This week was my dad’s 70th birthday. I am now more than half his age.
I wanted to do something really special for him. Something big and meaningful that would show him how much I appreciate him. But I didn’t. I didn’t make space for it. Aside: any suggestions for a belated 70th gift or gesture for a great dad?
Normally when I go for a run, I opt for the same route, playlist, and time it to track progress. When I had my 36th birthday a few weeks ago, I went for an untimed run. It was the first time I could remember doing that.
Not timing it let me feel like I could run anywhere. I took some back roads. I cut through a bird sanctuary. Got to think about things I normally don’t. It was nice to be out and not just running a race in my head.
I remember almost feeling a little sorry for myself that I don’t do that more often. Like why does it need to be a special occasion to make room for the tiniest bit of spontaneity?
My wife has also asked me to work less. It’s gotten to a point where it’s come up multiple times. I resolve to be better, and then I slowly revert.
I don’t typically work full days on weekends, but I often end up doing what feels like puttering around on my computer because it’s easier to let myself not do client work on weekends. So I recently committed to one full day off each week. I figure less opportunity for the slippery slope of checking email snowballing into a few hours of work that way.
I took a day off last last weekend. That didn’t seem too hard and so I didn’t work at all over this past holiday weekend. But that ended up being a lot harder. Like withdrawal symptoms harder. It required real effort to not just pull my laptop out and try to get ahead of a busy week. And even then, I can only think of a few ~30 minute time periods when I was able to shut my mind down from thinking about work.
I’ve been really interested the past few years in how our dispositions can predict (determine) our outcomes.
We lean in directions and so we end up moving in those directions. By defaulting to habits or ways of being we are disposed to, we predetermine where we will end up.
When it’s a personality trait, we get to see how we lean vs others: starter or finisher, serious or playful, introverted or extroverted, follow the rules or break them. Unchecked, where does being a serious, introverted, starter with a preference for not following rules get me?
Besides personality factors, I think about other things with this lens. Like the more human-wide qualities of cognitive biases we (all?) suffer from. Like confirmation bias, the tendency to stick to our beliefs despite contrary evidence, or illusory superiority, the “I’m above average” bias, or my favorite, imposter syndrome.
Systematically opting for complexity over simple solutions
Here’s a new/not new one: people systematically overlook subtractive possibilities. From that abstract, “participants were less likely to identify advantageous subtractive changes:
- when the task did not (versus did) cue them to consider subtraction,
- when they had only one opportunity (versus several) to recognize the shortcomings of an additive search strategy or
- when they were under a higher (versus lower) cognitive load.”
Bullets mine, for clarity.
The use case in that series of studies was engineering design, but it potentially applies to all problem solving: we opt to add more things (complexity) instead of removing things (simplifying). Things that make this propensity worse are being cognitively overloaded, having less time, and not being cued.
Our propensity to add complexity totally explains (for me) why clients think they need to make more content to solve their content organization problems. It also explains how I add more things to my plate in order to try to get unstuck, which ultimately just makes me more stuck.
I’m imagining a truck stuck in sand, and me trying to get it unstuck by throwing more rocks into the truck bed.
The point I’m trying to make about what determines outcomes is that only things that really seem to change our trajectories are:
- external factors we have no control over
- a meaningful change to the way we think about something
- making conscious decisions backed up by commitments and accountability
But nothing changes without having and making the space for change. And that’s hard because you have to trust the unknown.