Two weeks. Every day one or more intense conversations. In each of them, gesturing to myself a reminder to practice.
- What’s the objective of this conversation? How will I judge myself at the end of it? What standards will I use? How do my objectives in this conversation align with my vision? What will I ask myself after I walk away from this conversation? How will I answer? How will I account for my behavior?
- What is my plan to get from here to there?
- Be present. Do it. Breathe slowly through your nose. Actively listen. Visualize what they are saying. Do you understand what they are saying? Are you sure?
- What happened? How did that go? What do I need to adjust?
Cycle. Cycle. Cycle. 1, 2, 3, 4. Cycle, cycle, cycle.
Why such focus on conversations? Because this is how we inch forward. Each one, learning a little more. Refining an idea a little more. I’m not trying to convince anyone of anything. No persuasion. Only trying to articulate as clearly as possible, to understand as completely as possible. I am a member of an organism.
It seems that massive failures occur one conversation at a time. One casual conversation after another. Why are things going so poorly? I don’t know. Let’s have a casual conversation about it. It’s still happening. Hum.
So, I have burned a lot of hours in these conversations. I have proposed to explain the methods by which to solve our problems. Explained step by step. Laid out the next steps. Set the calendar dates. Updated the “Current State” and the “Next Task” in my spreadsheet. 5 items with a priority of 100. (Importance 10; Urgency 10. Multiply.) 5 is my limit.
Task = Objective + Method
What are the transformations that must occur?
Unclear or missing plans for accomplishing our objectives on schedule → Obstacles → Questions → Experiments → Answers → Steps of plans → Complete, clear and accurate plans detailing the steps by which we will accomplish our objectives on schedule → implement and monitor the independent variables against the standards → daily failures to meet standards → obstacles → questions → experiments → answers → revised steps….and if we show our plan to the judges and they scrutinize it and ask the most difficult questions, and the plan bears scrutiny, then we should try it and use careful sensors and monitor the correlations.
This has been my sermon. I have endeavored to die to the self and live for this method.
We can see that Lean is a cultural application of the scientific method to manufacturing processes, and that communities for decades have have struggled heroically to apply Lean concepts to office processes. How has that worked out? So let’s just go back. How do we develop scientific behavior? That’s Rother’s question. That’s the question.
There was a conversation, with the one I love the most, that went poorly. Of course. Each day subsequent to it, for five days, we had conversations about it, each one difficult but rewarding. On the fifth day, we talked about the questions that I had asked her in the first conversation. They made her uncomfortable.
When Brit and I were discussing, I asked her some questions, and they made her uncomfortable. That was Thursday. This discomfort came up again each day afterwards, over the Christmas weekend. On Tuesday, as I was preparing to leave OKC after the four-day weekend, and go back to Tulsa, we talked about that conversation.
I proposed that next time I raise a question that makes her uncomfortable, she mention that, and I will recall this conversation with her, and we will discuss what she sees as the implications of the question, and we can work together to raise questions that she finds more interesting and helpful. She said that she felt that if we could do that, then we’d never argue again. I said, OK, well, I have a method for making it very likely that we do that, and I told her about how I just add the item to my checklist, and then I will write about it each day, in this way:
I will picture myself in a conversation with her in which I ask her an uncomfortable question and she tells me as much. I respond by thanking her for voicing her discomfort. Then we will discuss the question.
Because I will have played this visualization in my head seven times, I will already have a formative habit. So that’s what I’m doing now. Writing this summary and picturing this discussion about questions makes me very likely to behave more reasonably next time I consider asking someone a question.
What do I mean by more reasonably? I mean, rather than simply thinking, “I have anxiety, and I can convert it into a question, and the question is relevant to the topic at hand, so I will ask it,” I can think, “What is my intention in this conversation? And what have I taken on as my responsibility? And how can I use questions to help fulfill my responsibility as an interlocutor?”
The terms reasonable and responsible are closely related. Why? Reasonable means “in accordance with reason” (Shorter OED, 5th). It means, one can use reason to explain one’s behavior. One’s behavior can be explained with reasons. It implies that those reasons will be adequate to an inquisitor—a judge, say. Responsible means “answerable, accountable” and also “capable of fulfilling an obligation or trust; reliable, trustworthy.” In other words, if one asks a responsible person why they performed in some way, they will be able to respond, to give an answer—a reason.
So to behave more responsibly is to behave in such a way that one’s answer to the question, “Why did you behave in that way,” is capable of withstanding greater scrutiny. If a judge asks additional questions, and interrogates the soundness of the arguments given, one who behaves as responsibly as possible will be able to give the best reasons possible.
Of course, there is being responsible and there is being skillful. One does not simply make decisions in a given conversation, but one behaves within the confines of one’s skill. So we also have to develop our skill, so that if the judge asks, “Well, why weren’t you able to perform more nimbly in this conversation,” one can reply, “I developed my skill by mentally practicing each day for seven days.”
O my judges—for you I may truly call judges—I should like to tell you of a wonderful circumstance. Hitherto the familiar oracle within me has constantly been in the habit of opposing me even about trifles, if I was going to make a slip or error about anything; and now as you see there has come upon me that which may be thought, and is generally believed to be, the last and worst evil. But the oracle made no sign of opposition, either as I was leaving my house and going out in the morning, or when I was going up into this court, or while I was speaking, at anything which I was going to say; and yet I have been stopped in the middle of a speech, but now in nothing I either said or did touching this matter has the oracle opposed me. What do I take to be the explanation of this? I will tell you. I regard this as a proof that what has happened to me is good, and that those of us who think that death is an evil are in error. This is a great proof to me of what I am saying, for the customary sign would surely have opposed me had I been going to evil and not to good.
—Socrates (via Plato, in Apology)
Is my tone too serious? Am I taking myself too seriously? Is it a detriment? That’s a good question. I look for symptoms. But my tone isn’t in reference to myself but the practice, to the rules I have adopted for myself.
Whatever rules you have adopted for yourself, abide by them as laws, and as if you would be impious to transgress them; and do not regard what anyone says of you, for this, after all, is no concern of yours. How long, then, will you delay to demand of yourself the noblest improvements, and in no instance to transgress the judgments of reason?
—Epictetus, The Handbook
And I am under the influence of sermons on how to live seriously.
If they are right to be serious about their practice—and aren’t they?—am I wrong to be serious in mine?
We know that physical cues facilitate habit formation. We know that postures can be a physical cue. In my recent post Rules, I describe hand positions I was experimenting with to remind myself to think about standards and run experiments. In the same post I talk about a turn from using PDCA terminology to use the terminology of experimentation. A question for a few months had a minor fruition for me driving from Tulsa to OKC yesterday. The two sets of finger motions (fourth to first, first to fourth) are unnecessary. What is necessary is that we reflect on what standards may apply, given our objective, and experimentation. Experimentation, fundamentally, has three phases: before, during, and after.
- Plan an experiment (think about the future)
- Run the experiment (think about the present, or the immediate future, the very next instant, which for our purposes is defined as the present)
- Reflect on the results (think about the past, and the artifacts it created, including data we collected during the experiment)
Additional phases break those three out: phases of preparation before the experiment, phases during experimentation, aspects of experimentation (including the test itself, and collecting data during the test), and all of the ways we can analyze and evaluate data after the test, propose adjustments, propose new standards based on the results, and so on.
So that leaves us with
- Thumb to index finger: think about standards
- Thumb to second finger: think about the future
- Thumb to third finger: think about the present
- Thumb to the fourth finger: think about the past.
Near the end of this lecture, Rabbi Michael Skobac talks about the use of posture in spiritual practice. “Nothing can’t be raised up into a meaningful spiritual experience.”
In his introduction to his own translation of Meditations, Gregory Hays observes about philosophy in the time of Marcus Aurelius,
Ancient philosophy certainly had its academic side. Athens and other large cities had publicly financed chairs of philosophy, and professional philosophers taught, argued, and wrote, as they do today. But philosophy also had a more practical dimension. It was not merely a subject to write or argue about, but one that was expected to provide a ‘design for living’—a set of rules to live one’s life by. This was a need not met by ancient religion, which privileged ritual over doctrine and provided little in the way of moral and ethical guidelines. Nor did anyone expect it to. That was what philosophy was for.
Is this true? Did the myths that Edith Hamilton describes in Mythology do so little to inform the daily habits of individuals? It does seem as if individuals had less say in how they spent their time. Maybe there was less need for instruction?
I’ve always wondered whether its monotheism was the innovation that made Judaism so fertile in the West. In light of Hays’s observation, was Judaism’s unique trick to intertwine the myths and rituals of religion with a set of detailed instructions, and a clever set of reasons to follow them?
I was away from work for two weeks. One week of kata training, and one with the family. I had four objectives:
|x||Spend a lot of time with my mom.|
|x||See my friend Val twice.|
|x||See my grandfather twice.|
|x||Do rituals every morning and evening.|
It’s the last one I’m interested in here. I kept it easily enough in the hotel, and while staying with my mom. Meditate for ten minutes, read some Epictetus, do The Founder, write a few sentences. Before going to bed, review any notes I had written on scraps of paper and put in my pockets, and picture getting up the next morning.
Driving to the Philadelphia airport was tricky. Sudden and heavy snow. Flights delayed. I got out of Philly a few hours late, not in time to make the connecting flight in St. Louis to Tulsa. But there was a flight the next morning at 06:55. The flight landed in St. Louis around 11:00, so I wasn’t going to leave the terminal and go to a hotel.
I wandered around the terminal. Sat on a rocking chair, listened to the warning that the moving walkway was coming to an end. Read part of a New Yorker article about Jim Simons and texted Brit to tell her that there was an article about Estonia. Read an article on my phone about how to sleep in an airport terminal, and one about Mehran Karimi Nasseri, the “Iranian refugee who lived in the departure lounge of Terminal One in Charles de Gaulle Airport from 26 August 1988 until July 2006….”
When I got up the next morning, I wondered what I should do. I thought of my rituals, and it seemed that I wouldn’t do that. But then I recalled that, wandering around the night before, I had passed an airport chapel. Of course I hesitated. Then I thought about Epictetus. Was he wrong? Should we maintain only a casual attitude toward our rituals? Are consistent, deliberately chosen habits conducive to mental health? Is BJ Fogg‘s research on Tiny Habits wrong? Do we not abandon ourselves, and make the world seem a little less reliable, each time we fail to follow through on our own intentions?
I didn’t know how to perform my rituals in the airport chapel, so I asked myself how I should walk there. I figured that out. Then I figured out how to open the door, etc.
The Epictetus quote that I have recited the past several mornings is,
“Whatever rules you have adopted, abide by them as laws, and as if you would be impious to transgress them; and do not regard what anyone says of you, for this, after all, is none of your concern.”
What does it mean? First, it implies that you should adopt rules for yourself, and that you should do so very carefully. You wouldn’t pass laws that you didn’t think that you could follow. You wouldn’t enter into a religion the gods of which set impossible standards. So think your rules through.
It implies, also, that you should have a process for adopting rules. Use a process of experimentation on any rule before adopting it. You should also have a process for eliminating a rule that, because of changing circumstances, is no longer serving its intended purpose. Only remove a rule from your list when you are calm, and not at the precise time that you are supposed to be following it. You never want to set yourself up for failure by having the option of abolishing the rule on the spot.
What does it imply that you should do when you transgress a rule? Should you flagellate yourself, or put yourself behind bars? No, but you should think hard and make serious plans to ensure that you don’t transgress it again. Ask yourself what you should do. Transgression should be a prompt for reflection. What was your intention when you adopted the rule? What outcome does it assist you in achieving or avoiding? Why did you transgress it? What, mentally, was going on at the time? What externally? What, done differently leading up to the event, would have prevented it? What about precisely when it occurred? Were there negative practical repercussions? What did you do about those? What should you have done?
I use the mental technique of going back and visualizing myself not transgressing the rule. I play the scene leading up to it just as I remember it, but when it comes to the critical moment, I make the right decision. If I transgressed any rules that led to this one, then I correct those in the memory, too.
If there are behaviors that I engaged in that made me more likely to transgress the rule, I run another visualization in which I engage in safer behaviors.
How do I know when a rule applies? As always, practice. When I lie down at night, and when I hear the alarm in the morning, I perform a simple exercise. I have a rule for going to bed and for getting up, and its primary purpose is to remind me to identify situations in which a standard applies, and to apply it:
- I put my thumb to my first finger, and ask questions like: what’s the standard (rule) for this behavior? (Or, when I’m trying to achieve such and result, what’s the process? Or, when such and such occurs, how do I respond? What’s the output standard? Are there input standards?)
- thumb to second: do it.
- thumb to third: what was the result? Did my performance (process) match the standard? Did my product (output) match the standard? Did the inputs meet their standards? If they didn’t, what did I do about it?
- thumb to fourth: do the standards need updated, or are they still correct?
This takes less than 10 seconds. By practicing it before going to bed, and right when I wake up, I ingrain it.
When I’m performing an action for which I can’t think of a standard, but suspect that I should develop one, I perform the hand mnemonic in reverse:
- thumb to fourth (finger): what am I trying to achieve? What don’t I understand? What question is most relevant? What experiment can I perform? What is my mental model of this situation? Can I make a prediction based on it? What do I predict will happen if I perform such and such?
- thumb to third: do it.
- thumb to second: what did I see? What is the data? What did I predict would happen? What actually happened. (Obviously, this is an adaptation of Mike Rother’s language.)
- thumb to the first: what can I extrapolate from this? Can I create a standard (a rule) from what I learned? Do I need to do additional experiments? What else do I need to learn?
As an aside, in his new book Mike Rother observes that PDCA remains jargon, and we’re probably better off using common terms like prediction→ test → data → evaluation. Think about it. Shewhart developed the PDCA as a specific industrial application of the scientific approach. Over the years, we’ve expanded its use to include all kinds of empirical modalities. So why not just go back to the plain language of science and empiricism?
Also, when I break a rule, my primary technique for addressing it is asking myself questions about the situation. I’m not particularly hard on myself, because I know that if I make the process too unpleasant, I could lapse. Sustainability is the priority. I favor honest assessment over strict adherence. I seem to answer honestly when I ask questions about my adherence to my rules. And assertions are more impactful when they are framed by a question. 42.
Seth stood at the edge of the water.
Solomon appeared near him, and they talked.
Seth had summoned Solomon, and produced him.
Or, the world had done this. But Seth had tried.
The bank was rich, was teaming. Solomon
swayed minutely, always adjusting.
Seth observed this, and began to move at
every joint, to learn of all his hinges.
The verdant water lapped the muddy soil.
Seth asked Solomon, “What should I do now?”
Solomon walked along the edge of the
water precisely, the surface bisecting
his feet. In this way he walked away from Seth.
He replied, after a while, “Good question.”
The light is failing early again. A kind of death seems present.
Essay one in Chödrön’s collection When Things Fall Apart starts with this sentence: Embarking on the spiritual journey is like getting into a very small boat and setting out on the ocean to search for unknown lands.
Later she assures us:
Nothing is what we thought. I can say that with great confidence. Emptiness is not what we thought. Neither is mindfulness or fear. Compassion—not what we thought. Love. Buddha nature. Courage. These are code words for things we don’t know in our minds, but any of us could experience them. These are words that point to what life really is when we let things fall apart and let ourselves be nailed to the present moment.
When Things Fall Apart
Good thing, because otherwise we might bristle at a contradiction that appears over and over in essays on Buddhism: what are we to make of stories? Yes or no? Good or bad? The explicit verdict seems to be in the negative: don’t tell them. Pay attention only to the present, drop all stories. What’s more, the self is a fiction, and you ought to stop it telling it. It’s our stories that confuse us about reality. Reality doesn’t tell stories; we do. In this same essay, Chödrön observes,
During a long retreat, I had what seemed to me the earth-shaking revelation that we cannot be in the present and run our story lines at the same time! It sounds pretty obvious, I know, but when you discover something like this for yourself, it changes you.
But, hiding in plain sight, is another message. Stories are ubiquitous in these essays. Hardly a principle is offered that is not delivered by a clever episode. In this same essay, she tells a wonderful, vivid story about a man who sits up all night, terrorized by a cobra. It ends in what appears to be his enlightenment. Why tell it? It’s not for us to emulate the hero? Is the story not pointing towards a path? Why are we told the story of the Buddha? Each suttra, as far as I know, is framed in a narrative structure. Why is the whole tradition not simply a series of instructions, with no characters or narrative?
Besides stories, are the various Buddhist traditions opposed to critical thinking, the socratic method, reason and experimentation? What do you think? If it’s true that every time a thought comes to mind when you are meditating, you are supposed to note it and return your attention back to your breath, what’s the Buddhist attitude towards cogitation? And if throughout the day, you are to mindfully address 100% of your attention to what is right in front of you, when are you supposed to reason? What would Socrates do if he met Siddhartha? Meditating on a koan isn’t reasoning, is it?
Of course, when we ask it this way, we are pointed to the answer: clearly it’s more complicated than this. It must be both. A place for stories, a place to drop them. Stephen Batchelor describes his experience in the Tibetan tradition studying, translating, and debating finer details of the practice. And in his recent work Secular Buddhism, he addresses this topic directly. He answers that there is more than enough time for intellectual pursuits in diligent a mindfulness practice. But why did my reading of other authors leave such a strong impression that their diagnosis was that I was thinking too much? I was an even poorer inquisitor then. If I were to read them again, these questions in mind, would I find answers?
If only someone were always there to remind me to inquire and to investigate, I wouldn’t be left looking back at my tracks in wonder. But what a dismal story if only is.
So what are we supposed to do with stories, then? If not distract ourselves by telling them to ourselves throughout the day, should we engage in experimental fiction?
Absorb the stories our parents tell us, and then we try to tell our own?
But, being the hero, we have to learn the story as we go.
We can’t be always telling it.
Premeditation, meditation, and postmeditation.
Periodically, when our eyelids are getting heavy, or while we are on a familiar path to and from work, we can contrast our character with that of the hero. Is our story growing more like theirs or less? Are we living a story that will someday be worth telling? Are we even trying to?
On this Shunryu Suzuki, the Stoics, and John Dewey all share a common message: strive to develop your character, to become different than you are, but always wholly accept who you are in this instant. It’s who you are now that you have to deal with. This is the brain that has to take the next step, to ask the next question, to investigate. Attempting to reject the present self in favor of the future self probably isn’t much more effective than rejecting what you could become in favor of what you are now.
Chödrön conjures Christian imagery when she advises us to be nailed to the present moment. Earlier on, she says:
There’s not going to be much room for the arrogance that holding onto ideals can bring. The arrogance that inevitably does arise is going to be continually shot down by our own courage to step forward a little further. The kinds of discoveries that are made through practice have nothing to do with believing in anything. They have much more to do with having the courage to die, the courage to die continually.
But how do we do that? And are we sure this is the right approach? In his book The Time Paradox, the eminent psychologist and author Philip Zimbardo found in his research that those who are the happiest and most productive spend a significant amount of time in their memory. Though he explicitly states that his research of people’s perspective of time is Western-centric and does not consider the elongated present that advanced meditators experience, his battery of orientations is very similar to the negative-positive dichotomy of sensations, though his is towards temporal modes:
Another present-oriented time zone can be called the Holistic Present. It involves training to live one’s life in the present moment and to include past and future in an expanded state of focus on the present. Such a time sense is central to Zen Buddhism, and Zen meditative practices are one means of achieving this unique state of consciousness. Because it is less common in western than eastern cultures and is rather vague in its components, we did not include it in our […] assessment.
Philip Zimbardo, John Boyd
The Time Paradox
Zimbardo’s research found that people who were the happiest and most successful were highly past-positive, moderately present-hedonistic, and moderately-high future-oriented. What struck me most about this book was how much our attitude toward the past affects our success in planning and engaging in future-oriented behavior. And isn’t a story a mode of memory?
But what does Chödrön mean by “step forward a little” and “the courage to die continually”? I’m sure these metaphors point to innumerable phenomena, among them literally stepping forward—say, at a party, or in a confrontation—or literally risking your life. The ones that seem most apt lately have to do with inquiry and experimentation. In that instant, you are putting a frame where there is no picture. You are stepping forward where there is no ground. Questions are inherently future-oriented. One can end with a statement. A statement can stop a conversation. Questions carry us forward. Speakers who end with a question are, in a way, not ending. They are spinning off. Asking questions is difficult, so you must reinforce the behavior. After you ask the question, after you investigate, after you experience the frustration of facing what you don’t know and struggling to finding out, you should reflect approvingly on the behavior. Observe the whole process. See how you went from ignorance to edification. Celebrate it, and set that as your standard for future challenges. This is, of course, the PDCA cycle. It’s also storytelling.
And it isn’t all sunny. What will we do when the aquifers run dry? We could desalinate seawater, but using what energy source? Will we effectively replace carbon fuel with renewable energy before the former run out? How hot is it going to get, and how soon? Will there be air conditioning? And when is this capitalism religion going to wane? And what will replace it?
I think the reason for the recent surge in popularity of Stoicism, besides Christianity being on the decline and people looking around for a philosophy of life to replace it, is people sense that we’re going to need some grit in the coming years. The self-indulgent dysphoria and ennui we developed in the last half of the twentieth century is going to get us killed in the twenty-first.
And even then it doesn’t completely work. Chödrön claims
Life is a good teacher and a good friend. Things are always in transition, if we could only realize it.
And yet how is life a good friend to the billions of humans who live short, miserable lives? What is it teaching them before it kills them? And what’s the point, when they’re dead before they had a chance to make use of the lesson? J.L. Schellenberg, in his philosophical attempt to find a way in which a religious perspective on life could be worthwhile, observes that there is no way to say that life is inherently meaningful if there is no afterlife of some sort, because of the billions of people whose life is simply too short and brutal to conceivably meet our standards of what meaning could be. If significant soteriological redemption is available to all sentient beings, there must be some kind of rebirth or afterlife, because it’s plainly not made available to every human.
So, say Chödrön is right. Say life is a good friend. That must mean except when it isn’t, and it must mean that we are responsible for one another, because if I see people suffering in a way that prevents them from engaging in the behaviors that I think are necessary for life to be worthwhile (having meaningful work, some free time, some creature comfort, books, the ability to talk things through with friends, an understanding of the Logos) then that means I should try to intervene. Not that I can do it in time. Not that billions won’t be born and die in misery meanwhile. Some friend. Maybe I need to rethink what the word means? It’s not a human friend, after all. And if life is a good friend, what kind of story is this?
The setting of this anecdote is that it was fall. And, you know, it being fall, and dark out, the tail lights of cars glowed in a certain way. And it was an apartment, with those ubiquitous blinds on the windows. He had recently purchased a used motorcycle, swimming in its parking spot. He, too, was small, and, regardless of what he was wearing, I imagined him wearing jeans and a t-shirt, etc. I mean everything but the cauliflower ears. We were in his new apartment—we had just finished moving his stuff from a storage unit—and he was saying, “Part of me loves moving, though, because I can set everything just so.“
Washing dishes just now, nine years later, I recall this conversation. Relish is a condiment, I think to myself. Meaning, what were his standards? Meaning, what did he feel like when he was doing something the same way that he always did it, because that was how it had decided he ought to do it, because it advanced him towards his aim? Because who cares how he felt when he was paying some particular attention? What does that get you?
I imagined myself meeting him on the street after he had had such a session of putting things in their place. His moral license being high, he talks to me with his chin particularly tucked back, shoulders conspicuously squared. Etc.
But then does the standard we’ve set for ourselves simply move us forward through time, or does it move us closer? Is it like a stairway? Establish some standard, then escalate it. By the time you’re dead, you’re comfortably something you could have wanted to have become. Of course it should be this way. We aren’t getting better every day in every way. Stupid. We are getting better, on most days, by being less conspicuously incompetent at some carefully identified skill, if we’re extremely lucky.
Like for example I think less about my fingers than about the words I’m writing, less about the mechanics of my eyeballs than the person I’m looking at. I actually have some intention in mind when I am scouring the burner. I don’t randomly throw things on the floor or simply hate everything. I can write a paragraph longer than five sentences. I don’t emulate the writing style, as I imagine it, of someone whose work I’ve never even read.
I watched a lecture by Simon Schama and now want to use etc. as a flourish, even though I don’t think he even did that. It’s Žižek who does that, and why does Schama remind me of Žižek? Something about the way he holds his shoulders, probably. It’s like they’re square, but there is a looseness. Their words come so readily. Their words come from their shoulders.
I would that the question how should I do this? were always on my lips.
Gregory Crewdson says that he is always trying to tell the same story over and over, and probably so is everyone. Maybe trying consciously tell that story is the only way we can avoid unconsciously trying to tell it. All I’m ever trying to do is describe the color of fall leaves caked, clotted, near my dad’s Red Wing boots. What it looks like when you peel up (let’s call it a) sheaf of clotted leaves with a metal rake, or a plastic rake. That inscrutable difference. They’re both too flexible when you’re working with leaves after the rain. You really need a rigid rake, not a leaf rake.
What are the differences between statues and icons and toys?
Adults set up statues and icons in fixed formations. With toys, their relationships are still flexible.
It’s as if adults find their favorite configurations.
D. Is there anything for which you are more grateful than the question?
S. Because it seems to be the one indespensible tool.
D. Can you give an anecdote?
S. Yes. For years, I had been unable to maintain standards around daily behavior for more than a few months. I would start some new behavior and feel good about it, but anxiety, guilt, and doubt always crept in.
For example, using checklists. I’ve used checklists, off and on, for fifteen years. But I’ve never maintained the practice. Why? Basically, the problem was that too often I either felt bad for checking a box, because there was some doubt whether my action met the standard, or I wasted time doing some activity that really wasn’t a priority at the time. In both cases, this was dispiriting. The habit went from exciting (an opportunity to do better, to be better) to unsustainable, sometimes over the course of a week.
When I tried to correct this problem by setting clearer standards, I either felt bad for having lax standards, or again, if I set stringent standards, I either did not always meet the standards (and so could not check the box in good conscience) or I too frequently misspent my time doing a task, so that I could check a box, that wasn’t a priority at the time.
D. Why have the checkbox item at all if taking the time to do it could be categorized as time misspent?
S. Because circumstances aren’t the same every day. Having an item that is useful to perform 85% of the time, and always useful to have there, as a reminder, means that about once a week, it’s not the best use of your time.
My vocabulary, for most of my life, was constricted to description and despair. I could describe how things were, and I could feel guilty about them. Occasionally I could have a bout of manic enthusiasm. When I finally figured out how to inquire, this problem was tidily solved. Now, I keep three daily checklists, and numerous others others that I reference for various tasks, and I have no problem completing them daily.
S. Because the criteria of success for most of them can be met in less than a minute, and whenever I feel as if I am not doing it correctly, I ask myself a question about it.
D. For example?
S. Will I correct this problem next time
Do I need to go back and perform the action again now
Is the checklist item becoming irrelevant for some reason
What do I need to do next time to make sure I earn the benefit of having this item, even if I don’t observe it diligently at this time
What are the minimum standards for checking this box
Am I at risk of developing a bad habit
These questions stick with me. The next day, if I was lax with an item last time, I am diligent this time. The questions reduce my anxiety. It’s as if the anxiety were an unasked question.
D. How do you answer them?
S. Often, I don’t. Or there is an implied yes or no. Often the question guides an action, or anticipates a mental note. For example, If I have been diligent with one item and lax with another, I swap priorities next time. The mental note I make to do that is anticipated by at least question—am I being lax in performing this task? Is that OK? I will spend longer on it tomorrow.
D. Why can’t those be statements? Why not, I am being lax. I will be more diligent next time.
S. It’s as if making the statement is forcing it on myself. Meaning, one part of me is making a declaration to the rest of me. My mind has so many modules. To let one declare to the rest what is going on increases my nervousness. So instead, I ask the group, the components of myself. Because the benefit is in the long-run. Honestly struggling with time management, and investigating the best course, and failing—these are sustainable if you are curious, if this process interests you. If you instead just view these challenges, which are inherent to time management, as personal failures, and if you fail to see the questions inherent in the challenges, you’ll just feel despair. By you I mean me. The royal you.
It is better to perform your ritual sustainably than to make it so onerous that your willpower fails you. It’s one thing to know this. But I do not know of a way of applying it without asking myself questions as I go. Making statements to myself increases the anxiety, because they are always so doubtful. I can rarely come up with a convincing statement on the spot. Trying makes it worse. But rarely does it take even three mental drafts to come up with a satisfying question. Having done so, I feel at ease to move one, knowing that my subconscious will work on it for me if it matters.
D. Can you give me examples of questions that you find comforting?
S. When will I stop again? What will be the reason why I stop? For how long will I stop? What will my feeling be during that time? When I pick it back up, what will that be like? Will I still be productive during the period in which I am not maintaining checklists? Will it be because I developed a better method? What will prompt me to pick it back up? Will it be guilt, inspiration, or boredom?
D. What do you do when you feel that your habit is slipping? That your standards are eroding, or that you are not getting the benefit of the habit?
S. I ask myself if that’s true and what I can do about it.