The Best Time to Start

Time is a tricky thing.

I remember like it was yesterday sitting on the floor with my newborn son, a famously bad sleeper, at a few minutes past four on a Saturday morning. It was pitch black out, I’d only slept a few hours, and we were up for the day. He sat in front of me, smiling and up for the day, diligently working on picking things up and trying to place them in a plastic shape-sorter that played a bunch of different tunes.

Day after day, week after week, my day would start at this hour—long before the neighbors, my friends who didn’t have kids, even the Marines. Being awake for hours before the sun came up each Saturday (and Sunday, and Monday) felt endless, as did that phase of life.

These days, things are a bit different.

My son, when he comes over to give me a hug, lifts his chin up a bit—he’s not yet a full head taller than me, but I expect he will be soon. We talk about his ceramics and logarithms, what e means, and about politics.

Just like that, in the proverbial blink of an eye.

Time is neutral, just doing its job day after day. Yet, despite its consistency, we fail to understand it. We get fooled into thinking we have forever, that tomorrow is just as good as today, for…

…starting that new project

…keeping a commitment

…telling someone we love them

…lending a hand

…letting go of a bad habit

…or starting a good one.

We have all the time in the world, until we don’t.

And waiting until a better time to start often means never starting at all.

We let ourselves believe that whatever is happening today will last for forever, and that we’ll never get free of the hard thing we are facing.

Just as easily, we can believe that we have “all the time in the world” when someday it will run out.

We reliably accomplish less than we think will each day and week, but much more than seems possible over the course of a year.

Assuming, that is, that we start today.

The Story of a Truth, Revealed

We all carry around The Story of Me: the things we know to be true, an admixture of strengths and idiosyncrasies, faults and foibles.

Our identity is a many-layered thing. At its deepest layers are the things about Us we are most sure of. These things, buried so deep, are the hardest to see: attributes and mindsets, tendencies and habits so firmly held they become invisible.

Then, one day, someone shines a new light on one of these until-now truths. This is a someone who cares enough, knows us well enough, is expert enough and speaks so clearly that the truth they’ve uttered cuts all the way to our core.

Like hearing our own recorded voice, or seeing ourselves in a video, something previously invisible is at the center of the screen, revealed. We can’t look away. It takes up our whole field of vision.

This is a tough moment.

This Truth was so deeply held it formed part of our identity—it touches on the story of who we knew ourselves to be.

It is natural, in this moment of revelation, to experience this new Truth as a flaw, one that eclipses our strengths, our natural talents, the things that make us special.

At first, preoccupied by this new Truth, our performance plummets. Because we can’t tear our eyes away, all we see is the ways it makes us less than we thought we were. Preoccupied, we lose our ability to do things naturally: the grooved behaviors that worked so well in the past feel off, but we don’t know what else to do, how else to act.

The natural reaction is to turn away, to hide from this new Truth. It feels so ugly and misshapen, making us feel clumsy, awkward.

That’s not the answer. We shouldn’t run from this Truth. It has, after all, been offered up as a gift by someone who cares.

Nor should we be sucked into obsession, seeing the Truth in our every action, being fooled into thinking that it is Everything.

Our job, instead, is to stand firm. The “it’s all I can see, I’m a failure, I should give up” stage will pass if we are patient and we can stay grounded. Our job is to live with the truth, not to hide from or banish it.

If we can do this, then, in due course, we’ll arrive at the next stop on our journey: the It’s Not Everything stage.

In this stage, we begin to see the playing field more clearly. A number of important Things that didn’t make sense—surprising impacts we’ve had on others, results for us or our team that were less than we’d hoped for—are explained by their connection to this new Truth. In the It’s Not Everything stage, we’re not fully comfortable yet, but a fog is lifting and we’re getting more clarity. With clarity comes progress.

Finally, in time, we arrive at the last stop in our journey: the New Story.

We’ve shifted, we’ve test, we’ve adjusted, we’ve trialed-and-errored, and we’ve loosened our grip just a bit on the way things were. We’ve integrate this Truth into the New Story.

This New Story is a more real story of Us. It’s one in which we’ve traded a shiny, but ultimately faulty, piece of the puzzle for a new one.

This new piece at first seemed imperfect and misshapen.

In time we’ve cleaned it off, honed the edges, and discovered it for what it really is: a stronger, more reliable, more real than the piece that was there before.

To Do List Hack

I’m terrible at To Do lists.

I’ve tried countless approaches of keeping lists of things I have to do. Each time, a few weeks or a few months in, the lists fill up, overflow, and then mutate. They transform into an ugly, too-long litany of all the things I never got done.

Once that happens, I stop using them daily, meaning they’re essentially useless.

For a while I thought this was a software problem. Most To Do list software have endless features I don’t use. For the way my brain and my days work, I don’t want a project management solution, I just want a list (or a few lists).

I had some success with uber-simple software: I used Wunderlist successfully for more than a year, and Remember the Milk always seems appealing.

But, in the end, these too broke down. My system reverted to the tried-and-true combination of inconsistent handwritten lists in notebooks + my email inbox (where emails marked unread are a “to do” of one kind or another). This really doesn’t work: it reinforces a tendency to focus on urgent over important things, and it also results in some stuff slipping through the cracks.

So I’m at it again, using Asana thanks to peer pressure from my 60 Decibels teammates, but intentionally using 1/100th of the feature set. It’s only working because of a great, super-simple hack suggested by a teammate.

For each of my To Do lists (I have four of them, three for work and one personal), I was told to create the following four categories:

Today

This week

Next week

Longer term

That’s the hack. It’s absurdly simple, I know. But it’s really working.

What’s great is that, without using lots of features, dependencies or due dates, this helps me use my lists for both tracking and prioritization. It also forces me, in a very direct way (and in a way that due dates never have) to be clear with myself about what I’m going to get done today, this week, next week, or later. Plus, since most real-life tasks have multiple steps, this structure helps me track them easily without needing to put every step as a new To Do: instead, I just change a few words and slide the task from one category to another.

(For example:  I’ll have “Reach out to Samitha about scheduling a call this week” in the “Today” category.  After I email her, it change it to , “Follow up with Samitha about a meeting this week” and move it to the “This week” category)

I’m finding this hack to be the perfect middle ground between a single endless list with due dates (that I make up and ignore), and an elaborate, futile attempt to schedule and project manage everything—which feels a lot spending too much time on the list and too little time doing important work.

I hope this hack helps you too. Other ideas are welcome, just share them in the comments.

The Stillness is the Rest

I travel a lot for work. After more that 20 years of these trips, I’ve learned that I have no special abilities at conquering time zones. If anything, because I keep a pretty fixed schedule at home, and try to sleep at least 7 (or more) hours every night, going to new time zones takes a lot out of me.

Things that help me adjust include: exercise, meditation before going to sleep, not looking at my laptop or phone within an hour of sleeping, earplugs, and, if I’m flying East, Benadryl. I wrote a post about these, with a bonus recommendation about the world’s best suitcase.

That collection of approaches notwithstanding, I still often find myself lying awake, either at the start of the night trying to fall asleep, or some time very early in the morning try to stay asleep.

When I find myself sleepless in Seattle (or Nairobi, or Bangalore), I will lie still and do some version of savasana (yoga corpse pose), with the intention of focusing on my breath going in and out. I often count my breaths in a cycle of eight, one breath corresponding to each finger on my hand (thumb, second, third, fourth, fifth, fourth, third, second…and then start again). I mix this with a progressive body scan, paying attention to one part of my body and then the next, focusing my attention on relaxing that part of the body, or feeling it bathed in warm light (Headspace has lots of great guided body scan meditations). Through all of this, I aim to keep my mind clear and not let myself get hijacked by each passing thought.

In truth, all of this helps, but that doesn’t mean it puts me to sleep. I spend a lot of time resetting myself, clearing my thoughts, breathing and counting…and then quietly getting frustrated that I’m both exhausted and awake.

When this happens, one new thought that has helped me a lot is: this stillness, right now, is the rest. My mind is clear, my body is relaxed, and that is what rest entails. It is enough.

It’s a freeing thought that can release me from the goal orientation / failure cycle that trying to fall asleep inevitably entails.

I’m am here.

I am breathing.

I am resting.

And that is good.

One Person

I remind myself that if this post can create a change for just one person, then it’s a good post and a good day.

One person, not hundreds or thousands or millions.

An individual who experiences a small shift and does something different because of it. Someone, somewhere, who takes words and ideas and turns them into positive action.

That shift doesn’t appear in the stats, the likes or the shares.

Those numbers measure something else, and maybe that something matters a bit, but it is poorly correlated with the thing I’d really like to measure: the number of people who are more hopeful today, more committed, more empowered to make a change they seek to make. The number of people who take one more step towards their mission to create positive change.

The measure of success is you and what you do.

Ain’t no stat for that, so why do I keep on checking the numbers?

And why do you?