The other night I was lamenting to Erik (yet again) how hard it is for me to work on larger projects and maintain momentum, especially when many secondary tasks wait in the wings to distract me. I said that deciding what to do, at any given moment, requires a complex consideration of three factors — urgency, importance, and satisfaction/stress — and more often than not, I come out on the wrong side of importance.
For instance: laundry is unimportant. If I never did another load of laundry, my sense of self wouldn’t suffer; my life wouldn’t lose meaning. However (given that we don’t outsource our laundry), if one of us doesn’t do it on time, it ends up causing me stress and inconvenience — and since our living space is small, it’s literally in my face all the time, an inescapable reminder.* So I always make time to do it. But finishing the laundry provides very little satisfaction; it only neutralizes the stress of not doing it. Writing or painting, in contrast, are highly important tasks that fill me with a sense of satisfaction and purpose, but their urgency can be calculated only by accumulation. That is, if I write for two hours today, that’s not much of an achievement today, or even this week, or this month — but if I write for two hours every day for six months, that’s something. But it’s tricky to weigh a six-months-delayed sense of accomplishment against the immediate stress of getting behind on laundry right now. And so, in spite of their relative importance to me, I don’t write every day, but I do the laundry bang on time every single week. (And I am, of course, using “laundry” to represent all such tasks: preparing dinner, washing dishes, buying groceries, what have you.)
I explained this to Erik and he said, “It’s like you’re trying to climb a mountain by taking a few steps every day. It’s no big deal if you skip your steps today, or even for months at a time. For you, unlike a lot of people, there aren’t terrible consequences to staying in place. But as long as you’re not taking those steps, you’ll never get to the top of the mountain — and what’s more, you don’t even know for sure that this is the mountain you want.”
“That’s exactly right!” I said. “My days are like this: I wake up excited to climb the mountain, I have a good breakfast, I get dressed, I pack up my camp, I head to the trail — and there’s a goat in my way. Maybe several goats. So then I have to push the goat, lure it away, yell at it, prod it, etc. By the time I’ve finally shoved it off the path, it’s time for lunch. So I have lunch, and by the time I’m ready to set out again, the goats are back. So I disperse them yet again, and then it’s time for dinner. And after dinner it’s too dark to climb. So I go to bed and the next day it’s the same thing all over again. After a few days of this it occurs to me that what I need is a goat-repelling gadget, so I set about inventing one. A month or two later it’s done, and yeah, the goats aren’t a problem anymore, but now I’ve got a goat repeller to drag behind me, along with goat treats, extra goat-repeller-making materials, and so forth.”
Erik said, “And, knowing you, you’ve probably built the most beautiful goat repeller anyone has ever seen. But you still haven’t taken any steps.”
“Yep.” I thought a moment and added, “And I won’t hire a Sherpa because I’m afraid of being exploitive.”
After another moment, I mused, “This is really particular to me. Some people would be a lot more motivated to get to the top faster; maybe they don’t have the food for a long journey. Some people would be so fixated on the path that they wouldn’t even see the goat until it charges them…”
“…and even then, they’re still single-mindedly pulling themselves up the mountain, in spite of the goat chewing on their leg.”
I laughed. It was a silly mental image, and yet the metaphor has been really helpful. One of the biggest obstacles to my time management is not being able to prioritize, acting as if everything is of equal importance. Now, when I find myself throwing a lot of energy into a task, I can ask myself: is this the trail, or is this just another goat? Erik is right that I’m not sure yet which mountain I want to climb, but if I remember to ask myself, I can — most of the time — recognize a goat when I see one.
*Notice that although we share laundry duty, it’s my stress when it doesn’t get done on time. Erik notices when we’re behind, but he doesn’t get pressed about it the way I do. But that’s a post for another time.
This is my first post in seven weeks. I’m pretty sure that’s the longest I’ve gone without blogging since I started in 2001. The other day I was sitting with my extended family at a dim sum restaurant in Milpitas, celebrating my aunt’s birthday, and found myself telling my cousin something I hadn’t articulated until that moment: that amidst the nimble instant connectivity of Facebook and Instagram, my blog (and the way WordPress does comments) has begun to feel clunky. I don’t like this assessment, as the blog has been part of me for so long, but I can’t deny it. Moreover, as I’ve said in other posts, my work has changed so that I no longer want to share all work-in-progress with a public audience, plus I haven’t been as introspective in some time, and no longer feel the need to write the lengthy reflective posts that were once this blog’s mainstays. So what is my blog for, now? Until I have an answer, I’m not likely to be here as often as in the past.
Just for my own future reference, though, here’s what I’ve been up to in the almost two months since I last wrote: I did an event at the Oakland Museum, started a very small side contracting gig, went through a lot of not-too-scary medical stuff for both myself and a family member, completed a course in intermediate Thai cooking and started another course in self-defense, took my Meetup group on various outings, spent lots of time with friends, and read lots of books. More recently — in the past couple of weeks — I’ve been feeling unusually introverted, as if speaking to strangers wrests from me an energy and openness I can’t afford to give, and speaking to friends feels only slightly more restful. I’m not sure what this is all about, but I don’t mind letting the feeling take over my scheduling for awhile.
I don’t know how blogging fits into my path, but I do know it’s definitely not a goat and has never been one, especially since I’m not forcing myself to keep to a schedule.
I have always loved your blog, Lisa. But it says something about your growth that you no longer need to self-examine quite so much. Goats or no goats, your confidence is evident. (By the way, love the metaphor.) ~Sherry
Such a great metaphor! I suggest invoking honey badger as your spirit animal. Honey Badger don’t give a shit about goats. Go to YouTube and search for it. Especially with Randall’s narration. Love to you!
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A comment my boss always had for me during reviews was that I had trouble prioritizing. Maybe it runs in the family. -_-
And these goats are a wonderful metaphor. Hope the goats you encounter aren’t as numerous as these. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D0cLkcqs-cY
ahh this resonates with me!! (as i’m sure you know :P) “is it a goat?” will be the new mantra in my head.
Hear, hear. At the end of the day you have a finite amount of energy. It’s a constant battle to negotiate and renegotiate priorities…:P