Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The Moment of Choice

Last night I stayed up late.

Like, 5:30 in the morning, late.

I was tinkering on a little programming project, that sort of got out of hand.  I kept feeling like, "I've almost got it...", only to find one more little problem.  The kind of thing that usually happens only when I'm stretching, learning something new, like I was last night.

And the next thing I knew, it was 5:30.

So of course I slept late, too.

And now, this morning -- well, afternoon, really -- I find myself in bed, still thinking about the programming project.  I'm so wrapped up in it, I'm about to get out of bed and go work on it.

But what about my decision to spend the first two hours of each day on what's important to me?

This project is urgent, but it's not important.

But I want to!

But if I start now, I'll spend all day on it, maybe all night again too.

But I've got all these ideas!  It's going to be awesome!

And so the conflict goes, back and forth for a couple minutes.  Something's got to give.

I decide to question both sides of the debate.  Is it true that I shouldn't work on the project instead of what I've decided is important?  No, not really.  Is it true that I should?

Hm.  Doesn't feel like a "should".  Feels like, "I want".  I want to work on the project.  Is that true?

I'm not sure.  I want to say it's true, but I sense a couple of reservations.

First of all, I'm not sure I know what "want" really means.  Sure, Robert Fritz says the question is, "If you could have it, would you take it?"  But for me, there's a bunch of other stuff tangled up in it.

My parents always acted like wanting was something you chose, or committed to.  As in, "are you sure you want that?"  And there's another sense of "want" I'm concerned about, which is that...

My wants can be pretty darn fleeting at times!

In fact, at one point this morning, I reached over beside the bed to grab my tablet and check my email and Twitter, which led to reading a linked article, and that few minutes' distraction was enough to knock out most of the craving to continue my programming project.  It wasn't gone entirely, but it reduced enough that I was no longer in a "Now now now! Wanna wanna!" place about it.

So, what does it even really mean to want something?  Do I count every fleeting desire or craving as wants?  Or should my long-term desires -- like my choice to work the first two hours on important/not-urgent stuff -- count for more?

Second, even if I do consider myself to really want to work on the less-important, but more urgent-feeling programming project, does that necessarily mean I ought to do that?

It takes a bit of soul-searching, but I soon see that the problem isn't that I want two different things, it's that I have a "should" about it.  It was something like, "If I want something urgently, then I should give it to myself", but at the time I had a devil of a time putting it into words.  I did try using a "turnaround" from The Work, though, rephrasing "I want to work on the project" to "My thinking wants to work on the project."

And I feel oddly happy at that.  Like, "Yes, that's right, it's not actually me that wants that.  It's just my thinking that wants it.  I was thinking about it, so of course I wanted it.  Checking email, I thought about it less, so I want it less.  If I keep thinking about other things, I'll want it even less."

So, is a true desire one that you have without thinking about it?  One that comes to you consistently?

I don't know, and I'm starting to think the question doesn't make any sense.  It's in the nature of wants to come and go:

Only our choices have any chance of staying true.

And the funny thing about choice is that it isn't really about what you "want", in the visceral sense of feeling an urge or desire.  It really is more about what Fritz says, as in, "If you could have it, would you take it?"

Only, it's not "if you could have this one thing right now, would you do whatever it takes right now"...  It's more like, "In the overall scope of your life, considering all the things you want, which things are more important to you?"

And in the past, I fell into the trap of defining "important" too narrowly, of only considering things that could be justified to others as being important, rather than actually considering what was important to me.

So it was only natural that I'd end up divided: one part of me pushing towards "important" things, the other expressing pent-up cravings for the important-to-me things I was leaving out of the picture.

(Like time to tinker and learn new programming stuff, for example!)

But lately, I do include those things, and it's a lot easier to do them in a guilt-free way, if I spend those first two hours on writing, or working on my business.

Last night just got a little out of hand.  ;-)

And now, minus the belief that "If I want something urgently, then I should give it to myself", and seeing that "I want to work on the programming" is really, "My thinking wants to work on the programming", I can actually make a choice about what to do.

A choice that's focused on everything I want, not just whatever I happen to be intently focused on at the moment.

And when I ask, "Who would I be, if I didn't believe I needed to do whatever I was thinking about?", I discover something else: that my desire to rush blindly into whatever seems interesting, is actually a kind of escape.

An addiction.

When I rush into "flow", it's a way of getting out of the present moment.  A way of not having to decide.  A way to avoid choice entirely.  My day gets away from me because I want it to, because I don't want to have to be the one managing and structuring my time -- a reflection of patterns learned from my parents.

It's an issue I've actually just been working on a few nights earlier, in a very intense Work session that revealed those patterns, showing how my parents' high expectations combined with lack of guidance repeatedly set me up to fail...  and how I've kept doing the same thing to myself, my entire life.

At the end of the session, I realized that if I wanted to succeed, I'd need to actually be clear with myself: not only about what I want, but also about how I'm going to get it -- including making time commitments...

And sticking to them.

And as I remember that, I reaffirm the choice: I'm going to give myself guidance, not just expectations.

And then it's okay.  Better than okay.

In fact, it's a blessing.

Who I would be, without always needing to be doing something, is someone thoughtful, and capable of actually making decisions about my day, even as the day goes on.  It feels like I could actually choose and reflect, instead of quickly jumping into something so I don't have to think about how much time I've already wasted, how poorly I've lived up to my unrealistic and guidance-free expectations.

And so now, I'm back to making a conscious choice about what I'm doing today.

Like writing all this, instead of programming.

Friday, May 03, 2013

The Root of Perfectionism

I'm a recovering perfectionist.

Not the wanna-be kind, that says they're a perfectionist because they have high standards.  No, I'm the kind that always feels bad about what they've done, because it's not quite as good as it could have been.

Worse, I tend to criticize what other people have done, on the same basis.  Get tangled in internet flamewars over minor things that, again, could be better than they are.  And I don't give people nearly enough positive feedback for the things that they did do, that are in fact better than they could have done, or how improved things are over how they were before.

At one time, I used to think that my knack for seeing how things "could be better" was a gift: it offered the possibility of continuing improvement, and certainly it has been commercially useful at times.

But what I didn't see, is that this knack was really not the root cause of my perfectionism.  Seeing how things could be better, is not perfectionism.  Aspiring to a high standard, is not perfectionism. Even wanting to be the very best you can be, is not perfectionism.

No.  Perfectionism is just:

Feeling bad when something isn't perfect!

But where does that feeling come from?

Recently, I've been delving again into The Work, which I'd only played around with a bit in the past.  At the time I first learned about it, I was looking at it only as a directed mindhacking tool, aiming the questions at specific blocks or issues...  and mostly finding I could invent better tools for the purpose.  (Ah, perfectionism!)

But recently, I've looked at it again, and noticed that its overall philosophy of questioning "shoulds" fits quite well with the other tools in my toolkit, and that it's actually a very quick and easy way to rapidly troubleshoot bad feelings about almost anything.  And as I've been getting into the habit of questioning every bad feeling, my skill at finding what it is I think I "should" do is improving.

So this morning, when I found myself mentally critiquing something my wife had done, I decided to actually do something about it.

And as I put together my weekly vitamins, I kept asking, "What was I thinking?  What do I believe that leads me to critique in that way, and feel bad about not saying anything?"

At first only a vague sense of unease came up, but it gradually refined into a general sense that, well, things were "supposed to be different".  That if, well, things could be better, then they should be better.

Aha, I thought.  A "should".  I can use The Work on that.  "Is that true?"

The answer comes back: no.

And it's a wave of relief, washing over me.  It suddenly makes sense to me how other people can even see that something could be better, and yet not seem to care about it as much as I do, or feel an urge to do something about it.  I mean, just because something could be better, that doesn't mean you have to do something about it.  It makes total sense.

But somehow, I don't feel finished.  It's like the urge to critique has diminished, like it's not quite so actively evil not to denounce things as imperfect when they are, but it's still sad.

And as I'm mulling over the phrasing of "things that could be better, should be better", it occurs to me that there's a part I haven't questioned:

The part where things could be better!

And I have to ask myself, "Is that true?"

And in a flash, it comes to me: no.  No it's not.

The thing I was critiquing, could not have been better, at the moment I was critiquing it.  How could it possibly have been?

In fact, how can anything be better than it actually is?

Taken literally enough, the very idea is absurd.  Whatever is, is.  Unless you actually have a time machine to go back and change everything that led to it being that way, it is a literal and physical impossibility for something to be better than it is!

What is left out of the idea that "things could be better", is the dimension of time.  You can improve things so that they are better in the future than they are now.  But you cannot improve things backward in time, so that they are better now than they are now.  What would that even mean?

You can't change what is.  You can only change what will be.  So the error in my thinking is not that I imagine how things could be better...  it's that I'm imagining that better tomorrow, today.

Instead of in the future, where it actually belongs.

But the even bigger wave of relief that follows this realization is not really driven by all this logic of time and cause-and-effect.  It's mainly the feeling, the visceral gut-level feeling, that imperfection is no longer a tragedy to be grieved, or an emergency to be fixed.

Because things aren't supposed to be any more perfect than they already are.

And so, if something isn't exactly as I imagined it, or as I could imagine it...

It doesn't mean I've already failed.