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.

Pattern recognition

701 - Puzzle - Seamless Pattern

I generally tend to think I know myself pretty well. Apart from having lived with me, lo these many years, I’ve spent a good bit of time exploring what I do and why I do it. Between 12-step programs and Vipassana and therapy and lots of reading, I’ve pretty much come to see myself as the #1 Expert in Me.

Which is why it was surprising the other day when I espied an entirely new pattern. (Not that the pattern was new—it’s not—but it was new for me to see it.)  Surprising and also exciting, because seeing is always the first step towards relating differently.

So here it is, the thing I realized: I have spent a huge part of my life trying to get people to give me things they don’t want to give me. I don’t have to keep doing this.

Like most transformative insights, this one sounds obvious. And simple. What makes it significant is the way it reordered my internal landscape. I felt it as a visceral shift. A relaxing. An ahhh, ah hah.

The best part is the awareness that I don’t have to work so hard. My life is quite challenging enough, without this added pressure. Also, that massive energy I’ve invested in trying to wrench things loose? It’s free to be deployed in other far more fun and productive ways.

There are likely lots of reasons that this pattern took root, many of which no doubt wend back to my teeniest tiniest childhood. On the one hand, it strikes me as important to recognize this—to see that the pattern is not my fault, that there are causes and effects. On the other hand, you know what? It doesn’t really matter why. What matters is how I act on this new knowing and how it acts on me.

I don’t expect this pattern to disappear in a day or even a year. But I do expect that it will slowly fade, become quieter and less demanding. What I have now is the permission to let go of a tremendous weight. Already I feel lighter, if not entirely free.

The magic of cause & effect

low gravity

Years back, when I first found my way to AA, I used to roll my eyes at old-timers’ earnest promises that “things will get better.” Don’t get me wrong. I loved AA from the start and didn’t ever think seriously about going back to drinking. (I was lucky that way.) Still, it struck me as absurd that people I’d never spoken to thought they could predict my future. What made them so certain? How could they possibly know?

It took a long time—months, in fact—before it finally hit me: “Hey! Maybe if you stop pouring gallons of a toxic depressant into your system things are likely to look up! Maybe, if you stop ingesting a substance that wreaks havoc on your relationships, life will (as a general rule) tend to run more smoothly!” Amazing. Who knew?

These thoughts came back to me the other day when a Very Nice Thing happened. Brazen Careerist founder Penelope Trunk—who, of all the bloggers on the planet, is probably the one I most admire—commented on the post I’d written about the benefits of blogging (or more specifically, about how research suggesting that blogging may help new moms could well also pertain to the newly unemployed).

Here’s what she wrote:

Amy, I really like this post. I started blog­ging when I had my first baby. I didn’t do it inten­tion­ally as a way to con­nect. I did it as a way to make sure my career didn’t tank while my emo­tions were tank­ing. But I totally under­stand how blog­ging could help new moms.

The other thing I love about blog­ging is that blog­ging gives me a way to share all the inter­est­ing research I come across. I’m with kids most of the day, and believe me, they really don’t care what I’m read­ing about. The blog is a way to keep my life intel­lec­tu­ally stimulating.

And, I love the research you have in this post. It makes me feel con­nected to read it and talk about it :)

Pene­lope

I was so excited! Not just a pro forma “thanks for linking to me” but a real live genuine comment reflecting on what I’d talked about and how she liked what I’d said.

And what had I done to spark this happy development?  Okay hold on to your seats. After linking to her blog on mine, I told her that I had done this.

Could anything be simpler or more obvious? And yet, I almost didn’t do it. Here’s why: In the world in which I blog, Penelope Trunk is a celebrity. I thought about the zillions of emails she likely gets each day. I didn’t want to be tedious. I didn’t want to push. I didn’t want to annoy her. (And she can be annoyed.)

But in my deliberations, I’d somehow overlooked two crucial facts: First, if you don’t tell someone you wrote a post about them, they most likely won’t find out.* Second, if you do tell them, there’s a chance they will actually read what you wrote and turn out to like it.

Give how universal this cause-and-effect stuff seems to be, it’s remarkable how often I have to remind myself to pay attention to it. True, if you make an effort to connect with someone it’s possible you’ll annoy them. But if you don’t make the effort, chances are good you won’t connect at all. Yes, you’ll avoid the downside risk, but you’ll also miss the upside. Cause and effect, it turns out, tends to cut both ways.

* Unless you’re Penelope Trunk, and then they most likely will.