Ditching the List

I turn 48 tomorrow.  And you now have a little bit of an idea as to why the still 47 year old man is partly incapacitated because of all the to do items cluttering his brain.  Is it possible for that habit to change?

The real question might be whether I even need a list at all.  If I had the courage to say no, then I could work consciously to build a whole new set of neural pathways that don’t involve compulsively scribbling down bulleted lists of things to do.  But that might be too much of a thing to ask.  For now it would be enough to just bring the list under control.

What if I still kept a list, but made an incremental shift in how I managed it?  What are the basic requirements given my list keeping pathology:

  1. Infinitely extensible (so bigger than a piece of paper)
  2. Always with me (I start new lists because I don’t have the last one with me)
  3. Enables easy prioritization (Next month’s stuff is separate from today’s)

So against my larger impulses, I’ve reinstalled a copy of Things on my devices and for the last six weeks I’ve been operating off of an electronic to do list. (Just to give you a visual  -Things is running on my laptop and phone and is constantly synching between both)

Why’s that newsworthy? Because (and this is important), it has required me to address a slate of other habits.

  1. I’m training myself to no longer write items down, but instead to add them to the electronic list. The floating sheets of paper have gone away.
  2. It’s forcing me to take a few moments at the beginning of the week to prioritize my activities. And then I can monitor whether the stuff I’m doing is really helping move forward on those New Year’s Evolutions.
  3. I’m not afraid of loss.  The list is endlessly extensible.  And the wild peripheral stuff like Riemann’s Hypothesis?  It can go in the bottomless Someday stack and I need not worry about losing it, nor having it clutter my head.

I hate to say it, but that incremental technological fix is, for the time being, giving me some air cover so that I can get to the real task at hand which is to retrain my underdeveloped prefrontal cortex. I’m training myself to order information, to make decisions, and to follow through.

I am now ready to tend to the next priority:  Dental work.

Priority 1: Set Priorities

That’s always the tough one.  Especially when my 2013 list is as crazy and overreaching as it is.  It can also lead to a recursive loop.

If I’m a writer, than writing should probably be at the top of the heap.  And it’s also the thing to be most avoided.  I’ll put it at the top and try to develop some strategies around it later.

As for what comes next, it might help to choose the items most onerous or requiring the most lead time and schedule those up front. Call it the inner Obama.  It’ll take 3 years to get out of Iraq, so you have to start the process on Day 1.  And if you don’t start the withdrawal that first year, you won’t see your peace dividend before year 6.  And you have to reform health care in the first half of your term because you won’t have enough political capital left in the second half.

So in my case, what long term investments should I make right out of the starting gate?  What are the most onerous things?  And which require the most lead time?

The answers are clear, though not entirely self-evident:

  1. Get organized
  2. Take care of dental work and health stuff.
  3. Help secure Natwani funding
  4. Fence train the dog and reign in the chickens.

My rationale:

I haven’t been to the dentist in years.  Some of my cavities have been cooking in my mouth since 1997.  And for me the possible ramifications are severe.  My resistance to dealing with this stuff is huge.  And the victory if I take care of it first is commensurate.

I helped start the Natwani Coalition in 2004.  They’re doing incredible work, and yet their last cycle of grants is running out and they may need to shutter their doors.  The funding will require at least a 6 month lead time.

Lastly, I spend a disproportionate amount of time chasing down our chickens and dogs as they roam the neighborhood.  I’ve learned a lot about the habits of chickens and dogs, but I really need to be using that time to do something else.

Okay.  Time to tackle them one at a time.

The Difference Between President Obama and Me

Obama at Sasha's Dress RehearsalWell.  Actually. I think there are quite a few.  But one in particular stands out.

Between December 16 and January 21 President Obama did the following:

  • He attended a dress rehearsal of his daughter’s school play
  • While doing so he wrote some draft remarks for a talk he was to give.
  • That night he delivered those remarks at the memorial for the New Town families.
  • He celebrated the holidays
  • He engineered a compromise to avoid the fiscal cliff.
  • He initiated a sweeping effort to address gun violence.
  • He got inaugurated.
  • He attended some inaugural balls
  • He launched new efforts to reform our immigration policies
  • With great difficulty he negotiated to raise the debt ceiling
  • And he instigated new efforts to reduce gender and sexual orientation bias in the US military

I would have taken any one of those items, checked it off, and called it a year.

But instead, what did I do?

  • I made some hard cider
  • I celebrated the holidays
  • I lost a chicken to a bobcat
  • I must have done something else, but for the life of me I can’t remember what.

Now Obama, of course, is the President.  And I’m me.  And there are a whole lot of really interesting reasons why that’s the case- perhaps I’ll get to them in a later post.

But the present point is what behavior allows Obama (despite political rancor) to be a bit more effective?  Keep in mind, that in 2006, the thought that an African American named Barack Hussein Obama would soon be elected President of the United States would have been considered ludicrous.  And yet it happened.  In large part, I think, because of his personal habits.

What are some of those?

1.  Intense focus.  I carry with me the image of him the day after his 2008 election victory.  He awoke as usual at 5:30 am.  He went to his regular workout at his gym in Chicago.  And then he reported for work at the campaign headquarters and began the transition.

In hand with this, it helps to remember that Obama began as a community organizer.  To do that, you have to first know how to be organized.

2. Clear priorities.  Obama’s 2008 Campaign Blueprint for Change contains a lot of promises.  And many on the left were frustrated because he didn’t do everything he had set out to do or that he seemed too willing to compromise.  But I would counter that he actually had a much clearer understanding of the reality facing him.  In a divided nation, (and keep in mind how divided we were and still are), you only have so much political capital.  The gravity of his first Inaugural reflected, I think, the depths of the challenges facing us.  We were in economic free fall.  Banks were failing, and those on the inside feared a wholesale economic collapse.

So the priorities were bailing out the banks.  Rescuing the auto industry.  And putting forward the Affordable Health Care Act.  And none of those came easily. That’s mostly all he had capital for.  You could argue that he may have burned too much.  Gay rights, immigration reform, addressing climate change?  All those laudable efforts would have to wait for a second term.

3. Long term investments.  The 2012 campaign began in January 2011 when David Axelrod relocated back to Chicago.  The campaign team began the heavy investment in datametrics, infrastructure, and personnel that helped win the election.  They eventually assembled a distributed organization and data gathering machine of such efficiency that Obama felt at ease enough to play b-ball on election day and Nate Silverman could go to sleep on election eve with visions of sugarplum fairies dancing in his head.  Much of the heavy lifting had been done years earlier.

It also can be seen in policy decisions: In order to see a peace dividend in 2014, the draw downs in Iraq and Afghanistan would need to begin in 2009 and 2011. Or as part of the economic stimulus bill, his administration increased our investments in sustainable energy development from the hundreds of millions of dollars to over 70 billion.  We won’t see all the returns on those decisions until the tail end of his presidency.  But if the returns were ever to be felt, the infrastructure investments needed to be made early on.

So at the tail end of 2012, what dim lessons did I draw from the president?

  1. Stay focused.
  2. Get organized.
  3. Set clear priorities.
  4. Invest in tools and infrastructure early on.
  5. Hire well.

By the way, the photo is of Obama reviewing his New Town remark at the dress rehearsal at his daughter’s play.  He went to the rehearsal because he was not going to be able to attend the full performance that night.

The full raft of Pete Souza behind-the-scene photos of the Presidency are worth a look.  They give a strangely poignant sense of what it’s like for the President and staff to be working within the West Wing.

On Habits: Why you do dat?

One of my favorite stories comes from Jeff Benjamin.

A friend of his had just gotten a new job at a lube place somewhere in New York.  One morning a guy brings his car in, the friend drains the old oil and, for whatever reason, neglects to put new oil in.  (Mind you, that’s essentially his sole responsibility – to put new oil in cars).  Car owner happily pays, drives off, and a few minutes later returns with his car, gears grinding and engine frozen up.  The car has been ruined.

The Korean owner of the lube joint comes out, a look of anguish on his face.  He walks in circles around the car, tears welling up, gesticulating at his new employee.

Why you do dat? he implores.  Why you do dat?

A very good question indeed.  Why do we do dat?


We’re all guilty of doing stupid things.  Some of them we write off as mental lapses (I left the stove on when I left for work.  Or, I snapped at my kid).  But often times those things we write off as temporary lapses also form patterns (I can never find my keys when I need to leave for work and I also leave the lights on.  Or ‘mom – why do you always yell at me?’).

And then there are the chronic things that we do that we consider part of our identity.  I’m a smoker.  Or, I’ve always been fat.  Or hey, that’s too early – I’m not a morning person.  And how often do we berate ourselves for not being smart enough, or punctual, or a good parent, or good at math or science?

Are these attributes really foundational parts of who we are?  And regardless, are they changeable?

In November I picked up a couple of books that cast some cool light on the questions.  The first, The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg has been hovering at the top of the pop charts for a while now.  Duhigg explores the idea that our being, this thing that we consider “self” or “personality” is largely a collection of “habits”, patterns of behavior that have become hardwired in our neural pathways.  These habits are actually malleable and subject to change, and that the change isn’t so much about willpower, as about choosing the correct channels by which to exercise that change.

He also goes on to look at the patterns of behavior that are encoded in institutions (to work for Google feels different than working for AT&T, for example) and even culture (racism or patriarchy, lets say). These things, too, are open to change.

The second book, Rewire Your Brain by John Arden, works from some of the same premises, but from the perspective of a clinical psychologist. He’s director of Training in Mental Health for Kaiser Northern California.  Over dinner last year, I was asking him about personality disorders and different sociopathologies and his answers were striking.  A lot of it was about how experiences and trauma can influence our neurochemistry and contribute to the development (or underdevelopment) of different parts of the brain.  We essentially learn, or fail to learn, the control mechanisms, decision making abilities, resilience, and coping skills that allow us to function in perhaps a more healthy and productive manner.  These skills and abilities are, again, encoded in the pathways and transmitters within our brains.  If you approach the challenge in the right way, to an extent the pathways are changeable.

This is big.  It gets to the heart of addictions.  And also our fundamental behaviors.

It helps to explain why we do dat.

Why does my cousin have such a hard time getting off meth?  Why do you stay in an abusive relationship?  Why do my dad and I never get along? Why do some veterans or victims of child abuse have behavioral issues? Why can’t I seem to get my act together?

The answers to why and also to how we can change lead to a lot of diverse fields:  Insight meditation, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, neurochemistry, EMDR among others.  It’s all interesting stuff.

And what would happen if a person, lets say in they year 2013, were to conduct an uncontrolled subjective experiment and consciously apply behavior changing strategies to one’s self?

What would that look like?  And how long would it last?