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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.

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What gets done first gets done.

Since the stay at home order started in my state, the first thing I do after my alarm goes off is come downstairs before everyone else is awake, pour myself a cup of coffee, and sit down to meditate.

It’s not starting out with the most urgent or overdue task on my list, setting me up to think about the pile of deadlines hanging over my shoulder. It’s not just faffing about, using the time to “just wake up.”

It’s a choice to remind myself that I can greet the day with intention.

I’ve noticed that since I’ve adjusted my mornings to start this way, I’m less likely to do those “just checks” on my phone first thing. Or second thing.

It’s not necessarily a concrete form of habit stacking, but it does set the tone for the rest of the day. I’m more likely to move from meditation to something else that feels important, instead of getting sucked in to an endless scroll on the internet.

It’s a choice to remind myself to greet what comes during the day on its terms instead of mine.

I don’t have complete control over how (or when) my kids wake up, or what mood they wake up in, but I can choose to accept it without feeling like they’re supposed to behave in some predetermined way that lets me keep powering through my to-do list.

That’s a feeling that I’ve had to fight with since being required to do all my work from home. They’re not my co-workers. They’re not in my office. I’m trying to do work in their home, and I need to respect that difference.

And it’s a choice that helps me feel confident in my priorities.

I’m choosing to start the day focused on what’s going on directly around me and inside me. Instead of steeping my brain in fresh memes or outrage fuel from the moment I wake up, I’m taking stock of what I have direct influence over at this moment.

And I can see results from this.

I can do more good in a day if I start focused on what I have influence over instead of reminding myself about all the things that feel overwhelming, or create a sense of powerlessness.

Because while those bigger picture things can’t be ignored, that doesn’t mean they need my full attention before I’ve put on real pants or finished a cup of coffee.

I don’t always know how much I can do in a day, but I know that if I wake up on time and get started on one thing, that one thing is 99.9% likely to get done.

Starting my day with meditation isn’t just empty navel gazing. It’s a way to try and get in touch with things as they are, separate from my thoughts or feelings about them. It’s a way to make sure that the first thing that gets done in the morning is something that helps me focus on what I value most and what I have influence over.

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Dance Like Nobody Is Watching (You Outline)

I needed to figure out some alternative solutions to a mystery in a story I’m working on.

A lot of the work I’ve been doing on this project has happened sitting and typing out ideas that I’ve solidified while either in conversation on the phone with a collaborator, or talking to myself while driving. But this time, I needed to generate those ideas in that moment, and I didn’t have anywhere to drive.

So I started by standing up. I have a whiteboard in my office, and it’s useful for thinking through ideas. But just standing there wasn’t helping me let my guard down and look past the couple pre-conceived solutions I came into the office with.

I recently finished reading Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit. Sparked by some ideas in that book, and the fact that I also have a subwoofer in my office, I thought about how adding some movement to the moment might help.

I want this to be clear: I am not a dancer.

I’m not a professional dancer. I’m not a good dancer. But I love music, and sometimes the groove gets in my heart.

Enter Daft Punk’s Alive 2007:

I’m not going to stop you if you want to start playing this album right now.

I can’t guarantee that any of my ideas were better because I was dancing while I was mind mapping. But it was more fun.

And there’s an aspect of breaking down your guard. Sitting down with as proper posture as I can muster, fingers on the home row, clacking away… It can feel rigid.

So getting less self-conscious about that movement and feeling the beat of the music cuts through that mental filter that makes you want to focus on perfection. Move to the rhythm. Turn off sense of self.

It’s like with meditation: If your mind is irritated or too energetic, calm the body. Take a few deep, slow breaths, and your mind will start to follow your body’s lead.

In this case, I was using my body to signal to my mind that it’s time to loosen up and throw whatever ideas it has up on the board. I broke down the mental walls separating the movements that were part of dancing from the movements that were part of writing on the whiteboard.

Change Your Environment and Change Your Mind

What I was doing by adding wasn’t just a change with my body: This was an attempt to alter my working environment.

It’s not just that I spend a lot of time sitting and typing or scribbling notes, but that when I sit and work in the same space that I check Twitter, grade papers, and track Amazon packages, there’s a sense that I have other things I should be doing besides writing.

That sense of everything sharing a space frustrates and confuses willpower.

In Keep Going Austin Kleon writes about the importance of creating a bliss station, so that there’s a specific time and/or place where you can put yourself in the headspace to work.

It’s the idea that signaling to your brain that here and now is where a certain type of work gets done helps that work get done in a better way.

He goes further to suggest that you can break down that space by certain jobs, like if you have one space where you work on your computer, and a separate space where you draw or write things out on paper. Even if they’re spaces in a single room, a small shift in where you sit or which way you face can send different cues to your brain.

It also might be about timing. Setting a timer, using a calendar to make appointments for certain tasks, or treating certain days of the week as having a specific focus are other ways to cue the brain and put it in the right mindset for the task at hand.

You are not just a brain in a jar, firing out ideas

You receive input from your environment. You receive cues from the rest of your body.

Accept that no matter how much willpower you feel that you have, you can’t exert total control and operate in a state of constant peak productivity.

But there are things you can try to control.

“When?”, “Where?”, and “With What?” are all important questions to answer when thinking about what you have to get done.

And if you’re getting stuck on something, those are the same questions you can examine to see if changing an answer to one might free up a little mental mojo.

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The Next Right Thing

Part of what got me to finally write down some of my larger thoughts on Frozen was the release of Frozen 2. While I’ve only seen the new film once, and I haven’t processed it enough for a deep dive, it still hit me hard enough in the theater that I need to work out how part of it fits in with some other ideas I’m digesting.

There’s the moment in the sequel when Anna sings “The Next Right Thing,” and I was astounded that so much of what I had felt from my own depression (and still feel) was echoed in a kids movie:

I won’t look too far ahead
It’s too much for me to take
But break it down to this next breath
This next step
This next choice is one that I can make
So I’ll walk through this night
Stumbling blindly toward the light
And do the next right thing

I’ve written before about being kind to your future self, but lately I’ve needed to go further than that. I’ve needed to elevate some of these habits toward the notion of ritualized behavior.

In Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit, she makes a great point about the power of personal ritual:

I begin each day of my life with a ritual: I wake up at 5:30 A.M., put on my workout clothes, my leg warmers, may sweatshirts, and my hat. I walk outside my Manhattan home, hail a taxi, and tell the driver to take me to the Pumping Iron gym at 91st Street and First Avenue, where I work out for two hours. The ritual is not the stretching and weight training I put my body through each morning at the gym; the ritual is the cab. The moment I tell the driver where to go I have completed the ritual.

It’s a simple act, but doing it the same way each morning habitualizes it—makes it repeatable, easy to do. It reduces the chance that I would skip it or do it differently. It is one more item in my arsenal of routines, and one less thing to think about.

If you make something a habit, you’re saying that it needs to be done, and it has meaning. If you have something to do that has meaning, then you are giving yourself a purpose. If I wasn’t here, this wouldn’t get done. If I’m here, this needs to get done.

Sometimes it’s incredibly small for me.

  • Setting the timer on the coffee pot before I go to bed to tell myself to wake up when the coffee is fresh. I don’t want to waste the coffee, and I don’t want to miss the opportunity to drink it.
  • Making overnight oatmeal and leaving it in the fridge so that I tell myself that it matters that I take care of my body and not just eat something in the morning, but eat something that’s good for it.
  • Checking off boxes in a habit tracker I keep in a notebook, so that I can look back and see that I’m keeping up to the commitments I make to myself.

With that last one, I’m building off ideas from James Clear’s book Atomic Habits. One of the hardest things to gauge when depression asserts itself is if the thing I’m doing in the moment is worth it; if I’m making any progress toward something that matters to me.

Some days I don’t get much time for bigger projects. I might wind up only being able to carve 15-20 minutes out of a particularly busy day to get any writing done. But treating it as a necessary habit grounds me in the idea that those 15-20 minutes still have value.

In Clear’s book, he talks about incremental progress as being similar to making a small shift in the direction of travel:

The impact created by a change in your habits is similar to the effect of shifting the route of an airplane by just a few degrees. Imagine you are flying from Los Angeles to New York City. If a pilot leaving from LAX adjusts the heading just 3.5 degrees south, you will land in Washington, D.C., instead of New York. Such a small change is barely noticeable at takeoff—the nose of the airplane moves just a few feet—but when magnified across the entire United States, you end up hundreds of miles apart.

It’s about that idea of playing the long game: If I work a little bit every day, no matter what, it will eventually matter a great deal. And it’s a reminder that if I want to see the dividends, I need to show up not just today, but tomorrow. And the next day.

But it’s also about another point that Clear makes in his book: Habits aren’t just about outcomes, they’re about identity.

I can turn my actions toward ones that support the person I want to be, or I can sit here, mired in the depressive inertia.

It can feel like swimming against the current. It can feel like the effort isn’t carrying me forward.

But that’s only the present moment. That’s not the long game.

You push against the current every day, and you can strengthen your body against it. You push against that current enough and you learn how to keep swimming.

I am not just working to keep moving, even when it’s hard, but to embrace momentum itself as a goal.

Plans are useful to help determine what needs to be done next. Goals are helpful in clarifying direction. Constructing a sense of identity helps give these actions motivation and purpose.

But measuring the distance between now and completion only creates frustration unless there’s momentum.

Which brings me back to the message of Anna’s song. Sometimes the fog is too thick to see through, and that next step is all you can see.

But you can see that next step, and you can take it.

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Meaningful Work

While heading home from picking up a pizza, another driver sped up and swerved in front of me.

It’s a fairly busy stretch of road with two lanes going each way. I kept watching this driver weave in-between the other cars in front of me, sometimes signaling, other times not. Moments later, they slammed on the brakes at a red light.

I got to that same light about five seconds later, having stayed in one lane, traveling the speed limit, and leaving ample room between myself and the car in front of me.

This isn’t a story about bad drivers or being considerate on the road.

Think about the number of decisions the driver had to make to change lanes five or more times in that stretch of the road we shared.

Each time, they had to judge the distance between themselves and the other cars to avoid an accident. They had to decide if they felt it was necessary to signal, how fast they needed to go, and how soon they would need to change lanes again.

What were they thinking about as they worked to thread themselves up through traffic, trying to get ahead just a little bit faster than everybody else?

Were they annoyed? Nervous? Focused less on the current moment and more about where they were headed?

For all that effort, all they gained was five additional seconds spent waiting at a red light.

Did that satisfy whatever desire motivated them?

When we worry about optimization

Regardless of their exact circumstances, this driver wanted to feel like they were headed toward their destination as fast as possible, even if it didn’t get them there any faster.

They wanted to put their effort into optimizing speed in the moment instead of looking for ways to get tangible benefit.

Sure, you could race between cars to make it to a red light a little faster than everyone else, or you could find a way to get in your car and start driving a few minutes earlier.

We can’t be certain that any one change will definitely result in a better outcome, but we can try to put our behavior in line with better possible outcomes by focusing on actions that are more likely to matter.

Doctor Strange Looks Into The Future
Because we don’t all have an Eye of Agamotto to figure out the best course of action. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

It’s easy to confuse action with progress

It’s the difference between being busy and getting meaningful work done.

If I spend my time color coding a bullet journal, or arranging a cascading hierarchy of tags in a task manager app, how long will it take for those actions to show substantive improvements in the way I do necessary, rewarding work? Are they a layer of distraction, or a tool for focus?

How many passes and revisions can I make on a set of pages, or a blog post before all I’m doing is making things different instead of making them better?

The siren’s song of optimization is like pressing your foot a little harder on the pedal. You’re feeling acceleration, but you’re not necessarily reaching your destination any earlier.

But how do you tell the difference?

The tasks with meaning aren’t always obvious, but they never lie to you after they’re finished.

Busy tasks always try too hard to assert their importance, like a compulsive liar who peppers their speech with admonishments to “trust me.”

They shout at you that these five life hacks will help you finally clear your inbox…

But the time you spend reading that article could be used to answer two or three of those emails, or asking yourself the question about how necessary is it to reach Inbox Zero.

You could look through a gallery of dozens of great new themes for your website…

Or you could grab a pen and some paper and start coming up with new content to put on that site.

You could read all about how people whose success you wish to emulate schedule their day, or what bullet journal notebook and software they use…

Or you could do work with the tools you have and the time you have, and test things to see what works for you.

Better or Different
Busy work turns time into an I.O.U. where you promise yourself that you’ll eventually get around to what matters.

Meaningful work leaves something behind. It transforms time into something tangible that you can point to.

Shout it from the rooftops: I did this. I made this. It is here now where it wasn’t before.

I did this I made this
Celebrate finishing something, no matter the scale.