts ridiculous, let them. If you’re acting ridiculous, that’s on you. Notice the problem (which is your reaction, not the external event itself), stop it, and work on preventing it from happening in the future. What you do is in your control. That is your business. Be strict about it.
This is especially important to remember at a time when many people seem to be consumed with every tweet or quip from certain politicians, celebrities, or “influencers”. Leave other people to themselves. You have enough to worry about.
This does not mean “sit down and shut up” as some will infer. If other people are doing something that does intersect with something in your control then you can and must act. But don’t keep reposting “outrage”. Don’t let other people into your head. No free rent. Don’t let the monkey in your head run wild worrying about other people. Focus the monkey on what is in your own control.
Barrels of ink has been spilled over “be kind to yourself.” This one guy even wrote a new song about it. So how can we get a new twist on this ancient advice? I thought about this over the break while watching SuperWhy (ignore the haters) with my daughter Madison. In every episode, the characters change just one word in a story to change the whole story. Let’s try it here. Insert “older” between “to” and “self.” So “Be kind to your older self.” The self you are going to become. The old guy farting in the corner. The slow driver in front of you. The guy in the grocery checkout line digging for change in a wallet while you impatiently clutch your ApplePay iPhone, thumb hovering over the touchpad. Yea that guy. So here is how to do it
Download one of the photo aging apps. I used the free AgingBooth.
Take a picture of yourself, age it at least 30 years (the default in AgingBooth).
Put this picture somewhere you will see it every day for at least 30 days. I put next to my computer monitor next to the Lucy skull (double whammy). I will likely move it around the house.
When you see the picture, say or think something kind of the person. Initially, there will be revulsion. Get over it. It is you. Be kind.
I didn’t want to do this. My father is 30 years older than me. I don’t want to be my father. Ever. Getting old is scary. But that is why I needed to do this. It is very Stoic to face your fears. And the fear of getting old is one of the strongest in life.
I hypothesize that facing the fear of getting old will reduce the charge that fear has. I hope to be less fearful of getting old and more at ease with my place in the world.
It is Feb. 2 and I have done this for the last 32 days. Noticeable results include:
Less emotional charge when I see the picture of my older self. Less revulsion. Less tilt.
Meaningful conversations have been started. “What is that all about?” a couple of friends asked on seeing a copy of the “old” picture on my coffee table. I am always looking for smart conversation triggers and that picture has been a good one.
A couple people saw the picture and shut down completely. Didn’t want to talk about getting old or the exercise at all. Upon reflection, these people are generally asleep, generally plowing through life with blinders on, generally adverse to contemplation. I didn’t try to prod them into anything, but it was an interesting confirmation bias test for a couple of people I thought were asleep to life. Show them this exercise. If they are asleep they won’t want to engage.
A fun exercise that reduced the emotional charge of a common fear in my life as well as energized my tribe with contemplative conversation. Worthwhile all around. I will keep the pictures around, but likely not focus on daily observation.
There is plenty of science on Kindness in general, usually focusing on being kind to others. There has been plenty written on random acts of kindness. I found far less relate to self-kindness. Some recent studies show self compassion can improve mental health (duh). I don’t know of any specific science studies around self kindness to your older self, but the general kindness research would apply.
The idea to practice self-kindness to my older self I must admit was not my own, it came from a Tim Ferris podcast with AJ Jacobs.
Today a friend said “I am worried about loosing my money in XYZ investment.” To my own surprise my first thought was “You really believe it is YOUR money?” The stoic stuff is really getting ingrained. I recently highlighted these passages:
“What fortune has made yours is not your own.”
Seneca, Letters from a Stoic
“Until we have begun to go without them, we fail to realize how unnecessary many things are. We’ve been using them not because we needed them but because we had them.”
Seneca, Letters from a Stoic
“No man is crushed by misfortune unless he has first been deceived by prosperity.”
Seneca, Dialogues and Letters
“There is no enjoying the possession of anything valuable unless one has someone to share it with.”
Seneca, Letters from a Stoic
“Fidelity purchased with money, money can destroy.”
Seneca, The Conquest of Happiness
Okay. Okay. Enough quotes. It is better to really experience a concept than just read it. So I have been making up practical exercises to remind myself of these truisms (exercises are very stoic). Here is the one i developed today to remind myself that none of the things in my life are actually “mine”. I do this about once a quarter. It will take you 10 minutes. Do it right now!
The impermanence of things exercise.
On a rulled sheet of paper write “things” in the center at the top of the page. To the left write -5, -10, and Birth. To the right write +5, +10, and Death. Make columns for each with the middle one under “things” the widest.
Now look around where you are and start writing down the middle column all the things that are “yours” that you see. Fill the page, should be just over 20 or so. Now down the left columns for each thing put a “Y” in the -5 box if it was in your life five years ago, or ten years a go or at your birth. Do this for all the things. Then go down the right side columns and predict if this thing is going to be in your life five years from now +5, ten years and at your Death. You get the idea. Now count up the number of “Y” in each column and put it at the top along with what percentage it is of the total number of items. Here is one I did today in my hotel room in Honolulu.
Of the 24 things on my list (and there were like over 100 things around the room) less than half (42%) were in my life 5 years ago, almost none (8%) were in my life 10 years ago and exactly zero were in my life at birth. Looking forward I was fairly optimistic that a majority (62%) would be in my life five years from now, exactly a third (33%) would be around in 10 years and 17 % would be with me at death. But then I will be dead and I can’t take them with me so they will be someone else’s at that time so 0% will go with me at Death.
What did this exercise remind me of is a very visceral and visual way ?
1. Coming into this world I had nothing.
2. The majority of things around me are recent additions.
3. The things I believe will be with me at death have lots of experiential value to them (I have had meaningful experiences with them with other people to create memories additional to the thing itself).
4. Most of the things I see are temporary objects in my life (were not here 5 years ago and will not be here 5 years from now).
5. While some things may be with me at death I can’t take any of it with me so the things really are not “mine”.
Side note: I have an absurd number of things with me on vacation. And multiples of things. Seven paddle shirts. Three surf shorts. The experiential value of a thing is inversely related to the number of them I have. For example I have only one watch with me (while I own many). The one watch i wear the most often has the most experiential value. Is the one I see myself with at death. So the obvious question is “do in need all those other watches?” This exercise made me contemplate that question. While I don’t have an answer it is a good thought exercise and moves my thought in the right direction (which is to keep asking the questions).
This exercise builds on the stoic idea that DOING philosophy is the best way to ingrain the core ideas. I like this exercise because it is short, can be done anywhere, and is a stark reminder of a couple major philosophical concepts that I struggle to keep the top of mind including:
Give up your attachments (they aren’t yours anyway)
Things don’t make a life.
Meaning comes from experiences with other people.
I was born with nothing and will die with nothing.
I designed this exercise myself so it is not based on any academic or scientific study. There has been a lot of research around attachment theory which sometimes includes “stuff” but mostly is focused on relationships.
One of the most impactful category of exercises and practices for me in 2016 were those related to Gratitude. For 2017 I am building on those with a specific practice around “Thank You”. While many Gratitude exercises are internally focused on building your OWN CAPACITY FOR GRATITUDE, the Thank You practice turns gratitude outward and includes the objects of your gratitude in the practice. In some ways externalizing gratitude is a “next step” or “advanced” gratitude practice as you are taking a risk putting yourself out there to other people. While there is very little downside to this (and lots of potential upside!) I would not recommend the Thank You practice as a first step gratitude practice. This is best done from a place of quite confidence built on a solid Gratitude foundation.
Lots and lots and lots of other bloggers have written similar challenges, but I like mine because it is all notes to people. External. Not just a list of cues for a personal journal.
Every day for 30 days I send an asynchronous “Thank You” note to someone who has done something for which you are thankful as part of your morning routine.
Try to be specific. Thank them for something specific. Like “remember the time you came and brought flowers to the hospital when my daughter was born? Thank you.” You can go general, but the more personal the connection, the more authentic. Do NOT include anything else with the thank you. Focus on sincerely expressing the gratitude. You can catch up in the follow up. And remember to leave out the weasel words.
In my case, I wanted this to take less than 5 minutes each day from beginning to end, so I allowed the Thank You to be either a text, email, phone message, thank you card in the mail, Slack message, Facebook message, Instagram comment, or any other form of asynchronous communication. No phone calls. Why Asynchronous? Because I didn’t want to blow the 5 minute budget catching up or getting off topic.
Pro TIP: Because I am a nerd, I actually brainstormed a list of almost 100 people and created a google spreadsheet of the 30 I was going to do this exercise with before hand. I listed what I am going to thank them for and I am tracking the reactions also. I put them into three categories, Family, Close friends, Acquaintances with 10 in each. I wanted to have a balance of close, near and far to see if there is any material difference in the reactions or the feeling of different categories. You don’t have to plan it out that much if you are more spontaneous (and less of a data nerd). You should be intentional about it though. Think through who you are going to include and why. Try to reach a bit to people who you should have thanked long ago, but have not talked to in quite a long time. The oldest “thank You” in my list is 40 years ago.
My hypothesis is that the exercise will:
Build gratitude and overall happiness of myself with my life and friend network through the regular recognition of thanks to other people. I hope that engaging with the network will reinforce the internal feelings of overall gratitude in life (and replace the negative monkey).
Re-ignite conversations with some network nodes (ok friends/acquaintances yes I am a nerd) that have been dormant. (excuse for connection). I am interested in the long term network effects here. How many people will get “infected” and do something similar? How many dormant connections will be reconnected?
Make each day happier by starting off with memories of someone I am thankful for and acting on that thanks.
I also believe this exercise has a chance to reinforce resilience. Or build some resilience. When the day shovels me a pile of shit I can remember that just earlier that day I had something to be thankful for. That should make the pile of shit easier to dig through.
Not complete yet, will post in Feb.
Initial results (after five days) include:
My daughter Finn (16) cautioned: “You should probably tell people why you are sending the notes up front so they don’t think you are going to kill yourself.” A highschool student in our town had sent a series of “thank you” texts just hours before committing suicide earlier in the year. Result: This post and linking to it in my messages as explainer.
Since I planned the whole thing in advance and had a list much longer than 30 people to thank, the exercise of planning was very interesting as well, figuring out the categories of people, who to include and who to drop. Who would make your list? Who will you cut? Why? I prioritized the top 30 as the “greatest” appreciation I had for the event. Sure it i subjective. And not all the things I am most thankful for in life have gotten thank you cards in this exercise, it is more related to finding 30 people who I am most thankful for.
I read a good blog post and added the guy to my list for that day, dropping him a email just saying “thank you for writing that post”. Not asking for anything. He sent back a nice note as well. Small connection. Authentic appreciation. Maybe I will email him again about something else, but the start was not an “ask” it was authentic thankfulness, gratitude.
Gratitude is a well documented good life enhancement. Externalizing this with outbound thank you notes is an advanced practice with interesting potential network effects.
Here at DGC, we have discovered first hand the power of reframing and Agency. One of the keys to building the capacity to make a decision (agency) is facing down your fears. I have talked about the coffee cup facing the flinch experiment and examining minor fears with data before. This week I found another very instructive situation in which there is a choice to build Agency or not.
A key tactic in the war to build Agency and overcome Fears is to pick your battles. Pick the right ones. The ones where you have an advantage. Ones where you have enough Agency to win.
This week a friend was over for dinner. Around 8:30 she headed out to her car to leave. She came back in 5 minutes later.
“I don’t want to leave.” she said.
“I only have 25 miles of gas and it is dark and cold and I don’t know if I can make it home.”
“There is a gas station less than a mile away, just stop there.”
“No, I am scared of getting gas by myself at night.”
“Well are you more scared of not getting home?”
“I don’t know, what should I do?”
And there you have it. Dueling fears causing paralysis. But a decision has to be made. How to decide which fear to face? My recommendation is always to face the fear in which you have MORE AGENCY, more capacity to make a decision. Regardless of the outcome, having made an affirmative conscious decision, builds capacity to make more decisions. Being passive and submissive builds more of the same as well.
Lets consider the facts and relative merits of each fear.
Fear of getting gas at night alone as a single woman. There certainly is merit to this fear. While the absolute probability of something bad happening is VERY low (probably less than 1:20,000) (FBI stats put overall threat of woman rape at 52:100,000 or a 0.0529% chance of being raped anywhere in one year, so a GAS STATION AT NIGHT is even more rare):, this one is very easy for the monkey mind to catastrophize about. The story is “don’t be alone.” And there are things you can do at a gas station to make you less of a target to reduce the odds even more. You can choose a full service gas station where the guy pumps for you. I offered to drive down in my car with her to fill up so she would not be alone. The bottom line is that with she had a HIGH degree of AGENCY with this fear; she could do some actions to modify the out come, change the odds in here favor. So the FACTS say this is a VERY unlikely event to occur, she had high Agency relative to the fear, but the emotional merits/appeal is quite high and understandable.
Fear of running out of gas. The facts for my friend were that she lived about 10 miles away and had 25 miles on the range meter in the car. Most cars are conservative on their range meters so you are likely to have half a gallon or so left when the gauge reads zero. With a 30 mpg car (which she had) that means the real range is likely 40 miles. So the probability of running out of gas is likely equal to the probability of an electronics failure causing improper measurement combined with the probability of some other major car system failure. While I couldn’t find any hard stats on either of these, I did find anecdotal predictions between 0.01 – 0.10 % of each type of failure (combined 0.02 – 0.20 %) It is not a huge logical leap to conclude that fear of running out of gas an fear of being attacked at a gas station are approximately the same. But there is VERY LOW AGENCY in running out of gas. You either are or are not. The only thing you can do to improve you odds is Fear #1, getting more gas. On the harm scale, being out of gas somewhere random is probably more dangerous than being out of gas at a gas station, but you have to stack the odds of attack onto the odds of running out of gas making the odds of both running out of gas AND something bad happening much longer than either event separately. But emotionally I can understand that being alone with a broken down car on the side of the road would cause more angst than being alone in a lit gas station with an attendant. So low probability event (likely equal to fear #1), low agency in fear, and roughly equal emotional appeal on outcomes.
So what did I tell my friend? To face the gas fear, go get more gas. Why?
She has Agency in the gas fear. She can change the odds. Face her fear at a time and place of her choosing.
By solving fear #1, you also solve fear #2. Two birds with one stone.
What did she do? Took her chances with the gas and put off the fill up. That is completely understandable. But it was also a missed opportunity. An opportunity to face down and practice overcoming a paralyzing fear. One which is keeping her from enjoying driving around the city at night. Why let a 0.05% chance event cause you angst EVERY NIGHT of the year? Instead her monkey mind choose the easy path, the path of passive acceptance that an unlikely event may happen and she would deal with it then. While that decision is understandable, it does not grow the individual. Not every growth opportunity should be taken every time, but I encourage you to take more when you see them. The first step is awareness and recognition that you do in fact have a decision and one option is better (growth) than the other.
So next time you are faced with a decision between two fears, choose to face the one in which you have more Agency. You will be stronger for it!
DeepGreenCrystals is all about waking up and discovering your authentic self. A big part of this task is facing the deep rooted stories that hold us back. Any story which is impeding growth should be examined under the harsh light of data and contemplation against the yardstick of authenticity and “does it still serve me?” Recover your grit, 15 minutes of Honesty and Stop Multitasking are exercises which resulted from a moment of clarity that turned into a useful contemplation and data collection tool.
Despite thinking and writing about authenticity nearly every day, I found another example of bad storytelling holding me back this morning while doing Morning Pages. How I noticed it and what I did about it is generalizable across many circumstances, so here comes another post.
Every now and then when doing something, I notice a slight tingling feeling in the back of my head. Or a non-specific feeling of unease. Sometimes it is a shallow slight feeling of dread. Not sword of Damocles threatening, but a hint of impending doom, a minor fear. Many times the source of the fear never becomes clear. Often times, when the source is revealed, the fear is so minor that my rational mind just sets it aside as irrelevant. My rational mind has become very good at suppressing/denying minor fears. Save the energy for the big things right? But this background noise still saps energy and creates a cloud that makes authentic operation much more difficult. When the big things do come you are starting from a cloudy drained state rather than a rested strong one. Facing down minor fears and getting beyond them is the only way to lower the background noise and start to clear the fog.
This morning, the tingle started right as I sat down to write. The tingle had been there for a couple of days, but today I decided to try to figure it out. I stopped writing and I stared at the small journal with wide ruled pages it, turning the feeling over in my mind. What am I doing? Morning Pages, 750 words. Three pages in the journal. Why? Because I am a more authentic person when I do Morning Pages. I am start the day out with a success by doing Morning Pages. Am I really doing Morning Pages? Maybe not. Three pages in this small, wide ruled journal is probably not really 750 words. Ah, there it is. The Flinch. The Fear.
I have been congratulating myself on doing Morning Pages fairly regularly, but I was uneasy about accepting the praise because something felt inauthentic about it. Three pages is a shortcut to 750 words. That is three pages of 8.5×11 college ruled paper (30 lines per page), about 250 words per page. Here I was writing in a smaller journal with wider lines (25 lines per page). My rational mind knew there was likely something off, but with all the praise and compliments coming in daily, why rock the boat? Could my monkey mind be taking a shortcut to get the reward while doing less actual work (avoiding pain)? That disconnect could be the source of the tingle. So I went back and counted the actual number of words on each of the previous six journal pages. The average was 160 words per page. Bingo! Three pages in this journal was 480 words (35% less than the 750 goal).
The minor fear uncovered here was “Morning Pages are hard to be successful at, so lets lower the bar.” So the story in my head was “You are a great success with Morning Pages”, but my monkey mind had cut the work by 35% through obfuscation (maybe even weasel words) in an effort to reach the goal with as little effort as possible. The true story is “You are great at completing 65% of your Morning Pages goal every day.” I can’t fault the monkey. He is doing his job. He is keeping me alive by avoiding pain and achieving goals with as little effort as possible. It is not his fault. The monkey was afraid of failure and hard work, so he lowered the bar. Creative and smart actually.
Now, armed with the DATA, my rational mind can contemplate the question of “does the story serve me?” Do I want to continue with the Monkey’s tactic of lowering the bar, or do I value the benefits derived from the greater effort? The monkey says “3 pages = success” when the truth is “5 pages = success”. One word in the story changes and authenticity is restored! Yes, I want authenticity, so I am going with “5 pages = success”. The monkey will likely still try to do his job to avoid pain, but now I am making a conscience decision to tilt the story toward my conscious mind’s goal. I faced the fear, disrobed it, and am moving forward with a revised story. I know exactly where the bug in the program is and how to fix it.
One down, hundreds to go. This process of examining a minor fear created by the monkey, getting to the bottom of it, reframing the story to one the rational mind wrote can be used any time you come across a fear. Try it for yourself. Let me know how it goes.
Weasel Words: “words or statements that are intentionally ambiguous or misleading”
Being the political season, the air is full of ambiguous statements that dodge the real question, or slant the facts in favor of the speaker. Who can forget:
Bill Clinton: “I did not have sex with that woman.” (he didn’t consider “oral” to be “sex”, or “that woman” could be another woman other than the one we all thought he was speaking about.)
Trump: “The polls say I’m winning.” Yea, your own polls, or a few outlier polls, but the Real Clear Politics average of all leading polls says something else completely.
Hillary Clinton: About Benghazi “Some have sought to justify this vicious behavior as a response to inflammatory material posted on the Internet.” Sure, “some people” say that, but you told your family it was a terrorist attack.
Weasel Words also came up recently when I was going through the 40 Years of Zen program (review post coming). Dave Asprey has written about them here. Then this morning while talking to the Purpose Goddesses Tay and Val, weasel words came up again. The Universe obviously wants to hear my thought on this subject, so here I go.
Becoming more aware of my own use of weasel words has been an important part of my waking up and becoming more conscious. When I find myself using some of the worst offenders, I endeavor to observe rather than indulge the judgemental thoughts (I just had to rewrite that from “try not to be judgemental”). The words are neither good nor bad in and of themselves. The issue is in the context and the intention behind their use as opposed to other words that could be used. In the political sphere, a person is usually trying to dodge a direct question purposefully with misdirection. We have all seen that. On a personal basis and between people, weasel words can be serving some very valid goals including:
Avoidance of pain to self or others. The ego doesn’t like to fail. So it says things like “I will try.” Success is then the trying not the doing. Lowering the bar. This is basically a natural defense mechanism. So it is when we beat around the bush with bad news to a friend. We are “trying” to spare them pain. But many times the pain just gets elongated, delayed, or suppressed.
Avoidance of responsibility. Again, ego doesn’t like to fail or be responsible for anything that it could fail at. So it shirks responsibility at every chance. “I” will do something is hard, “we” will do something shares the responsibility around and gets off my shoulders alone. So do politicians. They want to please as many voters of different stripes as possible so saying platitudes keeps them out of hot water. We are so used to this behavior from politicians that in many ways an in your face guy like Trump is a refreshing alternative to many people.
Motivation from narrowing of alternatives. The ego also doesn’t like the paradox of choice. Too many choices means hard work will be required to decide between the alternatives. Not only could you choose incorrectly leading to pain and failure (see above), but the work to make the decision is difficult in an of itself. So we say we “can’t” or “Have to” or “Need to” do something. That means it is an imperative with no other alternatives. The only way. The narrow path can seem attractive versus the hard brain work of sifting through alternatives.
Recognition that the ego is just doing its job to protect me from pain and increase the chances of success has enabled me to be much less judgemental of my own use of these words. When encountering my own use of a weasel word I ask myself
Is this word phrasing serving me (or just my ego)?
Is there an underlying issue which my ego is trying to avoid here?
Is there a way to reframe the sentence which is more in line with my authentic purpose?
Often times lately I have reframed weasel words, sometimes they get through even an attentive filter like mine. My personal reason for becoming aware of these words and working to get them out of my vocabulary is because they typically are impediments to action, destroy motivation, debilitate and discourage me from moving forward in life. I have decided that brain energy spent on them is generally wasted and I would rather spend that energy on actually accomplishing something rather than the avoidance.
Here are my personal top 5 offenders:
To “try” lowers the bar so that success doesn’t require any actual accomplishment. Try pre-supposes failure. “Try” also doesn’t have any time table attached to it so the scale is open ended. I can be “trying” for a very long time, years even. Try doesn’t have a logical end point. The name of the major category of this post used to be “Try This:”. I thought “try” would be a less judgemental or declarative word that wouldn’t scare people as much as “do”. People would be more willing to “try” something that to be told to “do” something. And that is probably true on the surface. But here at DGC we are about waking up and taking the Red Pill. The Red Pill says “There is no Try, Only Do.” Ok, Yoda and the Maharishi said it before me, but even with my antennae on high alert, I still create a category with the word “try” in it.
Reframe: “I will.” “I will do everything I can.”
Saying I “should” do something is the same as saying nothing. It is stating the obvious. These statements are usually complete wastes of time, often procrastination of the actual work. There is also an easy way out. Stuff you “should” do is not very important, you “should” do it, but there are not obvious harsh consequences for not doing it. I have often found myself saying I “should” do something 10-20 times before actually doing it. “I should take out the trash.” Taking no responsibility for actually doing the thing I “should” do. It is a statement of desire not action. Replace with action words. What would your brain do with all that wasted energy? You could have taken out the trash in a fraction of all the time your brain was saying you “should” take out the trash.
Reframe: Want. Choose to. Going to. Get to.
The near cousin of “should” but with an absolutist set of blinders on. Much more declarative. “Need” ratchets up “should” with the implication of dire consequences if you don’t do it. “Have to” leaves all alternatives off the table, there are no alternatives, I “have to.” Ratcheting up the pressure like that the ego wants to force you to get that thing done. “I need to get the new Apple Iphone.” “I Have to get tickets to the play offs.” The existential stress goes up accordingly. So ask yourself the question, is this story I am telling myself about “need” or “have to” really an existential question? Are there truly dire consequences of not doing this? Does your rational mind agree with the upleveling of this desire to the “need” category that your ego has done? Stop and ask the question.
Reframe: Ratchet down the consequences. Change to “want” or “get to”
For me, the worst kind of weasel words are those that cut off all options. That put up walls to progress of any sort. “Can’t” does that but shutting down discussion. There is no way, I “can’t”. No explanation, to alternatives, no deliberation. Just a clean line in the sand. I heard Seth Godin talking one time about writers block and deconstructing the claim “I can’t write.”. “Really? you forgot how to use a pen? Your fingers are broken?” The point is that the story “I can’t write” is not true. You can, technically. The real underlying issue is that your ego is afraid that what you write might suck. Or that the writing will cause the brain to heat up and hurt. Or that there will be editing and re-writing. “Can’t” just killed your motivation. Cut off any forward motion. Until you break that story, no progress will be made. Specifically around writing that is why I love the Morning pages exercise. Write for fifteen minutes a day without judgement, without critique. Just fucking write. You can do it. Break the block. Rewrite the story in your head. You CAN write. Now go on and write something good.
Reframe: Can. or if you are honest about not doing something, say “I won’t”.
In an era of participation trophies this one is a killer on our kids. This word is WAY over used. This one should be very parsimoniously given out. Save it for the big things. “I am so proud of you for getting that trophy!” Dude, it a participation trophy. This is the Near cousin of Try. You are “proud” that your kid “tried”. Talk about a low bar. Be proud of actual achievements. Or complement effort. My daughter was recently in the regional championship meet for her high school swim team. She is a middle of the pack swimmer so didn’t have any expectations of winning or medaling and I didn’t want her to be focused on those things anyway. In the meet she achieved a personal PR in her 50 meter and 100 meter swim! I didn’t say I was “proud” of her. I complimented her on finishing the season with a bang. Finishing with the best effort she had had all year, a Personal Record. Congratulations. A PR is an actual achievement. A measurable accomplishment. Take note of that.
Reframe: Your effort was very impressive. Save “pride” for your country.
My personal goal is to reduce the use of these five words by 50% next year over this year. As with “Do This” posts, your personal mileage may vary. Your goals may vary. Everyone though can benefit from a little more consciousness in relation to our vocabulary and how it reflects the stories in our heads. Be aware. Be precise. Be awake.
My instant gratification monkey is great at telling me stories that make me feel good about doing shit that he wants to do, while my rational mind knows that shit stinks. The best tool I have found to overcoming these feel good stories that support unwanted habits or behavior is the bright shiny sunlight of AWARENESS, DATA AND FACTS. One such exercise is 15 Minutes of Honesty. Today I have the mythbuster which destroys the “I am good at Multitasking” story, one of my monkey’s favorites:
1 Minute Proof that I suck at Multitasking.
For most of us, the rational mind has convinced the monkey that texting and driving sucks, but we continue to believe the monkey at work, with friends and around the house. The monkey mind LOVES multitasking. Jumping around between things feels like engagement. Feels like a lot is getting done. Many people and things need my attention. So many that I have to spread myself thin. It makes me feel important, needed, worthwhile. Multitasking implies that we are working on multiple tasks simultaneously and in total getting more done (says the monkey). But the human brain isn’t able to focus on more than one thing at a time, so what are actually doing is RAPID TASK SWITCHING and the research shows a significant switching cost overhead associated with this process. In some cases it can be 100% overhead meaning it takes TWICE as long to complete two tasks done with rapid switching instead of in serial (one at a time).
Okay, okay says my monkey, sure I hear you, but I don’t really believe you. Those university studies are done on drugged up grad students (not smart monkeys like me), I am WAY more productive than them! I am great at multitasking!
Okay Monkey, let’s put that to the test.
Grab a piece of blank paper, a pen and a stopwatch. Your task is to draw two lines and write a sentence on one line and a series of numbers on the second line. On the first line write “I am great at multitasking.” On the second line write the numbers 1-20 in series. The goal is to end up with one line with the sentence and one line with the number series. But we are going to perform the tasks two different ways and time ourselves doing each method.
Method 1: Separate Task in Series: First, do the tasks in Series, one after each other, focusing only on the immediate task at hand each time. Draw the first line, write the sentence “I am great at multitasking”. Draw the second line, write the numbers 1-20 in order. Start the stopwatch when you begin and stop when finished. Write down the time.
Method 2: Multitasking/Rapid task switching: Switch between tasks as you are doing them. Draw the first line. Write “I”. Draw the Second line. Write “1”. Go up to the first line, make a space, then write the letter “a”. Down to the second line, write the number “2”. Now back up to the first line, write the “m” of “am”. Down to the second line for “3”… And so on until you have the two lines done. Write down that time.
Here is my piece of paper from this morning.
Serial :24 seconds, Multi :50 seconds. Oh, the monkey doesn’t like that. The tasks are the same. The time to compete 2X! “I can do better” my monkey says. So I do it 10 more times. Trying every trick I can think of to improve the multitask scenario. After 10 iterations, average time to complete: Serial :22 seconds, Multi :50 seconds. So I actually got better at doing the tasks in serial (practice), but the switching costs of multitasking kept my performance stuck.
Being a nerd, I dug a bit deeper. What exactly is going on that causes 100% overhead during multitasking? A few things I observed in this particular exercise include:
Physical movement between task space. In serial, I write the sentence from left to right all at once, one letter next to the other. In multi, I have to move the pen between the lines, find the correct place to put the letter or number, and start. This movement time, while small, is probably about 80% of the time to even write one letter or number. While the impact of physical movement in this particular exercise may be outsized versus other multitasking scenarios, the effect can still be significant. Even moving the mouse to switch between applications, or navigate around your phone. In this exercise I estimate that Physical movement explains about 80% of the variance.
Mental reset (reconfiguring your control settings). Writing numbers and letters are different. Each time you switch you have to try to remember your place in the task, figure out what to do next, then do it. That mental framing, “getting into the task” takes time. For a simple task like this it was small, maybe 10% of the variance in this exercise, but in some tasks like writing a novel, it can be very large.
Cognitive stress. While the mind can’t focus on more than one thing at a time, having more than one thing pressing on you can cause the stress of the impending task to weigh on the current task. I found this often in the exercise, writing a number and already thinking ahead to what letter I had to write next. Thinking of task 1 during task 2 made task 2 take longer to complete. In this exercise I estimate cognitive stress explains about 5% of the variance.
Task volume explosion. When doing the tasks in Series, you have basically four sub-tasks. 1. Draw a line. 2. Write a sentence. 3. Draw a line. 4. Write a series of numbers. When done Multitasking, there are 44 sub-tasks (10x!). Draw line (x2), Write Letter (x22), Write number (x20). It takes more mental energy to check off 44 things than it does to check off 4 things. In this exercise I estimate that Task Volume Explosion explains about 5% of the variance.
Ok, so exercise done, variance explained, Monkey convinced right? Well I hope so, but this is one that keeps coming back like a bad penny. Today I am aware, but then I get busy and the Monkey comes back with extra Trumpesk confidence “I am great at multitasking”. So bookmark this post. Whenever you hear the monkey’s story, redo the exercise. Spend time on the analysis. Let it sink in. Eventually you may change the Monkey’s story.
Like how I used the Monkey’s own story to prove the absurdity of the story? Change the story, change yourself. Remember the Monkey believes stories it believes/feels to be true. The stories are in his(your) head due to some kind of confirmation or learning in the past. At one time, the story may have even been correct or have served a valuable purpose. Or it may have been implanted there falsely (say by a large conglomerate (Apple, Microsoft, Google, et al) trying to sell you productivity tools/technology) by advertising or media.
Here at DGC we like to practice contemplation and give you practical tools to analyze where you are in life and if it is all going the best it can for you. A key tactic in this journey is to Know your Stories (the monkey’s and everyone else’s) and then ASK IF THOSE STORIES ARE STILL SERVING YOU on a regular basis. Compare the Stories against the facts. In the case of the “I am great at multitasking” story, a fairly simple one minute exercise lays bare the truth. Many times it only takes changing one word in the story. Repeat that story enough and it will become the Monkey’s story. My truth about multitasking? Say it with me: “I suck at multitasking!” Convince your monkey of this and productivity will skyrocket!
We all tell stories about ourselves. One of mine is “my actions are very aligned with my goals and values.” A smile and a burst of confidence appear every time this story passes through my neurons. Sometimes, though, the red pill (reality) can slap that stupid grin right off my face. This morning reality slapped me. Hard. Usually I just shrug it off and keep going. Today I decided to learn something.
So, being a data nerd, I developed a quick honesty exercise which produces ONE actionable item with high probability of getting your goals/values/actions back into alignment. Kind of like a Chiropractor for your brain. Similar to the Recover Your Grit exercise, but this one is bite sized exercise and can be done in 15 minutes.
My morning routine of work-out, meditation, morning pages, etc. usually takes about an hour and a half. This morning it took 3 hours. Yea, that is right, 50% dilly dallying. Now I am not one of those “got to be productive 100% of the day” guys, but 50% waste is excessive by any measure. Usually I tell myself I am too busy to do the analysis, the job is too big, not that much time was wasted, etc. But do I really have a more important thing to do than figure out where 50% of my time went and how to get that time back (if I want to)? So here is what I did:
The 15 minutes of Honesty in Actions Exercise:
When the red pill of reality slaps you in the face (“Oh shit, I think I just wasted a bunch of time!”), do this exercise immediately. It works best if the period of time is less than a day. Say a couple of hours, or even a whole work day. But not more. If the time interval is too large, you won’t remember enough details to be helpful. Also you must do it immediately or your memory will start to re-write the facts and the analysis will be less truthful.
Take out a pad of paper. Yes paper and pen. Turn your phone off. Walk away from the computer to a quiet place with a desk and a chair. No technology to distract during the exercise. Remember you only need 15 minutes then you can go back to being so busy you can’t take time to get less busy.:)
At the top of the first page, write the date and time period you want to analyze that just felt like it got hijacked. For me a recent one was a three hour period from 6-9 am Monday Sept 26, 2016 at my house in Seattle Washington. Name the primary activity that was supposed to be going on then. For me, recently, it was my morning routine. It could be a project you were supposed to be working on, time with the family, etc. Underneath this heading, draw a horizontal line across the page and a line down the middle to separate the page into two columns. On the top of the left column write “On Point Actions”, on the right write “Not On Point Actions”. If you are feeling spunky (as I was) you can add to the right column “distractions/shiny objects” or any other colorful characterization of the things that tend to take you off task.
Now rewind your mind back to the beginning of the time period you are analyzing and roll forward minute by minute remembering everything you did. Those things that were on point write in the left column and put the number of minutes you did each of them. Those things that were off point write them in the right column with minutes associated with each of those. Add up the minutes on the left and the right. They must total the interval you are analysing (in my case 3 hours). If they don’t you are missing something, go back and add more actions or time to the actions you already have. When I did this exercise, I need a second page for the shiny objects/distractions because there were so many of them. Here are the pages from a recent exercise I did.
Often when writing down an action that I was doing, I realized that starting one action actually lead to other actions. So for these items, I put an indentation below listing the follow on actions that happened because I started the primary action. For example “read email” turned into “buy electric pulse exercise suit from Indiegogo for $1,450”, register for a conference, download some pictures, and unsubscribe from three newsletters. While we all know that email can be a rathole, the depth and breadth of that rathole can be hidden until we actually do an exercise like this which catalogues exactly what happened in email. This exercise is very good to highlight how actions are linked together and which “master actions” like “email” and “check facebook” and “check stocks” and “check Instagram” can lead to much greater time diversions than your brain originally planned.
When you are finished and the minutes match on each column to the total time you are analysing, then summarize at the bottom of the page what happened. Calculate the ratio of on point and off point time. Add in any other consequences of the off point actions (like in my case money spent buying things that were not originally on my list at the beginning of the time). My recent results were 1:35/1:25 and $1,550 unplanned spending. 47% not on point. Now at the bottom of the page of the right column, make a list of the top 5 things that got you off point with the most number of minutes. For me these were: check email, check facebook, check stocks, text people, mess around with apps on phone and daydream. Now see if there is a common root cause, or enabling event/technology between any of these actions. For me, 5 of the six were related to the iPhone. So I grouped these and wrote “iPhone” next to that group.
So what is the #1 thing I can do to re-align my actions during the morning routine with my goals and make that time as much on-point as possible? Turn off the damn iPhone during that time. Nothing I normally do in the morning routine requires the phone (by design). Now when you do the exercise you may have another action or enabling technology that distracts you. Maybe the TV, or other chores around the house, or children, or going shopping. Whatever takes you off task. The point here, is to sit down and make the list in excruciating detail. Add up the minutes. Account for every one. Note the other unintended actions ( money spent, etc.) Honesty and authenticity is the goal of this little red pill. You can’t fix what you don’t know is broken.
Until I did this exercise, I had let my monkey mind convince me that having a phone always near by was productive and ultimately allowing me to get more done in the day. But this exercise in honesty and drilling down to every minute laid bare the reality that much time was wasted chasing shiny things and doing non critical things. Some of them I maybe would have done anyway, but the point is that I could always choose to do them later. Allowing the monkey mind to indulge the shiny objects in the middle of other time which my goals say should be dedicated to another activity just made that activity longer and less productive. In the end multitasking has often left me with a longer list of unfinished projects. This exercise documents this in detail so that your monkey mind can not ignore the data any longer. You have the paper. Your hand wrote the lists. You have re-lived the diversions and productive time in detail. You truly understand the difference. Next time you conscious mind will have a reference point to make a more informed decision of whether to indulge the monkey mind or not. You also have One concrete intervention (which you can use or not, up to you) which has a high probability of keeping the monkey mind at bay during time you want dedicated to on-point actions in support of goals.
I do this exercise whenever I have a flash of realization that I am off track with actions and goals. I have done it three times in the last month. Each time a different proximate cause and intervention has surfaced.
I created this exercise myself, so this specific technique has not been studied (as far as I know), but this is part of the quantified self, although most of that literature is around sensor data. Part of the “know thyself” world. The more you are honest and authentic with yourself, the better able you are to get where you want to be in life. This exercise is similar to some the work in Cognitive Behavior Therapy to discover automatic thoughts. Much of that scholarly work is hoarded by the information bandits who hold our mental health hostage behind research grants funded by taxpayers, so we are left to figure out our own exercises.
This is a small, manageable way to get some insight. And it is free from me to you. There is no downside.