Brutal Simplicity

SUMMARY: Am I trying to balance too many competing factors in my life to be effectively productive? This makes life more complex, and that makes finding an optimal solution a burden.

Perhaps simplification can be achieved through the marriage of the triage mentality with a numerical method-inspired approach. Throw in a few “good enough” selection principles, and poof! Cut the number of decisions to make, and simplify the tests so you can tell if you’re getting closer or not.

It’s been an irritatingly mixed bag of productivity this week. While I did get one major project done, I didn’t maintain a streak of continuing accomplishment. It seems like I should have been able to. I wanted it. Two factors, however, contributed to my lack of movement: outside commitments and uncertainty about what to do first. Even more irritating is that I know there are simple and effective means for dealing with those factors: for the former, ignore them; for the latter, start anywhere. The system breaks down, though, when there is a lack of conviction. Without conviction, there is no willpower, and without willpower you won’t have the discipline to follow through by yourself; instead you’ll need some form of coercion smartly applied to your doubting backside.

Despite this mixed bag of productivity, I am struck that something did get done on purpose. Figuring out what did work seems to be the theme of the week.

  • In my recent post on salience in habits, I commented on the nature of crunch time, which is the single-minded methodology of getting the work done for a deadline by completely ignoring quality of life. Here, the working principle is the work must get done no matter what, and this is one source of conviction.

  • In yesterday’s post on adrenaline and motivation, I essentially hypothesized that willpower might be enhanced by getting physically worked-up about the task at hand, betting that the neurotransmitters responsible for focus and action in times of stress would create a greater impetus to act immediately. The method I tried to get there, though, was entirely based on generating conviction that action was called for, by putting my own self-worth on the line under the threat of not living up to my own ideals.


p>In both posts, my most sacred personal principles and values are the foundation of change in action; by putting them directly in the line of fire so I was forced to change my behavior to protect them. This is an exhausting way to motivate myself, and I can see now that my month-long crusade to reboot good habits stems from a desire to be smarter about self-starting.

So how do I do that?

Clarity Under Fire

There’s a concept in handling medical emergencies called triage, which is the sorting of injured people into categories so that scarce resources can be allocated optimally. What is “optimal” depends on the situation. For example, in an extreme wartime situation, triage may be applied to prioritize treatment for maintaining battle-ready soldiers: medical resources go first to lightly wounded soldiers who can immediately get back to the battlefield. Whatever resources are left go to the more serious injured who are likely to live. Soldiers who are going to die regardless of treatment or require resource-intensive treatment are last on the list. Ordinarily, one would expect a different approach, that medical resources would be applied to those who most immediately need it to preserve the most lives, and thus the idea of preserving fighting strength over desperate individual need appears brutal and even unethical. Consider a scenario, though, of a city under siege (think “Lord of the Rings”). If you are defending the city, and the stakes are losing it entirely to a merciless invader, your priorities will shift. It’s a decision that takes guts and conviction that despite a belief in the preciousness of life, other priorities take precedence.

In that example, survival is the clarifying principle that enables us to prioritize one choice over another. My life here in the ‘burbs is far more peaceful, and the choices that are thrown at me are not life-threatening. Instead, my options are mostly about the cost of survival, achieving “success”, and maintaining a high quality of life. And like every other human on the planet, I want to optimize my efforts for the greatest positive growth in all these areas. Here’s the problem: I have no way of determining which methods are most optimal. Sure, I could ask someone, if I thought they knew. Or I might follow a prescribed career path, buy the right kind of shampoo, find that great accountant. However, as a procrastinator-perfectionist, I tend to not see any of those common choices as being “the way” to success…they’re too common. Another symptom of my particular blend of procrastination-perfectionism is having a highly-developed imagination coupled with practical knowledge of creative methodology; in essence, I believe everything is possible and I have a good idea how it could be done. I want a guarantee, and I want that big prize called “an awesome life”, but I do not have the clarifying principle. This is that big question that we all ask ourselves: What is the Secret of Life? What is the winning formula? For those of us who chase that rainbow under the flag of being more productive, it seems to get farther away the more we run right at it.

Perhaps an oblique approach is called for.

Synthetic Simplicity

In the absence of knowing what the absolute right answer is for any given life’s dream, it may be enough to pick answers arbitrarily and devise a set of metrics that allow you to assess them. This is what most people seem to do, actually: whatever fell in their lap, whatever job came first, wherever they were born, whatever they seemed to be good at…this sets in motion a cascade of life events that are fairly predictable. Procrastinator-perfectionists are aware, however, that the life path is highly malleable. With the right training, the right opportunities, impeccable timing, and a bit of random luck, one can make the jump from one life path to another. I’ve attempted this myself several times, moving from writing to engineering to video game development to graphic design to project management to freelancing and now: to blogging, consulting, and product creation. And yet, each time I have wondered if I’m getting closer to finding the key to the riddle of my particular life’s meaning. I am of a particular type for which this question is very important, and recognizing that not everyone is wired like that is a big relief. To quote Han Solo, “It’s not my fault!”

When people are trained in triage techniques (or so I have read on Wikipedia), the emphasis is actually not on optimizing for results. Instead, the emphasis is on speed of decision. That is all about execution. When there’s hundreds of wounded people coming through the doors, you have to handle them quickly. You are probably going to be wrong some of the time, but this is acceptable because the alternative is total meltdown of the system. The working of imperfection into the system is hard to swallow but kind of brilliant too. Perhaps I too can create a persona that accepts this kind of trade-off. I’m reminded of that business expression when dealing with demanding clients: Speed, Quality, Low Price. You get to pick two. This is similar to the spirit of triage, recognizing that there are trade-offs between choices if you want something done efficiently with reasonable effort. I tried to think of an equivalent triad for life balance:

  • Meeting external expectations.
  • Fulfilling your immediate desires.
  • Building your own assets.

As with the old contractor principle, people rarely just pick two when they are just getting started. For good-hearted new freelancers, the goal is to deliver on all three promises to make the client happy. It’s only when freelancers realizes that they’re tired, burned out, and still not making any money that it’s time to start saying no. Timothy Ferriss wrote in The Four Hour Work Week about how dropping just a couple of his most troublesome business relationships lead to a huge relief in stress with little meaningful effect on revenue. He gave up on the idea that he had to put up with everything from everyone, and made a choice based on what was important to him. This flies in the face of ideal customer service, where everyone is served to their satisfaction. However, it is a sane approach, given limited resources and patience. If you really want to serve everyone to their satisfaction, you build that expense into the business model the way Zappo’s does.

This suggests a new algorithm: Make a couple of choices, dammit, and stick to them. This is an expansion of the Just Start Anywhere principle that I am so fond of quoting and so poor at following. I don’t have the optimal solution ahead of time, I at least have speed and clarity, which metaphorically is like using Newton-Raphson to find a local maxima of productivity. Newton-Raphson is a numerical (“mathy”) technique for finding the roots of a function (“the answers in the problem area”). It’s used for really hairy functions that are difficult to solve analytically (“don’t respond to simpler techniques”). Essentially, you code the function into a computer, and it starts guessing what the answer is over and over. Each guess is evaluated to map the likely location of the answers (the function starts returning “flat” areas where a root exists). I’m thinking that instead of trying to solve my life puzzle analytically, I could use this guess-approximation approach instead. In fact, most people probably ALREADY do this; it’s just us procrastinator-perfectionists that think that we should know the answer already.

Here are the components:

  • Speed comes from having a reduced set of principles that you designate as “good”. Such a principle is easy to use as a check for everything you’re doing: is this task supporting the principle?
  • Clarity comes from using simple YES or NO criteria. If the task or project at hand is not a definite YES, then just bag it. This is where the ability to say no comes into play.
  • Testing comes from evaluating whether the accrued tasks are indeed pointing to a “solution”; that is, does it “seem to be working”. If you’re an analytical person, you may be measuring hard numbers like “number of programs written this month”. If you’re a qualitative, experiential person, you may ask if what you’re doing is making you “happier”. A combination of both approaches would seem prudent to me: count the things that are tangibly making a difference, then ask if having more of those things do seem to be creating more opportunity.

Then, stick to the plan. Have the guts to say no to anything that isn’t on in the schedule. If you seem to have limited energy, you might want to be mindful of those “life steps” I postulated above:

  • Meeting external expectations.
  • Fulfilling your immediate desires.
  • Building your own assets. <- this is the one that relates to the plan.

PICK ANY TWO. It’ll be hard if you are of the mindset that everything is important. I feel your pain…you should see my stack of task cards! Think triage. If it really bugs you discarding those other tasks, you can try using my pickle jar trick to at least feel some relief at knowing they’re not entirely gone.

As for how to find that reduced set of principles to live your life by? You probably already know what it is because you’ve been procrastinating from doing it for the past few years. If it’s really that important to you, carve out the time to do it, or be satisfied in discarding it and focusing on something else. If you’re still not sure, then I guess you’re stuck or could use someone to help you define it (i.e. seek an external motivator).

Note: I’m not saying this is THE ANSWER…but it’s an interesting enough theory to put out there for consideration. I’m imagining a form that goes with this, of course :-)