Begin with the end in mind: a different interpretation

Stephen Covey’s 2nd habit in “7 Habits of Highly Successful People” is “begin with the end in mind.” In other words, you have to visualize the outcome you want before you embark on something. The vision forces you to be proactive instead of reactive in your life.

I have an additional interpretation of this advice: before I buy or join or start anything, I ask myself how I will manage the end. How will I leave this job/dispose of this thing/quit this organization? I may not ever stick with that plan, but at least I consider it. Not everything has a natural end, so it forces me to pause and think of the entire lifespan of the new thing. Sometimes, I end up choosing not to add the new thing at all. Most things do or should eventually end somehow, so it’s probably better to address the end head-on instead of letting it drift along.

Whenever you decide to buy a thing, join a group, start a relationship, or begin an activity, it’s easy to get swept up in the excitement of saying yes to something. But thanks to the sunk cost fallacy (where we’re reluctant let go of something that no longer works for us because we’ve already invested so much into it), we can easily accumulate lots of dead weight in our lives. We don’t think about how much trouble it would be to get rid of an item after we’re done with it. We stay in the wrong career or wrong relationship too long because we’ve invested so much time already, and we hang on to things we no longer like because we paid good money for them in the past. This crowds out other opportunities that might make us happier.

The other advantage of beginning with the end in mind is that imagining the end makes you appreciate the present more. As we’ve all experienced, endings create deadlines that force you not to waste time. And the ultimate end, death, is something we should consider more if we want to make the most out of our lives and our relationships. Nothing lasts forever and we’re not even guaranteed tomorrow, so let’s use that knowledge to filter out the b.s., cherish what we have now, and make better use of the limited time we’re given.

Finding delight at the gas station

There’s a gas station I go out of my way to visit, and not only because they have the cheapest prices around and their windshield washing supplies are always full and clean. It’s because their sign always makes me smile:

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They change the sign every few weeks. Past quotes include “I walked into a spiderweb. Cardio’s done,” “If your car is running, I’m voting for it,” “You can’t do epic stuff with basic people,” and “Normal people worry me.” I always look forward to seeing what new silliness they bring.

The fun doesn’t stop with the sign, however. The name of their company is:

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They don’t have to do this. Millions of gas stations do just fine selling gas, snacks, and cigarettes without frills, sometimes even without a smile. But isn’t it wonderful to bring customers a little fun to a normally dull errand? It costs them nothing, but it seems to bring in business because the place is often more crowded than the station across the street even though they sell gas for the same price. It reminds me that even mundane things can be elevated with a little care and creativity.

Pay attention to what’s around you. Delight can be found anywhere, even at the gas station.

Tuning out to protect my most valuable tool

I made the mistake of checking Twitter this week (alas, you don’t need a Twitter account to check Twitter). I don’t know what I was thinking, probably a momentary lapse of judgment due to boredom. When you rarely check the news or social media, you can almost physically feel the rush of content grabbing your attention and splintering your brain when you do check in. At least I did.

The more I think about it, the more I wonder whether social media, news, and other attention grabbers actually harm people who do creative work. It makes as much sense as a chef using her knife to chop wood–it damages your most valuable tool. I recently saw that Tammy Strobel of Rowdy Kittens came to this conclusion too and decided to quit all social media. For me, at least, I need a lot of brain space to work, and disconnecting is the best way to ensure I have that space. I suspect I’m not the only one.

Digital simplicity

As I slowly get back online, I’m carefully choosing which digital tools to put back in my toolbox. A tool that did not make the cut: social media.

I’m glad more people are viewing social media with a skeptical eye. Professor Cal Newport recently wrote a post about digital decluttering, which mirrors my experiences with being choosy about where and how to engage with the outside world. Like the people in Prof. Newport’s experiment, temporarily disconnecting from everything made me more aware of how I spent my energy. Creativity coach Dan Blank encourages us to act with intention, not reaction, and I learned I could only do that when I disconnected. Even a few minutes on social media could kill hours or even days of work because my brain was too busy reacting to the chatter or the current outrage.

Yes, I know there’s plenty of advice out there saying I need to be on Facebook/Twitter/Instagram/whatever. I also remember when Amazon tagging parties were a thing and Ello was the next must-join platform. Experience has taught me to be much more aware of how I spend my time and, more importantly, my attention. Other people may have enough brain capacity to create cool things while still being active on social media. I envy them since I’m not one of them, and I’ve finally learned to accept that. It’s challenging enough for me to keep my mind healthy without ingesting mental potato chips.

I’ve had to put up site blockers and reconfigure my phone, which shows how tough it is to resist the pull of the screen. It’s the equivalent of not letting potato chips into my home (yes, I love chips. Mmmmm, chips). I can’t depend on willpower to keep my digital life decluttered–I have to engineer my environment instead. In future blog posts, I’ll share some of the steps I’ve taken. I hope you’ll find them useful.

Starting again

I used to be braver.

I used to share my thoughts more freely. From a college-wide chat room in the late 80s, AOL in the 90s, blogs and forums in the 00s, and Facebook and Twitter in the 10s, I wrote without second-guessing myself.

I don’t do that anymore.

A few years ago, I dropped off the internet. I deleted Twitter and Facebook, stopped posting on forums, deleted my website, and went dark. There wasn’t any one thing that made me flip the switch. Instead, it was the accumulation of lots of experiences and observations that made me prefer to hide. I turned into a digital agoraphobic.

Not that I didn’t have a reason to feel that way. Many people, not just me, found large swaths of the internet to be inhospitable. Also, all the advice about author branding, best practices, pitfalls, and the “right” way to act online paralyzed me. There is such a thing as knowing too much.

I’m now back online with a new name. The new name helps me feel emotionally safe enough to write at all, especially in today’s environment. I hesitate to say I also have a new outlook because I’m still figuring things out. I still second-guess myself, but I don’t want to be invisible anymore. I’ve done that for too long, in too many contexts.

As Sara Bareilles says, it’s time to let the words fall out and be brave.