Everything bad that we think happens to us is in fact a bad dream. The reactions are the problem not the thing. Wake up and don’t let the story about the dream cause more problems than the thing itself.
I know from personal experience that having a plan and contemplating intentions leads to a more well-lived life. A life lived more in alignment with my values and intentions because I am keeping those plans top of mind and reducing the random walks and drifting in life. It is during the drifts that I get into troubled waters usually (again discerned after much contemplation). So realizing that things go better when my intentions are more often in my conscious mind, I started thinking about what daily habits or exercises I could add to support that behavior. For the last month, I have been doing this Intention/Decision activity, and it has won a spot in my daily routine, so here it is. While related to “How to make decisions” which lays out a set of decision guardrails, this is more of a tactical support habit for planning and cognitive authenticity.
As part of my morning routine, after making coffee, before sitting down for Morning Pages, I sit down with the day’s calendar and my to-do list and fill out an Intention/Decision log. A list of the major decisions I expect to have to make today. Things that are habits are not on the list. There is not a decision to make if it is a habit. Whatever comes to mind. Like where and with who should I have dinner? Or Should I work out or not if it is an off habit day? Or should I accept an invitation to play poker with friends? Should I do this big project today or tomorrow? Here is my Intention/Decision log for today:
Filled out in the morning for Today:
Date/name: I put the date and my name there (obviously)
Word of the day: What word do I want to be the foundational intent of the day. Today is “Present.” Often it is one of the four Stoic virtues (Temperance, Wisdom, Justice, Courage). It is the first word that pops into my head when my pen gets to that par of the page.
Cat: What category is the decision in? Of the four big classes of that affect life balance and wellness, Health, Wealth/work, Relationships/Family/Tribe, Soul/Spirituality. Then fill out how many decisions in each category down below. This will give me a cognitive trigger for how the day is going to be balanced. Is it primarily a work day? or relationships? or spirituality? Also, it helps me to make sure (since one of my goals is to have a balanced life) to have a major decision in each of the four categories.
Decision: What is the decision I expect to have to make today?
Intention: What is my intention around that decision? Now, in the morning, with my virtues and goals by my side, before the craziness of the day has taken over. What is my intention?
TWJCI: Does this decision have anything to do with the four major Stoic Virtues or an Indifferent? Temperance, Wisdom, Justice, Courage, or Indifferent? An Indifferent is wealth, status, fame, health, etc. All decisions should have at least one of these. Because if it does not, the decision is likely out of my control and should not be a decision at all. Or it is a habit which is also not a decision.
Then also in the morning, I pick up the Intention/Decision log from yesterday and review my performance yesterday by filling out these columns:
Y/N: Did my actual decision match my intention Yes or No.
Notes: Especially if the decision didn’t match the intention, why? What was the reason for variance?
% I/D sync: How may Y vs N in the Y/N column. Today it was 6/7. That means 6 out of 7 times I ended up making the decision during the day that I intended to in the morning. My goal is 100% synchronization.
Primary Variance Cause: Why did I not follow through on intentions. If it happened a lot, what is the ONE THING that was the biggest cause. This is to raise this leak in my cognitive stack so I am aware of it going forward.
One Change for Tomorrow: What one thing (if anything) should I do going forward to achieve 100% Intention/Decision synchronization?
This exercise has really helped wake me up to the truth of “Am I living life according to my stated values?” Something that can easily get sidetracked without a habit of reflection. I like the exercise and will keep it in my daily routine until further notice. It takes less than 5 minutes a day and is worth the investment for the cognitive authenticity it adds.
I invented this one, but I am sure some part of Cognitive Behavior Therapy agrees with exercises to remind cognitive self about your values and intentions on a regular basis.
Here is an Intention decision worksheet log you can use yourself.
Ok, so after reading 25 different ways that the Stoics tell you the only thing you have in your life is your own reasons choice (the ability to make decisions, to react to things), I have to say I agree. Philosophically this one tenant whisks away the importance of many other things like possessions, status, wealth, relationships, etc. It is actually a very heavy cognitive lift to realize that the ONLY thing that is TRULY AND EXCLUSIVELY mine is my Prohairesis. Everything else is outside my control and allowing things outside my control to determine things like my happiness or wellbeing in life is a losers game. Ok, over that cognitive hurdle.
Now comes the hard part. Similar to my advice of “I Hope you don’t get what you want in life.” Because then you have a REAL problem. You have to decide what is next after your wants and desires are gone (either fulfilled or given up). The hard part is when you accept the fact that you only have rational choice, then how do you make the best decisions? One guy has put together a handy dandy Modern Stoic decision chart which I have found handy:
In the Stoic way, the high order bit is always “Is this decision in my control or not?”. If it is, then decide if doing the thing would build one of the four virtues (wisdom, justice, temperance, courage), if yes, then do it. If no (not build a virtue) does it deal with one of the indifferent things (wealth, health, status, etc.) Do if preferred but not if dispreferred. I found this very complex. So I have come up with my own set of guardrails when faced with decisions. And of course, I created a daily exercise to support the decision process.
Whenever I am faced with a decision in life, even small ones daily, if the answer is not immediately clear I ask myself the following framing guardrail questions:
- Is this in my control? The standard Stoic question. 90 percent of decisions are here because the ones that are not in my control don’t even become decisions. Habits are not decisions. If I decide to do morning pages as a habit, it is not a decision every day to do or not do morning pages. The decisions that tend to fall outside my control have to do with other people. Like if I ask myself “Should I try to make my girlfriend happy today?” That one has two terminal errors. First, it has the weasel word “try”. Never ever decide to try. There is no try. There is only do or not do. It is NEVER a decision to “try”. Second, it is impossible to “make” someone else anything, so there is nothing to decide. The affirmative is impossible.
- Choose people. There are many decisions in my day where I can choose an activity that engages with people or one that I do myself or with things. Say to work out alone in my home gym or go to coffee with a friend. Or work at home or work in the co-working space (where I may run into friends). Or dinner with friends or a stay at home organizing the garage. While I am an introvert at heart and my instinct is to do the alone thing or the inanimate thing, my experience has shown me that by choosing the decision that engages with other people, over time it results in a more well-lived life.
- Create instead of consuming. Most activities in life can be put into either the creation (making something new, new experiences, new things, writing, making, etc.) or the consumption (watching TV, reading, eating, passively taking in the world) bucket. The difference is engagement. Am I active in creating something or am I passive? The allure of passivity is very compelling. Especially after a long day of work or mental engagement. The desire to unplug can be overwhelming. But again, after years of experience, when I choose the thing that creates something it always leads to a more well-lived life.
- Move your ass. Basically, if the choice is between sitting at the desk or working out or doing something active, do the active thing. Always choose the active thing. When deciding where to have a meeting, a coffee shop or walking and talking? Walking and Talking.
With any decision if I don’t know what to do, after going through those four questions, the best decision always comes out.
At DGC I am all about waking up. Realizing that I have a choice in life. How to live life. Who I am in life. How I react to life events. How I interact with the world. When you are in the dream world you give up that choice to the story of the dream. You give up AGENCY. Turns out in realizing I had a choice, I was affirming a core tenet of Stoic philosophy: Prohairesis.
According to Epictetus, nothing is properly considered either good, or bad, aside from those things that are within our own power to control, and the only thing fully in our power to control is our own volition (prohairesis) which exercises the faculty of choice that we use to judge our impressions. For example, if a person says something critical to us, that is not bad; or, if something complimentary is said, that is not good, because such things are externals and not in our power to control. By exerting the power of choice, it is possible to maintain equanimity in the face of either criticism and praise, which is a moral good. On the other hand, when people become troubled by criticism, or elated by praise, that is a moral evil because they have misjudged impressions by thinking that things not in their power (such as criticism or praise) have value, and by doing that they place a measure of control of their own life in the hands of others.
So Who are You? What Do I have that the world can not take away? What super power is always in my power? My own reasoned choice. I always have a choice. I may not decide to exercise it. But that too is a choice.
I always have a choice.
Life is a journey. The stuff you bring along on the journey either helps or hurts you. Much of what we are draging around with us we are barely aware of. In order to wake up to what is actually going on in your life you need to periodically stop and check what you are carrying along. And ask the question: “does this serve the journey now?” You may have picked the stuff up at one point when it felt necessary. But is it still? Yes each and every thing.
I am big on learning by doing so here comes another paractical exercise. It will take you less than 10 minutes to do and it will literally and figuratively lighten your load on the journey of life. Last week I took a look around the hotel room and questioned everything I saw. This week it is time to uppack the backpack.
Grab your backpack. Yea the thing you carry to and from work every day. Or your purse. Or Bike bag. Whatever you carry your stuff to and from work in, including your computer.
Now go through each and every item and ask the question:
“Does this serve me for my journey ahead?”
If it does leave it in the pack.
If it does not, take it out.
Re pack for the journey ahead. Weigh the backpack again.
Here is a picture of the new contents with all the stuff taken out. And each pack section. It is noticeably less stuff.
6 pens (I only need one)
4 pairs of sunglasses (kept 2)
Fleece (I will pick the right one for the trip from closet)
Various trash items.
Keys I never use.
Out dated business cards.
Travelers checks that expired in 2008. (Yea I have been carrying them for almost 10 years).
Resulting new weight: 8.96 lbs. a reduction of 2.87 lbs. I have literally lightened my load in life. Going forward the journey will be easier and I will have more energy for the challenges ahead. I will not be bogged down with as much from the past.
I am sure some attachment theory applies here. But I invented this one myself.
George Carlin said commented on “stuff”
Last week I was reminded of this by the daily stoic passage
In the end you are what is in your head. So what if you cut down on media consumption and worry about external events? Would there be more room in your head for other things? Say yourself? Or things in your control? Yes.
This is the same message of mark Manson’s new book and the 40 years of zen program and the core idea of stoic thought. Be very conscious of what you give a fuck about. Fucks are expensive cognitively. Free up headspace spent on external events, the past and the future and you have more resources for what is right in front of you. Your life.
Stoicism came of age in a time of political turmoil as well. Remember that Stoicism isn’t about judging other people. It’s not a moral philosophy you’re supposed to project and enforce onto the world. No, it’s a personal philosophy that’s designed to direct your behavior.
This is what Marcus Aurelius meant when he said: “Be tolerant with others and strict with yourself.”
Be open to the idea that people are going to be fools or jerks or unreliable or anything else. Let them be. That’s their business. That’s not inside your control.
But you have to be disciplined with yourself, and your reactions. If someone acts ridiculous, let them. If you’re acting ridiculous, catch the problem, stop it and work on preventing it from happening in the future. What you do is in your control. That is your business. Be strict about it.
This is especially important to remember at a time when many people seem to be consumed with every tweet or quip from certain politicians. Leave other people to themselves. You have enough to worry about.
This does not mean “sit down and shut up” like some will infer. If other people are doing something that does intersect with something in your control than you can and must act. But don’t keep reposting “outrage”. Don’t let other people into your head. Don’t let the monkey in your head run wild worrying about other people. Focus the monkey on what is in your own control.
Barrels of ink has been spilled over “be kind to yourself.” This one guy even wrote a new song about it. So how can we get a new twist on this ancient advice? I thought about this over the break while watching SuperWhy (ignore the haters) with my daughter Madison. In every episode, the characters change just one word in a story to change the whole story. Let’s try it here. Insert “older” between “to” and “self.” So “Be kind to your older self.” The self you are going to become. The old guy farting in the corner. The slow driver in front of you. The guy in the grocery checkout line digging for change in a wallet while you impatiently clutch your ApplePay iPhone, thumb hovering over the touchpad. Yea that guy. So here is how to do it
- Download one of the photo aging apps. I used the free AgingBooth.
- Take a picture of yourself, age it at least 30 years (the default in AgingBooth).
- Put this picture somewhere you will see it every day for at least 30 days. I put next to my computer monitor next to the Lucy skull (double whammy). I will likely move it around the house.
- When you see the picture, say or think something kind of the person. Initially, there will be revulsion. Get over it. It is you. Be kind.
I didn’t want to do this. My father is 30 years older than me. I don’t want to be my father. Ever. Getting old is scary. But that is why I needed to do this. It is very Stoic to face your fears. And the fear of getting old is one of the strongest in life.
I hypothesize that facing the fear of getting old will reduce the charge that fear has. I hope to be less fearful of getting old and more at ease with my place in the world.
It is Feb. 2 and I have done this for the last 32 days. Noticeable results include:
- Less emotional charge when I see the picture of my older self. Less revulsion. Less tilt.
- Meaningful conversations have been started. “What is that all about?” a couple of friends asked on seeing a copy of the “old” picture on my coffee table. I am always looking for smart conversation triggers and that picture has been a good one.
- A couple people saw the picture and shut down completely. Didn’t want to talk about getting old or the exercise at all. Upon reflection, these people are generally asleep, generally plowing through life with blinders on, generally adverse to contemplation. I didn’t try to prod them into anything, but it was an interesting confirmation bias test for a couple of people I thought were asleep to life. Show them this exercise. If they are asleep they won’t want to engage.
A fun exercise that reduced the emotional charge of a common fear in my life as well as energized my tribe with contemplative conversation. Worthwhile all around. I will keep the pictures around, but likely not focus on daily observation.
There is plenty of science on Kindness in general, usually focusing on being kind to others. There has been plenty written on random acts of kindness. I found far less relate to self-kindness. Some recent studies show self compassion can improve mental health (duh). I don’t know of any specific science studies around self kindness to your older self, but the general kindness research would apply.
The idea to practice self-kindness to my older self I must admit was not my own, it came from a Tim Ferris podcast with AJ Jacobs.
Today a friend said “I am worried about loosing my money in XYZ investment.” To my own surprise my first thought was “You really believe it is YOUR money?” The stoic stuff is really getting ingrained. I recently highlighted these passages:
“What fortune has made yours is not your own.”
Seneca, Letters from a Stoic
“Until we have begun to go without them, we fail to realize how unnecessary many things are. We’ve been using them not because we needed them but because we had them.”
Seneca, Letters from a Stoic
“No man is crushed by misfortune unless he has first been deceived by prosperity.”
Seneca, Dialogues and Letters
“There is no enjoying the possession of anything valuable unless one has someone to share it with.”
Seneca, Letters from a Stoic
“Fidelity purchased with money, money can destroy.”
Seneca, The Conquest of Happiness
Okay. Okay. Enough quotes. It is better to really experience a concept than just read it. So I have been making up practical exercises to remind myself of these truisms (exercises are very stoic). Here is the one i developed today to remind myself that none of the things in my life are actually “mine”. I do this about once a quarter. It will take you 10 minutes. Do it right now!
The impermanence of things exercise.
On a rulled sheet of paper write “things” in the center at the top of the page. To the left write -5, -10, and Birth. To the right write +5, +10, and Death. Make columns for each with the middle one under “things” the widest.
Now look around where you are and start writing down the middle column all the things that are “yours” that you see. Fill the page, should be just over 20 or so. Now down the left columns for each thing put a “Y” in the -5 box if it was in your life five years ago, or ten years a go or at your birth. Do this for all the things. Then go down the right side columns and predict if this thing is going to be in your life five years from now +5, ten years and at your Death. You get the idea. Now count up the number of “Y” in each column and put it at the top along with what percentage it is of the total number of items. Here is one I did today in my hotel room in Honolulu.
Of the 24 things on my list (and there were like over 100 things around the room) less than half (42%) were in my life 5 years ago, almost none (8%) were in my life 10 years ago and exactly zero were in my life at birth. Looking forward I was fairly optimistic that a majority (62%) would be in my life five years from now, exactly a third (33%) would be around in 10 years and 17 % would be with me at death. But then I will be dead and I can’t take them with me so they will be someone else’s at that time so 0% will go with me at Death.
What did this exercise remind me of is a very visceral and visual way ?
1. Coming into this world I had nothing.
2. The majority of things around me are recent additions.
3. The things I believe will be with me at death have lots of experiential value to them (I have had meaningful experiences with them with other people to create memories additional to the thing itself).
4. Most of the things I see are temporary objects in my life (were not here 5 years ago and will not be here 5 years from now).
5. While some things may be with me at death I can’t take any of it with me so the things really are not “mine”.
Side note: I have an absurd number of things with me on vacation. And multiples of things. Seven paddle shirts. Three surf shorts. The experiential value of a thing is inversely related to the number of them I have. For example I have only one watch with me (while I own many). The one watch i wear the most often has the most experiential value. Is the one I see myself with at death. So the obvious question is “do in need all those other watches?” This exercise made me contemplate that question. While I don’t have an answer it is a good thought exercise and moves my thought in the right direction (which is to keep asking the questions).
This exercise builds on the stoic idea that DOING philosophy is the best way to ingrain the core ideas. I like this exercise because it is short, can be done anywhere, and is a stark reminder of a couple major philosophical concepts that I struggle to keep the top of mind including:
- Give up your attachments (they aren’t yours anyway)
- Things don’t make a life.
- Meaning comes from experiences with other people.
- I was born with nothing and will die with nothing.
I designed this exercise myself so it is not based on any academic or scientific study. There has been a lot of research around attachment theory which sometimes includes “stuff” but mostly is focused on relationships.
The Psychology of Stuff.
How interest in science has been fueled by attachment to “things” but that is fading. A little off topic, but interesting idea.
It has been about 18 months since I began posting semi-regularly. At the time, something indefinite was pushing me to write down some stuff I thought important. Today as I sit on the balcony of my suite overlooking the surf in Honolulu, and looking back on 2016, the focus is becoming a little more clear.
During the last year a number of people have asked me “What are you blogging about really?” or “Are you trying to make this a business?” or “Why are you doing all this work?” I have asked myself those questions as well many times. While there have been temptations to make a run at becoming a “famous” blogger, someone with a large following ala Tim Ferris or Dave Asprey, I keep reminding myself “Been there, done that” on the “famous” thing. I have been mining a much more personal vein. Marcus Aurelius wrote Meditations primarily for himself. As little reminders to turn back to in times of crisis or decision. I have found myself doing the same with a number of these posts, going back to take more self-assessment tests, re-reading posts like “how I prepare for conflict situations” before a conflict situation and generally using this blog as a personal reference. To that end, I have not done a lot of syndication, cross posting, nor have I gotten a newsletter going. That all sounds like work to build an audience. I don’t intend this to be a business, nor do I intend to be any kind of authority on anything except my own personal life journey.
So in 2017 I will be doubling down on the Marcus Aurelius aspect of this blog. All advice and documented learnings of myself for my better self. Don’t expect me to change your life. That is up to you.