Sunday, 14 April 2013

Day 11717 before my death

What man can you show me who places any value on his time, who reckons the worth of each day, who understands that he is dying daily? For we are mistaken when we look forward to death; the major portion of death has already passed, Whatever years be behind us are in death's hands. 

-  Seneca

Motivation is a subject of many psychological studies and we are fortunate for the internet to connect us to all the great thinkers and scientists who study our nature and publish their findings. TED is just one stage where one can find abundance of information where ideas are shared freely with the rest of us.

Seneca was introduced to me through the reading of Tim Ferris' works and watching the many interviews with him available on YouTube. He often not only quotes Seneca, but suggests that stoicism is the single philosophy that would benefit any business person.

Late Steve Jobs mentioned death on occasion as an example of the ultimate thing which pales every other problem in comparison. In his 2005 Stanford speech he worded his mindset which allowed him to focus on the things that were important in his life by asking the question: "If today were to be the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do?"

Most people are not like Steve Jobs - driven, ambitious, productive and so on. The majority of us struggle with our nature. As Dan Ariely points out in the talk about self control, nature has equipped us with a survival mechanism of storing fat for later and eating as much as we can now as soon as we see food. It served us well thousands of years ago in Africa, but these days when we are literally clicks away from a freshly cooked meal, if uncontrolled, can lead us into a very serious health problem.

In the same talk he described his experience of battling hepatitis C which in the long run, if uncured, could lead to his liver failing and ultimately death. But that could have been a distant event, counted in decades, not even years. Thing is, that without treatment, the risk was near 100%. He was lucky enough to be included in a clinical trial of a new drug, and for 18 months he injected the medicine himself three times a week. The bad thing was that for sixteen hours after the injection he would endure really bad side effects - nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, etc. Under normal circumstances, one might procrastinate with administering the drug - why would anyone want to suffer for one and a half years for saving ones liver 30 years down the line. You could even calculate that you may be dead of something else by then anyway. Dan found a way to stick to the programme by associating the uncomfortable side effects of taking a medication with the pleasure of watching movies. He loves them, so he made a deal with himself that he would only watch them on injection days, but also would ALWAYS indulge in the activity on those days.

Death is a distant result. We may fear going on a plane, because it is today, and the fear is visceral, but we don't fear some undefined death because we don't really know when or how it would come. The same goes for our goals. You may want to build a new business from scratch, but since you've never done it, it seems like a very daunting task. How can one change their life when the goal is fuzzy, distant and uncertain?

Temporal Motivation Theory is a result of a composition of theories that look at why we procrastinate and put off the important, but often distant goals and spend time on the short term pleasures. The scientists who study it, observed that we don't weigh the reward or punishment of our activities or the results of those in the same manner if there is a long gap between now and the future results. It appears that our brains are not objective and will make the huge pain of losing a liver in some distant future much smaller than the relatively meaningless discomfort of medicine side effects right now. On the flip side, if we are striving to reach a lofty goal, but it will take us two years to get there, it is easier to choose any leisure activity in the now and get a small reward but with an immediate effect.

The trick then seems to be finding a way or ways to A - remove temptations for the pleasures of now and B - motivate us to DO the things that are important so that the time is not lost. There are many tools to do that and often it has more to do with defining what are the things that we waste time on and how to choose which things to do in order to make progress. Temptations are down to the person - for one it could be Facebook, for another it could be YouTube, yet some other could be compulsive at cleaning the house. What Tim Ferris suggests that it may be down to fear and the paralysis of choice. Fear is taken care of the alliance with the Assumption Assassin. You give the list of doubts to him and he helps you with his objectivity. Then there is choosing what to do, and Tim suggests to limit oneself to one, most important thing per day. The one thing that will make your day meaningful and move the quest forward in the biggest possible way.

Introducing Death, the way Seneca would see it. It does not judge what you did, just takes the day and walks off. You can feel its stinging cold on your face. Fear grips you to the depth of your very soul as it comes near. And it comes nearer every day. It is down to us to recognize whether our day was filled with meaning. The idea of handing our day over to her and weighing the meaning of it in our hands as we go to bed brings the usually distant thought of death right to the current moment. And limiting ourselves to one task per day allows us to have faith in our ability to perform and avoid overwhelm which leads to procrastination. More often than not, the promise of doing just one thing, leads us into other tasks by inertia which now being on our side allows us to do more. That is irrelevant though. We can die another day. Death comes to us and takes her tax, but we keep our accomplishment, our pride, and progress.

While we are postponing, life speeds by. Nothing, Lucilius, is ours, except time. We were entrusted by nature with the ownership of this single thing, so fleeting and slippery that anyone who will can oust us from possession. What fools these mortals be! They allow the cheapest and most useless things, which can easily be replaced, to be charged in the reckoning, after they have acquired them; but they never regard themselves as in debt when they have received some of that precious commodity, - time! And yet time is the one loan which even a grateful recipient cannot repay. 

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