Momentum

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about momentum. The momentum of people, of places. Of attitudes. Of projects. Of things done, and not done, and planned, and not planned. Of happiness and sadness and satisfaction and even stock markets.

I don’t think we give enough credit to momentum.

Think about it: why is the market up (assuming it is, by the time I finish writing and post this)? At some fundamental level, it’s up because a lot of people decided to be optimistic. And those people’s optimism fueled other people’s sense that they should get in before it’s too late, and that in turn drives the market up, and that fuels more momentum upwards …

… until somebody gets nervous, and then a group of people get nervous, and the momentum begins to turn, and the market shifts downward, prompting pessimism and a sense that it’s time to get out, and …

… momentum.

But the thing is, I think momentum applies at a personal level too. Think about what it takes to start a project. The initial idea is easy, right? Maybe the initial plan is even easy too. Then there’s the setup, and that’s when things get tough. The initial doing of whatever it is, whether it’s buying a house or finding a new job or starting a new project or getting into exercise, is often incredibly difficult. It’s easy to think that that difficulty comes because these things are new, or because they are inherently challenging activities, but I think there’s another factor involved – and that’s the momentum of whatever we were doing before. After all, you weren’t just sitting around in a state of limbo doing nothing. You were doing something before you decided to pick up this new thing, or found a reason or a need to change your path. And whatever that existing something is, it has a momentum to it. To get the new thing going, you have to displace the momentum of what you were already doing. You’re essentially climbing up a big rock while also trying to shove another big rock out of your way. No wonder it’s tough.

I wonder about momentum in the context of a lot of the current political and otherwise painful and/or challenging situations going on in our modern US world right now. Political anger. Shootings. Trade wars. Income inequality. Fear in all its flavors. The potential for huge and overwhelming distraction caused by all of the above. What if we’re on the downhill slope of pain and angst, where it all just keeps accelerating?

(Then I take a deep breath, take a bite of this delicious brownie I’m eating and a sip of my coffee, and set that line of thinking aside, and go back to projects. Because projects are a thing I can do. And as one of my favorite quotes says: “A better goddamn zoo is still a better goddamn zoo.” I don’t remember what that’s from, but. Words to live by. Anyway.)

So. Momentum and projects. Or to make it a little broader, momentum and doing new things.

Right now I’ve got a bunch of projects:

  1. remodel house
  2. a bunch of work stuff
  3. that whole writing thing (essays)
  4. that whole writing thing (poetry)
  5. personally hand-landscape the backyard, because fun! and do I want to grow eggplants this year? maybe?
  6. various things about family
  7. clean up the giant stack of mail in the kitchen that I’ve been ignoring for… a month? six weeks? gaaah.
  8. something about seeing some friends sometime
  9. wouldn’t it be fun to travel somewhere?
  10. I would like to weigh 8 pounds less, and also be able to do pushups

Within some of those categories are still more projects. At work, for example, I work on about four different areas of stuff, with a fluctuating number of projects within that. Same thing for family.

So this is a lot of stuff. Okay. It’s all stuff I signed up for and all stuff I want to be doing at some level or other. The question is, how do I actually do it?

I thought for a while that this was a willpower problem, or a doing things faster problem, or a priorities problem, or a scheduling problem. And that’s all kind of true – there are only so many hours in a day, multitasking is a myth, etc etc. But there’s something else in play too.

The single biggest predictor of whether I do something is whether I recently did it.

For example, on the house remodel, we needed to hire a structural engineer (long story). And I find hiring people super stressful – I have trouble even imagining anything more stressful than hiring someone. So I am inclined to procrastinate. I procrastinate looking for a list of people to call. Then I procrastinate calling them. If they call back, I may even procrastinate answering the phone. I certainly procrastinate replying to any emails they may send. And making the actual decision?! Awful.

But. At some point, I decided that the only thing I was going to do other than work was try to hire a structural engineer. I was off the hook for everything else. I just needed to do this one thing.

This seems like it’s all about prioritization, and yes, that’s part of it. But the side effect of the decision was that I wound up doing something about hiring a structural engineer every single day. The first day was horrible. The next day, still horrible, but at least I knew what I was in for. The third day, I was still dreading it, but less.

By the end of the week… routine. Within another week, I’d hired someone. She’s great. And she wrote me an email yesterday, and I actually answered it today. I waited that long only because I wanted to time to read it carefully, because the engineer we hired is a person who writes relevant and useful emails that merit close reading. But I didn’t procrastinate as such.

I got momentum on my side.

On the other hand, this morning I went to yoga class, for the first time in about a month. I almost didn’t go. Arguably the only reason I did go is that my husband assumed I wanted to. (The power of positive peer pressure.) Having gone this week, however, I am confident it will be easier to go again next week. The memory of enjoying yoga class is fresher in my mind; the sense that putting clean clothes in a gym bag is really not that much effort is also fresh in my mind. I have a sense of what it’s like to start my day with a yoga class. And that momentum ups the odds for next week.

This evening, I’m writing. It’s been a week; it was hard to get myself to start.

I am still thinking about what else this means, for my work, and for everything else I’m doing.

Tomorrow… who knows?

The Value of a Day Off

DSC_0213.jpgToday I woke early. I drove north and met my friend J in a pre-agreed parking lot. We left one car behind and drove north over the Golden Gate to the calm bay waters of Sausalito.

We took a standup paddleboard yoga class, ate brunch in the sun next to a pier, walked by the water, went for a hike. The weather was uncharacteristically and wonderfully warm: over seventy degrees, and note that today is still March. I’d been worried it would rain – it was raining last week. But it didn’t rain. It was perfect. Now I’m sitting in a coffee shop in an unusually sunny San Francisco, writing this while I wait to meet another friend for dinner. I feel pleasantly tired and totally content.

It’s so easy to feel like life is a blur; it’s so easy to feel like I’ll take a break as soon as things calm down. But things never do calm down, and anyway I thoroughly enjoy most of the not-calm. I just want days like today also.

And so I’m grateful for J, who has a similar willingness to take days off in the middle of the week, and a similar love of spending time by the water, combined with the good sense to mark those days off on our work calendars two months ahead of time, thereby ensuring we can actually make them happen.

That’s right, my Wednesday off from work was planned two months ago. Not the specifics – we just figured out a day that we thought would work, far enough ahead that there were no critical work things booked on it yet. Then we blocked it on Calendar, and as far as I know both promptly forgot about it until it got much much closer. Then we said, hey, can we still do this? And turned out we could, because we’d already blocked the time.

Magic.

The Age of the Personal DDOS Attack

Two of my favorite productivity & time management books are 18 Minutes, by Peter Bregman, and Getting Things Done, by David Allen. Especially in combination, I’ve found they work pretty well as philosophy+tactics for doing a lot of stuff, the stuff I actually care about, in a reasonable number of hours (and without working weekends). I’ve read both books several times, and I routinely refer back to them for inspiration when my life or my work changes shape.

But.

Here’s a thing I’ve been wondering lately: what if we’re approaching a point where productivity fails, where just scanning the inputs received and making decisions about them takes up more than the hours in the day? What if it’s not just a question of focus, and deciding what to do, and finding the right context to do it? What if the things we could potentially focus on, and decide about, and find contexts for, are so numerous that just looking at them overwhelms us, and takes up all the available time?

Here’s an example: I don’t actually know how many email I receive each day. Some dozens or hundreds of them I have set to auto-remove from my inbox; some dozens or hundreds are available for me to look at, if I specifically choose to search for a keyword they’d trigger on; some much smaller number actually wind up in the inbox I check. The same is true of meetings; and mailing lists; and I haven’t even started on the articles and news stories that might be relevant; or social media.

This sounds like simple information overload, but it’s not quite that. It’s more like noise in the system, amplified by a feedback loop. The noise increases over time. A lot of productivity is about filtering through noise for signal… but that assumes the signal is still in existence, and that it’s possible to actually get through the noise. What if it isn’t? The thing about global human connectivity is that the theoretical limit of communication is every single person broadcasting to every other single person, all the time. That’s billions of inputs for each individual to receive.

When a system is so overwhelmed with inputs or requests that it spends all its time and energy dealing with them, the system can no longer do anything else. It essentially freezes. In a computer or internet context, this overwhelm is called a denial-of-service attack. When the inputs come from multiple systems at once, that’s called a distributed denial-of-service attack. A DOS or DDOS attack is intentional and malicious; it’s one system trying to take down another.

But. In the realm of human connectivity, the cause may not be malicious, but the metaphor holds. More and more of us are connecting, all the time. What if our human urge to reach out, to broadcast, to share and shout across the void*, becomes a person-to-person DDOS attack of our own?

Do we paralyze each other? Do we choose to limit the signals we receive? Do we learn a new method of surfing them?

 

 


* And yes, I’m aware that there’s more than a little bit of irony in posting this online. I’m doing it anyway.