A post-capitalist critique on boiling frogs, minimum-happiness, harmful-easy things, and lists.
Over two years ago, I wrote The Tao of Bees, where I dutifully explained the differences between commonly-used to-do lists and the more long-term, uncommonly-used system thinking as a method to maintain and accomplish your goals. In my second article, The Sting of Work, I delved deeper into the ideas behind setting better goals and maintaining them.
What has happened in the time since then? There is a rich irony in this — A schadenfreude that can be had over the fact I failed to eat my own dog food.
This can be chalked up to a multitude of reasonings: No longer finding interest in Beeminder, having a change of direction in my life, hitting a deep episode of depressive thinking, general sheer laziness and hypocrisy, et cetera, et cetera.
After reviewing both my minor successes and major failures over an extended period of time, there are more mature conclusions on the idea of system thinking as a way of living that I can share. This is in sharp contrast to the more idealistic and frankly naïve explanations I had a few years ago.
The Boiling Frog Conundrum
The first idea I’d like to share is the boiling frog conundrum, which is an outdated and incorrect metaphor, but so widely understood that I’m using it anyways.
Our bias towards the dramatic can hinder us from understanding the fact that, most of the time, things fall apart very slowly — not all at once due to a major life event.
Nearly everybody that fails at achieving something they declare for themselves do so because there are minute-level obstacles that do not feel like obstacles because they’re so small.
There are routines, habits, people, obligations, that all already have their place cemented in our daily lives. These things chip away at our energy to put forth the effort needed to consistently work on our own goals and aspirations. They are outside the scope of what’s already established and what we instinctually are drawn towards.
So, we let one habit slip, we let one day slip. It’s so easy to become exhausted from the obligation of work that is needed for survival, which is a situation a growing number of people face.
And when we let the first thing slip, it becomes far easier for us to tell ourselves that it’s okay if the second thing does too.
These don’t seem like big enough problems to put forth the effort to fix them right now, in the present time. They feel far more like problems that our future self will fix when they’re larger and actually need to be looked at.
But of course, the longer we neglect these things, the more difficult it becomes to get back into it. There is a sincere experience of reverse-momentum, where the barrier to keep going or start over becomes stronger with each passing day.
We let an ego of excuses develop a shield of pride from letting us become beginners again. Instead abandoning something entirely. But not doing is always a bigger failing than doing a little, badly.
There is no actual solution to the boiling frog conundrum, because any method of trying to fight it off can also be stopped:
- We can set a reminder on our phone to remind ourselves to be intentional and work on what we find important, but when that reminder becomes fatiguing, we’ll turn it off and resume in the safety of status quo.
- We can find a burst of inspiration and motivation and get dozens of things done in just a few days, but when that energy or time off ends, we flatline again. The shame and pride resume.
The Solution-Adjacent: MVH
Let me begin by saying something controversial. The truth of the matter is that laziness, as traditionally defined, doesn’t really exist. Rather, it’s a harmful propagation of the idea that we need to be productive for the sake of contributing to society as our exclusive mode of self-worth.
We have to instead start from the basis with an idea that is perhaps more terrifying: We are under no obligation to do anything. The paradox of choice rises from understanding such a radical freedom also defies our safety that comes from the status quo.
In order to begin, maintain, and finish a goal with a sense of accomplishment, you must do it under your own terms. It’s easy to pick up conventional ideas for what we think we ought to be doing from inspiration blogs or self-help gurus, but they are meaningless and dead-on-arrival. There must be a bubbling passion that comes from within.
If you have this, if you are able to distinguish what you want versus what the world wants for you, then you can begin.
As I said earlier, there is no solution to the boiling frog conundrum, but perhaps there is something that can be looked at as *being close* to a solution: Minimum Viable Happiness, which can be looked at as the minimum amount you’d need to do in order to feel happy with yourself.
Perhaps that number is zero, and that’s perfectly fine, but if that’s the case then Beeminder is not for you. If you feel content not trying to achieve a goal, then there is no point in punishing yourself into trying to exert effort onto something that you could be using elsewhere. We have to stop pretending that hedonism isn’t a valid school of philosophy and way of living. But if we reject this philosophy, we must reject it entirely in order to have our systems function.
If you *do* want to work on something, start by working on it as little as possible. James Clear goes into great detail on this idea in his book Atomic Habits. Put into Beeminder terms, set a goal of writing 100 words a month instead of 1,000 words a day, or rather three words a day. This can seem ridiculous, but such a ridiculously easy system-task can always be achieved, that’s exactly the point.
This might seem like a long-winded way of saying: “make your goals as small as possible”, but building this paradigm of anti-laziness first is what’s needed for a goal to actually work.
The Harmful Easy Stuff
One problem that arises when dealing with being in the boiling frog conundrum is easing into the harmful easy stuff. Or rather, figuring out the smallest amount of effort needed in order to maintain a system on Beeminder, which usually has nothing to do with the system itself.
The harmful easy stuff is why I failed so tremendously.
I would get into this silly habit of checking my datapoints right before midnight to manually update them instead of doing the actual task for the system.
I would find myself stressed out at around 11:55pm each night, when I should have been sleeping, because I had built such a difficult ordeal of actually completing the tasks at this point, and fudging the numbers up so badly with fake datapoints, that I would flatly ignore Beeminder (and subsequently, my goals) for the entire day up until the last few minutes before midnight.
Because I didn’t sign the weasel contract (what real weasel would be honest enough to?), whenever I did forget to update these data points and derail, I would feel a wave of shameful guilt, and e-mail a gut-wrenching note to Beeminder insisting I was sick, or my Internet was out to avoid facing the punishment. It took me a long time of continuing this behavior before I eventually archived all of my goals, with all of their inflated and fake data history months later.
Of course, the simple solution here is to be honest and play fairly. This behaviour is mind-boggling counterproductive and I have no idea how or why I acted so absurdly for so long, looking back at it. You gain nothing if you convince yourself that completing something based on a technicality means you actually completed it.
The sooner you accept the way that things really are, the easier it will be to figure out how to move on from that point. Surfing a wave of complacency will only get you so far, the ride will eventually end. Coasting on mediocrity and pretending things are fine is far worse than confronting the fact you are a loser and a failure.
Don’t let yourself get lured into the harmful easy stuff because of the arising boiling frog conundrum, which makes it seem far more tempting than both admitting failure or doing the hard work you promised yourself you would.
Presumptive Assumptions / Answers?
With these first few most serious problems out of the way, the next step is to look at what presumptive assumptions are being made when you define your goal, the system to achieve that goal, and the tasks within that system.
An easy example of this would be trying to be more productive by tracking your daily computer usage with RescueTime — what’s being assumed here?
- The idea that you’d be using your computer daily, for starters.
- There’s also the assumption that the program is installed and set to autostart with your computer.
- There’s also also the assumption that you have properly categorized websites and applications that you use to be correctly defined as either productive or unproductive.
As you can see, we have to take into account the many small details that can end up being blind spots, and result in us failing to achieve our goals. We have to deeply investigate and interrogate the systems we create, and be mindful of these shortcomings.
The List is Your Friend
Another deep irony is that the solution I have found to actually achieving goals with systems is the one thing I had initially criticize and was looking for an alternative to: to-do lists.
If the entire point of this is to not overwhelm yourself, and to find a permanent solution to maintaining consistent effort towards goals you want to set for yourself, then the answer is a to-do list — or rather, a checklist. Atul Gawande also went into great detail with this idea in The Checklist Manifesto.
There are two scopes of checklist that I believe are the most helpful: The daily anti-assumption checklist, and the weekly task-only checklist.
The daily anti-assumption checklist is one to list all of the blindspots or obstacles that might potentially cause you to fail if you inevitably go on autopilot — a list of things that will allow you to maintain your willpower and small joys throughout the day.
The weekly task-only checklist is one to list all of the tasks needed to be completed throughout the week — rather than exhaustively trying to pinpoint what’s needed done each day. I believe that revolving your systems around the week rather than the day gives you enough flexibility to accomplish things in your Wiggle Room. At the same time, having something like an entire month to accomplish things is too nebulous and gives too much room for potential flatline behaviour.
The Never-ending Quest for Meaningfulness
As I stated earlier, the only thing that makes goals work is to have an unavoidable, burning passion to accomplish them from within yourself. There needs to be a deeper purpose and meaning — one that you do not question the validity of, because you must believe your purpose is intrinsically valid.
Add a personal mission statement with each system, figure out what the short-term benefits are to satisfy your monkey-mind and write those down, as well as envisioning the future where you achieve your long-term goal.
Ensure the datapoints themselves are meaningful, and robust in description. It has to go beyond numbers and quantity, there has to be a qualitative nature to each small stepping stone in the right direction.
Ensure that what creates these datapoints is, at the same time, small and manageable. You need to be able to feel as though you can accomplish what you’ve set forth for yourself even when you’re in your worst state.
Presumptive flatline behaviour needs to be fought by maintaining this small yet consistent work. Do not be tempted to try to do as much as you can in a single day, it’s only human nature for some to work in sprints and quickly burnout. Retrorachet a.k.a. reduce the saftey buffer back down to one week if you manage to do it anyways.
Summary of Tangled Thoughts
There are a lot of different ideas that I skimmed the surface of here. But it can all be reduced to the concept of intentionality and trying to maintain it as much and as often as you can.
The present moment is the only one we’re able to function in, and we need to take stock of what’s actually going on, and what we’re actually doing. You do not need to feel bad if you notice that you’re not on track, you don’t even need to change what you’re doing, just notice it.
Work from there and try your best, no matter how little others might think your current best is — as CGP Grey put it, a lesser decline is still an improvement over a decline.