Archive for the 'Decision' Category

Commonplace: Shunryu Suzuki on concentration.

Sunday, August 11th, 2013

“In order not to leave any traces, when you do something, you should do it with your whole body and mind; you should be concentrated on what you do. You should do it completely, like a good bonfire. You should not be a smoky fire. You should burn yourselves completely . . . Zen activity is activity which is completely burned out, with nothing remaining but ashes.”

Shunryu Suzuki, Beginner’s Mind (quoted in Katherine Angel, Unmastered)

Don’t make it more complicated than it is.

Tuesday, December 27th, 2011

When something is legitimately complicated, we have an easy out: we’re not supposed to get it / learn it / master it on the first go, and we can even elicit others’ sympathy for making an effort.

  • “You’re reading Ulysses? I’m too scared to even try.”
  • “You’re taking organic chem? That would be totally over my head.”
  • “You’re implementing a new CRM system? That must be a nightmare.”

It’s an easy out because this benefit of the doubt may be there even if you’re badly half-assing your efforts at reading Ulysses.

Some people spend far more effort in mastering this strategy than they do in getting the actual work done. The fact that many of them do it subconsciously makes it less wicked, but so much sadder. These poor souls actually believe that life keeps presenting them with challenges that are just too complicated for them to master.

It’s a crock.

If you’re doing something genuinely complex — switching a Fortune 100 company from Oracle to SAP, staging La Traviata at the Met — yes, take steps to deal with the complexities. Build a team, designate leaders in different specialties, hold weekly status meetings, build out Gantt charts, what-have-you. If it’s a complex solo effort, you should still spend a little extra time on organizing to try to get the various threads to come together on time and in good order.

But whether it’s simple or complex, at some point you just have to roll up your sleeves and do the actual thing. The writing, the studying, the construction of the stage sets, the installation of the new hardware. The actual nuts and bolts of the project.

And here’s a thing that some people never get: most of the projects you do in life are only nuts and bolts. Many of them are just a single nut to be tightened onto a single bolt.

When you hit a project like that — you’ve probably had eight of them already today — just pick out a wrench and go to work. In the time it would take you to deconstruct it, worry about it, and organize it, you could have done it and the three next to it.

To review:

  1. Let things be as simple as they really are.
  2. Organize just enough.
  3. Get to work.

It’s not easy — but it is simple.

Photo by Joel Cooper.

Never Count on Drawing an Ace.

Sunday, December 12th, 2010

It’s common sense, but worth repeating to make sure it’s engrained:

The Jeff Francoeur signing in some ways is kind of sad because it is another “hit on 20 and hope for an ace” kind of move for Kansas City.

That’s Joe Posnanski, writing about the Royals’ silly signing of non-hitter Jeff Francoeur. But we could be talking about just about any context, in any area of life. How many misguided people do you know who keep relying on the notion that things will change for them even as they persist in doing things the long-shot way, the doesn’t-add-up way, the hope-for-the-best way?

One more sports analogy. More than a year ago, when people were looking ahead to the LeBron James free agency decision, plenty of New York Knicks fans crossed their fingers hard enough to give themselves arthritis that James would sign with the Knicks. They were looking for the best player in the league to sweep in as the savior of the franchise.

But what the Knicks needed, after years of feckless management by Isiah Thomas and the Dolan family, was about 500 intelligent decisions in a row. That’s what I said at the time to a friend, and that’s the view I’ve continued to hold, not just for the Knicks, but for the Cleveland Browns, the Kansas City Royals, the Pittsburgh Pirates, and every other franchise staring back at a long history of stupidity and futility.

You can’t hold out for that ace — the next Peyton Manning, the next Michael Jordan, the lottery ticket — that’s going to save you from the trend of your past decisions. Instead, you have to do the hard work that goes with making a bunch of smart, sober, boring decisions, one after another after another, until the tide turns.

The good news is, you can start by getting savvy with the very next decision you make, and make the taking-the-smart-odds way a trend by staying savvy with the next decision after that. And the next, and the next, and . . .


(Image by Bob Owen.)

Make a Decision to Kill Clutter.

Thursday, November 11th, 2010

That’s the advice I give in this week’s column over at the CareOne “Life Balance” blog. Those of you who have been reading me here for a while will know that this is not a new theme for me. Indeed, I’m giving the advice that I myself need to hear.

I was going to link to an old post or two when I wrote “not a new theme for me” right there, but then I searched the blog for “clutter” and came up with . . . waaaaaay too many posts. As in, WAY too many.

Hmm. Now to pull off the challenge of really changing the roots of this behavior deep-down . . . by which I mean, “now for the hard part.”

More to come.

Self-organization: Don’t even make a list.

Saturday, November 6th, 2010

I’m a huge list-maker. In fact, more than I would like to admit, I’m locked in a years-long struggle to consolidate and whittle down my lists of things to do, things to write, et cetera.

So sometimes — like this fine Saturday morning — I don’t even make a list at all. I just spread things out physically (on the bedspread, in this case) so that I can see what I want to accomplish. Each separate paper or stack here represents some task I’d like to do today. Some of them are writing projects, some are reading, some are organizational. But each of them is self-contained within one stack. For things that don’t have a stack of papers associated with them, I label one notecard with a project. (This has the extra benefit of allowing me space to make an emergency mini-list of sub-tasks, if need be. The listing — I can’t seem to get away from it completely.)

As I knock off each task, I’ll file or discard the materials in that stack. It works for me.

Tell me: what works for you?


“Your backside is bare.”

Monday, July 27th, 2009

A quotation from Samuel Johnson:

There is no matter what children should learn first, any more than what leg you should put into your breeches first. Sir, you may stand disputing which is best to put in first, but in the meantime your backside is bare. Sir, while you stand considering which of two things you should teach your child first, another boy has learnt ’em both.

The lesson — I can tell you from painful experience — applies just as well to deciding between two projects to do, or two stories to write.

Yes, it helps to learn arithmetic before you essay calculus. Sometimes a sensible order from one project to the next is obvious.

But in many cases, even an arbitrary decision, and even a flawed arbitrary decision, would be superior to putting the decision off while “your backside is bare.”

Just go.


(Photo by Heather Williams, used under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND license.)

Forking paths.

Friday, June 12th, 2009

Way leads on to way.

You spend money on A, which means you have less for B. You spend time with Jack, which gives you less time for Jill. Climb a mountain, or sail the ocean? Dickens or Trollope? Betty or Veronica? Life is full of choices, and each choice branches into subsequent ones, infinitely.

No need to fret about it. Dickens and Trollope are both good. Betty and Veronica are both pretty. And the interlacing of paths is what makes life interesting.

But it is worth it to stick to a trail when you have someplace particular to go. Many of us, naturalized to the Internet, think nothing of skipping from thought to thought or task to task, without often enough enduring a full, complex thought or doing a whole, meaningful task uninterrupted. (For more on that, you might want to read my review of Ned Hallowell’s Crazybusy.)

Since I work in marketing and social media — and even more so because of my outside projects — I am forever branching from path to path. Doing so, in fact, is in the nature of Twitter, Facebook, and so on.

My challenge, then, is to do my work, but to do it in ways that don’t make me crazy. Or, in other words, to follow forks in the path because of key decisions, not out of reflex or distraction. My frequent inability to achieve that is why I write so much about organization and focus and so on. It’s also why I cautioned you the other day not to let me drone on about it.

My goal is to write about it not at all because I’m too busy with other, better things — the actual landscape one meets along the paths of life — rather than dwelling on my tendency to hop from one path to the other.

I’ll tell you how it goes. Or maybe, if it goes very well, I won’t.


(Image by pfly, used under a CC-Share Alike license.)

“I will be on guard against two evils: hastiness and indecision.”

Sunday, May 4th, 2008

Here’s another in my series of reactions to Pope John XXIII’s daily decalogue:

8. Only for today, I will make a plan for myself: I may not follow it to the letter, but I will make it. And I will be on guard against two evils: hastiness and indecision.

Goethe’s motto was “Ohne hast, ohne rast,” which translates, “Without haste, without rest.” It’s as good an idea as I’ve ever come across for getting your work done steadily. Too often we rush into things headlong when we ought to pause and think, or else we tarry overlong when we ought to forge ahead. Pope John’s words and Goethe’s caution us against both of these unwise courses.

Decisions require some degree of bravery. Etymology tells us that “Decide” shares a root with “excise” and “incise” and “concise” and “scissors.” The common theme is “cutting,” and decision implies cutting off some options; often, hard decisions are hard because they imply cutting off options that might be appealing, or because we must guess which option will turn out the best even though we lack good information.

Yet this is no reason not to take a decision. In truth, we are deciding all the time — even when we are deciding subconsciously to fool ourselves that we can put off making a decision forever. It requires self-possession to break free from this type of self-delusion. But no one said that growing up would be easy.

The problem with much self-help advice — a problem I’ve abetted, no doubt, with some of the glib advice I’ve given here — is that it portrays personal change as easy, and portrays the answers to life’s deep problems as easy. While it’s true that many who suffer could take simple steps to suffer less, I think it’s also true that Scott Peck’s book The Road Less Traveled was so popular in part because of the candor in its opening line: “Life is hard.”

Life doesn’t always have to be hard, and not all parts of life are hard at all. But the truth is, reshaping your behavior IS work — work that neuroscientists can track with their scans, and work we understand intuitively when we consider the emotional and physical strains we feel when we make big changes.

But we have the ability to work ahead steadily, with an explicit plan or an implicit one. We have the ability to keep ourselves moving forward, not in a hurry but not dragging our feet either. We can acknowledge that life is sometimes hard, and that changing our lives for the better will sometimes bring discomfort. Sometimes we will backslide. Sometime our plans will fall through. But we can still decide to deal with these realities as if they are not the end of the world, and as if we deserve to live better today than we did yesterday — even when it’s hard.


Previously in this series:


It’s all one big life.

Saturday, December 15th, 2007

Your work all fits in one workflow . . . whether you admit it or not.

You have one diet of the words you read, one diet of the food you eat, one diet of the thoughts you think.

You have one body of work.

Push all the buttons you want, trick yourself as much as you feel you need to, jump around if it hides the pain . . . still it remains one big life that you’re living.


“Action expresses priorities.”



My suggestion: put everything in one big pile — either literally or by writing it all down in one place — and then go after it with a blowtorch. If it’s in the bottom half of your life, get rid of it as quickly as you can. Then take what’s left and discard the bottom half of that. With what remains, focus on the things that give you the greatest joy and the greatest prosperity, however defined. Remember that you have one crack at this life, and that when you’re old and frail, you’ll look back on your choices now with gratitude or with regret. Chose your actions now so that you can feel gratitude then.

And don’t fool yourself that you can compartmentalize the different areas of your life. You’re living a life to be proud of, or you’re not. Choose accordingly.

Make more mistakes!

Monday, November 26th, 2007

For context, read this NYT article:

The Many Errors in Thinking About Mistakes

. . . We grow up with a mixed message: making mistakes is a necessary learning tool, but we should avoid them.

Carol S. Dweck, a psychology professor at Stanford University, has studied this and related issues for decades.

“Studies with children and adults show that a large percentage cannot tolerate mistakes or setbacks,” she said. In particular, those who believe that intelligence is fixed and cannot change tend to avoid taking chances that may lead to errors.

As an aside, Dweck’s research, and particularly the book Mindset, has been the frikkin’ mother lode for reporters doing think-pieces on education, business, etc. For that matter, I’ve used it in a lecture at UT. Good, good stuff — and very important work.

The majority of those praised for being smart chose the simple task, while 90 percent of those commended for trying hard selected the more difficult one.

The difference was surprising, Professor Dweck said, especially because it came from one sentence of praise.

Now compound this with years and years of typical schooling. It’s enough to make me want to copy my many friends who homeschool.

As we get older, many of us invest a great deal in being right. When things go wrong, as they inevitably do, we focus on flagellating ourselves, blaming someone else or covering it up. Or we rationalize it by saying others make even more mistakes.

What we do not want to do, most of the time, is learn from the experience.

In other words, we don’t grow up. It’s sad how much I see this in all the different milieux in which I move — academics, business, social contacts, etc.

Those in the fixed mind-set chose to compare themselves with students who had performed worse, as opposed to those Professor Dweck refers to as in “the growth mind-set,” who more frequently chose to learn by looking at those who had performed better.

This reminds me of something I once read from Neil Peart in an interview. (Sorry, can’t find it online right now.) He said that when he would hear the great drummers — I think he mentioned Bonham — it would inspire him to go home and work harder on his drumming. Contrast this with the attitude of many I’ve known who despair at ever getting better when they hear/see/read/experience the work of one of the greats.

“We get fixated on achievement,” [Rutgers management professor Stanley Gully] said, but, “everyone is talking about the need to innovate. If you already know the answer, it’s not learning. In most personal and business contexts, if you avoid the error, you avoid the learning process.”

So go make some constructive mistakes!