I have a very long history with struggling to set goals that resonate with my true motives. This post is a summary of what I’ve come up with. It may be of some use to you, but please take everything here with a grain of salt, as everyone is unique and there are no universal ways that would work for everyone.
There is a post at LessWrong called Beware of other-optimizing that pretty much sums up my experience. The internet is ripe with self-help posts and lifehacks, and everyone swears by their own unique method. I’ve tried many of them, and most just didn’t work, while others worked only temporarily. This means that if I’m being completely honest, I can’t point you to any specific resource and promise that it will solve any particular problem.
Though, if you have time, energy and enough self-interest, I can highly recommend attending therapy and spend nontrivial amounts of time reflecting on your thoughts and emotions. Therapists are highly skilled at noticing incongruencies and bringing them to light, helping you internalize parts of yourself that you don’t usually notice.
So, without further ado, let’s jump into my list.
My personality traits
I already know a lot about myself from therapy, but nonetheless, I took a Five-factor personality model test. The test is believed to be pretty accurate and is often used by therapists for initial assessments.
I used this site to pass the test online. It has a free basic report, but the full report requires you to pay $19 (which is pretty reasonable, given the quality of its results).
My score is as follows:
- Openness to experience: 79% (58% population average)
- Conscientiousness: 67% (55% population average)
- Extraversion: 58% (51% population average)
- Agreeableness: 44% (63% population average)
- Neuroticism: 69% (54% population average)
This sums up my tendency for ananytical thinking, empathic idealism, a desire to be very clearly separate from others and individual, and almost no need of external validation from others to self-actualize. In addition to that, I’m prone to anxiety, mood swings and in general a gloomy frame of mind.
Here’s an excerpt from my test result:
You have a highly creative and imaginative way of thinking and you often see connections that others do not. You are uninterested in the dull facts of a situation, preferring instead to interpret its meaning and implications. You have unusual ideas and sometimes perceive things that other people are not aware of. You are easily absorbed by fantasy and enjoy envisioning alternate realities as well as possibilities for the future.
You are a critical thinker and often analyze how things (and people) around you could be improved. You are keenly aware of the ways in which others disappoint you, and you often think about ways in which you can gain the upper hand. You are not afraid to point out what is wrong in the world, and your thoughts are blunt and unsparing in their judgment.
You are preoccupied with goal-setting and achievement and most of your thoughts revolve around planning and completing tasks. You are a structured, orderly thinker, and rarely waste time on unproductive daydreaming.
Your thinking is often disturbed by unpleasant thoughts, and you may have trouble focusing. You may be troubled by anxiety and feelings of unworthiness which make it difficult to think clearly.
Repeating themes in my life
This won’t be neatly organized piece of thought, I will just list facts as they come to my mind.
I’ve spent non-trivial amounts of time during my youth on reading popular psychology and german philosophy (mainly Arthur Schopenhauer). The questions of morale, ethics and meaning bothered me a lot (and still do to this day). Now I’m interested in contemporary psychology and group dynamics.
I’ve got into computers early, and programming has become my passion very swiftly. I could hang there for days, literally. One day I almost passed out staying 50+ hours without sleep. When I discovered Unix, I immediately fell in love and stayed true to it ever since.
I had a hard time focusing on monotonous or repetitive activities. It was very hard to force myself to study things I didn’t find exciting.
I’ve never been great at trusting people and letting them in to my “inner circle”. In general I don’t feel I have any specific “needs” or require support from others. So I’d rather stay away from sentimental stuff.
I often search for solutions to problems obsessively, so it consumes a large bit of my attention. It is very easy for things to start competing for my thinking resources, and I can easily become overwhelmed.
It is very easy for me to become stressed over minor things and fall into severe anxiety. Staying in a neutral mood often requires extreme self-control and distancing.
I’ve been drawing and sketching chaotically for as long as I can remember. I can live without it, but an urge to draw resurfaces from time to time, and I can’t silence it for long.
From the repeating themes above, the results of the five-factor model test, therapy, and general observation, I can condense everything to 4 core values that are hard to break down further:
- solitude and deep thinking
- creating things, expressing myself through my creations
- having a deep and meaningful contact with other people
Minimalism serves as a “patch” for my tendency to get overwhelmed and anxious. The fewer things I own – the fewer there are to feel anxious about.
Solitude stems from both my tendency to feel anxious when I’m around other people, and the pleasure I get from observing my own thought process and solving complex (often internal) problems.
Creating things helps me with channeling my energy and feeling fulfillment. I couldn’t live with only thinking: creating something interesting is equally important.
Relationships and interpersonal contact is a tricky one. I don’t think I depend on any particular people to feel good. What I need is an occasional conversation about meaningful things.
List of my frustrations
I tried getting a mortgage once and regretted it. I couldn’t stop thinking that I can lose my job and then the bank will take my apartment away and sell it. I knew this fear was irrational, but it didn’t make it go away.
Also, if I’m leaving paycheck-to-paycheck, I’m constantly worrying about things that could happen with me or my relatives. And it leads to overly cautious behavior.
If I’m staying without physical exercise/activity for long, I feel less energetic and restless. Plus my sleep quality drops.
If I work in a stressful environment, I gradually start to loose focus and become very short-sighted. After a few weeks I loose connection with my values and become “reactive”.
Mitigations for my frustrations (comfort)
The best mitigation for my frustrations is saving at least 50% of my monthy income, part of which goes to an emergency fund, and another – to my retirement fund.
I actually do it for a few years now, and I have enough to help myself handle emergencies, or take a job that has a lower paycheck with higher possibilities for personal development or higher potential rewards.
For physical activity, I settled on regular weight lifting (4 times a week) with a coach to keep me accountable. Without a coach, I fail to commit to a schedule and start skipping workouts. During warm seasons I also take semi-regular outdoor runs when the weather is good.
To counter stress at work, I try to schedule uninterrupted time during which I don’t hold meetings and can reflect or come up with solutions to strategic problems. During that time I block all meetings, and only answer messengers occasionally. I’ve figured the bare minimum to be 2 days a week. This is especially hard to come to terms with, because I’m a manager and have to be available for tactical stuff as well. To be clear, I’m not getting those 2 days right now.
There are things I stay away from, that have high potential yield. Before I started journaling, I couldn’t even detect that I was actively avoiding them. They hid under the excuses like “there is not enough time” or “I’m too tired” or “I’m not feeling like doing it right now”. This wasn’t mere procrastination, because I can usually detect procrastination just fine if the activity is unpleasant or boring. Instead, there were deeper emotional reasons.
Since I’ve started journaling, I got into habit of asking myself some “prompt” questions and trying to answer them as honestly as possible. Here they are:
- What are things I used to like doing, but am no longer doing?
- What are fascinating things that people who I admire do that I’m not doing?
- How skilled am I at those things?
- Are those things boring?
- Do they align with one or more of my core values?
- Do they bring up negative memories from my past?
- Do they put my real or perceived image at risk of disruption?
Here’s the list that has surfaced:
- I avoid writing about my thoughts publicly
- I avoid sharing my thoughts openly with people face-to-face
- I avoid unconventional methods of dealing with other people
- I avoid drawing
My “bucket list”
Here’s a list of things that I dream about periodically, that have vague connection to most of my current activities, but towards which I feel very strongly. I may revise them in future if I figure out that they should be sacrificed for greater cause. But I’ll try to connect them with my activities as best as I can.
- Learn conflict facilitation
- Master nonviolent communication
- Become a full-time counselor later in life
Reflections & reduction
Wow, that was a lot of information to process. And I’m not even getting in depth on any particular topic.
Given the stuff above, it would make sense to continue building a better emotional, intellectual and artistic perception and judgement. And invest significantly more time into it.
Creating things will still be one of my top priorities, and looks like it will keep me in Tech industry for a while. I see no alternative moves at the moment that will keep other things balanced.
Buying my own apartment would be very nice, but at this period of my life, I just can’t fit it in without sacrificing a significant portion of everything else. So putting the idea on hold for undefined amount of time.
I’ll start investing more of my time into journaling, writing, speaking and structured reflection. Especially in areas where other people can benefit from it.
I’ll try pursuing drawing, but not anything near a professional level. It will be as simple as pencil & paper, no digital tools or colors. Mainly as a support for my thinking and for the fun of it.
Systems to integrate in general
I don’t feel that setting specific short-term goals is productive, when thinking about very long-term and continuous projects, like achieving fulfillment. So instead of concentrating on specifics, I now prefer to think about systems that allow for steady progress:
- Write at least 1 blog post a week (ideally 2)
- Write 1 journal entry per day
- Draw for at least 30 minutes every day. Better yet, try to become comfortable with drawing and practice on meetings, coffee breaks, do sketches at odd places, etc…
- Go to gym 4 times a week
- Have 1 full day a week to recharge, without any obligations
- Reach 2 full days of uninterrupted work at my current job
- Have at least 3 counseling clients a week
- Spend less than 50% of my income
Applying this to my job
All the things I listed above serve as a foundation for further decision making as to how I should “marry” my life priorities and ambitions with my job. There will definitely be a part 2 to this post.