I used to think planning was cool. I’d sit and ponder all the things I’d like to do. What I wanted to accomplish by the time I’m thirty, forty, fifty. The things I’d like to have done and be doing at all these different points in different areas of my life. But I don’t do that anymore.
I think it began with an idea from James Altucher. He says that when he consistently completes his daily practice—coming up with ten ideas, exercising, meditating, playing—his life changes every six months. In ways that he couldn’t have foreseen. This makes sense because if you get one percent better every day, then after six months, your life is many percent better and many percent different.
Now take the idea of the daily practice and combine it with Scott Adam’s idea of systems instead of goals. For example, say you want to increase your “fitness.” A goal-based approach would be to target lifting a certain weight. A systems-based approach would be to exercise every day. See the difference?
So there we have two building blocks. One, your life can change dramatically every six months. Two, focusing on the process yields more than focusing on goals and specific outcomes. Here’s a third building block.
The pace of the world is accelerating. There’s more instability, more uncertainty, and more options available to every single person. The landscape is shifting considerably faster than it used to, which means that it’s harder to plan ahead. Defined paths become possible paths. Certainties become options. The further you try to plan into the future, the more likely it is your plans will have to adapt to evolving circumstances. So if you’re smart, you don’t waste time and energy making long term plans. Instead, you accelerate the cycle of action and reflection, of execution, observation and adaptation.
Combine these things—a faster-paced world, a systems-based approach, and a life-changing daily practice—and what do you get? What I got was what I call “the cycles of life.”
A life is composed of repeatable units; days, weeks, months, years, and decades. And that is the framework I use to guide my actions. I’ve come up with a daily cycle, a weekly cycle, a monthly cycle, and a six-monthly cycle. And by cycle, I mean a series of activities or practices that I complete during that period. Let me explain.
Every day, I try to do the same things. I meditate, I read, I write, I move, I play, and I set myself internet hours. On top of that, I have a morning and an evening ritual, and a ritual I go through at the beginning and end of a work block. That’s my daily cycle.
Weekly, there’s a lot less to accomplish. Once a week, I try to reflect. I’ll sit for an hour or two and go meta. I’ll consider my efficiency—am I doing things right? Or I’ll evaluate my effectiveness—am I doing the right things? Or I’ll steal some questions from Tim Ferriss’ Tools of Titans whose aim is to “test the impossible,” to bend and break self-imposed constraints. Generally, once a week I’ll also 1) clear out my in-tray and inboxes, and 2) ensure I’ve blocked off blocks of time in my calendar for the important activities that I complete on a daily basis.
Monthly, there’s even less. I’ll do an exercise I picked up from Austin Kleon. I call it “more and less”. I’ll make two columns in my notebook. One’s heading is “More of” and the other’s is “Less of”. I’ll write down the things I’d like to spend more time doing, and the things I’d like to spend less time doing. Then I’ll adjust my daily and weekly cycles accordingly.
The final cycle I have is a six-monthly one. There’s only two obligations here: the first is to go on an adventure. Every six months, I try to plan a trip or a getaway and do something I wouldn’t normally do. The second is to decide upon a high leverage outcome. I ask myself what single change in my life would have a profound positive impact? Then, once I work that out, I convert it to a process and integrate it in my daily or weekly cycle. For example, if I want to create a business, then the process I assign myself is pitching variants of product or service offerings to a certain amount of people every week.
That’s how I handle long term planning. I don’t do it. Instead, I come up with a daily, weekly, monthly and six-monthly cycle. Collections of activities and exercises to be completed within those time periods. I haven’t been doing it for long, but from what I’ve seen for myself, and from what I’ve learnt from others, doing it this way is way more effective, and a lot more interesting.
If you’re a freelancer—a designer, a writer, a programmer, a developer, a systems guy, a consultant, whatever—you have four options when it comes to pricing your work:
Each approach has it’s strengths and weaknesses. But the one I want to focus on here is value-based pricing. More specifically, how the hell do you 1) define what “value” means, and 2) calculate and put a number on it? I don t know if you can. Value is utterly subjective, so there’s no right way to define or calculate it.
But there is a heuristic concerning value that’s useful, even if you can’t pin a name and figure on value. It applies to project pricing, and to personal and professional relationships:
Put in ten times the value you take out.
For example, give every positive action in a relationship or project a value of n. The aim is to provide 10n for every n received. To deposit ten times what we withdraw.
This is where we run into the roadblock of defining and calculating value. At best, we can only guestimate. But that’s okay. Here, aspiring to the ideal is more important than achieving it.
Think about the upward spiral such an aspiration creates. You begin a relationship with someone. They do something good, they provide value to you. You reciprocate by doing ten times as much for them. They respond by doing even more for you. You react by doing ten times as much for them. After a few rounds of back and forth, you’re both 1) fully committed to making the life of the other person better, and 2) benefiting way more than if you operated on a 1:1 value basis.
Two individuals with relatively obscure PhDs. One holds a doctorate in arboriculture. The other holds a doctorate in quantum cryptography. Both are smart. But only one is wise.
“What’s the difference,” you ask, “between the smart and the wise?” The simplest way to illustrate it is to imagine two shapes. The wise are represented by a circle. The smart are represented by a teardrop. Why is that? It’s simple really. The smart have a high level of knowledge that is domain-dependent, tied to specific areas. The wise have an understanding that is domain-independent, that transcends disciplines and operates regardless of context. I suppose you could say that the smart have specific knowledge in specific areas, and the wise have a general understanding applicable to any area.
If we accept that being smart is different from being wise, we’re left with some interesting possibilities as to what a person can be. Four to be exact. I’ve listed them below, from best to worst cases.
1. Both smart and wise.
2. Wise, but not smart.
3. Smart, but not wise.
4. Neither smart nor wise.
Why should you or I care about the distinction between smart and wise? I think the most important reason is that once the difference is appreciated, we can observe and decide which it is we ourselves are aiming for.
Are we learning to be smart? To penetrate to the innermost centre, to the deepest depths of an art, craft, field or issue? Are we seeking wisdom, searching for answers to big questions, trying to develop a meta-set of perceptions and investigative techniques? Are we in pursuit of both simultaneously? Or are we neglecting the development of both smarts and wisdom?
As a baby, your parents prepare your food, pick it up with a spoon, and put it in your mouth. As a toddler, they still do this. But sometimes, you can wield your own cutlery and direct it, complete with food, all the way into your own mouth.
After growing up some more, you acquire more abilities. You can walk, talk, go to school, wash yourself, and eat the food that mummy and daddy give you.
Once you become a teenager, you start to approach self-sufficiency. You’re not exactly paying the rent and doing the shopping, but you can cook some rudimentary meals for yourself. Then finally, as an adult, you are able to gather, cook and consume your own food.
The maturation of a human being’s ability to feed himself is a nice example of the diffusion of responsibility. Namely, the better you get at a thing, the more responsibility you can assume for doing the thing. Consider it as a simple graph:
This model presents a problem though. It seems to imply that those who aren’t sufficiently competent shouldn’t be given responsibility. That seems like a fair heuristic to manage by. Except that, without the burden of responsibility, it’s very hard to reach the higher levels of competence.
Individuals rise to the level of the expectations placed upon them. Or as I heard Tim Ferriss put it recently, people’s IQ seems to double when you give them some responsibility. Why is that? Well, responsibility implies trust, and trust implies confidence. You trust in my ability to do the job. That trust, that confidence in my ability to handle the load creates an obligation. I don’t want to let you down, so I raise my game accordingly.
But I might not get it right the first time. I might screw up the second time, and the third, and the fourth. That’s the risk of trust and responsibility diffusing down the chain.
If someone is to excel, they need responsibility. But when you give them the space to succeed, you also give them the space to fail.
Did you ever see those American cop shows? The ones that follow police cars that are in pursuit of a stolen car or a criminal fleeing a crime scene? If you did, you’ll be familiar with the box manoeuvre. It looks something like this:
The first car gets in front of the driver, forcing him to maintain a consistent speed. Then two other cars pull alongside, preventing the driver from swerving and accelerating around the lead. The surrounding cars then begin to decelerate, forcing the runaway car to slow down. or attempt to bash his way out. As they’re slowing down, a fourth car pulls directly behind the runaway car, preventing him from slamming the brakes and ducking out of the box. It’s a pretty elegant way to bring a pursuit to a stop and contain the suspect.
Do you remember the last time you took out some insurance or opened a bank account? What did you have to do? It’s likely you had to answer a load of questions: age, date of birth, occupation, income, all that. And why did you have to answer all those questions? It’s so the companies can build a profile of you and assess the risk involved in your being a customer. Essentially, like the cop cars in pursuit of a criminal, they’re trying to put you in a box.
Boxes are kind of necessary in the above scenarios. But the prevalence of boxes, and more importantly, of institutions and people trying to put us in them, extends throughout society and life.
In school, how do they know who goes in what class? First, you’re sorted by age. Then you’re sorted by ability as measured by results on standardised tests.
From birth, you’re put in a box. You’re male or female, a certain weight, with particular physical characteristics, and born in a specific country to parents of whatever heritage. All this is recorded minutes after you’ve popped out the womb.
The use of boxes isn’t bad. In some cases, it’s helpful. But there is one instance where it can be harmful.
When you’re introduced to a new person, what is the first thing you do? You try to acquire more information about them. Their name, who they know, what they do, where they’re from. You try to put them in a box.
People do the same to you. But a problem arises when the box you or others place yourself in doesn’t fit, or is one you no longer want to occupy.
If I introduce myself and say I’m a writer, that’s something you can understand. If I introduce myself and say I’m an accountant, you get it. But if I introduce myself and say I do some illustrating, help a few companies run marketing campaigns, kite surf and read Japanese manga in my spare time, you’re gonna say “huh?” It’s unlikely that you have a box labelled “Illustrator-who-does-marketing-and-kite-surfing-and-reads-Japanese-comics”. So you put me in a Procrustean box, choosing the most prominent aspect of my life and ignoring the rest.
Putting people and things in boxes is a tactic that allows us to quickly parse problems and the environment around us. But we must remember that nothing and no-one is a perfect fit, that the boxes we use aren’t reality. One person can be a single mum, a teacher, an amateur athlete, a university alumni, a daughter, and a raving fan.
Society needs boxes to function. But to thrive, as individuals, we nee to know when we’re being boxed in and push back. We have to remind people that we’re more than just an X, a Y or a Z. People are complex and do not fit in such singular categories. Lives and personality are multi-faceted, composed of many sides, many shapes, and many textures.
That’s one thing that’s become apparent as I’ve read history and biographies. The most interesting lives, and the most interesting people, are those which can’t be put in a box.