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.

On breadcrumbs & basket weaving (aka Life Experiment #4)

Young bird

So if you think I haven’t been blogging as much: you’re right.

Over the past few weeks, my personal Plan B Nation has become an increasingly busy place, and while that’s mainly a very good thing, it’s also entailing some readjustments and recalibrations.

As you may have read, last month’s Life Experiment—taking a photo everyday as I learned to use my new digital camera—came to an abrupt end only days after it began.  I realized I simply couldn’t add another thing to my plate. While at first I saw this as a failure (bad!), I ended up realizing that it was doing what any good experiment should: Giving me useful information.

In that spirit, I’m taking this month’s Life Experiment in a somewhat different direction. Instead of focusing on an activity, I’ll be playing with metaphor and shifting perspective.

I recently wrote about how I’m trying to bring more playfulness into my life—to still get things done but to have more lightness in the doing.  For much of my foray in Plan B Nation, Getting Things Done has felt like accomplishment enough. On some days simply getting out of bed felt like a pretty big deal.

But lately, I’ve come to wonder if things have to feel so grim. In particular, I’ve been thinking about the role of metaphor. Which brings me to breadcrumbs and basket weaving, aka Life Experiment #4.

On Breadcrumbs . . .

Instead of marching through a to-do list, I’m a bird following bread crumbs.  Breadcrumbs are: Nourishing.  A bird doesn’t order itself to follow a trail of breadcrumbs. That comes naturally. A trail of breadcrumbs invites you on. You don’t have to think about it.

I’ve been playing with this over the past few weeks, and I like how it’s feeling.  Looking for the next breadcrumb is way better than pushing myself to Be More Productive.

and basket weaving

Another big challenge has been feeling that I’m moving in too many different directions. By nature and habit, I go for depth rather than for breadth. I like to focus on one thing, to give it my full attention.

Of course, that isn’t always possible—it isn’t for me right now—so I’ve been mulling over how I can keep doing lots of things but feel a little less stressed. The answer, at least for now, seems to be basket weaving.

Instead of seeing life as pulling me in disparate conflicting directions, I’m thinking of my various activities as strands in a single  basket. The challenge is weaving them together. The challenge is creating a whole. What I was viewing as a source of stress has become a creative project.

Which isn’t to say that I really like being all this busy. I’m hoping (expecting) that by April’s end, things will have settled down. In the meantime, I plan to do what I can to hold the situation lightly—to follow the trail of breadcrumbs and practice basket weaving.

Note: My interest in how metaphor can shape experience was sparked by The Fluent Self‘s Havi Brooks–if you’re interested in reading more, she’s written loads on the topic.

Basket Weaving

Why follow-through is overrated

trying to look perfect

This month’s Life Experiment has been a total bust. Except that it’s also been a total success. Let me explain.

As some readers will recall, I began this month with the idea that I would take at least one photograph each day. I was interested in how this would shift the way I moved through the world and also viewed it as an opportunity to learn to use a recently acquired but languishing digital camera.

All of this made sense in theory. In practice? Not so much. Here’s how it played out.

At the end of a harried Day 1, I snapped a hasty photo with my iPhone. (Better than nothing, I told myself.)

Day 2, same thing.

By Day 3 or 4, I’d forgotten about it. Ditto the days that followed. Until at some point over the next week I realized that this wasn’t happening.

My first reaction was to get stressed out over my follow-through failure. What was I going to write this month? What would I say to you readers?

But the more I thought about it, the more I saw another possibility.  After all, this was billed as an experiment. No, it hadn’t gone off as planned, but that was entirely different from saying that it had been a total loss. I decided—as an experiment—to adopt a different perspective, to detach the experience from the goal and ask what it had to teach me.

Here’s what I found:

1. I need to reconnect with my core purpose.

When I embarked on monthly Life Experiments at the start of 2012, my goal wasn’t to create yet another to-do list. Rather it was to explore how changing one thing in my life might lead to other unexpected shifts. Over time, I’ve started to lose track of this, and my “experiments” have come to feel more and more like 30-day Challenges. Be more productive! Just do it!  That wasn’t what I’d been aiming for, but it’s where I ended up. Time for some reflection and retuning.

2. I need to do less, not more.

The reason I wasn’t taking photos was very simple. I’m really really busy!  Over the past six months, I’ve gone from struggling to fill my days with meaningful activities to a jam-packed schedule, with freelance deadlines, workshop facilitating, friends, exercise, and life maintenance all vying for time. This is in many ways a good thing, but it also has its own challenges, which I need to find ways to address. (Also: I need to take time to appreciate how far I’ve come!)

3.  I need to do more to infuse my life with playfulness.

I recently wrote about an ah hah recognition that I need more playfulness in my life. During my time in Plan B Nation, I’ve taken a lot of pride in my ability to simply carry on, to put one foot in front of the other during hard and uncertain times. There have been days—and not a few—when simply getting out of bed felt like a real accomplishment. It seemed like enough that I could say, in the words of 12-step programs everywhere, that I’d managed to “take the next right action.”

But I’ve come to see that, while this approach can be helpful in times of crisis, it’s not (for me) the best approach to life over the long haul. Over the long haul, I want to be happy, not simply to endure. Getting things done is certainly part of a happy life, but it’s far from sufficient.

Language plays a big role here: The more I think about this issue, the more aware I am of how the words I use shape the quality of my daily experience. Tool kit. Task List. Marching orders. This is the language of command and control. This is the language that, all too often, I use when I talk to myself (when issuing marching orders).

It doesn’t have to be this way.

For example, instead of “next right action” how about “breadcrumbs”? Think fairy tales, think Hansel and Gretel and the trail they left to find their way back home. (Okay, so in the story birds eat the bread, but I still like the metaphor.)

Over the past few years, I’ve thought a lot about what qualities help us thrive while traveling Plan B Nation (and other psychologically harsh terrains), and it seems to me that one of the most important is the quality of openness. By this, I mean the ability to see alternatives and possibility where we might easily see failure.

In a feature story about famous accidental discoveries, the Daily Beast recounts how the discovery of penicillin came about after Scottish bacteriologist Andrew Fleming noticed that mold had started to grow on some cultures he’d left exposed. Years later, he toured a state-of-the-art medical lab, far cleaner than the one where his scientific breakthrough occurred.

“If you had worked here, think of what you could have invented,” his guide remarked.

Fleming’s cool response: “Not penicillin.”

Playtime in Plan B Nation

Girls skipping at an athletics carnival

I launched this blog late last year with the goal of exploring strategies for dealing with the psychological aftermath of the Great Recession.

Since then, I’ve cast a pretty wide net, with posts focused on economic and labor policy as well as personal tactics for navigating Plan B Nation, but in a world where so much is beyond our control, I remain especially intrigued by how we make the most of the limited swath within it.

To that end, I’ve spent countless hours reflecting on what behaviors and approaches best equip us thrive in these turbulent times. A recent (and surprising) addition to my list: The quality of playfulness.

A big push in this direction came some weeks back when I started reading Havi Brooks’ seriously playful Fluent Self blog. And when I say “seriously playful” that’s exactly what I mean. As I dove into the magic-kingdom secret-language world of The Fluent Self, I watched myself soak up playfulness like a parched plant soaks up water.

In particular, I was drawn to Havi’s explicit attention to the deployment of language—the inventing of new words and metaphors to transform experience. It’s something I’ve been playing (playing!) with for the last couple of weeks, and while the whole thing is still a work in progress (game!), it’s been a fascinating exploration.

Playing with language often seems to help me step back. To detach from whatever experience I’m having, and assess it from a different angle. It stops being The Truth. It becomes Something to Look At. Playing with language can be an act of kindness toward myself.

An example of what I’m talking about:

The other day, I was feeling especially oppressed by the running “Project List” I keep on my computer. Taking a leaf from Havi’s book, I decided that—just for fun, as an experiment—I’d try calling it something else. I jotted down my five priority items and labeled them “Scruffles.” Strange and even kooky as this may sound, I instantly lightened up. “I need to do my Scruffles,” I told myself, and quickly knocked them off.

Similarly, when I recently found myself brooding over something that I’d thought through zillions of times before, I coined a new word for the experience: Quandrification (the practice of proliferating quandaries).

As with “Scruffles,” this new word also made me smile.  And once I was smiling, I began to see different possible ways of being with the underlying feelings.  I didn’t have to keep re-playing my thoughts like a broken vinyl record. I could ask myself “What do I need right now? What would make this better?”

A lot of what I’ve written about on this blog is familiar territory—things that I’ve known in some shape or form seemingly forever. Practice gratitude and patience. Invest in relationships and community life. Connect with a sense of purpose. Break big goals into the smallest possible steps.   It’s not the concepts that are new but rather the challenge of weaving them into life in Plan B Nation.

But playfulness? I hadn’t really given it much thought. And if I had, I likely would have dismissed it out of hand. This nose-to-the-grindstone feeling of moving stolidly forward, isn’t it to be expected? Isn’t that simply part and parcel of life in Plan B Nation?

I’m beginning to think not. At least not most of the time. Yes, playfulness can seem frivolous, an unnecessary add-on. But that’s only until we start to see that it’s absolutely essential.