Sunday, 15 June 2008

Big Rocks

There's a story where a Zen master fills a bucket with big rocks. He asks a student, is it full? The student affirms, yes, it is. The master adds small rocks to the bucket; they fall between the gaps. He adds pebbles, then he adds sand, then he adds water, and all filter down through ever-smaller gaps. The teacher tells his student, your life is like the bucket. Fill it first with important things; lesser things will find a way to fit around them.

I've always tried to gather the parts of my life into one big, overarching framework. Like looking at the world from 50,000 feet, I want to zoom out far enough to take it all in one glance, to see what is biggest, what is brightest, what is grey and neglected. I hoped that out of the mess of a scattered and sprawling concatenation of pursuits and fascinations, a pattern might emerge that offered up some kind of insight, a strong direction and trend that I could use to name my life.
Of course, any single title would fail to adequately contain a dynamic life. It would be as futile as called all wind 'West' based on how it was currently blowing. But there are clusters that I've noticed. When I switch from one group of activities to another, my mind changes gears between some, but not others. After committing some small violence to shoehorn them into categories, these are the spheres of my life:

Money getting of, keeping of, making small piles of, swimming in
sources and means of upgrading my brain
how I look and what I own
I want to keep in touch with
places I need to visit or learn about

Current activities and useful aspirations fit into these categories. I know that if I have a day without advancing in any of these, it is almost as if that day was disconnected from the broad narrative of my life.
And they are aspirational; they contain the seeds of my future self. How I will earn money, what I will learn, how I will look, what I will own, who I will know, and where I will visit. When I move within these spheres I advance my life, generating momentum and rewards.

They don't include maintenance tasks--washing, walking, shaving, shopping--as these are they grey quotidian detritus of life's obligations. I could engage in nothing more that what was required for life, but I would wake up the next day in a changeless, 'Groundhog Day' existence.
Bringing these spheres to the fore keeps them fresh in my mind, banishing nagging doubts that I had forgotten important tasks, neglected my priorities thoughtlessly. And at different points, one sphere has greater priority than others, and each has priorities within it.

Productivity tools and mantras aim to cut through the noise and crystallize the signal elements of activities or roles:

GTD refreshes current projects and breaks them into functional chunks and contexts.

The Important/Urgent quadrant highlights low-lying areas that are neglected in favour of 'putting out fires'.

Sometimes you find a source that makes your brain switch gears, a gateway into a certain way of thinking. For me it was this article:

These ideas fomented concepts which were relevant and useful to me. Iterations of a personal philosophy bubbled and swirled, reacting to each other and the hazy, half-focused reality of daily life. Gradually fresh ideas swam into view, and it was difficult to know which parts were borrowed, which were mine, and whether it mattered. But a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.

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