29 Mar 2017, 16:07

Goals, But Not in the Usual Sense

I’ve always been a projects-oriented person. I think in projects, I work in projects. Even standard, periodic work is best treated as a project to keep me engaged in it.

Blog writing used to be a bit of a project, but not so much anymore. But it is still nice to have a white sheet of a paper that’s quite more public than a diary but not public in the “OMG donuts <3 <3 <3” thumbs-up sense of Facebook.

I’ve been thinking some about various projects that might bring me joy and fulfillment in adult life. The mindset around time clearly changes as one passes into different stages of life. I’m convinced that one almost never experiences a true surplus of time whether it is actually present or not. Time consumption is a gas, or at least a liquid, and expands to fill what it can reach.

Referring back to a recent conversation, I might advance the idea that an effective time surplus exists when you can make choices about your time and not have the feeling that you are making a value judgment between options and “sacrificing” one activity for another. I find “sacrifice” to be the operative word at the extreme; “prioritize” would be the neutral term on this spectrum I am constructing here, and I suppose “opt” would perhaps be the far-left side in which scarcity may be even perceptually absent from the picture. “Prioritize” is neutral in the sense that - while your calendar day may be full - you are able to choose which activities fill what I would see as a de facto surplus.

It’s very difficult, in the sense of being mentally stressful, to be in the “sacrifice” space of the spectrum. When articulated plainly, the statements become almost comically selfish: “I am currently cleaning benign goop off of the inside of the garage door in preference to actively participating in the rearing of my children this afternoon. This is something I am doing for me and my house.” Come at me, bro.

Any cost-benefit analysis becomes an exercise in balancing urgency and guilt in (often) emotionally unhealthy ways. The Covey time management quadrants teach us that “urgent and important” almost always wins in terms of prioritization, but the loser is the one dealing with all those emergencies. How does one bring preventative or restorative activities to the fore when nearly everything is important, and a good bit of that is urgent?

The obvious answer is that we implode or explode - depending on our mental and emotional makeup and proclivities - under such stress unless we take time to de-goop the garage door, or take a long soaking bath, or run a marathon, or actually understand Twin Peaks. We stand up and say, “Overriding priority of my life, I am being a jerk by neglecting you now so that I am not a jerk when I am next with you.”

And this works fine, but it still sets a higher bar than we’d probably like to have for what amount to time-wasting activities. Is a football game you don’t care about really a compelling “break” that will restore and feed your soul, bettering yourself and consequently those around you?

This can create a sense of paralysis. Throw a free hour to someone who feels maxed out with meaningful obligations, and they may spend 45 minutes deciding how best to relax.

When looking at elevated, meaningful projects, it becomes clear that, in a high-obligation scenario, much of the less structured time you are often given is essentially the “garbage time” of life. It’s hard to open that new programming project at the end of a long day. It’s hard to stay awake for Twin Peaks, even. Which means it’s going to take some amount of sacrifices and trade-offs of “prime time” to get real, transcendental things done. Which in turn means that a lot of real, transcendental things don’t get done.

And that is fine. But it’s important to keep those things in mind, so that when one is thrown an hour or two, the Rolodex gets spun and something comes to mind. For me, even having things in mind is perhaps as valuable as doing something tangible to achieve them. With this in mind, here are some things I’m thinking about right now, along with the “why” that I see as emotional justification:

Build a software project of any kind that is actively used by at least one complete stranger. Creating something like this that can become part of subsequent projects for others would be deeply meaningful to me.

Create from scratch a source of mostly, if not entirely, passive income. I feel that generating some kind of measurable, sustained value from one’s own efforts, but not requiring ongoing effort beyond the creation, is a powerful affirmation of the capacity for creation. For this reason, I find the magnitude of the income to be almost completely insignificant.

Learn how to play the drums. Perhaps the oddball of the group, I think this would simply be fun and rewarding.

Perform a comprehensive, multidisciplinary renovation on a house using mostly my own work. This would be challenging, and instructive. Also an added benefit from the permanence and tangibility of the work.

Sit on the board of a charitable or service organization. This has a sense of affirmation attached to it, to be invited to do such a thing, and also would be a good challenge in a completely different way.

I think the themes of the above are pretty apparent, and I think going through an exercise like this is important because it gets to the root of what can be sitting unfulfilled in daily life.