When is a Year not a Year?

Why do some people seem to achieve so much more than others in the same amount of time? I think it has to do with continuously developing a capacity for operating in narrative time. An easy way to understand this is to translate the effects into clock-time units. Since narratives evolve on multiple time scales at once, you can do the translation by using time scales. I made up this handy guide to thinking on single time scales versus multiple time-scales:

First, clock time is lost when you get more abstract in time, so you get this kind of outcome for clock-time thinking.

  1. If you prepare for a day at a time, you get 365 days in a year
  2. If you prepare for a week at a time, you get 182 days in a year
  3. If you prepare for a month at a time, you get 91 days in a year
  4. If you prepare for a year at a time, you get 45 days in a year

On the other hand, narrative time gains with such temporal abstraction, so long as you layer on the time scales bottom up instead of switching.

  1. If you prepare for a day at a time, you get 365 days in a year
  2. If you prepare fora day and a week at a time, you get 730 days in a year
  3. If you prepare for a day and a week and a month at a time, you get 1460 days in a year
  4. If you prepare for a day and a week and a month and a year at a time, you get 2920 days in a year

This is just an approximation of course, and you can abstract much more smoothly, without arbitrary calendar boundaries. You can add in intermediate layers and get similar doubling effects.

I am not kidding or exaggerating. I really do think there’s almost a Moore’s Law like exponential potential in how much narrative time you can unpack out of a given unit of clock-time. It’s like the fractal length of Norway’s boundary gets bigger and bigger as your ruler gets smaller and smaller.

Notice, I said prepare not plan. Planning at any time scale is more often harmful than helpful: planning activity subtracts in a zero-sum way from clock-time. Preparation adds in a non-zero-sum way to narrative time. The specifics of what preparation entails differ from person to person and context to context, but they all involve being more mindful of multiple time-scales at once.

What I called narrative time in Tempo is really what one might call mindfulness time. While clock time is something you look up on a clock, mindfulness time is something you develop like a muscle. For most people, the dynamic range of the muscle goes from a day to a year in clock time. Attempts to expand the range beyond a year tend to fail. Attempts to expand the range downwards into hours and minutes tends to work better, down to perhaps 25 minutes (the Pomodoro technique), but below that, it takes serious effort.

So if you find yourself running out of clock-time, don’t add more clock-time. Deepen the narrative time somehow.


Language and Strategy

This fascinating article (HT: Mark Maxham) explores a Star Trek: TNG episode where Picard and crew meet a species that communicates entirely through metaphor and narrative. The article draws a smart (and in my opinion, correct) lesson from the episode:

“Strategy” is perhaps the best metaphor of all for the Tamarian phenomenon the Federation misnames metaphor. A strategy is a plan of action, an approach or even, at the most abstract, a logic. Such a name reveals what’s lacking in both metaphor and allegory alike as accounts for Tamarian culture. To be truly allegorical, Tamarian speech would have to represent something other than what it says. But for the Children of Tama, there is nothing left over in each speech act. The logic of Darmok or Shaka or Uzani is not depicted as image, but invoked or instantiated as logic in specific situations. In some cases, apparently, this invocation takes place with limited transformation, such as in the application of Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra depicted in the episode’s main plotline. In other cases, those logics are used in situations with more play, as when Dathon reassures Picard after the former’s injury, “Kiazi’s children. Their faces wet.” 

Incidentally, such languages might not be as alien as they sound to English speakers. It seems like Chinese might actually have some of the characteristics of Tamarian, especially in written form.

The Rumsfeld Behavioral Landscape

I made up an interesting way to visualize habits, routines and larger behavioral complexes in terms of Rumsfeld’s famous known, known-unknown and unknown-unknown typology.


Here’s how it works. Your basic building block is a habit, and these are either built around attractors or repulsors (the green and red contour sets respectively, with the green representing valleys and the red representing hills). Your behaviors are decision patterns that may orbit one or more habits in complex ways.

Here’s how you read/use the map (you can build a real one around your own habits of course, this is just an illustration).

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Packaging-Heavy Projects

I posted earlier about discovery-heavy projects that are front-loaded with input firehoses. The complementary kind of project is one that has a lot of messy complexity near the finish line. I call these packaging-heavy projects. An example is writing a book. The hard work from the 0-90% mark is relatively clean and easy to structure.

Then you hit all the packaging work: getting the cover design, figuring out formatting needs (fussy conversions to specific print and electronic formats), uploading stuff to various websites, putting information into databases, and of course, copyediting, proofreading and all the rest of it.

Cooking certain kinds of meals is another example. The actual cooking may be tricky and complex, but limited in behavioral scope. But when you have to do the finishing touches: plating, laying the table, garnishes, serving sequence, keeping stuff warm and coming out at the right time… things can get packaging-heavy.

When there is a whole lot of packaging, it’s worth asking whether you’re really trying to shoehorn an entire distinct project into the tail of the current one. Introverted maker types who dislike marketing often make this mistake: they turn an entire marketing project into a shoehorned set of short-changed activities.

But that pathology aside, packaging-heavy projects are a real thing. I haven’t yet found a good way to navigate packaging tail-end phases effectively. Sometimes you can outsource packaging activities, but other times, you just have to power through all the finishing touches and polishing. It’s a high-risk phase, because a lot of effort can fail or deliver very sub-par returns simply because you forgot a simple finishing touch.

When Finishing is Easier than Starting

When you are young, beginning new projects is easy and finishing them is hard. As you grow older, beginnings get harder, but finishing gets easier. At least, that has been my experience. I think it is true of anyone of at least average intelligence, creativity and emotional resilience. The reason is simple.

When you are young, the possibilities ahead of you, and the time available to explore them, seem nearly infinite. When you try to start something, the energizing creative phase, (which comes with internal brain-chemistry rewards on a fast feedback-loop), gives way to exhausting detail-oriented work, maintenance work, and unsatisfying overhead work. You need to get through these to bank distant external rewards (money and such) that only come with completion. It is then that you are most vulnerable to the allure of exciting new beginnings. So you abandon things halfway. You bank the internal rewards of beginning, but not the external rewards of finishing.

But with age, this changes.

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On Thinking Caps

I’d like a literal thinking cap. A regular baseball hat, but with the look of an orange or yellow construction hard hat. It would say “Construction in Progress, Do Not Disturb” on it.

Here’s why. There is an annoying asymmetry between inside-head and outside-head thinking. A thinking cap would solve this problem.

Somebody thinking outside their heads looks obviously busy. Whether they are cleaning, doing laundry, assembling furniture, performing brain surgery or repairing a broken computer, they send clear “do not disturb” signals.  You are unlikely to interrupt a coworker or spouse obviously occupied in such external thinking tasks to ask them to do something unrelated. I use the phrase external thinking rather than the word doing to distinguish tasks that require active logical thinking/planning and nearly full attention from those that are more mindless.

But somebody busy doing some intricate thinking inside their heads doesn’t send such clear signals. They just look somewhere between idle and spaced-out. Or they might be doing something that seems low-effort and okay to interrupt, like putting away dishes.

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Personality Ambidexterity: Or How to Turn Yourself Inside-Out

Fox and hedgehog are related archetypes that form an archetype schema: a set of related archetypes that arguably covers most of humanity very well. Push come to shove, most people are willing to classify themselves on a good schema, and suspend the instinct to challenge the underlying assumptions and fuzziness in boundaries.

The simplest sort of archetype schema is a binary classification (“there are two kinds of people in the world…”). Developing some capacity to inhabit the other side of a binary schema, within which you see yourself relatively clearly as being on one side, is like developing personality ambidexterity. To do this, you have to understand the symmetries and polarities in a given schema.

A symmetry in mathematics is a transformation that turns one thing into another. For example, a reflection symmetry flips (say) a left-hand silhouette drawn on paper so it looks like a right hand. Any archetype schema is based on various symmetries and polarities, but it may not be immediately apparent how to describe it explicitly as such (a necessary step before you can apply a transformation), or why it is worth bothering.

What operation might turn, say, a fox into a hedgehog? And why would we want to attempt that sort of “trading places” switcheroo?

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Inside the Miscellaneous Folder

In any workflow taxonomy for classifying anything from individual to-d0 lists and desk drawers to countries and large corporations, there are things that require more trouble to classify than they are worth. If you’ve done your job right, you’ll achieve a 80-20 split, where 20% of the taxonomy captures 80% of the action in clean-edged ways, and the remaining 80% that contains the 20% of special cases, outliers, exceptions and so, can all be lumped together under something analogous to a folder marked “miscellaneous.”

Every organization scheme, if it is useful at all, handles a dynamic flow of action. The action enters through some equivalent of an inbox, evolves at varying rates through the taxonomic scheme, and exits through some equivalent of an archival scheme combined with a trash can. Between entrance and exit, the flow divides itself into the ordered part of the organization scheme and the miscellaneous folder.

For a corporation, the inbox is usually the sales pipeline and the miscellaneous folder is often the CEO’s office. For a country, it is a mix of domestic and international economic, political and military “issues” that converge on the governance apparatus in the country’s capital. In the case of the military, the “miscellaneous” folder is often the special forces.

We recognize the need for the organization scheme to evolve with the flow it is processing, but it is usually hard to operationalize this basic idea. Here’s are some basic principles.

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Coincidences and Correlations

Most people have heard the admonition, “correlation is not causation.” Few have heard the related admonition, “coincidence is not correlation.”

In common usage, a coincidence is about pairs of rare events that have a background relationship within a model. Like thinking about a friend you haven’t thought about for ten years, and then running into him the next day. But here, I mean a more banal technical sense of “coincidence” — juxtaposition. Co-incidence, as in “occurring together”

So if you and I are at a coffee shop at the same time, our mutual presence is a “co-incidence” whether we are long-lost friends or strangers who ignore each other.

But why are these two admonitions necessary at all? Why would we assume relatedness among unrelated things, or see causal relationships where there are only correlations? They are necessary because decisions enacted in the real world as opposed to inside your head, share physical time and space with other enactments in progress: situations.

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Lagrangian and Eulerian Decision-Making

This metaphor is not for everybody, but if it works for you, it will probably be very useful.

Writing Tempo has sparked a lot of  fascinating conversations for me. People either seem to immediately get the decision-making model, or find it completely counter-intuitive and bizarre. Some tell me, “this is exactly how I think, thank you for describing the process clearly.” Others tell me, “nobody could possibly think this way, this is ridiculous.”

In reflecting upon the bimodal responses, it struck me that they were coming from two very different kinds of people. The ones who find the model natural are (predictably) somewhat like me: they do most of their thinking inside their heads with models. The ones who find it unnatural seem to do most of their thinking outside their heads by “watching machines work” as it were. What Myers-Briggs types refer to as the Ti vs. Te distinction (ask your friendly neighborhood Jungian to explain this to you). In terms of concepts in the book, this is the difference between narrative thinkers and situated thinkers.

Narrative thinkers tend to process by following a flow of causation, by keeping an evolving model of it going in their heads. Situationist thinkers focus on the logic of the events flowing through a particular static block of space and time: the one they happen to inhabit at the moment. It’s like following a case as it winds its way through the police investigation, different courts, judges and jurys, versus sitting in a courtroom all day and watching slices of different cases each evolve through a chapter locally.

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