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.

Anything can be a timer

Some work, especially creative work, acts like a gas: It fills up whatever amount of space you give it.

I’ve looked at timers, Pomodoro setups, and different apps and devices to signal to my brain “This is the time. Use just this time.” But most of them wind up feeling arbitrary and unhelpful.

If I can adjust the timer after I’ve started it, it takes additional willpower to maintain that sense of containing the work.

It got me thinking about something my wife said to our daughter when she was a baby: “You’re an adorable little alarm clock, but you don’t have a snooze button.”

Natural timers

Instead of looking for just the right artificial timer, I started thinking about where I see hard edges and clear boundaries within a day.

If I get up before sunrise to work on things, I know I can’t press snooze on The Sun.

If I start a task with a warm cup of coffee, I can tell myself it needs to be done before that coffee gets cold (or drank) and needs a warm up.

Or, and this is a little TMI, if it’s a full pot of coffee sized task, I have to check off that to-do by the time I need to head to the bathroom.

I can look at the calendar and see what events can’t be moved, and tell myself I need to finish something before that next thing starts. I can’t just say “ten more minutes, please” to a class I need to go teach, or picking my daughter up from school.

When and how I spend my willpower

It takes that little extra bit of intention to find the right time to start, but the benefit for me comes in knowing there’s a clear, definite place to end. There are consequences for going beyond that boundary.

It’s especially helpful for some creative tasks that can easily drag on into procrastination, like perfecting an outline or fiddling with proofreading a document.

Instead of needing to spend willpower deciding on the start and end point of a task, I’m only picking one.

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.

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.

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.