Few amongst us take stock of our lives regularly, if ever. But, there are those occasions when life forces us to rethink and re-evaluate where we have come from, and where we are heading. These are significant, pivotal moments when drastic changes compel us to take a few moments in thought and see the forest for the trees. Wouldn’t it be better if we were asking ourselves these questions and answering them honestly when there wasn’t a proverbial gun held to our heads? I think so, and I wanted to share with you one of the ways I do it.
My madness you are familiar with, but one of the current methods to this madness I stumbled upon quite by accident. A few years ago I got myself a new mobile phone. I still use the same one today, but back then it was state-of-the-art with an infra-red connection and 12 whole megabytes of memory. It still had a limit to how many text messages it could store though. I like keeping a record of my conversations, so when the phone first filled up, I figured out how it could connect to an old laptop I had and back up all the messages stored on it. I was very happy with myself, but when I had to repeat the performance a few months later it didn’t work, and it never has since.
At the time, in a moment of boredom, I decided on a strange solution: I would write down all the messages in my inbox and sent folder in an old diary I had lying around. Back then I thought it was a one-time thing until I figured out the connection glitches, but I’ve been writing down messages with pen & paper in that old diary ever since. I’m glad I do, because what started as an act of desperation has proved to be a very useful exercise over the years. Let no man ever claim that failures of technology have no benefits.
I’m not one of those obsessively texting teenagers (or any sort of teenager for that matter), so every few months my phone hits its limit and starts warning me that it’s running out of space for messages. This happened continuously over the past weeks. During a particularly procrastinatory mood a few days ago, I decided to sit down with my diary and do the needful.
Looking through my old messages in the correct chronological order is like a telegraphic recap of my life over the past few months, and I always find it fascinating. As I read through the vague shadows of past conversations and events, more comes flooding back, the short text acting like mnemonic triggers, and I inevitably start asking myself some useful questions:
Where was I back then?
My current batch of messages started towards the end of December 2008. At the time I was very busy churning out articles and layouts for the regular magazine project I was working on. We were behind schedule and it looked like work would continue well into the first week of the new year, which it did.
When I finally laid that project to rest, I got a call from another designer friend who wanted help with some of her more technical work, and we had a meeting in which we discussed the looming deadline this work was to be completed by. As I read our messages arranging the meeting, I realised it had been 3 months since that meeting, the project had never quite materialised, and I had forgotten.
There were plenty of other tales in those snippets: College friends who were back in town for a quick visit after many years, online chat appointments with clients, design issues for an artist friend’s website, trips to the airport, long lost school buddies. A lot happens in 3 months of your life, even a quiet life like mine. A lot happens, and at the same time many things stand still.
Where did I want to go?
The magazine project was a business boon that provided some regular work over the last year, but every time I was working on it I looked forward to finishing it so that I could move on to other things. Writing and laying out a magazine, even a small one, can be all-consuming. So with the magazine done, I was glad I wouldn’t have to worry about that for another 2 months.
I had a handful of ideas for websites and other things I wanted to get started on. the plan was to build them up over the coming months, and have them ready and running so that regular work and updates on them could continue.
My other big to-do was to get back to writing some fiction after a hiatus of many years. Writing has always been a passion, and fiction especially so. Over the years though, I have had more occasion to write non-fiction articles and my more fanciful writing gradually took a back seat until it completely vanished. In January, I decided I must tackle a short story at worst, or ideally start writing one of the many ideas for a full sized novel I had in my notebooks.
Am I getting there?
I look back at all those things and in a word: no. I have barely put up a few place-holder pages for the web site ideas. I have done almost nothing on my other schemes, and I have yet to write a single sentence of fiction.
An honest evaluation of your progress, such as this, is very tough to face, but completely necessary if you want to seriously re-evaluate things as they stand.
Do I still want to go there?
Yes I do. I haven’t changed my mind about anything I wanted to do when my phone’s message archive began. There have definitely been refinements in some of my ideas, and the thrust of some others have been altered in my head, due to new things I’ve learnt or changing priorities. But the essentials stay unchanged.
Changing priorities and rethinking whether your old dragons are still ones you wish to slay is an important question to ask yourself, and the one question we often lie about. It is usually easier to chase our old aims in a half-hearted way than to admit to ourselves that those goals and dreams no longer interest us. Always a tough call to make, but don’t think of past time spent pursuing something you’ve changed your mind about as time wasted. It rarely is, and lessons learnt are ever applicable to new situations.
What stopped me from getting there?
These questions of ourselves get more and more difficult to answer honestly because our own minds get more treacherous and self-aggrandizing as we dig deeper. In my case the simple answer to this question would be: laziness. But, laziness and procrastination are usually symptoms rather than causes. The causes can be several:
Did I over reach?
I always do, and I am aware of this. But we aren’t always aware of our impractical demands upon ourselves. A fair measure of whether or not something we wish to do is doable usually escapes us until much later and that is a tendency to fight, for our own sanity.
Did I under perform?
Yes again, and the trick here is always to specifically think about the mechanics of how you didn’t do enough, rather than think in generalities.
Did I just not know clearly where I was going?
Also true, and in my case it is often from wanting to go too many places at once. That need not be true for everyone. It is perfectly possible to be unclear of what you want to do even when focussed on a single task. It falls upon us to recognise that and correct it in time before too much is lost in the process of finding your way in the darkness.
What held me back? What distracted me?
Not being focussed on a manageable number of things for one, runaway research, and there is always my need to carry out elaborate conversations with people using any and all mediums at my disposal. I enjoy it and I still wouldn’t give up on it, but like all things it needs to be done in a controlled and organised way. It’s just too easy to wake up in the morning, get straight into your email or Twitter account, and only realise at bed time that the day is over and you did none of the ‘work’ on your to-do list.
All things in moderation, is a worthy motto in life. The same can be said for whatever distracts you regularly from what you want to be doing.
What pushed me in the right direction?
In spite of all the critique and self-criticisms that are a necessary part of any healthy self-evaluation, taking stock of your life should emphasize equally what has worked well, and what is working to take you towards your goals.
I mentioned runaway research as being one of the things that distracted me; It is my personal favourite form of procrastination. But, I also need to admit that not all that unplanned and un-metered research was a waste. A lot comes out of my aimless wanderings and devourings of technical trivia. Many new ideas are born this way, and over the past few months, my reading has gained me insights which will very positively affect all my projects in the future. I will also save myself a lot of grief and failures due to things I have learnt that I didn’t know before. Also, some of these research marathons provided the immediate stimulus for me to do whatever little I did get done.
Never forget to look at what is working well. If something is working for you, do more of it, and if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!
How does where I wanted to go back then gel with what I now know, to change my path forward?
While I’ve always loved my long conversations with people, I was nowhere as active in online social forums at the beginning of this year. While that provided one of the main distractions against my progress it has also taught me a lot and changed my mind about some of my plans.
Back then I was planning on working on my various ideas and website projects in isolation, and letting my own site languish for want of a good reason or audience to keep it going at a healthy pace. Now, I am convinced my own site is still a key element of my various plans, without which all of it will never quite work at its full potential.
While I’ve always though in a big-picture, interdependent sort of way when it comes to my plans and ideas, the past few months of online social activity and the very interesting and dear people I have met, has changed my perspective on my plans a bit. Now I’m thinking in a more organic way as to how the various pieces of the picture should grow, and how I should never lose sight of my own personal web site, and the people who grace it with their attention along the way .
As I closed my diary of short message wonders after a few hours of diligent transcription, my fingers were sore and I needed to stretch to get my limbs working again. In that itself, I came to the realisation that I almost never use a pen to write any more. Continuous keyboard use had let my writing muscles atrophy to a sad state. And with this I decided that any fiction writing that was to happen would happen on paper. In writing as in other things in life I guess ‘use it or lose it’ holds true.
My ritual stock taking of life was now over and I would not return to it for a few months. As always I found the process enlightening and educational. In the rush of everyday life we forget to step back and think of what it is we are doing, and such rethinks and re-evaluations are a must if you are one of those who want to do more than merely survive for the length of your life.
I clicked on the over-used keys on my phone, and navigated the menus to the fateful choice that said: Clear All Messages. After warning me of the permanent consequences and asking for my approval, the phone froze for a moment and then the messages were gone. My phone was clear, my mind was clear, and the future was filled with possibilities.