We all tell stories about ourselves. One of mine is “my actions are very aligned with my goals and values.” A smile and a burst of confidence appear every time this story passes through my neurons. Sometimes, though, the red pill (reality) can slap that stupid grin right off my face. This morning reality slapped me. Hard. Usually I just shrug it off and keep going. Today I decided to learn something.
So, being a data nerd, I developed a quick honesty exercise which produces ONE actionable item with high probability of getting your goals/values/actions back into alignment. Kind of like a Chiropractor for your brain. Similar to the Recover Your Grit exercise, but this one is bite sized exercise and can be done in 15 minutes.
My morning routine of work-out, meditation, morning pages, etc. usually takes about an hour and a half. This morning it took 3 hours. Yea, that is right, 50% dilly dallying. Now I am not one of those “got to be productive 100% of the day” guys, but 50% waste is excessive by any measure. Usually I tell myself I am too busy to do the analysis, the job is too big, not that much time was wasted, etc. But do I really have a more important thing to do than figure out where 50% of my time went and how to get that time back (if I want to)? So here is what I did:
The 15 minutes of Honesty in Actions Exercise:
When the red pill of reality slaps you in the face (“Oh shit, I think I just wasted a bunch of time!”), do this exercise immediately. It works best if the period of time is less than a day. Say a couple of hours, or even a whole work day. But not more. If the time interval is too large, you won’t remember enough details to be helpful. Also you must do it immediately or your memory will start to re-write the facts and the analysis will be less truthful.
Take out a pad of paper. Yes paper and pen. Turn your phone off. Walk away from the computer to a quiet place with a desk and a chair. No technology to distract during the exercise. Remember you only need 15 minutes then you can go back to being so busy you can’t take time to get less busy.:)
At the top of the first page, write the date and time period you want to analyze that just felt like it got hijacked. For me a recent one was a three hour period from 6-9 am Monday Sept 26, 2016 at my house in Seattle Washington. Name the primary activity that was supposed to be going on then. For me, recently, it was my morning routine. It could be a project you were supposed to be working on, time with the family, etc. Underneath this heading, draw a horizontal line across the page and a line down the middle to separate the page into two columns. On the top of the left column write “On Point Actions”, on the right write “Not On Point Actions”. If you are feeling spunky (as I was) you can add to the right column “distractions/shiny objects” or any other colorful characterization of the things that tend to take you off task.
Now rewind your mind back to the beginning of the time period you are analyzing and roll forward minute by minute remembering everything you did. Those things that were on point write in the left column and put the number of minutes you did each of them. Those things that were off point write them in the right column with minutes associated with each of those. Add up the minutes on the left and the right. They must total the interval you are analysing (in my case 3 hours). If they don’t you are missing something, go back and add more actions or time to the actions you already have. When I did this exercise, I need a second page for the shiny objects/distractions because there were so many of them. Here are the pages from a recent exercise I did.
Often when writing down an action that I was doing, I realized that starting one action actually lead to other actions. So for these items, I put an indentation below listing the follow on actions that happened because I started the primary action. For example “read email” turned into “buy electric pulse exercise suit from Indiegogo for $1,450”, register for a conference, download some pictures, and unsubscribe from three newsletters. While we all know that email can be a rathole, the depth and breadth of that rathole can be hidden until we actually do an exercise like this which catalogues exactly what happened in email. This exercise is very good to highlight how actions are linked together and which “master actions” like “email” and “check facebook” and “check stocks” and “check Instagram” can lead to much greater time diversions than your brain originally planned.
When you are finished and the minutes match on each column to the total time you are analysing, then summarize at the bottom of the page what happened. Calculate the ratio of on point and off point time. Add in any other consequences of the off point actions (like in my case money spent buying things that were not originally on my list at the beginning of the time). My recent results were 1:35/1:25 and $1,550 unplanned spending. 47% not on point. Now at the bottom of the page of the right column, make a list of the top 5 things that got you off point with the most number of minutes. For me these were: check email, check facebook, check stocks, text people, mess around with apps on phone and daydream. Now see if there is a common root cause, or enabling event/technology between any of these actions. For me, 5 of the six were related to the iPhone. So I grouped these and wrote “iPhone” next to that group.
So what is the #1 thing I can do to re-align my actions during the morning routine with my goals and make that time as much on-point as possible? Turn off the damn iPhone during that time. Nothing I normally do in the morning routine requires the phone (by design). Now when you do the exercise you may have another action or enabling technology that distracts you. Maybe the TV, or other chores around the house, or children, or going shopping. Whatever takes you off task. The point here, is to sit down and make the list in excruciating detail. Add up the minutes. Account for every one. Note the other unintended actions ( money spent, etc.) Honesty and authenticity is the goal of this little red pill. You can’t fix what you don’t know is broken.
Until I did this exercise, I had let my monkey mind convince me that having a phone always near by was productive and ultimately allowing me to get more done in the day. But this exercise in honesty and drilling down to every minute laid bare the reality that much time was wasted chasing shiny things and doing non critical things. Some of them I maybe would have done anyway, but the point is that I could always choose to do them later. Allowing the monkey mind to indulge the shiny objects in the middle of other time which my goals say should be dedicated to another activity just made that activity longer and less productive. In the end multitasking has often left me with a longer list of unfinished projects. This exercise documents this in detail so that your monkey mind can not ignore the data any longer. You have the paper. Your hand wrote the lists. You have re-lived the diversions and productive time in detail. You truly understand the difference. Next time you conscious mind will have a reference point to make a more informed decision of whether to indulge the monkey mind or not. You also have One concrete intervention (which you can use or not, up to you) which has a high probability of keeping the monkey mind at bay during time you want dedicated to on-point actions in support of goals.
I do this exercise whenever I have a flash of realization that I am off track with actions and goals. I have done it three times in the last month. Each time a different proximate cause and intervention has surfaced.
I created this exercise myself, so this specific technique has not been studied (as far as I know), but this is part of the quantified self, although most of that literature is around sensor data. Part of the “know thyself” world. The more you are honest and authentic with yourself, the better able you are to get where you want to be in life. This exercise is similar to some the work in Cognitive Behavior Therapy to discover automatic thoughts. Much of that scholarly work is hoarded by the information bandits who hold our mental health hostage behind research grants funded by taxpayers, so we are left to figure out our own exercises.
This is a small, manageable way to get some insight. And it is free from me to you. There is no downside.
Also published on Medium.