A fork in the road

I’ve been thinking a lot lately (yes, it hurts). My reading on cognitive biases has naturally led me to reflect on my own decision-making processes. From there, it was only a short leap to casting a critical eye on what I spend my time doing. Where do I put my energy, my creativity, my passion?

I’m not getting any younger, after all. Neither are you, by the way. (You’re welcome.)

I wasn’t all that satisfied with what I came up with.

Then, today, I read something on Seth Godin’s blog:

So many things are now completely up to us, more than ever before. Where and how and when we work and invest and interact and instruct and learn… If you think you have no choice but to do what you do now, you’ve already made a serious error.

This prompted even more philosophical constipation introspection. What motivates my choices for how I spend my time? I decided that when I spend time doing something, it’s because:

  1. I really want to do it
  2. I have to do it
  3. I think it’s what I should do
  4. I do it because I’m avoiding doing something else

All four are arguably legitimate modes of action.

Perhaps the key to a satisfying life is making a conscious effort to maximize time spent doing things that fall under category number 1.  And because there are only 24 hours in a day, maximizing number 1 necessarily means minimizing 2, 3, and 4. Simple math. I can do that!

Well, I spend a lot of time procrastinating (number 4). This one should be easy to deal with, right?

Not so fast. The thing I’m avoiding doing is obviously a number 2 or 3. Do I really have to do it, or don’t I?  Sometimes it’s really hard to differentiate between have to and should. Avoidance is much easier.

Oh, I say, I have to pay the bills, do the shopping, fix dinner, change the sheets. But do I, really? How many of those number 2s are really number 3s in disguise? How many of them were once upon a time number 1s? There’s probably a lot more wiggle room here than I think there is. They’re sneaky little devils, those number 2s.

And then there’s number 3. Could he be the elephant in the room? Clearly, what I think I should do with my time is a complex construction that I’ve been building up since childhood, dependent on my parental upbringing, the culture in which I live, the financial and emotional situation I’ve gotten myself into, the social feedback I get on a daily basis. How can I quantify that rationally?

Geez, this is getting thorny. I can see I’m going to get snagged down in semantics. Math only gets you so far (right, Descartes?). Time to get out of this particular philosophical bramble patch.


In fact, I think this kind of rational reasoning applied to decision-making is fundamentally flawed. Here’s why.

When I said, above, “The thing I’m avoiding is obviously number 2 or 3,” you agreed with me, didn’t you? Who would procrastinate to avoid doing something they really want to do?

Answer: most of us.

Rationally, it’s totally counterintuitive, but I think it’s true. Dig deep and think about what it is you really, truly want to do. And I’m not talking about eating a handful of jelly bellies, here, I’m talking about how you use big chunks of your time during the day. If you feel like you’re doing what you really want to do, that you’re living your dream, then congratulations. Pass Go and collect $200. Send me $100.

But if you don’t, if you wake up every morning and fill your days with 2s, 3s and 4s, it’s likely that doing the thing or things you really want to do would put a lot of what you’ve carefully built up over your whole life into jeopardy. That’s a scary proposition. My adrenaline spikes just thinking about it. Run away! Run away!

See, we’re emotionally hard-wired to avoid scary situations, and if the thing we really want to do feels dangerous, we’ll avoid doing it. And we’ll make up a whole lot of reasons to explain it all away, reasons that involve have to, should,  and later.

Here’s my thesis: Number 1 is the elephant in the room.

How badly do you want to do what you think you really want to do? Because until you can commit to really wanting to do what it is you really want to do, then you’re going to fill your life up with 2s, 3s and 4s. You will probably feel vaguely unfulfilled and dissatisfied. You might even complain about it. Oh, well, that’s life.

So here goes. There’s something I really want to do, but doing it will be a big deal. It will mean that some of my number 2s, 3s, and 4s – in other words, what I am doing now – will have to change.

It’s my choice. It’s up to me.

(to be continued…)