Calculating Intention Debt

I’d love a to-do list app that totals up the estimated time for the tasks I have planned for the day so I know if I’m overextending myself. Even better: It tracks my time and suggests better estimates based on previous work.

I’d like a podcast app that tallies how much listening I’ve committed to with the episodes I’ve downloaded. Or to have streaming services tell me, based on the data they have about my viewing habits, how long it will take me to watch everything in my queue.

Or a toolbar widget in my browser that calculates how long it would take to read my open tabs. A Read Later app that shows the estimated reading time for my saved articles.

Tools like this would make it easier to stop creating Intention Debt, that long list of things that I think I’ll get to, but that just creates digital clutter.

A Netflix queue that you only sometimes see in the app isn’t the same as a stack of unread books on a table. One is tangible and the other can be ignored with a quick tap or click.

Knowing where I’m setting the finish line could be helpful. A concrete number could change my decisions about how to spend time in ways a vague sense of “I don’t have the bandwidth for this” won’t.

I woke up feeling congested. When I sat down to meditate, my nostril whistled like a kettle begging for attention.

I sat with it for a minute, thinking about Pema Chödrön’s words on removing discomfort:

“Scrambling for security has never brought anything but momentary joy. It’s like changing the position of our legs in meditation. Our legs hurt from sitting cross-legged, so we move them. And then we feel, “Phew! What a relief!” But two and a half minutes later, we want to move them again. We keep moving around seeking pleasure, seeking comfort, and the satisfaction that we get is very short-lived.”
― Pema Chodron, When Things Fall Apart

I tried to focus on the air getting through instead of the force required; the air in my lungs and not the blockage in my nostril.

Then I asked the question: “How is blowing my nose not the dharma?” How is removing this impediment any different than labeling a thought as “thinking” and letting it pass?

I got up, blew my nose, and sat back on the cushion.

I’m not sure if it was the correct response, but I made the decision and moved on.

And isn’t a point of mindful attention to not dwell on things, but to try and see them as they are?

Sometimes a booger is an invitation to practice patience, and sometimes it’s snot.

Looking for better instead of making better

Yesterday, someone who just met me answered a question by asking “Have been told you overthink things?” It was a pretty spot-on reading.

This morning, I came across this passage:

From the point of view of Samaya, we could say that looking for alternatives is the only thing that keeps us from realizing that we’re already in a sacred world. Looking for alternatives—better sights than we see, better sounds than we hear, a better mind than we have—keeps us from realizing that we could stand with pride in the middle of our life and realize it’s a sacred mandala. We have such a deep tendency to want to squirm out of it, like a beetle on a pin: we squirm and try to get away from just being on the dot.

Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart

This really clicks when you’re the kind of person who has a setup for managing your to-dos, but keep Googling ways you might optimize or refine it with one more trick.

Or you’ve been stuck trying to finish a draft of something you’re writing, because you think it could be better if you spent a little more time on the thinking about the writing instead of the writing.

That pernicious idea that you must keep looking and contemplating for a better way to do things before the doing, instead of treating the doing as the path to better. That the doing is good enough.

It’s something I remind students of, and have to remind myself of frequently: You can’t revise what you haven’t written. Searching for better and ruminating is like trying to write the third draft of a blank page.

I must remind myself of this more often.

I want to be useful, not a user

I still like Twitter. I don’t like subtweets and trending topics.

It’s not hard to add context to a tweet. But, particularly with trending topics, you wind up searching out why people are bothering to talk about The Thing or The Person in the first place. All the tweets complaining about not knowing why x is trending become part of the noise to sort through.

It makes me think about the difference between being heard and being seen.

To be seen talking about something is to want others to know you’re aware of something that’s going on.

Being heard is about wanting people to care about the substance of what you have to add to the conversation.

If you only care about being seen talking about something, you’re only speaking to the audience that already understands the context.

If you value being heard, you also value being understood. That means including context, links, or other helpful cues to fill people in.

Some ways I like to add context.

  • Link to a primary source: It’s direct and simple. And links don’t count against how many characters you have left.
  • Use something like Linky: This is an iOS app that lets you highlight relevant text from a link and attach it as a screenshot.
  • Action over reaction: To take a page from Mister Rogers, be a helper. When it makes sense, show people something they can do about the issue. Push for the solution to trend instead of just the problem.
  • Share somewhere else: Do you want to briefly scream into the void, or do you want more room? Is it a blog post? A text to someone who wants to know? A letter to an elected official?

Right speech and respecting time

I try to think about the consequences of jumping on the bandwagon and adding my voice to the already noisy chorus.

If I tweet something vague and snarky about something, I’ve not only wasted time, but other people’s.

I took time to share something with limited value on its own that may direct others to use their time to search for what I was referring to in the first place.

Time and attention are precious resources.

If I want to use Twitter to spend time connecting with others , I need to respect the time and attention of others.

If I respect people’s support, I should also respect their time.

And if I respect my time, I need to make choices about what I must have an opinion about, and what isn’t worth my attention.

Even the best batting averages are pretty low

In the 2019 Major League season, the best batting average belonged to Tim Anderson, who had a .335 average. This means that he would get a hit roughly one out of every three times he would come up to the plate.

Hugh Duffy, the diminutive Hall of Fame player, holds the record for the best single season batting average of all time. In 1894, he had a .4397 average, which means he got a hit from less than half of his at bats.

#BostonStrong

These aren’t just people doing the job professionally. These are players who are the elite of the elite. And they still struck out more than they got on base.

Because even when you’re among the best at something, you’re not infallible.

So if you hold yourself to impossible standards, or feel a deep frustration with how many times your best efforts wind up with little to show for them, there’s no time like now to stop.

I’ve had students telling me that they don’t understand why they can’t push themselves to do work up to the quality they held themselves to back in February.

I’ve seen it in myself, wondering why it is that even when I can clear some time off, my focus isn’t as strong as it could have been a few weeks ago.

Any number of people I’ve spoken with have talked about the sense that there may be something wrong with them since they’re not one of the people who have taken to this quarantime with aplomb.

Those people showcasing their bread, crafts, writing, music, community organizing, or hilarious videos? That’s not everyone. Not by a long shot.

There’s the line of thought that we should just snap back to normal after adjusting our lives to staying at home, staying safe, and confronting the realities of a pandemic. But we can also see this as an opportunity to reflect, and re-evaluate the things we’ve taken for granted before we were forced to choose what’s essential and what commands our attention.

And one of those things I’ve been revisiting is the idea that one bad day doesn’t need to mean all that much in the grand scheme of things.

Which is what brings me back to batting averages.

Under the best of conditions, with a singular goal and a life built around pursuing it, professional baseball players still regularly strike out more than they get on base.

So no matter what goal you’re pursuing, one bad day doesn’t hurt your average all that much. It doesn’t deserve your anger. It doesn’t deserve all that much of your focus.

You need to work for the average. Play the full season.

From that view, even a string of bad days isn’t that disruptive.

So if you feel like you’re in a slump, or that things aren’t moving as quickly as you’d like, or that today is just another example of why “I cannot do The Thing That Matters To Me,” stop.

Breathe.

Remember what game you’re playing.

And remember that even Hugh “Nobody Has Had A Better Single Season Batting Average Than Me In Over 100 Years” Duffy wound up back on the bench more times than he got on base.

Get back up. Tap the dirt from your cleats. Keep swinging.