Metrics to the rescue

My Plan B Nation tool kit holds a collection of strategies, and choosing the right one for the challenge at hand turns out to be really important. You don’t pick up a hammer when you need to cut a piece of wood, and I’m finding that my Plan B Nation tools have equally specific uses.

Metrics are a great example — and by metrics I mean clearly established quantifiable goals. This is how I got two novels written, by holding myself to the writing goal of 500 words a day. Some days I wrote more. Some days I didn’t write at all. But even on the days when work didn’t get done, I knew that the goal was there, and that made all the difference.

Because metrics have been so useful to me over so many years, I’ve tended to rely on them a lot — to my mind, a little too much. On the upside, metrics are great (for me) for getting things done. On the downside (for me), they can also lead to a task-focused sort of grimness — where the only thing that matters is forward motion, not how I feel in the moving. Since I really value lightness and play, this can be a problem. That’s why I’ve been trying out different tools, especially breadcrumbs.

That said, there are times when metrics are just the ticket, and now is one of those times. Yesterday I talked about being in a bit of a summer slump. Projects that just days ago filled me with zest now fail to spark my interest. Nothing really feels worth the effort. Everything feels impossibly large, not to mention thankless.

It came at me out of the blue, this feeling, and I can’t entirely explain it. But regardless, this is where I am. This is what I have to work with.

Here’s why metrics are great (for me) at times like this:

1. They take the focus off how I feel and put it on concrete actions.

2. They encourage me to break up ambitious projects into small pieces, which are far less likely to feel overwhelming. They offer a way in.

3. They tie success to something within my control — to actions, not outcomes.

Right now, I’m working with two metrics — you might call them micro and macro.

The first one: 5 things a day.  What this means is that, every day, I take five concrete steps forward (which, as always, I track in my desk diary). Today, one of these is writing this blog post. Another will be getting exercise — a walk or maybe yoga. The rationale: I know from experience that if I just keep this up things will eventually shift. For me, this is what faith is — a belief in cause and effect borne out by experience.

The second: 100 pitches. (In case you didn’t guess, this would be the macro.)  Looking for work is really tiring, the more so, the longer you do it. Using this metric feels like a way to turn it into a game, to imbue it with the qualities of curiosity, play, and fun. What is a pitch exactly? That’s up to me. Reaching out to a potential client, drafting a magazine query — these are two examples, but I’m sure I’ll come up with more.

But even as I take up the metrics tool, I’m also aware of its limits. For me, it’s always the means to a goal, not the goal in itself. I think of metrics as the propulsive push a plane needs for liftoff. Once you’re airborne the job is done. Metrics fall away.

The “P” word in Plan B Nation

While I’m not really a religious person, I’ve always been fascinated by religious beliefs. As a child, I once spent a good part of a slumber party poring over Time-Life’s The Worlds Great Religions with a like-minded peer. (Hello Katie Plimpton!) At different points, I yearned to be both a Roman Catholic and a Mormon, faiths that fired my imagination far more than my family’s easy ecumenicism.

When my mother refused to buy me a rosary, I was not to be dissuaded: I made one for myself out of a stash of Campfire Girl beads and set up an altar on a footstool positioned in front of my bedroom window.

A flirtation with evangelical Christianity was intense if short-lived. Aside from the late-night revival that I barely made it through, what I most remember is the fact that the neighbors who took me had a dad who sold snack foods. I was thrilled to be the recipient of one of his corporate give-aways: A pressed felt hat topped with a tin inset filled with dirt and seed. You watered your hat and waited for grass to sprout from the crown.

All of which is a roundabout way of explaining how I’ve come to be at a Catholic retreat house sometime in 1990s. It was there that I acquired a small unprepossessing pamphlet of prayers that I’ve had ever since.

In my continued journey as a spiritual eclectic, I’ve thought a lot about prayer. In particular, I’ve pondered how I can take comfort (as I do) in words that I don’t technically “believe.” My all-time favorite answer came from an Episcopal priest at a church I frequented some years back, when I asked her how I could in good conscience repeat the (gorgeous, soothing, mesmerizing) Nicene Creed.

Her response: When we say “We believe”—which is how the Creed begins—it simply means that this belief is held somewhere within the body of the Church. Maybe I don’t believe this. But someone does.

Some—perhaps you, dear reader—will find this disingenuous. I, on the other hand, found it deeply satisfying. It appealed to the parts of me that had studied literature in college and later learned to parse the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.

Which brings me back to the pamphlet. Among its contents is a prose poem of a prayer that has meant a lot to me over the years. Penned by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a French philosopher and Jesuit priest, it speaks to the cultivation of patience during times of darkness and uncertainty. In that way, it strikes me as pretty much the perfect Plan B Nation companion. Over the years, I’ve shared it with many friends, and now (in the spirit of all the above) I’d like to share it with you.

Above all, trust in the slow work of God.
We are all, quite naturally,
impatient in everything to reach the end
without delay.

We should like to skip
the intermediate stages;
we are impatient of being
on the way to something unknown,
something new.
And yet it is the law of all progress
that is made by passing through
some stages of instability. . .
and that may take a very long time.

And so I think it is with you.
Your ideas mature gradually –
let them grow.
Let them shape themselves,
without undue haste.
Don’t try to force them on,
as though you could be today
what time (that is to say, grace and
circumstances acting on your own good will)
will make you tomorrow.

Only God could say what this new spirit
gradually forming within you will be.
Give our Lord the benefit of believing
that his hand is leading you
and accept the anxiety of
feeling yourself in suspense and incomplete.

Plan B Nation on NPR! (plus a few thoughts on faith)

NPR Sign

Plan B Nation is ending the year on a high note, having been featured in a terrific report by Karen Brown on New England NPR. You can listen, here. (My writer friend Naomi Shulman, also featured in the segment, tells me the story begins at the 7:25 mark. If you’re not sure what that means—I I wasn’t—try starting about halfway through.)

[12/3/12 update: there is now a separate audio link for this report.]

As I listened to WFCR this morning, I marveled once again at how quickly things can change. I launched this blog just last month—November 13, to be exact. Since then, I’ve published more than 20 posts and connected with dozens of amazing readers from all over the country.  I’ve also picked up a bunch of freelance work, started drawing up a business plan, and—for the first time in quite a while—been feeling pretty optimistic.

If you’d described this state of affairs to me two months ago, I wouldn’t have believed you.  In fact, as I’ve written before, I almost didn’t start this blog.  I was at the point where it was hard to believe that anything I tried would pan out.  To put it diplomatically, I was feeling sluggish. Psychologists call this “learned helplessness,” this much I knew. But while I was clear on the diagnosis, I was clueless as to the cure.

I’ve written a good bit about transitions lately—about why they (always) suck and also about key points to keep in mind while wrestling with change—but I failed to mention that they rarely proceed at a steady pace.  We work and work for what seems like forever with no apparent result.  And then one day, for no apparent reason, everything seems to shift.

I’ve seen this in my own life again and again. And I was reminded of it the other day when I spoke with a lovely friend who had been waging a lengthy and devastating struggle with Lyme disease. She’d followed doctor’s instructions for months, to no obvious effect. Then she woke up one morning to find that the pain had disappeared overnight.

In the same vein, in my own (and still ongoing) transition, I’d been doggedly plugging ahead for more than two years, without sensing much progress. I’d given up keeping count of the number of jobs I’d applied for. And while I got the occasional freelance project, they were few and far between. Then, out of the blue, things started to click.

In this way, change often feels more like a quantum leap than like a steady climb, as if we’ve traveled from point X to point Y without passing through the points in between. We may wonder why things took so long if all we had to do was this.  (The answer: Because that’s just how transitions seem to work.)

For me, this is where faith comes in. And by that, I don’t mean some abstract metaphysical belief—I’m not someone who believes that Things Work Out For The Best or Everything Happens For A Reason. (In fact, I’m the sort of person who responds to such claims by instantly invoking the Holocaust or genocide in Rwanda.)  But I do believe in cause and effect—the power of our actions. I have faith that if we keep taking small steps, our lives are going to change.