failure: one of my favorite teachers

note: this is a draft for a medium post. the title is under construction as is the logic flow lol. #zerodraftlife

i’m sure this idea/blog post has been written 1000 times over. whatever, now it’s my turn to write it lol.

failure is one of my favorite teachers. i let it show me the limits of my abilities and boundaries and systems.

often people ask me how i get so much done or do so many things. the first thing is that my natural sleep amount is 6.5-7.5 hours. when i sleep more than that, my body feels sluggish and sometimes even sick. so there’s that and it’s no small thing. let’s say i sleep 6.5h a night and i compare amount of time i have to do stuff with someone who sleeps 8h. in one week, i have 10.5 extra waking hours. in a year, i have 546 hours more. even compared to someone who sleeps for 7 hours, if i sleep 6.5, that’s still an extra 182 hours. the little bits add up.

but regardless of how much you sleep, what happens in the waking hours is what really matters. even if you sleep 8 hours, that gives you 5,824 hours awake to do stuff.

what i feel like i’ve learned to do with failure is let it teach me how to use my waking hours better. in many ways, it has come down to a diligent practice of goal setting and reflection.

step 1: learn how long things actually take

this has been greatly helped by my use of pomodoros, but even without them, it’s pretty straightforward to learn how long things take. for a few months (note: months, i didn’t just read a blog post and immediately know the answers), i diligently tracked how long it took to do things i had to do often: edit blog posts, clean out my inbox, etc. once i had a good sense of how long it took to actually do the stuff i had to do regularly, it made it much easier to set goals (i.e. build my todo list) for any given day.

step 2: learn how to set goals at increasing scales

this is where failure as a teacher is really most instrumental. once i knew how long stuff took, i could start experimenting with setting goals for my day. in the morning, i’d make a list of what i thought i could get done that day. the list spanned work tasks and non-work tasks. at the end of the day, i’d do a simple check: did i hit my goals? if i did, solid. i estimated accurately.* if i didn’t, ok, so i failed here; what can i learn from this? it’s almost always either “i took on too much today,” and/or “i fully underestimated how much time that thing was going to take.” sometimes it’s “something urgent came up that i had to deal with.” i’ll come back to that in a second.

so that’s one day: set goals, do stuff, see if you accomplished them, do a little reflection and learning. what next?

do this for many days. i did this for months (sometimes i still play this game just to make sure i’m still sharp and not deluding myself into thinking i can do more than i can). it taught me so much about my capacity and ability to estimate my work and how much time it would take me to do things. it taught me how to read my daily capacity and set goals accordingly. it also taught me how to watch how much energy it took to do certain things. it may teach you those things or other things.

however it goes, the times when you fail is when the most learning happens. when you succeed, sure, you learn that you probably did something right, but that’s still less net learning than trying to understand what went wrong.

note: playing this daily goal setting game significantly increased my capacity and comfort with saying no. as i was trying to keep to hitting my daily goals, it became much clearer to me when i needed to say no to something in order to stay on track. of course, sometimes i wanted to or had to say yes. the impact usually was then not achieving my goals. eventually, saying no here and there allowed me to say it much more comfortably and easily, knowing that i wasn’t just saying it to be difficult. if i’ve set a goal that i really want to hit for the day and an opportunity comes up to do something spontaneous or new, but i’ve got that goal in that back of my mind, it makes it way easier and less stressful to say no. and, in the end, i’m almost always (though there are exceptions) happier than i met my goal than did the spontaneous thing.

for that thing i said i’d come back to… as i tracked my goals over many days, it would inevitably happen that an urgent matter would come up and i’d have to deal with it. it’s totally fine when that happens because that’s life; it’s unpredictable. but over these days, i began to notice patterns in who and from where these urgent matters would come. this was a signal to me that something needed to change about that relationship or system. often, putting a little proactive work into a system that perpetually generates urgent needs can prevent those urgent needs. like if a coworker always comes to you with an urgent request to do a particular type of task, taking the time to collectively build a schedule on which that task will happen can prevent the fire while still making sure that the task happens.

step 3: set goals over longer stretches of time

as i got better at the daily goal setting, i started playing this goal setting game at the weekly level. i started looking out at my week and seeing how much time i was actually going to have to do the things i wanted to and had to do. i started noticing things like:

and as i got better at the weekly scale, i’ve started working at the monthly and quarterly goals. i’m very much still trying to figure out these scales. the learning cycles are much longer at this scale so it takes more time to get the data back and reflect on it, but it’s coming.

what about yearly goals?

i use my rotating annual retreat structures (jan and aug) to reflect and set bigger picture goals. and, right now, i’m beginning to experiment with how my monthly goals tie-in to my annual goals. during my monthly goal setting time, i just take a look back at the most recent annual retreat notes and make sure i’m still headed in the right direction. of course, things shift during the year; sometimes more in the direction i want to go with my life and sometimes not. i’m trying to be less linear in my thinking and hold things with the right tightness and looseness, but it’s a journey, you know?

anyways, that’s all i got for now. hope it was helpful!

* sometimes hitting all my goals mean i could’ve taken on a little more… but this almost never happens. my tendency (and it seems this is common) is to constantly, consistently underestimate how much time things will take. when i doubt, i try to keep it on the low side of things, knowing that tasks and things often expand.

words / writing / post-processing
1368w / 56min / 26min