January 2024 retrospective
[Stealing the above idea from @k1rsty who in turn credits it to @rperce]
off to a great start
This is the first time I’ve managed to set up a complex-ish intend-and-track system and feel supported rather than overwhelmed after a month. Normally I’d be archiving Beeminder goals like crazy and either rethinking the whole system or (likely) just abandoning it because “this much pressure is counterproductive for me.” Instead, the inevitable rethinks and tweaks have consistently felt like forward progress. Wow.
I credit this to two things. First (and this is 99%): with every passing year, hope loses ground to cynicism. I’ve tried and failed to find meaning and purpose for more than five decades, and the evidence is gradually building for the hypothesis that there is none. In which case, I am so not up for another thirty years of pointless and often obligatory activity that only highlights my acute sense of being permanently alone in a crowd. The stakes are thus high, and I am motivated. It is quite literally a life-and-death matter to do something other than more of the same – to go all out on finding what I’ve been looking for in life, and leave no stone unturned.
Second, for me, Intend and Beeminder are excellent tools to help shape a search for meaning and purpose. They aren’t enough on their own – as I’ve proven countless times over – but with this intrinsic motivation now spelled out in my mind, they are very welcome support. I’m sure I’d get there without them, but they make getting there a lot easier.
being intentional about my time
I decided that for 2024, I would track time spent well as a proxy for finding meaning and purpose. To that end, I have seven life areas at Intend, two of which are “purpose” areas and the rest of which are “support” areas that make the purpose areas possible. At Beeminder, I have 27 goals that track how I spend my time in total and across each area, plus 2 goals that track fitness proxies (step count and weight).
Every morning I enter my intentions for the day at Intend, including a time estimate (in hours) which sends a data point to one or more Beeminder goals when the intention is marked complete. For example:
In this example, you can see that each Intend area has a distinct number. Some areas have subareas, indicated by a short code (such as
[bbh]). This lets me track time spent on projects at Beeminder and keep Intend focused on life arenas.
At the end of each intention is the time estimate. If I spend more or less time than estimated, I can append the difference onto the intention, and Intend will sum them all up before sending the datapoint to the relevant Beeminder goals.
Some daily intentions are assigned to more than one area (such as
5,3)). I thought long and hard about this; it means that the time will be counted double at Beeminder and in particular in my total-time-spent goal. I decided that this was more in the spirit of what I’m trying to do than it would be to partition my time into non-overlapping buckets. In the screenshot above, the
5,3) menu & groceries item captures my deliberate choice to buy only enough food for one day, so I have to leave the house and get a short walk in every day, as well as my intention to ensure there’s dinner and breakfast for everyone. And, in the end, all of this is only a proxy anyway – I don’t capture every minute of the day, and I don’t need to. What’s important is that this system helps me be intentional about my time.
I can add new intentions if the day goes unexpectedly – that’s what the very last item in the screenshot is. I hadn’t intended to get into a deep philosophical disagreement about the best way to do more good through drinking coffee, but I did, and it absolutely counts as meaningful time even though I hadn’t planned for it.
All of these are things that evolved for me in this first month, and it’s been wonderful to experience this as actively making progress instead of either “time wasted tweaking things” or “this isn’t working, see?”
homing in on what matters
About halfway through the month, I realized it was hard to know when spending time with other people should be categorized as
REL (relationships) or
BE (be a light in the darkness). I’d originally created BE to capture my volunteer work with refugees, which is definitely time well spent and a clear source of meaning and purpose for me. REL was meant for the thorny issue of personal relationships – I am generally drained rather than energized by dinners with friends, parties, etc. and I wanted this area to help me figure out how to make that work better for me. So far, so clear – but what about time spent helping a friend who’s going through a rough time? That sounds a lot like being a light in the darkness.
I eventually teased out this distinction: BE is about the other feeling seen, heard and understood; REL is about me feeling seen, heard and understood. This is a super-interesting epiphany, folks. Because when I am in BE mode, I disappear: my disappointments, needs, fears, desires all go poof and I’m just there but not in my head. It is the most rewarding thing I have ever done, and I credit a couple of very hard times in my life, when I absolutely needed to show up for someone else, for showing me that this is not only something I am able to do without melting or falling apart, but also in some sense what I was born to do. It comes naturally and easily to me when shit is truly hitting the fan – your teenage daughter is dying of brain cancer, for example, or your sister’s husband unexpectedly drops dead at 37. I didn’t learn to do it; I discovered I was naturally good at it – and that it was the most rewarding way I’d ever spent time, giving me a sense of completion and peace nothing else ever has.
I’m not sure what teasing out the distinction means for my REL goal, but that’s what I’ll explore in February. I think it’s clear that the conclusion is “drop REL because focusing on whether you feel seen, heard and understood has literally never made you feel better” – but there will always be non-BE-ize-able time I have to spend with others, so the question is how to recast or minimize that time.
money, oh how I hate your very existence
One of my life arenas at Intend is
INC, for income. I have left my past work and am looking for what comes next. It’s been hard. I believe money is a terrible system, the very definition of tit for tat, where you don’t give your neighbor some of your wheat because he’s hungry, you LEND it to him and now he owes you something in return. This is essentially the antithesis of my worldview, in which things and ideas are freely shared to the benefit of all. As you might imagine, this has made it complicated for me to do work in exchange for money. Also complicating my ability to work for money is the existential weariness I mentioned at the start of this post.
The epiphany this month, as I kept failing to get in my hours on bug bounty hunting and felt oppressed by the two probable translation assignments in the pipeline (from old clients; I no longer do this for a living but said yes to them because obligation and unemployed) is that I just really cannot do something simply because it pays. Not “this isn’t interesting enough to me, I need to find a better fit” but “I am past the point where money can be a relevant deciding factor in how I spend my time.”
This is of course easy to say because I’m not our main breadwinner and we are nowhere near living on the street and we have some savings to bridge the gap for a while. If we were starving and I was our only hope then shit yes I would work for money. But then it would be time well spent, wouldn’t it? Dare I say it would be a way of lighting up the darkness for my family, even.
But we don’t need the money to stay afloat. We need it to maintain our current lifestyle, but I don’t give a rat’s ass about our current lifestyle. I mean, it’s nice, yes, absolutely, but it is not worth spending my time on making the money for it at the expense of spending that time on finding the light in the darkness and being a light in the darkness. Focusing on money feels dirty, selfish – you know what, it feels like a violation of my principles. This world should not work on the principle of money. Money is evil made concrete.
I know this sounds over the top and crazypants to lots of you. Not a problem, certainly not my problem. Just reporting on myself here.
INC has been refined to be about closing the gap between our income and outflow. Maybe I’ll earn some money; maybe we’ll win the lottery (unlikely, since we don’t buy tix); maybe M will earn more; maybe we’ll move somewhere cheaper; maybe a lot of things. This refinement feels good – it feels like I’ve gotten clearer on the real point of this as a life arena and disabled some hidden assumptions in the process (like “it’s my job to solve this problem”).
Two of this month’s three derailments were on INC goals, and the derailments feel good – they informed my understanding of this arena, rather than marking my failure to do what I said I would.
getting clearer on hobbies vs purposes
In addition to
BE, be a light in the darkness, I have
FIND, find the light in the darkness. These are my two purpose arenas at Intend, and they’re meant to complement each other. BE is about concrete action in the world; FIND is the abstract, thinking side of things. This month, I discovered an interesting distinction in each of them.
First, language learning. I’ve been a sometime language learner all my life, and though I think of it as a failed hobby and yet another example of how I never follow through on things, the truth is I did learn a second language (Dutch) and now I live in Europe with my Dutch husband and kids and I had a whole 17-year career (translating) I wouldn’t have had if I hadn’t taken that first class in college on a whim. But it’s true I haven’t learned any others to an appreciable degree, despite years of buying books and courses and starting full of enthusiasm only to peter out after a month or two.
Then I started working at the Dutch Council for Refugees, where I constantly speak with traumatized, frightened, exhausted people I don’t have a language in common with. We work through telephone interpreters, which is mostly okay but often less than great. And sometimes, there’s no interpreter available. That happened to me once, with refugees from a Spanish-speaking country. Turned out my very rusty Spanish from high school and college was sufficient to muddle through the conversation, with hand gestures and pointing at things mixed in. And I suddenly realized that reviving my Spanish sufficiently well would actually fall under concrete action to be a light in the darkness. As would learning Farsi, Russian, Turkish, Chinese, and a few other languages we frequently encounter.
So that completely reframed my language-learning hobby, and I jumped headlong into studying Spanish again. But that effort started to flag after a while. It will take a sobering 2 years at 2 hours of study every day to achieve truly conversational Spanish, and 4 to 8 years (at 2 hours a day) for each of the rest. That’s a long time and a lot of hours. While it was a gratifying insight to have, I’m not sure the benefits merit that kind of effort. I’ll decide whether in February whether to pursue it under BE or let it remain an occasional pastime just for fun.
(My Spanish Beeminder goal was the third one that derailed this month, and like the two INC goals, it felt informative rather than punitive.)
The second distinction, in FIND, was that “what is the nature of reality?” is maybe just a fascinating question, not a meaningful one. That is, maybe it’s neither necessary nor sufficient for finding the light in the darkness and then being a light in the darkness. Maybe it’s just a hobby I enjoy.
This has gotten super long and I’m getting tired, so I’ll stop here. Thanks for reading, those of you who did :).