Saturday, 22 December 2012

The Routine Less Travelled

You know it's a bad scene when it's been more than a three week delay to put together a post about beating procrastination. *sigh* Oh the irony. Incidentally, I don't know if you've noticed how distracting the internet can be...

Philosoraptor - Shouldn't It Lead to the Best Things

"But getting stuff done isn't that complicated." you may say. "Just stop goofing around so much!" Well first of all, that's easier said than done. Secondly, and this may sound silly, "hard work" is much harder work than it sounds. No really, you should try it! And I don't mean that one night you chugged twelve coffees and stayed up all night to do... whatever, by the flickering blue light of your monitor. I mean sustained, sustainable hard work that you can then use to "realize your dreams" and what not. It doesn't help that the media we consume everyday focuses almost exclusively on the result; the end of the race, the knockout punch, the moment of victory... the exclamation at the end of the sentence! "Real-life" is presented as a never-ending series of climactic moments, happening one after another in full HD splendor. Oh, and have another Coke while you're at it.

But then clearly there are people who have made something of themselves. Elon Musk, for example. Here's a man whose entrepreneurial journey has led him from founding all the way to his latest company SpaceX, whose mission is " ultimately enable people to live on other planets". Nothing cooler than a guy whose factory floor was used for the filming of IronMan 2, while also probably being the director's inspiration for the portrayal of Tony Stark. But what can us ordinary folk do? Clearly these people must have some edge, some special ingredient that gives them the drive and determination to accomplish so much. Maybe if I could just find out what cereal he eats in the morning...

But then again, Albert Einstein spent years working at a relatively menial clerk position in a patent office before he became recognized by the physics community. Athletes prepare for years to shave the merest fractions of a second off their times. Good singers don't become awesome just by doing lots of karaoke. It would appear as if there's more to the picture than just the Kodak moments that we focus on. While there's definitely an aspect of natural talent involved, greatness seems to be built from the ground up. The challenge for us seems to be more in consistently harnessing the little things rather than expecting success (whatever that means to you) to come suddenly in one big epic moment.

If I may, it seems to me that the trick is to figure out how much it's possible to do in a given day. Lets say everyone has a certain number of "Decision Credits" available per day. So on a day when you wake up feeling great, you have more credits. Or you wake up with a runny nose and don't feel like getting out of bed, that's less credits to use. It also explains that feeling where you're literally "spent" at the end of a long day. A post on the 'Four Hour Work Week' blog calls this state "Ego Depletion". Of course, all this is purely subjective; even some super successful, super healthy person probably has days where they feel shitty but the key thing is the concept of a limited amount of energy to put to use.

If that's true, then it would make sense to make to invest each Decision Credit carefully to make sure one gets the most out of it. At the same time, expend as little energy as possible on decisions that could be made automatic by setting up, say, an auto-pilot schedule. How that works is that you schedule repeating tasks on particular days so that from day to day you only have to manage the unpredictable stuff. Stuff like this is a one-time cost that then pays huge dividends in the amount of mind-space it would free each day. In fact a lot of the anxiety people deal with day-to-day probably stems from a feeling of constantly having forgotten something. And this sort of "background fear" constantly erodes away at your already limited stock of credits.

But planning isn't enough without knowing what to plan for. Here, Maslow's Heirarchy of Needs might be of some help. 

Maslow's Hierarchy of NeedsLets say that you're deeply concerned with making a name for yourself in whatever field you're in but you find yourself constantly frustrated by failure. Taking a cue from Maslow's pyramid, maybe your "foundation" isn't strong enough to support you so you find yourself struggling. Whether it's starting a business or even just learning the guitar or trying to take better care of yourself, ultimately some kind of support structure is required to succeed. So initially spending credits on the basics will then free up mind-space over time to start being awesome at higher levels. Even if your current situation doesn't allow you to take time off to get everything exactly right, keeping the pyramid in mind gives a sort of framework in which to make the best use of what's available.

One last thing to be said about routines is that it's sad that they've been so maligned and misrepresented, to the point where the very word has become a synonym for druggery and "same ol' same ol'". But Barry Shwartz put it interestingly in a Ted talk on The Paradox of Choice. While talking about the importance of having some basic structures, he used the example of a fish in a bowl. The bowl itself is definitely a limitation on what is possible but say the bowl is shattered, now truly everything is possible. But instead of freedom, what the fish gets is paralysis because effectively nothing is possible.

Final thoughts 

Ultimately all of this is about freedom. Freedom from worry and anxiety, freedom to do the things you really want to do with your time. Procrastination essentially amounts to a daily tax that you impose on your dreams. Tomorrow, if the opportunity you've been waiting for presents itself, you should be in the best possible position to take it. Weird as it might sound, it's the simple, normal stuff that we take for granted that might be the difference between success and failure.

“We are not made for the mountains, for sunrises, or for the other beautiful attractions in life - those are simply intended to be moments of inspiration. We are made for the valley and the ordinary things of life and that is where we have to prove our stamina and strength.” 
~ Oswald Chambers

Any idiot can face a crisis - it's day to day living that wears you out.
~ Anton Chekhov 


A word of caution...

With all this talk of scheduling however, there is a danger in taking all of it too far. After all, life as such has it's own inherent roughness and doesn't always conveniently fit itself to schedules. Plus, to think that one has any kind of complete control over life would be self-delusion at it's most epic. The important thing to understand is that having a routine is only a kind of framework and shouldn't become a thing unto itself.

“Because one does not want to be disturbed, to be made uncertain, he establishes a pattern of conduct, of thought, a pattern of relationship to man etc. Then he becomes a slave to the pattern and takes the pattern to be the real thing.”
~Bruce Lee.

Treated with a  certain healthy detachment however, a routine can become an invaluable tool to help you do whatever you want.

What do you think, what're some of the tricks you use to conserve "Decision Credits". Leave me some comments. :)