Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Overthinking a Hypothetical Question

by Chris McGinty (According To Whim .com)

The first book I ever read on time management was “How to Get Control of Your Time and Your Life” by Alan Lakein. As a quick aside (I know I’m only on the second sentence so what the hell is with the aside?) I find it interesting that I live much of my life by some of the principles in this book, but I still feel like I have no time. I don’t think this is a flaw of the techniques, but rather a flaw in my personality. No matter how much I do, there is always another two or three or seventy-eight other things I’d like to do.

As if to give me something specifically to ignore, the book deals primarily in prioritizing your activities by the most important thing to you. About that flaw in my personality, to me, it’s all important. It all feels like an A priority eventually. Like right now, it seems reasonable to be typing this. Tomorrow, I’ll wish I’d spent my writing time more wisely.

One of the first things that he has you do to organize your thoughts and give you a snapshot (because he uses the photography analogy) of what your priorities are, is to have you write down three questions and answer them. I do this exercise from time to time to see where my priorities actually are at that moment. Here’s what you do (with me paraphrasing what he wrote):

1. What are my lifetime goals? Write for two minutes with abandon, as in, don’t worry about if what you write is possible or even if it’s really a goal. Just write. Then take two more minutes to refine what you wrote, and add to it if you missed anything.

2. How would I like to spend the next three years? Again two minutes of abandon, and two minutes of refining. He says to make it five years if you’re over thirty, but neglects to explain why he thinks you should do that.

3. If I knew I would be struck dead by lightning six months from today, how would I live until then? Treat this question same as the last two. But first, read what I have to say below, because this question is why I felt the need to even write this.

He says not to think about this, just write, and to presume that all arrangements like funeral and burial and whatever is all taken care of. That’s good, because my first thought was to find life insurance that pays out big for acts of God.

I do understand that this is a question that is designed to find what is important to you. That when you’re faced with only so many months left, your priorities will change. The thing is that mine would change drastically. I’m at work as I write this. I would call off right now and go home. I would make a list of people to assault 170 days from now, and I would buy a baseball bat. I’m kidding. But that’s just an extreme example of how one’s outlook might change if they knew they were going to die. I wouldn’t work anymore. No way. Moving back in with one of my parents for six months would be an acceptable course of action.

Let’s stop for a moment. This question is designed to get this kind of response. The idea is that likely nobody would say, “Oh, I’ll spend more time at my job over the next six months than I ever did.” And when you’re done, you’re supposed to look at it all realistically anyway. The assault list is suddenly not very practical, so it goes off the list. The question is designed in such a way as to make you think, “What would I get rid of from my life that isn’t important?” My job. Gone. So once I have no job, what is important? That’s what you should be working towards more often than you are. Sure, you have to keep your job, but if you say, “I would spend the last six months of my life hanging out with my children,” then it means that that’s what you should be doing as often as you can.

I’ve heard this question asked another way, which is, “If you had all the money you needed to live your life ideally, how would you live it?” It’s supposed to get the same kind of answer that says what you should be doing more often than you are now. But it would put me in a different frame of mind. I would go from “Cat’s in the Cradle” to “Shame of Life” very quickly… Cat Stevens to Butthole Surfers, in case you actually feel like looking the songs up to see what I mean.

The change in priority is this. Six months is not a whole lot of time to become a rock god, and even if I did, I’d get struck by lightning right as it got good, so I’d just want to hang out with my kids. Unlimited money resources and a normal non-lightning lifespan, and I can still hang out a lot with my kids in between being a rock god. Peter Gabriel’s daughter toured with him. And the number of rock star’s kids with a top 40 hit that they likely wouldn’t have had without mommy or daddy (no matter how talented they truly are) my kids wouldn’t complain… or they would be out of the daddy is the coolest club.

Again, please let me clarify, these questions are merely designed to get you thinking. I understand that. When the dust settles and you realize that you’re not Frank Sinatra (the rest of us just live in it) you’re supposed to make choices tempered by reality and get to it. And that’s the world where my two favourite shows that I’ve played were all ages shows so that my kids could watch their dad be a much lesser local rock god underling.

So what is my point? Well, I was thinking about this question and I realized something, well, something other than the fact that there is some song out there called live like you’re dying or something like that. I think the best way to ask this is: What if six months from now God (or fate or whatever you want to call it) was going to flip a coin (although saying God makes more sense here because fate doesn’t have imposable thumbs) that if it came up heads you would live on, and if it came up tails your life would end, how would you live your life until then?

I’m sure you want to know why I would ask it this way. I’m also sure that I’m going to tell you even if you don’t want to know. To me this phrasing cuts out any of the nonsense that you might try to throw in here. At this point, I’m throwing away my assault list in case it comes up heads, and in fact, it’s not even getting written, because I’m not calling off from my job until it’s time to go at 6 am. But if faced with the possibility of actually dying, even if I have four copies of Krark’s Thumb in play, what would I do to make sure I’m ready if I die and if I don’t?

I think when I take out a lot of the weird what ifs like certain death, endless money, or whatever limiter that is lifted from your thinking, I see what it is that I should be doing for the next six months. And if you ask this question frequently enough, the next six months of your life will gradually change.

I would literally spend my days off for the next couple of weeks getting boxes and sorting my mess of crap into two camps, stuff I can get to in the next six months, and stuff I can’t. I would tape up the stuff I can’t and get to the stuff I can. Most of what I would try to get to would be unfinished projects that are the closest to being finished, because they will take the least time to finish.

After about a month, if I was serious about doing this, I would have all of my stuff organized for sure. After all, I would be spending every free minute on getting that far. If I ask the question again, I now not only have until June rather than May (I wrote this in November, who knows when it’ll post) but the scope of what I would do has changed. My stuff is already organized. Now I could list projects with easy finishing times, like the two novels that are almost done. I could pick the one that would be easiest to finish and get to it, and then get to work on the other.

After about a month, if I remained serious, I could ask the question again, and not only have until July rather than June, but other harder to complete projects also start to open up to completion. And eventually, you can just ask it as though you won’t die if you lose the coin toss, but rather God will bitch slap you really hard. That way you stop fretting about dying, and just live as though you have a goal for the next six months rather than live as though you’re in a country song.

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