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.