What Does Retirement Look Like?
We joke in my family about how my dad will never retire. It's not that he's not old enough. It's not that he isn't financially able to retire. It's not that he doesn't have enough wits about him to retire. It’s that my dad doesn't know HOW to retire.
In the States (with apologies, I don't know enough about other countries' cultures to comment), there's this cultural plan for everyone: you go to school, you graduate, you work at a number of jobs, you retire, you stop actively earning income. Not everyone follows this plan. Not everyone needs to follow this plan. Not everyone can follow this plan. The last step typically happens late in life, around 65, maybe 70 years old.
When I ask people what retiring means, I usually hear, "No boss!" That's often followed by, "Freedom!" and "Sleeping in!" and "Doing what I want!"
Which suggests to me I'm asking the wrong question. Their answers tell me they are thinking of a restriction-free future, rather than building a life they want to have now.
As near as I can tell, most people's view of retirement is the book version of a segment of life no longer spent working. "Book version" means you have the highlights of the main characters' actions, but you don't know anything about the details: the aches, the boring hours spent waiting for something to happen, the time spent in the bathroom, the laundry washing, the food preparation and subsequent cleanup, or the bathing.
The better question to ask is: "How are you going to fill your days?"
I think about this better question when I encourage my dad to retire. I don't know what my dad would do, and this saddens me. I don’t know how he would fill his days; his days are currently filled with his job and sleeping.
I, on the other hand, could fill up another lifetime with activities. I would build websites. I would go on hikes. I would finish the design of the locking mechanism I've been working on for years. I would visit friends in different cities, explore their areas with them. I would make new friends. I would set odd goals like "eat at every restaurant along this stretch of busy road" or "meet every person I follow on twitter." I would finally swim in every ocean.
When these thoughts come up, and I wonder how would I fill my days, I realize the answer is often, "More of what I do now," which means I’m doing something right. I mean, why wait for that mythical time to come along? Why not start doing some of those things now?
More for the skill
Okay, after I don't know how many years, I think I may have figured out the trick, the secret, the thing NO ONE TOLD YOU, about how to become good at something. Except, I suspect someone did tell me at one point, but I wasn't listening.
I had given a conference talk where the audience was a tough one: they were quiet and somewhat non-responsive to my interaction attempts. I had been warned that this was expected, so I wasn't overly concerned. The post-talk feedback was positive.
I don't believe the subsequent speaker had been warned. Her interaction attempts were stronger, and they faltered just as hard as mine had. Whereas I just kept right on talking, I think the non-response threw her a bit. She spoke nervously for the rest of the talk.
The content of her talk was fantastic, the presentation well put together. She was engaging and delightful in small groups. So other than the audience, what was the difference between the two of us? What made her nervous in a way I wasn't after the same experience? I pondered those questions on my walk from the venue back to my hotel that evening.
And that's when I came across the secret no one told you (and by you, I mean me, and by no one, I mean, again, someone):
"Be willing to look like a dork."
Embarrassment about what others think has to be the biggest block to any learning. Embarrassment of looking silly. Embarrassment of looking stupid for asking the question everyone else is wondering about but no one is willing to make. Embarrassment of making a mistake because NO ONE EVER MAKES MISTAKES.
In sports as a kid, I couldn't hit the ball, make a basket, kick a ball, or do any of the skills necessary to succeed in sports. Everyone was laughing at me (they weren't). Everyone was better than I was (they weren't).
What if I hadn't cared and kept trying anyway?
My first few years (and by few, I mean ten) of going to a gym were a full-on waste of my time. Everyone is watching me (they weren't). I'm doing this wrong (so what).
What if I had embraced looking goofy and kept trying?
My first public speaking engagement was a thorough disaster. "We shall never speak of this again," were my words to Jonathan as I stepped off the stage after the talk. I still cringe when I think of that talk.
What if I had been willing to look like a dork and try again?
I was willing. And I still look like a dork when I talk, on stage and off. I am now okay with my style of full-body talking. I am okay being the gangly, embarrassed kid I was years ago, in a way that I wasn't okay with when I actually was that kid.
I'm willing to look like a dork in front of a crowd of 200 people to have the opportunity to share some knowledge that excites me, to have the opportunity to show them how to make some part of their work lives easier. I'm willing to blunder through some failed attempt at interaction to know what direction to take the talk.
On the walk back to the hotel, I decided that has to be how you get good at something: you care more for the skill than you do about what others think about your learning the skill.
You're willing to look like a dork.
The Internet has a Long Memory
My nephew has a social media account. He probably has a few I haven't found, and a dozen that his parents don't know about. In looking at what I believe is his main account, I have to wonder if he will ever move beyond this moment.
See, the Internet has a long memory.
When he is at his first job, the Internet will still remember his college days. When he is in college, the Internet will still remember his high school days. When he is in high school, the Internet will still remember his junior high school days, his elementary school days, and, thanks to me, his toddler and infant days.
He won't be able to move beyond those moments. They are there online. On Facebook. On Twitter. On Instagram. Out there for the world to see.
He won't be able to move beyond his mistakes, if he decides later that what was a good idea now turns out to be not such a good idea then.
He won't be able to reinvent himself in ways that I could when I was younger and my family moved to a different state, or when I moved away for college, or on to my first job.
There's a release in being able to reinvent yourself, in being able to leave a space and time, and become who you want to be, become who you can be. There's a growth that happens when you learn from your mistakes and leave a part of your history behind.
I worry about my nephew, about his generation and those after him. I don't know that they will ever have that chance to reinvent themselves.
The Internet has a long memory.
Second Best Time
A friend from many years ago emailed me recently. In part of our email exchange, he talked about parts of his life I had missed in the years we hadn't been in touch. He let me know about a new hobby, and commented, "This is something I should have started thirty years ago."
Not much of the conversation stuck with me other than that comment of his, which was accompanied in my mind with the (possibly a) Chinese proverb:
"The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now."
In contrast to the quote, my friend's comment seemed hard to me. "Should" can be such an ugly word, especially when used with regret. It is judgemental. It is dismissive. It assumes you were wrong with a previous choice.
"I should have done this."
"I shouldn't have done that."
We are all making the best choices we can for ourselves, given the constraints of knowledge, time, and motivation at any moment. Who is to say that one choice is better than the next, even when looking back?
So, yeah, maybe my friend should have predicted the future with uncanny accuracy and known when he was five what he wanted to do for his entire life. I maybe I should be kicking myself for things I've done or left undone.
I'm not going to kick, though. Instead, I'm going to go plant a tree.
Today is the second best day to do it.
Let me repeat that back to you.
I was trying to explain to my dev lead what problem I was having that day. I wasn't sure how much background to give. I wasn't sure how well I had explained my frustration. He asked me to listen to him explain back to me what I had said, and I realized I had explained it well enough that he understood. He could help unblock me on the problem.
"Let me repeat that back to you."
We were in a heated argument. He was frustrated because he believed I wasn't listening to him. I was frustrated because he kept saying the same thing over and over again. So, in the span of one breath, I asked him to listen to me as I described what I thought we were arguing about, and why we were arguing. He realized I was listening. He felt I understood. We resolved our argument quickly after that.
"Let me repeat that back to you."
Out on the ultimate field, a teammate kept running the play incorrectly. The sideline wanted to pull her from the game, even though she was one of our strongest players, mistakes and all. When asked during a timeout what she thought the play was, we all realized the second interpretation of how the play was run. From her understanding, she was doing it correctly and thought the play was a crappy play. Only when she repeated the play back to us did we realize the error and correct.
"Let me repeat that back to you."
Why do we generally suck at something as crucial as being able to communicate with another person? I don't know. What I do know is that listening, and then repeating back what I heard, in my own words, does wonders for letting the other know my level of understanding, for letting the other person know they have been heard, and for helping the two of us move towards a better understanding.
"Let me repeat that back to you."
To ensure I am making progress towards my lifetime goals, every week I pull out my list of lifetime goals and ask myself, "What can I do this week to move me closer to achieving these goals?" The answers become my list of mini-goals for the week.
Each morning I create my to-do list for the day, adding my appointments, meetings, work tasks, maintenance items, exercise, and commuting. I'm careful to add items each day from my weekly list of mini-goals, and try not to plan more than 6 hours in my day. I recognize that new things come up, and planned things often take longer than I anticipate. Six is the magic number of hours for me for what I can plan and still complete. If I manage to complete those six hours of tasks in a day, I'm satisfied.
This past week, when I was reviewing my previous week and planning what actions to add from my lifetime goal list for this week, I noticed that four undone tasks for last week were the same four undone tasks from the week before. I remember looking at the items during the week, and thinking, "Meh, tomorrow." For a couple of these undone tasks, I did that multiple days in a row. This was unusual enough for me that I had to ask myself, "What is this telling me? What am I not acknowledging in myself?"
So, I added these mini-goals onto my weekly list (yes, again), and started listening in the morning, when I had a chance to add them to my daily list, and during the day, when I had a chance to do them, and chose not to do the task. I listened, and, being gentle with myself, tried to figure out why I wasn't doing these tasks.
The first thing I heard myself say was:
"I don't want to do them right now."
This happens. Sometimes I'm not in the mood to do a task. It's morning and I haven't fully woken up yet. It's the end of the day and I'm tired. It's lunch and I'm hungry. It's mid-afternoon and I want to finish this other, perhaps easier, task. It's any time of the day and I'd rather be reading a book than doing whatever this thing is.
Whenever it is, I can usually remind myself, "I don't have to be in the mood to work on this." As E.B. White said, “A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word to paper.” The same applies to most anything. I don't have to be in the mood to do the task, I just need to do it.
This reminder often helps, but doesn't always work.
Scheduling a specific time in my calendar, making it a priority, works better.
I don't have to be in the mood to go to the meeting at work. I don't have to be in the mood to do laundry. I don't have to be in the mood to wash the dishes. I don't have to be in the mood to do any of the things on my list, but in some way or another I committed to doing them. Whether to my employer, to my friends, or to myself, I committed.
Schedule it, and do it.
And then I heard:
"I don't want to do them."
In reality I was saying, "I don't want to do this at all." Okay, this one is different than not in the mood. I'm saying, I don't want to do the work to accomplish this task, I just want to have accomplished the task. I had to wonder, "Do I want to do this, or do I want to have done this?"
That question comes from a ski trip in college after two friends, Chris and George, skiied down a particularly difficult double black diamond. When the two of them returned at the end of the day, they were exhausted. Chris let the rest of us know that he and George had gone down the hard run, and George exclaimed it was the hardest run he had ever done, and he hadn't even wanted to do it. He was terrified the whole time. Chris turned to him somewhat confused and said, "But, you said you wanted to do it!"
George answered, "No, I said, I wanted to have done it, I never said I wanted to do it."
I love/hate this statement because it illustrates how so many dreams never blossom into reality: "I want to have done it, I don't want to do it."
Maybe this goal of mine is something I want to have done, but don't want to do. If I don't want to do the work, it's time to cross it off the list as never-do and move on. It's okay to let dreams go, replace them with other ones.
I crossed it off my list, and moved on to the next task.
I heard myself comment:
"It's too stressful to do."
One of these recurring tasks is particularly stressful for me. If I'm not working on the task or even starting the task because of stress, the first thing I need to ask is, "How do I make this less stressful?"
First thing I can think of to do see if I can give this task to someone else. Can I pay someone else to do this? The task won't be done perfectly (let's be realistic here, I wouldn't have done it perfectly either), but it will be done. There might be more time spent on explaining what I want and checking in on progress, but I, myself, won't be doing the work.
An advantage to this solution is that the person doing the work likely is not as emotionally involved in the task as I am. Without the emotion-clouding thoughts and stress-inducing viewpoints, the person doing the job can likely finish faster and with better results that I can.
That's my first plan.
My second plan is to consider if I'm blowing things out of proportion. Taking stock of the task, not for a long time, but maybe a few minutes, pondering about what is the worst that can happen if things go poorly with this task, will reset my expectations and help me realize, hey, you know what, this isn't as bad as I think.
With the reduced stress levels, okay, I can tackle the task. I have it on my list for a reason, so let's get to it.
But sometimes, the stress does have a reason.
"I don't want to deal with the fall out."
I'm not a fan of confrontations. With the response options of fight or flight, my choice has historically been flight: avoid the confrontation and wait it out. Perhaps needless to say, this approach has not always been the best one (for well-chosen definitions of "best").
This one I'm still working on, with the help of incredible co-workers, opportunities with coaches, and the book Crucial Conversations. The book is recommended by many upper-level people at work, and describes how to have conversations when opinions differ, emotions are strong, and the stakes are high.
So far so good.
Again, taking some time to walk through various scenarios of the possible consequences of my tasks reminds me that I'm assuming the worst possible outcome, and projecting my fears onto another. Perhaps things aren't as bad as I think they are. If I approach as honestly, as kindly, and as objectively as I can, maybe things will work out.
Maybe the fall out won't be so bad.
And so, I arrive at the last reason I hear from myself:
"Starting is hard."
Let's be realistic here, I think, THIS ONE is the real reason I tend not finish my tasks. I don’t finish because I haven't started. Once I start, I'm usually lost to the world, completely absorbed in whatever I’m doing. Yet, I have some mental barrier to starting some tasks. I just Can't. Get. Started. I'm certainly not finishing this task if I can't even start it!
The mental barrier to starting can be time: I need at least an hour to finish this and I have only 20 minutes. The barrier can be choice: I'm totally going to work on th...OOOOOO LOOK SHINY! It can be location: I'm in a loud coffee shop with no internet connection. It can be resources: I need to look up this particular statistic before I finish this one paragraph. The barrier can be process: I need to work on part D, but I need to finish part A before I start part B, to finish part B before I start part C, to finish part C before I start part D. The barrier can be size: ugh, this task is too big. The barrier can be lack of knowledge: I don't know where to start.
I need to remind myself that all of these mental barriers are surmountable or removable.
Did I make the task too big? If so, what is the smallest action I can take that will help me start this task?
For my writing tasks, opening the editor, loading my manuscript, and searching for the string "RIGHT HERE" (the last thing I write when I stop writing mid-piece, so that I know where I to start for the next session), is often enough to kickstart my writing sessions. I changed my task this week to, "Open book in editor." I can do that.
Do I have only 20 minutes to work on this, but it'll take an hour? That's okay, I'll be 20 minutes further along than I was before! Go go go!
Am I in the wrong place to concentrate? That's okay, I can practice my acceptance of the situation and work it to my advantage. Maybe something in the cacophony will improve this task?
Do I really need to do A to do B to do C to do D? What I really want to accomplish is D. What other ways can I finish D? Can I do half of D?
And when I don't know where to start, I can start back at the beginning: the requirements of this task in the first place. What problem am I trying to solve with this task? Is it as easy as clean clothes, or as complicated as world hunger? The beginning is where I can start.
Because that's the key to most of these barriers I've placed in front of me.
This week, I have strong hopes of finishing those thus-far-not-done-for-three-weeks tasks. This week, I’ll move closer to completing some of my lifetime goals.
How about you? How's your week looking?
Last time I went to buy socks, I bought 32 pairs of socks, all white, all of the same style. These 32 pairs of socks replaced the remaining 10 pairs of white socks I had purchased years before. I had decided long ago to optimize for efficienty, both at laundry time and in the morning. By buying socks all of the same color and style, I didn't have to pair them when folding my clothes. I also didn't have to worry about grabbing socks in the morning, I grabbed two socks from the basket and off I went.
Last Christmas, I received a set of six pairs of short colored socks with bears on them. They're variations of pink, tan, grey and black. They are colorful and goofy and girlie and completely not my style.
And they are wonderful.
I smile every time I put on a pair in the morning.
I grin every time I see them when I cross my legs and notice the color as it peeks out from below my pant line.
I chuckle every time I take them off at night.
I might just wear out these socks by having them in full rotation every week.
They bring me unexpected moments of delight during my day. So much so that I have finally realized that for years I had been optimizing for the wrong thing. Instead of optimizing for efficiency, I should be optimizing for delight.
My new mission: find ways to optimize for unexpected delight.
I'm open to suggestions.
Easier to keep up than catch up
Years ago, I ran cross-country in High School. I wasn't very good at it.
I would run too fast at the beginning of the race, putz along at a snail's pace in the middle of the run, then sprint at the end of the race. I continued this particular style of cross-country "racing" into college. Every once in a while I'd have an okay run, mostly because I'd see some teammate not that far in front of me and I'd run my heart out to catch up with her.
Long after college, on some particularly long hike with a friend, we stopped for a rest. After the rest turned long, during one of my long-winded stories about my lack of running ability, my friend turned to me and commented, "You know it's easier to keep up than it is to catch up."
Of course, intellectually I knew this. Even in childhood, the tortoise wins over the hare, slow and steady wins the race. And yet, even on that hike when I knew a steady pace was going to keep us with the rest of our companions, I wanted a break, we'd catch up later.
Wow, what a theme that thought had become.
I don't need to invest for retirement now, I'll catch up later when I'm earning more.
I don't need to let my significant other know I love him, I'll let him know later how much I love him.
I don't need to write these 1000 words today, I'll catch up tomorrow with 2000 words in this NaNoWriMo novel.
I don't need to worry about this bug, I'll fix it tomorrow when I'm more refreshed.
I don't need to go for a run today, I'll just go for a longer run tomorrow.
I don't need to skip this dessert, I'll just forgo the extra calories later.
Years later, my retirement account isn't as big as I calculated I needed. My significant other is no longer my significant other. I didn't finish that novel. The number of bugs for this project is so many I want to rewrite the thing and start over. I'm winded playing Ultimate in ways I never was before, and, yes, I'm carrying a few more pounds than I want to be.
I know of very few things in life where catching up is better than keeping up. Maybe illnesses of old age could be one? Okay, yes, YES. I'd like to be free of any dementia, cancers, arthritis, or osteoporosis until right before I die. Then I'll catch up with everyone. That'd be great!
Realistically, however, catching up is really hard. Sprinting at the end is so much harder than jogging in the middle.
It's hard to fund a savings plan that you haven't been contributing to.
It's hard to fix a customer-facing problem that has cascaded into an avalanche.
It's hard to learn a new technology that you haven't seen before, aren't even aware of.
It's hard to lose those few or many pounds that have creeped on.
It's hard to write a book that you haven't been obsessed with writing.
It's hard to repair a relationship that you haven't embraced and maintained.
It's hard to achieve that life goal that you haven't thought about in years.
Small steps move us forward. They may not be the amazing, overnight success stories we hear about, but that's because you don't hear about the thousand small steps that contributed to that overnight success story.
Most of us will not win the lottery: we can still save for retirement. We can still work towards those life goals. We can start that journey of a thousand miles, and take one step every day until we've made it.
Just one small step a day to keep up.
So that we don't have to catch up.
I was sitting on the bench in the locker room next to my roommate. We were talking fashion, of which I have no sense. To compensate, I related what a coworker with lots of fashion sense had told me just the day before: that no one should ever wear navy blue and black together. I stood up, turned around and saw a woman I had spent the previous hour with in plyometrics training, glaring at me.
She was in a navy blue and black business suit.
I was the unintentional asshole who just insulted her clothes.
I was talking with a friend, waiting for a third friend to arrive for lunch. We were talking about nothing much that I remember when the third friend plopped down in the chair between us, dropping a copy of Tales of the City on the table as he sat down. I looked at the book, then up at him, and asked, "Are you gay?"
He was. He is.
I was the unintentional asshole who just outed my friend before he chose to tell us.
I was standing in line for food at conference just last October. A friend of mine who had moved from Quebec to Toronto was telling a story about how the government worker at some Quebec government office refused to help him because he didn't speak French. One of the many reasons he moved, he said, the insulting French people. "As French people are!" I echoed, as I turned to see one of the the nicest, sweetest women I knew standing in line behind him.
She's French Canadian.
I was the unintentional asshole who just called her, her whole family, and her culture, insulting.
In none of these moments, admittedly small in the grand scheme of things, was I deliberately a jerk. I was repeating, clarifying, and agreeing. All potentially positive actions. And yet, in each case I was definitely an asshole. Unintentionally to be sure, but an asshole none-the-less.
I'm in good company: we are all unintentional assholes.
For the most part, we don't mean to be such jerks. Sometimes we're just lost in our view, in our desire to fit in, in our distractions of modern life, in our own world. We're blind and don't see the results of our actions. And we aren't aware necessarily how our actions are going to be interpreted, much less how they might interpreted absent any context. We blurt out things. We say things to agree with those around us. We have our cultural biases that were learned so subtly we don't realize we even have them. We have our own space and react to protect it.
In all of this, we aren't out to hurt the other person. We aren't trying to make the other person look bad. We aren't trying to thwart a coworker's progress. We aren't trying waste someone else's time. We aren't trying to be condescending. We aren't choosing to be biased in a way that alienates a culture, a gender, a sexuality, or choice.
And yet we do it all the time.
When called out, however, we can choose not to be defensive.
In that moment of assholery realization, whether from the silence after the faux pas when everyone stares at us, or from the moment of reflection later when we realize our mistake, or from someone actually calling us out on the hurt of our words, we can choose to listen.
We can choose to correct for that moment, to reflect, to apologize, to stop, to be aware for the next time.
We can choose not to be an unintentional asshole.
Celebrating the Partial Successes
"I had two today."
My roommate had decided to quit smoking. Down from a pack a day, she had had only two cigarettes, and seemed to be down on herself.
"That's 18 you didn't have! That's great!"
"Down four pounds."
My coworker was losing weight. Having been trying for only a week, he was down four pounds, and seemed disappointed in himself for not having lost the five he had set as his goal.
"Four pounds! That's great! That's four pounds closer to your goal weight!"
"We launched today. We only had two sales."
My friend had launched the site he had been building for a couple months. He had gone lean and gone all in, working on his site obsessively. He wasn't very excited.
"Whoo! You launched! You had sales! Let's celebrate!"
"I'm not sure."
"Life is a journey, not a destination," We've all heard that quote from Emerson. I'm usually guilty of thinking, "Yes, yes, of course, that's right, I know that. Journey," and keep moving on with what I'm doing at the time.
Yet, how many times do we pause on that journey and look around, see how far we have come along that path? How many times do we celebrate the small successes along the way to accomplishing the big goal?
How many times do we see that while we may not have managed the goal, the journey was still worth taking? Worse, how many times do we move that goal farther away from us?
Small victories are worth celebrating.
Rising out of bed and starting a day is worthy of celebrating with a stretch, a smile, and an acknowledgement that, hey, I woke up!
Going for a run, a ride, a class, feeling the movement and learning what your body can do is worthy of celebrating.
That small exercise of will-power, not buying something you don't need, is worthy of celebrating.
Practicing a new skill, even if the result is not what you'd like, is worthy of celebrating. I'd argue especially if the result isn't what you'd like, it's worth celebrating.
Failure is a part of all of this. Maybe celebrating the partial successes can also be.
The Advice I Didn't Give
A friend contacted me today and promptly stated, “I want to ask your advice, and when I ask this question, don’t laugh at me.”
I had not realized I was known for laughing at my friends’ questions.
After I promised not to laugh at his question, he asked me,
Without sleeping less, how can I do more with my time?
What a zinger! And well phrased. He didn’t ask how could he get more time: none of us can, we each have 23.9344699 hours in a day, no more, no fewer. He didn’t offer to sacrifice one of the best activities you can do to keep healthy: sleep. He didn’t ask what could he do: he asked how could he do. I immediately jumped to the obvious suggestions:
Remove tasks that are busy-work
Don’t do anything that doesn’t contribute to your one year, three year, five year, ten year and lifetime goals. Unfortunately, I rather assumed he had considered his lifetime goals, and had a plan for those year breakouts. I charged forward, undeterred.
Delegate to a personal assistant
If someone else can do it and you have the means, pay someone else to do it.
I recall reading a story about a man who had moved to a country with a lower cost of living than his home country. In his new location, hiring staff to do household chores and upkeep was common. He was uncomfortable displaying his wealth in such a way, and refused to hire help, doing his own chores and laundry instead. His neighbours soon resented him and his stingy ways. Later, he realized that hiring local staff and paying a fair wage, meant he was contributing to the local economy and able to share his success.
I think of this story often, when I feel guilty for paying someone to complete a task I know I can do, should do. I gave the advice anyway: if you haven’t done the task yet, and still need it done, pay a fair wage and have someone else do it.
Commit to working quickly
Tasks fill up the time allotted, just as stuff will fill up the space allotted. Have an hour, and the tasks that should take you five minutes will take 59 minutes. There’s some quantum physics space time continuum thingy working against you on that one.
Set a clock for seventeen minutes (or whatever your favourite prime number is) and work on a task as fast as you can for those seventeen minutes, then stop and take a break. Those breaks are great.
I don’t know anyone who has failed to become more productive working quickly with this Pomodoro Technique. I also don’t know anyone who has managed to stick to it for more than a month.
Use the small bits of unused time in your day
Oh, boy, I was on a roll with my friend. I was sure I had added HOURS to his day with my suggestions. I was sure he was on the other side of the electrons nodding at all this gold-level advice I was giving him. How could he not be?
Be productive when you’re standing in line, walking to the train, or commuting. Use the small bits of the day that are lost because you don’t have under-ten-minute tasks that can be done on the move. Don’t play some game, I told him, use that time productively!
Schedule (and stick to) working out
Because after sleep, working out, moving, playing around at a park, physical movement is the best thing you can do for your own sanity and health.
Schedule relaxation time
If you’re going to cram your day full, give yourself some down time and allow your mind to just float, relax, and be. Schedule a massage, take a long shower, take two showers, meditate, doodle, anything to let your mind wander.
And then, I thought, here’s the diamond of all my advice. Here’s where the heavens open up with golden light and the trumpets sound.
Stop doing crap things
If a task doesn’t contribute to your well-being, stop doing it. Often times, that stopping is hard, impossibly hard. I might Miss Out On A Great Experience. Oh noes! I think, accompanied by some handwaving. If it doesn’t bring joy or lead to joy in your life, stop doing it.
And after all that great advice, I sat back feeling pretty smart about myself. I asked him, “So, how’d I do?”
He had recently become a manager, and commented, “I always knew leading was hard, but I didn’t fully understand the toll it takes until I became a manager. I mean, it’s 99% captain obvious level decision making, but the act of making decisions all day is exhausting.”
And I realized I hadn’t given him the advice he needed most.
Be gentle with yourself
You’ll make mistakes, trying to always make the right decision. You won’t get it right 100% of the time. Work will ask for more and more of you. Ask for help, tell them no, commit to nothing new, set expectations quickly when you have bad news, stop trying to do more with your time, and in it all, be gentle with yourself.
I have this task at the top of my to-do list:
Commit to nothing new today.
I rarely cross it off, as much as I try. My default answer when asked if I can do something, is "Yes." That answer comes from my consulting background, where the answer is always yes: "Yes, we can do that." "Yes, that's possible." "Yes, that's a great idea, let's figure out how to build it." When consulting, time and budget could limit the scope of my completed task list, but they never really limited my to-do list.
Anyone who is a chronic over-committer understands my struggle. The default “yes” answer results in a long, never-finished, ever-growing to-do list that eventually becomes overwhelming to the point where the only possible solution is to burn it in the fireplace, flush its ashes down the toilet, and start again.
In that clean slate moment of starting over, I believe I can keep the next iteration of my to-do list small. First item on that new list is, “Commit to nothing new today.”
As the list starts to grow, I need to remind myself that I have a finite amount of time. Work is never-ending; my life and my free time are not. There is a balance in there, between completing the work I have committed to finishing for my employer, and achieving the non-work goals I have set for myself. That balance requires accepting my limits, setting expectations well, and not adding more tasks to my to-do list.
The most effective tool in my task-adding-gremlins-thwarting toolbox? The question,
"Which of these tasks has the highest priority?"
When I ask this of my clients, it helps remind them their resources are finite and helps them focus on what matters.
When I ask this of my tech-leads and managers, it helps remind them there's one of me. I can work on only one task at a time. I don't always know the ramifications of a missed deadline, but they should if they're adjusting my work day. The question helps them focus on what matters.
When I ask myself, it reminds me to focus on the tasks that matter to me, to add only HELL YEAH-type projects to my to-do list; to recognize when I add an item to the list, I may not have time for it or for a different item already on the list. It helps me resist the busy work that seems to drain the day away.
It helps me focus on what matters.
So, on those rare days I do manage to commit to nothing new ... yeah, well, I'll smile a bit the next day, and add it back to the top of my task list, “Commit to nothing new today.”
Years ago, Erica Douglass posted a tweet at 11:11, asking what her followers were doing at that moment. 11:11 is a time that she noted, and used as a moment of mindfulness. I liked the idea enough that I set an alarm for 11:11, and started a journal to track what I, too, was doing during that minute. A while later, I started tracking 20:11, which changed to 20:12, 20:13 and 20:14 as the years progressed.
As 2014 ended, I finished my multi-year 11:11/20:14 tracking journal. I start a new one today. With that new journal, as with most new things, I have the excitement of the beginning: everything is fresh, the page is blank, I haven’t made any mistakes, hope is high, yes, this, THIS is going to be my year.
That’s how beginnings are for me: moments of perfection with imagined, grandiose plans that haven’t faltered, haven’t been marred by reality, haven’t hit the grind-it-out point where the only thing that can be done is to clench my teeth, put my head down and work through it.
Beginnings are wonderful, exciting, short-lived, euphoric, and dangerous. Dangerous, because it’s not the beginning that makes the goal worthwhile, it’s the middle where the work is done on the way to the end.
So, as excited as I am about this new journal, it’s the filled journal that shows me how far I’ve come.
I can look back through this completed 11:11 journal and see my life unfold. I see the months with 11:00 standup meetings. I see the weekend hikes. I see the birthday parties. I see the conferences I went to. I see joys I had. I see the heartaches I endured. I see the new friends I met. I see the old friends I visited and the walks we took. I see the growth I had.
This small act of noting 11:11 provides me a large history. It reminds me that the excitement of a beginning wears off, leaving habits and consistent effort to carry me to the end.
And consistency is the key in all of this.
Consistency is the small effort that happens every day, that only in looking back do we see the effort that created something big, something great, something meaningful.
Consistency is lacing up the skates and skating up and down the rink for hours after school for months, until skating backwards is as easy as forward and both are as automatic as breathing.
Consistency is making 100 throws a day to an empty field, throwing, gathering the frisbees, and throwing again, until the hucks are easy and the low release is mastered.
Consistency is doing one push-up a day, just one. It’s easy, and while you’re down there, might as well do another 59, your muscles are already warm.
Consistency is putting on your running shoes and walking outside. And, really, once you’re out there, might as well go for a run, too.
Consistency is writing one more functional test before committing the code change, not knowing if your future-self will ever need it.
Consistency is updating the internal documentation when you find it incomplete, knowing your future-self will need it.
Consistency is automating one more part of your workflow, so that the next person on the project won’t need to do that work by hand.
Consistency is solving the next Project Euler problem, in a new programming language, because only by using a language can you master it.
Consistency is opening your book file in the editor daily, and since it’s open, why not write 500 words.
Big goals are achieved with small, consistent steps. I can’t cheat my way to mastery. I can’t cram for fitness. I can’t cram for life. And would I want to? The beginning is exciting, but the middle is where life is. The middle is where I can make consistent movement, small though it may feel sometimes, toward the big goals that are worth the effort.
The middle is where I pull out the journal, and note, “Writing about consistency for The Pastry Box” at 11:11, while looking forward to a great new year.