They say the road to Hell is paved with good intentions…but what they don’t tell you is that the road continues on. That’s right: if you stay on the road long enough, you pass through Hell and come out the other side.
That’s been my experience, at least. During dark and weak times, intention—or “will”, if you will—is the lifeline that can lead you out to the other side, and back toward your light and strength.
More to the point of this column, my will to adhere to the resolutions I made some 15+ years ago has been a powerful agent for simplification during some of my most stressful times and biggest decisions. And during the small decisions too, frankly. The ability to have a mental checklist of clear rules, against which any action can be judged…well, it’s just plain handy. Here’s a very small example:
You leave the supermarket. (By the way, you are me a few years ago, which means you’re pretty broke.) When you get out to your car, you realize that you forgot to put the big pack of toilet paper, which was underneath the cart, up on the conveyor. Nobody noticed, which means you accidentally got the $8 item for “free”. No one will be any the wiser. And really, is it going to hurt the supermarket much? No, not really. It’s 8 bucks you could spend on something else you need down the road.
But wait. “I will not lie or steal.” “I will not cheat, deceive, or mislead others.” “I will not live in contradiction, conduct myself in deceptions, or encourage unhealthy thinking.” “I will evaluate my actions honestly and frequently, and will keep a steady watch on my…”
Suddenly there’s no need for a store alarm or a curious manager coming out into the parking lot, because your own internal alarm system has provided the clarity needed in that semi-ambiguous moral moment. Feeling kind of odd, and yet liberated and grown-up, you go back into the store with the big pack of toilet paper and ask them to ring it up for you, because you accidentally got out without paying for it. The clerk looks at you curiously, takes your money, and thanks you for being honest. You walk out with a sweet feeling of satisfaction and clarity, knowing that however stupid it may have felt to do, you did the right thing.
It’s good stuff. And when it comes to the “ethics” portion of my statement of resolution from my 20’s (which I introduced in my last column), I’d have to say I’ve done really well. And I’ve done pretty well on the “attitude adjustment” points too. “I will maintain a positive attitude whenever possible” has become a core principle of my life (if not the core principle), and most of my advice to myself about dealing with others has also been absorbed, to positive effect.
And I’m even doing OK when it comes to my guidelines regarding health and physical well-being. Not great (he says, as he takes another swig of Coke), but OK.
However when it comes to 22-year-old Lance’s rules for personal productivity—and for taming the to-do list that, even in 1995, was beginning to affect local weather patterns—I have to give myself a non-passing grade. Or as the kids on the Internets say these days: epic fail. (Or if you prefer, I have been “pwned” by my to-do list, and all my base are belong to it.)
It makes sense, looking back, why younger me would have worked harder on the ethics and attitude front. I was concerned that I wasn’t a good person—individually or socially—and that seemed like a much more urgent fire to put out. At the time, my to-do list seemed relatively tame, and my inflated sense of empowerment was probably at an all-time high.
So while I clearly recognized weak points in my workflow and productivity even back then, and rules regarding those things are laced throughout my resolutions, those were the ones that got the least attention when I was drilling the rules into my life in those first years after writing them down.
As a result, I’m a pretty great guy…who has very little control over my life.
OK, fine…you’re right—a really great guy who has very little control over my life.
The good news is that the solution is right here before me. I said last time that I was going to draft up some new resolutions to tackle my not-so-simple life issues, but when it comes to laying down a durable foundation, and providing guidance in key moments of decision, I think my old-school rules actually have me covered—if I follow them.
Recognizing that some of my resolutions got the shaft back when some of my other self-imposed rules were becoming bedrock principles, and that the problems associated with them have become the new hottest fire that needs putting out, is enough to suggest a solution: to recommit myself to those resolutions which, rather than becoming foundational mantras, have become perennial jokes:
—“I will spend more time taking courses of action, and less time talking about them.”
—“I will maximize my personal abilities and potential, and attempt to produce the most good possible.”
—“I will not conduct my work in a haze, and I will strive to maintain optimum clarity during all times of productivity.”
—“I will make every act an act of self-improvement; I will make better use of my time all the time; I will always consider, ‘What is the best use of my time right now?'”
—“I will endeavor to keep a healthy balance of private, work-related activity and social play-like activity, so as to gain the maximum advantage of both.”
—“I will maintain a clarity and focus that will best allow me to achieve my highest goals.”
…and so on. While the word “simplicity” is not in any of them, the search for simplicity—and for balance—is woven throughout those resolutions and many others that I made in my 20’s (and ignored into my 30’s).
When moments comparable to the “free” pack of toilet paper come up, but in the realm of simplification or productivity rather than ethics, I too often opt for the false simplicity of “oh, who cares?”, rather than the genuine resolve I would get by following my own guidelines more strictly. And being a bit of a loner, I can usually get away with that—just so long as no one asks me if I’ve finished my screenplay yet.
But not any more. If I can make myself moral and happy, then I can make myself productive and balanced. Honestly, that sounds like the easier half of the equation.
They say that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but what they don’t tell you is that there are no new tricks, really—just new arrangements of old tricks. And besides which, you can teach an old dog anything…as long as he’s willing to learn.