Act like a guardian angel

I am a chronic list-maker. Shopping lists, wish lists, idea lists, and particularly to-do lists. I can hardly sit still without thinking of all the things I’d like to get done in the next hour, next day, next month, next year. I write lists of goals, lists of steps to achieve goals, lists of chores that need to get done before I can get back to work on my real goals, and I’m sure soon I’ll be keeping lists of lists.

One day, looking back at my to-do lists, I realised that most of the “would be nice to get done” items never got done, and that most of the things I actually did get done aren’t on any of my to-do lists at all. That’s a pretty clear pattern, I thought, and from time to time I like to call myself a rationalist so I decided not to ignore such a clear pattern. I resolved instead that if I really cared about something, then I wouldn’t write it down on a to-do list at all. If I really cared about getting something done then I’d _do_ something about it!

It turns out this strategy works much better than I ever expected. Here’s why. At each moment in our lives we have a different set of immediate concerns that threaten to envelop our entire awareness. Dinner to cook. A leaky tap to fix. A facebook profile to check for updates. Sleep to catch up on. More than this, we have a conveyor belt of new and glorious ideas dashing past and a constantly shifting set of goals and values. In rare moments of idleness and clarity we may sit down and plot out a sensible path through the ensuing chaos of modern life, but if we think that just by mentally resolving to follow such plans and goals (or worse — writing a to-do list) we will enjoy equally crisp motivation towards these very plans and goals at all points in the future, then we are mistaken. By all means, sit down and make careful plans, but then find an effective method to ensure that you follow through with them!

Think of each day as a separate “you”. Tomorrow’s “you” is like an identical twin that you care about as if he was yourself. He is a well-meaning gentleman (or woman), true of heart and mind, but, bless him, he lives a demanding life and no-one could expect him to make all the best decisions at every point in time. Luckily for him he has a guardian angel — you — who is going to help him make better decisions and progress faster towards his goals. What can you do to help him?

First you need to decide what will benefit him most in his life. Don’t rely on his own goal-setting — he’s well-meaning but anything could be filling his attention tomorrow and you can’t rely on him being as astute as you are. Let’s say by way of example that you decide he should start a personal website.

Next, you need some way to affect him towards these goals. You can send him a message by writing a neat little to-do note, but he gets dozens of those messages every day and he rarely manages to grasp their importance, so he probably won’t act on the one you’re about to send any more than he’ll act on the others.

Instead, tell some of his friends (who thankfully also happen to be your friends) that he’s going to build a website for himself; that way he might feel compelled to live up to their expectations. You might think this is a bit mean, but remember not to worry about his feelings too much because he needs a firm guiding hand.

You might also want to try setting a good example yourself. You know that once he gets working on a project he’ll spend a good bit of time and effort on it, so why don’t you start the project for him right now? You don’t have to do it all for him, just find a website host and pick a design template, maybe write a blurb for the front page to get him going with it. That’ll help him along nicely.

Your future self is reasonably competent at keeping appointments, so make one for him right away. Ring a friend that knows about building websites and organise a time to meet and ask him how to get started, perhaps over coffee. Perhaps you already know how to get started but it’ll be good for your future self to sit down and have a chat specifically about this project. It’ll help him consolidate ideas and build motivation.

Everyone likes gifts, but unfortunately you don’t have any money. That doesn’t matter, though, because you have access to your future self’s bank account! Buy him a book online about how to get going with his projects (“websites for dummies” would be a good start). He won’t mind you spending his money. Well, he might a little bit, but don’t worry about his feelings too much, and anyway he’ll probably feel compelled to read the book because it was paid for with his own money, which is great news! So you’re paying for the book _plus_ the impulse it’ll give him towards the plans you’ve set out.

Be creative, there are plenty of other channels you can use to manipulate him.

The most important thing to remember is that your future self is _not_ you. He’s very similar but he’s confronted with different immediate concerns, worries, and impulses. Most of all, he’s definitely not perfect. He won’t read your mind and follow your plans without a bit of guidance. After all, how many times has he done so in the past? Being a guardian angel should be much easier than raising a child because you do know fairly precisely how he thinks and what motivates him.

Doing a good job as guardian angel means you need to choose good quality plans and projects to set in motion for your future self. Don’t procrastinate, but don’t be too impulsive either. Spend a few minutes honestly weighing up pros and cons. Most importantly, don’t ever leave the tough decisions to your future self, just think of some of the foolish things he’s done in the past if you ever start hoping _he’ll_ take responsibility for setting all these important plans in motion.

~ by alexflint on January 6, 2010.

One Response to “Act like a guardian angel”

  1. this is good! made me think of all my procrastination today and what its going to cost me tomorrow!

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