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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.

Join the discussion
  • Great article. I can relate to almost every single thing like you took the thoughts from my brain. My stumbling block is I can't figure out what I want to do (and therefore prioritize) because I want to do "everything." The world is huge and I'm curious about *everything.* I want to think of myself as a "Renaissance Man" but I'm more of a "jack of all trades…master of none."

    It's frustrating to get excited about goals and then not want to work on them. Why can't "learning" be a job I can get paid to do?

  • PJE wrote: "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."

    Holy moley, that hits me hard. Unrealistic is judged in hindsight, but there are certainly patterns which establish probabilities that deserve attention. It sounds like you are being fair and actually generous by setting the minimum at your first two hours, in order to balance your creative flow against more structured progress. I sometimes rationalize not picking the _first_ X hours, but that is actually important. It's important that we craft our desires.

    Were you able to reignite your enthusiasm after squelching it, PJ?

    As an aside, I'm keen to hear more about your programming project! I am thoroughly impressed by your past works.

  • Joseph: You might want to check out the book Refuse To Choose, if you haven't already.

    Kevin: The programming project is really just me learning to use the latest web tech via Greasemonkey; it's not an open source thing or anything.

    Also, I didn't squelch my enthusiasm at all. Funnily enough, the night I posted this, I stayed up til 3:30 or so on the same project.

    (This wasn't actually two nights in a row, though, because this particular article was written a few weeks before I posted it.)

  • Playing with js and mashups is fun. Still, I imagine you're doing something special with it. 🙂

    Maybe "squelch" wasn't the right word. You at least delay your creative flow during the first two hours of the day, right? But it sounds like you don't really have a problem picking up where you left off. I sometimes do, particularly in terms of my wonder and motivation and even my direction. (I'm referring to mini-projects rather than fleeting, reactionary musing following links).

    Perhaps it's not that great of a loss since my programming experiments almost always concern minutia when looked at in perspective. Still, those minutiae are occasionally surprising. Or, at least, I hope they will be. 🙂

  • Yes, that is what needs to be done — to "redirect" or build passion and creative flow for what is more important. I was just describing some of the lossy, rough edges of that process for me, in order to glean any insights.

  • I just came accidentally to your blog and now I'm loving it (reading stuff for last 2 hours).But one thing that you said in your blog "How to Decide What You Want" in August 2006 has stuck me instantly and few questions that has been boggling my mind since then. Would you please clarify this for me. Its about your technique you said you use sometimes in which you separate yourself from whatever needs to be done and watch yourself do it. This idea has somehow hit me right in center. But what do you mean when you say you separate yourself from stuff needs to be done and see part of you doing it. Who is doing the stuff and who is watching? Is't it a personality split? Can we follow same in day to day life like while talking to someone…watching myself talking to someone? If you please explain the characters a bit, it will clarify the concept for me. One thing that I noted is that it has put lot of load off me right now and I'm quite relaxed doing what I'm doing. Have you explain this concept in any of your book or video so you can lead me to that? Thanks Axi



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Cover photo of "A Minute To Unlimit You" by PJ Eby
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