For as much as I read about productivity and “tactics,” I’m not all that organized, in my opinion. I am forced to keep track of a lot of threads in my projects by necessity of having too much on my plate, so I make use of notebooks and applications to sort, categorize, and remind myself of things. This includes my email inboxes – if something is unread, it means I haven’t tended to it yet and need to circle back.
From time to time I hack away at my unread messages, but items will sit there for long stretches during peak deadline times.
Last week, however, I hit inbox zero for my main account for the first time in a loooooong time.
I honestly don’t remember the last time I hit zero messages in my inbox. It’s been a long slow process of setting up filters on messages to get rid of promotions cluttering my inbox (which I started setting up in January). I was tired of having to constantly decide whether I wanted to open promotional messages or auto-delete. I didn’t want to block or unsubscribe from them all since I still used the promotions on occasion, but the constant, daily deluge of 30+ messages was draining.
I don’t really subscribe to the inbox zero system per se, but when I finally cleared the last message kicking around, I stared at my empty inbox in confusion. It was weird to see. And I feel a slight motivation to keep on top of clearing emails. When a number pops up in the tab, an itching anxiety kicks in to get rid of it as soon as possible.
I feel odd celebrating something like this. I know rationally that clearing emails isn’t really a marker of productivity. Nevertheless, I think it’s important to celebrate those times when you feel a modicum of control over your life and work (even if it’s an illusion set up by my capitalist overlords… /s).
A recent article talking about knowing when to quit/retire from teaching had me reflecting on my own experiences with quitting. Truthfully, I can’t recall many instances where I quit something. Often, I will drag out experiences long after they have been useful, and instead of quitting as an active decision, I’m more likely to let things fall away through neglect. Perhaps there isn’t a strong difference between the two since my history is littered with things that I eventually stopped doing. I suppose in my mind, the difference comes down to whether I made a decision to stop – whether I took ownership over the act.
The strongest instance where I actively made a decision was when I stopped hosting at the local karaoke bar. I was three or four years into my tenure as a host, and for the most part I enjoyed the experience. I had a regular crew of friends who would come in and make the night interesting. However, towards the end, I grew to resent patrons coming in who weren’t my friends. I worked the slowest night, so if things were quiet, we’d shut down early. But if patrons filtered in and kept purchasing stuff, we’d stay open. Catering to the average customer felt like a chore, rather than chumming with friends with our own song preferences and inside jokes.
I started to dislike going into work, and even to this day I don’t sing much like I did while I was a host. I’ll grab the mic from time to time, but I don’t go out to enjoy karaoke anymore. I still work security at the bar, but I stopped hosting all together.
I made the decision to stop hosting because a small part of me knew it was time to move on. I learned what I could from the experience, cherished the memories it gave me, but I recognized that I no longer wanted to spend time doing it. I think that’s the critical part in the art of quitting. It’s not about actually quitting or the how. Instead, it’s about recognizing when the time has come and why.
Sometimes we have to slog it out in things we hate. We don’t quit those things because we assign value to the activity (or someone else has assigned value and we are dragged along for the ride). But quitting is more than stopping a thing you don’t like. It’s about recognizing when the thing is no longer of value to you; that it won’t take you where you need it to go. It is the recognition that your time is better suited elsewhere. The art of quitting ultimately comes down to taking an active role in how you choose to spend your time.
At writing, I’m about 5-hours away from finishing J. Michael Straczynski’s memoir Becoming Superman: My Journey From Poverty to Hollywood. His many professional credits include writing episodes for The Real Ghostbusters and He-Man, writing the screenplay for Marvel’s Thor, a hugely successful run in comics, and creating Babylon 5. It’s an incredible story of crime, poverty, all forms of abuse, as well as triumph and perseverance. The narrative is gripping and it’s difficult to put down. I’ve only been listening for a few days now and I’ve ripped through 11-hours. Even if he did embellish on the details to make his story more sympathetic (which I sincerely doubt he did), it’s a masterclass in storytelling.
I enjoy reading memoirs and biographies because it gives me a chance to glean insights from their stories. It may be a bit premature to write this since I haven’t finished the book, but there is so much to get from his story that I felt compelled to dash this off.
In no particular order:
JMS came from a broken home, where abuse, neglect, and punishment was the norm. He recognized early that he had two options – become like his abusers, or break the cycle by becoming the opposite of what his abusers embodied. In that way, he gravitated towards positive role models both fantastical, like Superman, and real life, like his surrogate father-figure Vincent. JMS refused to allow his past to dictate his future, and he believed he should own his circumstances, rather than use it as an excuse.
Once he realized he was meant to be a writer, JMS devoted himself to his craft. He found every excuse and opportunity to write. He learned to fill voids at the newspaper, where other journalists let deadlines slip them by. No area was beneath him to write, and no domain was too foreign for him to jump in and attempt. He cobbled together an eclectic background that spanned multiple genres and styles, all in an attempt to hone his craft. The best advice he attributes is when a famous author told him on a cold call to “stop writing shit. If it wasn’t shit, people would buy it.” JMS saw writing through college as his way of purging the shit writing from his system so that he could let his stories flow from him, and he wouldn’t let anyone stop him from telling his stories.
JMS quit a lot of shows based on principles. When network executives and censors wanted to change the essence of his stories, he walked away. When friends and mentors, whom took chances on him early in his career, were fired from projects, he quit in solidarity. When he stumbled into work that he initially dismissed as beneath him, he swallowed his pride and took jobs he knew he could learn from. He often sacrificed his career and work to stand up for what he believed in, and didn’t complain about the consequences.
On children’s taste
While JMS fought against problematic characterizations on The Real Ghostbusters (he said”motherizing” Janine was regressive and sexist, and making Winston the driver was racist) one interesting insight he provided was how children viewed the show. A change recommended by consultants and the network was to create a group of junior Ghostbusters for child viewers to identify with. JMS pushed back, saying that no child wants to be Robin, but instead wanted to grow up to be Batman. The Ghostbusters provided children with something to aspire towards; a sense of direction. To see children on the screen acting like Ghostbusters, child viewers wouldn’t identify with them because they represented something they wanted but were not and couldn’t be. In this, he’s making a connection that representation and aspiration are important to viewers. He similarly walked away from She-Ra for the network refusing to allow She-Ra to be a warrior. To him, it was important to give children something they could see themselves becoming one day.
There are many things JMS wrote on that he did that was unethical and illegal. When he couldn’t afford to buy books as a child, he stole them, carefully read them without damaging the spine, then would sneak the books back to return them. When he wanted to take classes that weren’t open to him but he desperately wanted to further his abilities as a writer, he broke into the faculty office, stole permission slips and altered the roster to put him into the courses. When he needed to move on from grad school, he knew another year would sacrifice a lot of ground in his career, but he needed to appease his abusive father, so he broke into the Registrar’s office to make it appear he was graduating. (As of reading in the book, he has yet to try and leverage the fake degree in his career, but merely needed to exit from the program without provoking his father or endangering his siblings). Because of his upbringing, he learned how to see opportunities to open doors. This, combined with his work ethic, means that he worked hard to leverage past experiences to create future value. While this is hardly good career advice, it’s worth staying mindful of – that not all career advances come by entering through the front door.
Throughout the book, JMS is careful to note that he’s been more lucky than good. He recognizes that while hard work is vital to his story, there are many times where he was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time. His ability to leverage his experience allowed him to go from writing one-act plays, to short stories, to journalism, to television screen-writing, to eventually movies and comics. He notes many times in his story that he was mere steps away from making bad decisions, or letting his faults get the best of him. In many precarious places, he could have gone down the wrong path, any he nearly died several times. Rather than letting luck go to his head, he refused to become complacent and always did the work. Above all else, his work ethic is probably the most important lesson I drew from his story.
A recent SMBC comic discussing how humans tend to revert to emotional baselines got me thinking. Go check it out; it’s humorously astute.
Shortly after the last Game of Thrones episode aired, reports came out that actor Kit Harington checked himself into a wellness centre to work on personal issues. This was later corroborated with behind the scenes footage showing some of his emotional reactions as they filmed the final episodes. Given that the show was one of his first major long-running parts, it’s not unreasonable that he’s experiencing complex thoughts and feelings around the show coming to a close.
Similarly, Olympian Michael Phelps appeared on Tony Robbins’s podcast and discussed his experiences with depression after his achievements in the pool. He notes that after running on an emotional high from training and competing, returning to “normal life” without any substantial goals is a tough adjustment for athletes. They spend long chunks of their lives devoted to a singular aim, and once they close that chapter of their lives, it can be difficult to find meaning in more mundane pursuits. Instead of reverting to a normal baseline, their sense of balance is skewed and their baseline dips emotionally lower.
I’m neither an acclaimed actor nor athlete, but I have experienced similar emotional falloffs that helps me relate to what these two people might be going through. After a summer of outward bound adventure in my army cadet days (we climbed mountains, glaciers, and biked through the Albertan countryside), I returned to my normal high school life and I experienced a week or so of crushing depression. I felt that after climbing a mountain, what else could I possibly experience in life that would top that? Setting aside that I was a teenager and lacked a more global perspective on life, in that moment I felt that I had peaked, and there was nothing left for me to achieve or look forward to.
The so-called “quarter-life crisis,” which for many coincides with graduating from four grueling years of undergraduate study, is a similar experience, where you no longer are striving towards a goal and now have to seek out to find your own meaning in life. The vast, open stretch before you is daunting in its emptiness. But, instead of possibility, you view the void with pessimism – what do I have before me that can possible measure to what has come before?
I don’t have children, but I suspect that the “empty nest” feeling that parents get when their children head out on their own is similar. You’ve spent nearly two decades caring for your children, nurturing and guiding them towards self-sufficiency, and now that they are heading out, your goal is largely fulfilled and you need to redefine your identity and time in a post-dependent world.
When you experience the closing of a long-term goal that has spanned years, there seems to be a harsh recalibration period for your emotions. Not only do you snap back to baseline, but you have to redefine your expectations for the baseline, and re-code that experience with a new sense of purpose and meaning. The longer you stay in this limbo, it seems the harder you languish.
Achievement and success is wonderful, but I think we tend to only tell stories of the climb up the mountain and we tend to forget the back-half of the experience when we carefully climb back down, taking care not to fall back to earth. I think sharing these stories is important because it lets us know we are not alone in the dark.
I’ve noticed something about myself: as time goes on, it’s getting easier for me to make “good” choices. I’m not sure if everyone shares this and it’s a common thing as we get older, but I’m finding it easier to do things that I struggled with when I was younger. Through some combination of experience, changes in my living conditions, and physiology, my ability to adopt certain habits and mindsets has improved. Here are a few examples I’ve noted.
First, sometime around turning 30, I found it easier to start going to the gym and exercise. Maybe it was the tail-end of the quarter-life crisis, but going to the gym (and paying for it!) seemed like a more important thing and it was easier to embrace. The trick is to make the habit stick.
Also around the time I turned 30, I found it important to stop pirating media content. Instead, I sought out legitimate sources for content, such as the library, paying the $1 for song and app purchases, paying for Spotify, renting movies on my gaming system, etc. I’m not perfect – I still pirate foreign shows from fan sites that subtitle the content and I make liberal use of an adblocker, but overall I have shifted away from feeling entitled to content to valuing paying for it.
Recently, I found it super easy to start flossing. This might also be an existential issue, where my teeth aren’t going to get any better, so it’s important for me to take care of my gums.
Even turning down junk food is getting easier. I appreciate that my body is changing, and it no longer has the resiliency to allow me to eat whatever I want. In my 20’s, I could eat anything I wanted at any time and I never felt sick because of it. Now, I find that those same poor choices lead me to feeling off or ill in the hours that follow. The food was never good for me, but in my 20’s I didn’t experience the short-term negative feedback that told me it was bad to consume junk (instead, it was just hurting me long-term through slowly accumulating body fat and other bad stuff).
This is not to say that I’m now perfectly virtuous. I can’t get the gym habit to stick quite yet, I binge on Nibs and Netflix when the opportunity presents itself, I enjoy my craft beers, and I never go to bed on time. I’ve been experimenting with systems to help stem my poor self-control (such as intermittent fasting or connecting my router to a timer) in order to give my rational brain a leg up on my monkey brain. It’s a slow, steady, incremental slog towards progress, but I keep at it.
I suppose a common thread that runs through all of this is that the short-term downsides that come with bad decisions are finally manifesting themselves, which provides near-immediate feedback. Rather than putting off the negative outcomes to some indeterminate point in the future, my body and attitude are giving me early signals that bad choices have consequences – consequences that can be mitigated if you address it now (exercise, good nutrition, and flossing are all forms of preventative maintenance, which Jim and I talked about on our podcast a few years ago).
This reminds of an exchange between Socrates and Cephalus from Book 1 of Plato’s Republic, when Cephalus is talking about what it’s like to be old and free from the passions of youth. Being in my 30’s is a far cry from “being old,” but I think we can derive wisdom from the speech:
“I will tell you, Socrates, (Cephauls) said, what my own feeling is. Men of my age flock together; we are birds of a feather, as the old proverb says; and at our meetings the tale of my acquaintance commonly is –I cannot eat, I cannot drink; the pleasures of youth and love are fled away: there was a good time once, but now that is gone, and life is no longer life. Some complain of the slights which are put upon them by relations, and they will tell you sadly of how many evils their old age is the cause. But to me, Socrates, these complainers seem to blame that which is not really in fault. For if old age were the cause, I too being old, and every other old man, would have felt as they do. But this is not my own experience, nor that of others whom I have known. How well I remember the aged poet Sophocles, when in answer to the question, How does love suit with age, Sophocles, –are you still the man you were? Peace, he replied; most gladly have I escaped the thing of which you speak; I feel as if I had escaped from a mad and furious master. His words have often occurred to my mind since, and they seem as good to me now as at the time when he uttered them. For certainly old age has a great sense of calm and freedom; when the passions relax their hold, then, as Sophocles says, we are freed from the grasp not of one mad master only, but of many. The truth is, Socrates, that these regrets, and also the complaints about relations, are to be attributed to the same cause, which is not old age, but men’s characters and tempers; for he who is of a calm and happy nature will hardly feel the pressure of age, but to him who is of an opposite disposition youth and age are equally a burden.”
I have a trick for finding parking at work in the morning. The trick I use doesn’t guarantee that I’ll find a good spot every day, but it does prevent me from wasting time driving up and down lanes when there are no spots available. The entrance to the parking lot at work is at the far end of the lot, with the building on the opposite side. This means that when you start your search, you begin at the furthest point away from the building and your search pattern will take you towards the building.
In terms of strategy, this means that the spots with the highest probability of being empty are both the furthest from the building and the closest to you when you begin your search. This obviously makes sense from a safety perspective – if the cars were entering the parking lot closest to the doors, then pedestrians would be in greater danger of getting hit and traffic would always be impeded. However, this means that it’s hard to determine when you enter lot where empty spots are among the banks of cars. Due to poor lines of sight and the number of large trucks used by students, you often won’t see an empty spot until you are a few feet away.
If you rely on this strategy for finding the closest parking spot to the door, you’ll waste a lot of time driving around except in cases where you stumble across a spot (which I estimate would be a low probability event). I’ve started using a strategy to avoid searching for those spots and reduce wasted time in randomly driving around.
My strategy attempts to address a number of constraints:
My parking utility is maximized when I find a spot close to the door. This reduces the amount of time spent walking, which is good for inclement weather, icy conditions, and because I’m usually running late.
My parking utility is diminished when I waste time circling the lot searching for ideal spots. Instead, I’m seeking a satisficing outcome that balances maximizing utility and minimizing search time.
I’m competing against other actors as they also drive around seeking empty spots. These people are usually students, who are also usually running late or seeking to reduce their walking distance.
Keeping these considerations in mind, this is the strategy I employ in the morning.
First, I’ve limited my parking search to one of the three lots. By reducing my options, I can make quick decisions on the fly. Lot 1 is directly in front of the door, and since I arrive before the majority of the students, I find that it satisfies my needs most of the time. If Lot 1 is full, I move to Lot 2, and finally Lot 3 being most sub-optimal.
Next, on my way to the entrance of Lot 1, I scan the first row of cars for empty spots there. Since I drive passed it, it allows me to quickly eliminate it if there are no spots, or at least gauge where the spots will be relative to any additional spots in the second and third rows of the lot.
Then, I use a trick to quickly assess the likelihood of empty spots. I look at the shadows of the cars and pay attention to noticeable gaps. When I enter the lot, I can see down the second (middle) row. If I see anything, I drive towards the gap and usually there is a free spot (except in cases where someone has driven a motorcycle and not parked it in the motorcycle-designated lot). If I see no gaps in the shadows, I move on to the third row and repeat the pattern.
The majority of the time, this gives me enough information quickly to know whether I need to drive down a row. There are two limitations to this strategy: first, it relies on there being no cloud cover, and it doesn’t allow for east-facing shadows to be examined. This is not a perfect strategy, but my goal is to maximize my parking preferences while eliminating my wasted time driving around the lot examining each parking spot hoping to stumble onto an empty spot. Using this strategy balances these two interests and generally gives me a satisfactory outcome quickly.
A final consideration I use is to notice cars leaving the lot when I enter, and noting where they are coming from. That is the fastest indication of where a parking spot is on the busiest days when I’m competing against other cars looking to park.
All of this occurs within about 15 seconds of me driving up to the lot at work.
If you have reached this point in the post, you might be wondering why I spent so much time explaining how I find a parking spot (is this really the best use of a blog???). I think this example of setting up a solution to a problem is a fun way of explaining how I ideally like to approach a problem. I try to consider what outcomes I’m aiming to achieve and work backwards to consider options that would fit those criteria. In doing so, I have to consider what input I need to let me quickly assess a situation and make a decision by eliminating extraneous options.
It’s important to know when you need to be right, and when you need something to work well enough most of the time. For instance, if this were a higher-stakes situation (say, I was doing surgery), I would want a strategy that would be the equivalent of finding the closest spot to the door every time. Instead, I know that my goal is achieved if I reduce the amount of walking time and reduce the amount of time and fuel spent hunting for an optimal spot.
When coming up with a strategy, I knew that hoping to stumble across an empty spot would be a net increase in my search time. So, I found a way to quickly gain information that would eliminate many non-options. Rather than looking at the cars themselves, I instead look for gaps in shadows – an indirect indicator of outcomes I want. It’s a simple heuristic that eliminates the need to confirm that cars are occupying spaces all the way down the long row.
While the strategy will not save me time in 100% of cases, it does shift the outcomes to a net decrease in search time, which meets my goals and gets me to work on time (most of the time).