A New Approach to a New Year

I’m a monogamous reader. When I commit to a book, I commit. No late night flirting with other authors that I might regret in the morning. Another idiosyncrasy, I can be slow to ditch flawed books. I was on a nice reading roll during the first half of 2012, but got totally stalled in a cook book somewhere during the summer. Yes, you read correctly, a cook book! You’re forgiven for wondering what kind of imbecile sets out to read a cookbook cover to cover. The same kind that set out to read the bible from cover to cover in the sixth grade. Wasn’t able to check that one off either. Damn Leviticus.

But, I’m happy to report, my reading self is back. In fact, I may read more in January and February than all of 2012 combined, but more on why in a future post. At present, I’m wedded to Oliver Burkeman’s The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking. Although it’s clearly written, Burkeman’s ideas are so provocative and contrary to conventional wisdom, The Antidote will probably require a re-reading, making it my last book of 2012 and first of 2013.

If like me, you enjoy holding up common assumptions to the light of day, I especially recommend Chapter Four, “Goal Crazy: When Trying to Control the Future Doesn’t Work”. In short, Burkeman convincingly argues that most everything you and I have been taught about goal setting is flawed. In part, his argument rests on what went wrong on Mount Everest in 1996 when many climbers died because they didn’t turn around in time to survive the descent. In his view, Krakauer’s Into Thin Air analysis is “ultimately dissatisfying” as an explanation.

He finds Chris Kayes’ interpretation more persuasive. Kayes, a former stockbroker turned business professor and expert on organizational behavior, suspects the climbers were “lured into destruction by their passion for goals”. Burkeman writes of Hayes, “His hypothesis was that the more they fixated on the endpoint—a successful summiting of the mountain—the more that goal became not just an external target but a part of their own identities, of their senses of themselves as accomplished guides or high-achieving amateurs.”

“If his hunch about the climbers was right,” Burkeman adds, “it would have become progressively more difficult for them to sacrifice their goal, despite accumulating evidence that it was becoming a suicidal one. Indeed, that accumulating evidence. . . would have hardened the climbers’ determination not to turn back. The climb would have become a struggle not merely to reach the summit, but to preserve their sense of identity.”

One take-away from the chapter is that there are often unintended consequences when people focus intensely on especially lofty goals. Kayes points out that the mountaineers who died climbing Everest in 1996 did successfully reach their goal: they ascended to the summit. The tragic unintended consequence was that they didn’t make it back down.

Burkeman also offers up a  challenge—to become more comfortable with uncertainty, to turn towards it, to exploit the potential hidden within it, both to feel better in the present and to achieve more success in the future. Burkeman sites a person who says the key to this approach is to think more like a frog. “You should sun yourself on a lily-pad until you get bored; then, when the time is right, you should jump to a new lily-pad and hang out there for awhile. Continue this over and over, moving in whatever direction feels right.” The imagery of sunbathing on lily-pads isn’t mean to imply laziness, the emphasis is on enjoying one’s work in the present rather than postponing happiness based upon endless five year plans.

Burkeman’s thinking challenges my default tendencies to plan and set goals. My goal for 2013? Have fewer goals and turn towards uncertainty.

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Not Sure

What’s the optimal timeframe for “To Do” lists, a day, a week, a month, a year, a lifetime? I’m not sure. A day seems far too short, a year and lifetime unhelpfully long, unless the list is filled with BHAGs. For some people it’s all about the week ahead and the Sunday p.m. planning is key.

Maybe the optimal timeframe boils down to the nature of the “to dos” on the list. The vast majority of mine are of the daily/weekly variety and that’s probably why I get stuck in “tyranny of the urgent” mode. Of course it feels good to check off “clear my inbox,” “read papers 2.1-2.4,” and “call X back,” but only on the surface because it’s frustrating not to make progress on weightier, more meaningful medium and/or long-term projects.

If I subdivide my “To Do” list into daily, weekly, and monthly subsections, I predict I’ll still get stuck in the daily thicket. I’ve read some productivity lit and I think I need to breakdown my medium and or long-term project-related “to dos” into numerous small, specific “to dos”. I should also take more time to “plan backwards” by figuring out when I want to complete the medium and long-termers and then determine what intermediary steps and related deadlines make the most sense.

Truth be told, determining the perfect timeframe and wording my “to dos” with greater specificity probably won’t result in a radical increase in productivity. For that I think I need to combine improved “to doing” with greater self discipline to read and immediately act on email once in the a.m. and once in the p.m. Right now, there’s too much email water torture going on.

Eastward Ho

Conventional wisdom suggests we should be planning for the year ahead writing down specific, measurable personal finance, family, health, intellectual, work, service, spiritual goals. Fools don’t plan to fail, they fail to plan.

I’m just not feelin’ it.

Instead, I’m at a point in my life where positive processes hold more allure than specific, measurable goals. Rather than focus on tangible products, I want to tweak my already healthy daily routines that create positive momentum in my life.

If I remember to whom much is given much is required, spend an hour or two a day moving, save more than I spend, read and write regularly, pay attention to my wife and daughters, and do right by my friends, students, and co-workers, 2010 will turn out well.