Internal Inquiry and Optimism

      D. Is there anything for which you are more grateful than the question? 
      S. No.
      D. Why?
      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.
      D. Why?
      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.

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