Better Goal Setting

September 9th, 2011

It is important to set good goals for yourself.  As far as I can tell, there are some key aspects to consider:

  • How does this goal fit into your life (in an overall sense)?

To me, this is the first logical step in making a plan.  I keep in mind that any kind of goal requires a commitment of time, energy, and other resources.  Anything I put towards the goal has an opportunity cost — in other words, it effectively takes the place of something else I could (or should?) be doing. 

  • What is the time scale?

A previous post underscored the need to limit the number of long/continuing challenges to a reasonable number.  Too many goals stretched over too much time leads to inefficiency and lack of accountability.  It is better to mix in a variety of fairly specific one to six month goals than a bunch of vague long term goals.

  • What are the prerequisites?

In other words, have you laid the groundwork to realistically undertake this goal?  There will not be a chance over a single lifetime to accomplish everything or tackle every challenge.  It might be better to pick a lesser goal that would serve as a starting point, and reviw what happens while reaching this short time frame (say two months) challenge.  This process will make you more aware of what a bigger goal in this area might require — it might be a lot more (or less!) work than you initially thought. 

  • What is your motivation?

This can be a tough one.  If it directly relates towards your the mission statement for your life, then it is easier to see the significance to accomplishing that goal.  But sometimes we have to make changes to please other people or to conform to our environment.  I’d advise that peripheral goals be short-term in nature, so the challenge can be met with a more intense sustained focus, but perhaps such an approach is not always possible.

  • When?  Where?  How?

It feels a bit like journalism school.  Who?  What?  When?  Where?  Why?  How?  But trying to define the parameters of the goal fleshes it out and makes things more real.  Also, pre-selecting an appropriate date and venue can remove any nuisance obstacles that can stand in your way.

  • What is the actual goal?

Write it down.  Write out the steps.  Figure out the checkpoints and try to estimate the rate of progress.  I have found that specificity helps.  Instead of some nebulous idea like “learn to speak French” I might recommend making a goal of learning 1000 French words in three months (or something along those lines).

To sum up, the point of this approach to goal setting is to actually accomplish what you set out to do.  Why leave things open to interpretation?  Why burden yourself with a laundry list of miscellaneous longstanding challenges?  Or as I ask myself: Why bother make vague goals with no clear plan to achieve them?  If I don’t plan to follow through, then why even make the pretense and bring a lot of angst into my life?   With all that said, it should be clear why using better goal setting is a part of an uncluttered lifestyle.

Personal Relationships – 4/16/64/256

August 30th, 2011

What is the uncluttered approach to human relationships?  Can people be clutter?  Yes, they certainly can!  And to organize our various relationships so we give them each their proper due, I need to wave my hands around to generate some rules of thumb.

I recently saw a note attributed to a government study that the typical American adult has approximately 300 handshake acquaintances!  I gave that number some thought.  Introverts might have less, extraverts might have more.  And what about one’s age and occupation or tenure with the community?  So many variables to consider…but after a bit, I decided that 300 “handshake” acquaintances seems about right. 

On the other end of the spectrum, I recall another tidbit about personal relationships that I’m sure most of you have heard of.  The old saw about “if you can count your friends on one hand then you are a lucky person” — which, taking the statement literally, I suppose means that we can’t really have more than five close friends.  If you do, then you have a custom definition of what constitutes a close friend.

And just what do social anthropologists say about the number of personal relationships we can maintain?  There is a concept known as Dunbar’s number, theoretically calculated as being about 148 (with a range of 100 to 230 using 95% confidence limits), which is the supposed maximum size of a community that can mutually know each other.  At this limit, a good amount of time is just spent trying to keep up with each other.  While mutually knowing a set group of 148 — with each of us knowing the same people — is different than an individual being acquainted with other individuals spread across a variety of groups, that number of 148 also fits into the discussion. 

And one final consideration — in biological systems, population density frequently has a square or square root dependence.   How many people can fit into a space?  And how does it change as you go farther out?

So let’s put these four pieces of information together into a weird conglomeration.  As adults, suppose that: (1) we have five (or less) real friends; (2) there is a square root dependency on our population density; (2) our ability tomaintain a mutual community has a limit of about 148; and (4) we can retain up to about 300 handshake acquaintances.  Considering all of that, I hereby propose a 4/16/64/256 factor for personal relationships. 

Yes, it is slightly…formal?  manufactured?…but it does have a certain elegance to it.  That’s not to say that an introvert might prefer 3/9/27/81 or an extreme extravert might prefer 5/25/125/625.  Feel free to customize to your preferences.  But if you think about it, 4/16/64/256 seems like a good “first guess” of how many relationships each of us can support.

  • 4 friends: These people should be confidants and people whose company you enjoy.  The majority of your socializing time will be with them. 
  • 16 friendly acquaintances: These are people that you “know” but just don’t spend as much time with.  You might share a few narrow interests, but maybe there is not enough in common to be closer friends.  Or alternatively, your lives are different enough that it is not practical to be a full fledged friend. 
  • 64 acquaintances: These are people who you “kinda” know.  That guy you usually play pickup basketball with?  The pleasant lady from your Toastmasters group?   There is very little invested in these relationships so loyalties are unclear.  While you are free to be a cautious version of yourself, you can’t really let your hair down (so to speak) with an acquaintance because you are not truly sure where you stand. 
  • 256 “handshake” people in your extended network: Nearly everyone else.  They are not strangers, but you would not necessarily vouch for anyone in this group without first vetting them more closely.

Is the 4/16/64/256 concept too much?  Am I guilty of overthinking?  I honestly do not think so.  At no point did I suggest making detailed lists of names or define what one’s idea of friendship should be.  It is only a conceptual model.

These labels are a shortcut to help us promptly sort our interactions so we get the most benefit out of our social life, not neglecting our closest friends but also not missing opportunities with other people we know.  These categories will be explored in subsequent posts.

Free is not free

August 24th, 2011

Last night I was at a grocery store where the cashiers were dispensing a certain number of ”game tickets” to each paying customer based on how much they had purchased.  This chain of stores is always doing something — I have been shopping there long enough to have seen three seasons of this particular scratch off game come and go.  When it came time to receive my change, I declined the tickets and asked the cashier to give it to the next customer in line.  People were shocked that I was so willing to forego any of the potential magic possibly stored on those tickets!

Is my time really so valuable that I don’t want to waste it trying to win cash prizes?  Yes, as a matter of fact, it is!

There was a time when I would spend time entering codes online to earn points that could accumulate and eventually be redeemed for prizes.  And while I never played the Lotto, there was a time I would scratch off free “game” tickets that came on the side of my cup or were handed to me with the change.  But I came to realize that free was not free, and that by participating in this gimmicks I was just wasting my time on nonsense. 

As a concrete example, the tickets I declined last night are for a game where you scratch off one of three squares in each of five rows.  If you get all the same, then you scratch off the last box to reveal what you have won.  Yes, while each ticket is potentially a winner, when you do the math you can see that it is a (1/3)^4 chance which comes to about 1.2% chance of winning “something”. 

If you take the time to search out the fine print, buried in some back alley of the store’s internet website, over 99.9% of the game pieces will yield a winning prize of (a) more game pieces (b) $1.  I will spare you the math, but assuming you are scratching on a tall stack of tickets like a maniac and do not accidently mess up your game ticket by accidently scratching something the wrong way, you can expect to “win” about $6/hr.  That assumes a huge supply of tickets and a coin to scrap away the silver coating already in hand — if you have to fumble around to play a couple of tickets, your “earnings” will be at a much lower rate of perhaps $1-2/hr.

A previous post outlined the importance of calculating the value of your time.  Most people probably realized that their time is worth more than either $1/hr or even $6/hr.  Mine certainly is.  This is a case where free is not free.  Even if you are not spending money or expending serious effort, you are consuming your time with things that do not suit your life’s purpose.  And if someone wants to claim that getting a lap of silver scrapings to be their idea of fun, I will have to call “malarky” on them.

Part of living an uncluttered lifestyle is not wasting time spinning our wheels on nonsense.  I challenge everyone to look around their life and find a few examples of how silly games or gimmicks are robbing them of their money, time, or other resources.  No matter the proposition, with some critical analysis we can see that free is not really free.


August 23rd, 2011

The concept of total quality management (and related terms) in the workplace blossomed in Japan and has spread throughout the world.  Under the concept of continuous improvement, there is a model known as the 5-S process that stands for five Japanese words:

  1. seiri
  2. seiton
  3. seiso
  4. seiketsu
  5. shitsuke

What does this mean?  And more directly to the purposes of an uncluttered lifestyle, what bearing does ”5-S” have on the way an individual lives their life?

“Seiri” means to straighten up.  In essence, we are encouraged to discern what is relevant and what is not needed.  Then we are to discard the unneeded so it is not in the way.  As you can guess, this is related to how we initiate an uncluttered lifestyle by purging many things that were not meeting our needs.

“Seiton” means to put things in order.  In other words, after a purge, we put the essential items away in a well-organized way.  We should be able to retrieve our important possessions quickly without wasting a lot of time shuffling through papers or sifting through various boxes and bags of random stuff.

“Seiso” means to clean up.  Essentially, don’t let trash pile up or collect a bunch of dirty things awaiting cleaning.  With an uncluttered lifestyle, we can personally choose to either do it ourselves or contract it out.  But always think — if someone walked into your home right now, what would they make of how you are living?  If someone walks into your office, what assumptions would they make about the quality of work you do?

“Seiketsu” means personal cleanliness.  Yes, this means hygiene and proper attire.  (A previous post discussed ideas about an uncluttered wardrobe.)  Think of your five senses: sight, smell, sound, touch, and taste.  While strangers will not be tasting you, they can certainly see and maybe even smell you.  With an introduction, they will be hearing you for the first time and also touching your hand.  What impressions are being made?

“Shitsuke” means discipline.  It is about cutting out bad habits and re-enforcing your good traits.  Do you honor your commitments?  Are you reliable and consistent?  While we do not want to live our lives to please others, we also need the self-respect and inner strength to exercise assertiveness and/or restraint as the situation requires.

While an uncluttered lifestyle is not about getting hung up on perfectionism, where things grind to a halt as we re-analyze the minutae of our daily life, it is  important to strive to improve (in a real way) and do the best we can to make each day a good representation of who we are.

Should you volunteer your time or donate your money?

August 22nd, 2011

Let’s say there is a cause you support or perhaps there is a non-profit organization that you see as being worthy.  Should you volunteer your time or donate your money?

Now I am about to say something that might be a bit controversial.  So as a warning, let me start by making the assumption that we are talking about an involvement larger than 5 hrs/month (or the equivalant amount of money on a time-value basis).  And let’s also presume that you are on the path to a streamlined and financially independent existence, but you have not quite reached that point in your journey to an uncluttered life.

Assuming those two conditions are true, I suggest you do NOT sidetrack yourself by volunteer work or making donations until you have your own life fully sorted. 

What is the thinking here?  Someone who is not a strong swimmer and has no training/preparation to serve as a lifeguard should not try to rescue someone who is drowning. Such involvement might even be complicating someone else’s efforts.  Leave it to the people who have prepared themselves for the undertaking.  If you are serious about trying to saving drowning people, first improve your swimming skills and then get training to be a certified lifeguard.

If our goal is to support a given cause or address a certain problem, our ability to make an impact will be greater when we have our feet firmly underneath us.  So waiting until we are ready for maximum impact makes sense.  On the other hand, if our goal is to procrastinate or to distract ourselves from our existing obligations or to get a quick ego boost, then taking action now — even if it inefficient and largely wasted — will get us the necessary gratification. 

What is the real motivation behind our actions?

I observe many people hiding behind a show of helping others.  Why not get practice at rescuing people by first rescuing yourself?  If you take your own advice, then surely more people are likely to follow suit when they see what your advice has done for your success.   

I genuinely believe that volunteering is a good thing.  Giving of your time and/or money is a noble action.  Whether supporting a cause, helping others, or starting your own non-profit — there are many ways to “volunteer” and/or donate.  And once you are leading an uncluttered life, you will best be able to put yourself and/or your money behind these beliefs.