The Power of the Diversion
Everyone loves a fabulous year, but the best years for us are those that aren't terribly great.
We learn more, and go through a revolution in such “difficult” ways. That was 2016 for me. Life took me on diversions I hadn't expected and to me that became the most interesting element of all. Now I look forward to the diversion.
Find out how you can be calm even when life takes you off route. And how the off route can be the one thing you look forward to time and time again.
In this episode Sean talks about
Part 1: Why Goals Are Not Enough (And Why Pacing Matters)
Part 2: Time Management vs. Energy Management
Part 3: Dealing With Seemingly Closed Doors
In February 2016, I took a rather interesting vow.
I vowed to stop grumbling.
Now let's get one thing straight: we all grumble. Some do more than others, but I'm one of those people who are easily disappointed, and so I'm relatively more prone to grumbling. Why I decided to stop grumbling, I'm not sure, but I know it led me down an interesting path. Instead of spending all my time trying to figure out what was wrong with the situation, it often led me to analyse why I was in that situation in the first place.
And that leads me right into what I learned in 2016. I learned why goals are not enough (and why pacing matters). I've always been clued into the fact that time management is not as powerful as energy management. And 2016 was when I had some solid, practical applications for this concept of time vs. energy.
I also realised that closed doors open, if you're willing to persist. However, at the top of the list of my learning was “the importance of the diversion”. This message resonated stronger within me than anything else.
Let's find out how and why the diversion mattered.
In July 2016, we decided to go to Goa, India.
India, as amazing as it is in terms of beauty, food and culture is not quite a vacation for me. My parents live in Goa, which by itself used to calm and peaceful, but now seems like any other part of India, noisy and chaotic.
What makes the visit slightly worse is the location of my parent's house
My parents live in a tiny two-bedroom cottage, but it's located at a junction. If you've visited India, you know that horns on vehicles are meant to be used whenever possible. Cars, buses, motorcycles—they all honk while on the move, but almost always honk when at a junction, just to warn others of their approach. You see the problem, don't you? My parents are used to the traffic, as well as the honking, but the sounds of India drive me a little crazy.
To make sure we were suitably removed from that chaos, we decided to rent our own cottage
This cottage was about 15 kilometres (about 7 miles) from my parent's place and supposedly a lot quieter. You know how you're not supposed to trust things you see on the Internet, right? Well, we didn't. I got a cousin of mine to check out the place and get back to me. “It's by a narrow road,” she said, “and not particularly noisy. There's a bit of traffic, but it's not too bad.” Going by this assessment, we decided to rent the cottage.
When got to Goa and the cottage was amazing
It had a superb lounge area, superb art on the wall, decent food nearby, two large bedrooms and was perfect in every way but one: the sound of traffic. Apparently the road was narrow and seemingly devoid of traffic, but it also happened to be the route to an industrial estate. This meant that when traffic rolled, it was the sound of enormous trucks rolling by.
Normally this would be enough reason to grumble
We'd done all our due diligence and there we were in a situation not a lot better than before. Yet this location proved to be the starting point of a completely different type of vacation. Normally on vacations we eat, drink and rest a lot. Instead we ended up at an Ayurvedic centre (quite by chance) and were instructed to stay on a diet, with no alcohol and we could only sleep at night.
At night we were often woken up by the barking of stray dogs, so we'd wake up early the next day for the Ayurvedic treatment, yet quite tired. In short, what seemed to be a vacation was not a vacation at all. We got back to Auckland more tired than when we left and could barely function for the first two weeks.
Yet, this was my biggest learning: the role of the diversion
We weren't supposed to end up in this cottage. We weren't supposed to be at that Ayurveda centre. We were supposed to eat, drink and make merry. Yet it was the most life-changing vacation we've ever had. Both Renuka and I found that the diversion helped us tremendously with our health. Once we were done, my blood pressure which was soaring, was almost back to normal and my cholesterol levels were the best they'd been in past seven years.
Our food changed
If you look at the photos on Facebook, and I post food photos almost every day, you'll notice a marked difference in the food we ate from July onwards. We didn't consciously move towards vegetarian food, but meat is a rarity these days. I'm the biggest fan of bread and yet I've been making dosas (a fermented version of rice and dal) since we got back. All of this has had a massive impact. And the story of our trip to India is just an example of how 2016 has helped me focus on the diversion.
Before 2016, I'd be more driven to getting to the goal
Anything that took me away from the goal was a needless irritation. I'd do almost anything to get back on track and to avoid the diversion. The sight of a “diversion” sign would get me needlessly upset. Yet at the end of 2016, I tend to revel in the diversion. If things are not going my way, I tend to find the importance of that diversion.
Don't get me wrong: I don't believe in destiny
I used to believe in it, and it's fine if you believe in it, but I don't. I don't believe that things happen for a reason either. I believe that things happen, and we put a reason to it. This diversion angle isn't about life unfolding to a plan. Instead, I see it more as a sense of calm as things go awry.
That instead of grumbling and getting upset, it's about enjoying the diversions. I know this to be true because not all diversions end with lower cholesterol and happy stories. Some diversion are just a royal pain, but when you're ready to accept the diversion for what it is, you're a bit like a walking Buddha, accepting things for what they are.
I'm still very goal oriented
I still believe in the concept of getting things done, yet I'm less paranoid about the diversion. To me that's been the biggest learning of 2016. I think I didn't do as well as I expected with the grumbling goal. I could have done better. I've grumbled less than I usually do, but more than I would have liked.
What I do know is that diversions don't faze me as much as they used to. To quote a Jack Johnson song: Swim like a jellyfish, rhythm is nothing; you go with the flow, you don't stop.
That jellyfish lesson; the lesson about diversions and learning from the diversion—that's my first lesson. The second was even more ironic. You know that at Psychotactics we talk about the “Three Month Vacation”, right? Well, in 2016, we didn't take our three month vacation as we should have. And it really impacted our work. Let's find out how.
Part 1: Why Goals Are Not Enough (And Why Pacing Matters)
The Article Writing Course at Psychotactics is called the “Toughest Writing Course in the World”. When you make a statement like that, most people assume the course is tough for the person doing the course. Admittedly it's very tough for the student because you have to get from a point of struggle, to being able to write a very good article in less than 90 minutes.
Yet for me it's a bigger struggle
A course with just 25 participants generates between 10,000-15,000 posts in just 3 months. All of those comments, assignments and questions have to be answered. Plus there's no such thing as “rolling out last year's course”. Between 10-20% of the course changes every year (and has done so since it first ran in 2006).
However, this year I decided to do something that would put even more pressure on me. I decided to create Version 2.0 of the Article Writing Course. It's not like the earlier version was a dud, but like everything in life, a course needs an upgrade.
Under perfect circumstances, the notes would be rewritten well in advance
However, when doing a Psychotactics course, I like to gauge the reactions of the clients. Where do they proceed quickly? Where do they get stuck? And so at least for this course, I decided to write new assignments and notes while the course was in progress.
No matter how good you are at writing or creating courses, it's incredibly hard work. Which is why we have the “Three Month Vacation” in place. We work for 12 weeks, then we take a month off. Then another 12 weeks and then another month off.
In 2016, we didn't stick to our well-oiled routine
The “twelve week on, four weeks off” has been the primary reason why we achieve our goals. It allows us to work, then rest and come back with a full charge. The vacation in India, while great for our health and diet, left us more tired than before. And then we did a half-baked vacation to Australia in October.
Instead of taking the entire month off, we tried a two week break, and a work trip at the tail end of the journey. Technically a two-week trip is as good as a month, but having work at the tail end means I never quite relax as much as I should.
And this was my second learning
That though there are diversions, it's important as far as possible to stick have a solid pacing. The routine is what's most efficient, which is why it's called a routine. When we stray away from this pace of work and downtime, we are straying away from what's most efficient.
By the end of the year I was quite drained
I've managed to do as much as the previous years, probably even more. Yet, it's important not to be so very tired as you head into a break. And yet I could see myself yanking myself to work at 5 am (instead of 4). I could feel the tiredness in my bones simply because we hadn't stuck to the pacing. Taking weekends off was a great move and it helped me to get back to Mondays with a bounce in my step, but even the vacations mattered. What also mattered was how we structured the vacations.
The diversion concept is easy to spot, but how does this pacing apply to you?
We often work through the year, expecting that work itself will get us to where we want to be. Yet, it's been proven time and time again that downtime is where the brain really works. A tired brain simply does not function to its highest capacity. A brain is like a modern jetliner. It needs to fly, but then it needs to get down onto the tarmac and refuel before it gets back into the air.
A jetliner's greatest value is not when it's on the tarmac, but when it's in the air. Yet, without the downtime and the maintenance, that plane will crash to the ground. It's the routine that keeps that plane in high performance mode at all times.
It's one thing to have goals.
It's one thing to say that it's important to have vacations and weekends. Yet, it's quite another thing to structure that downtime. That in 2016, we failed to structure all of our downtime in the way we normally do. And that the month off from December to Jan will do its thing. Even so, the breaks should be better planned and executed. The goals are one thing, and the pacing is quite another.
That was Lesson No.2. And with a little planning (and some diversions) we'll have more pacing in 2017, so that we go to the break still quite relaxed and not quite so tired. All of this talk about pacing is really a pre-cursor for energy management, isn't it? I've always suspected there's something fundamentally wrong with time management and this year it came home to roost. Energy management is far superior to time management. This was my third lesson for the year.
Part 2: Time Management vs. Energy Management
You wouldn't think chefs would solve a productivity problem, would you?
And that's just what stuck with me when I was watching a Netflix's episode called “Chef's Table”. What struck me was the difference between my method of cooking and theirs. Now I may get the ingredients in advance, but usually I'm looking at the recipe just before I cook. Then I'll assemble all the spices, the veggies etc. and start the cooking process. While that cooking is in progress, a whole bunch of utensils get dirty and have to be washed. I'll then finish the cooking, and then it's time for the plating.
The chefs don't operate like me
The ingredients are bought in advance, they're chopped in advance, they're located right where they should be when the chef is ready to cook. What struck me is that a professional cooking system had a remarkable similarity to the way I write. I will write topics on one day, outline on the second day, expand on the third, edit on the fourth, and in the case of the podcast, record on the fifth.
It seems like a long process, but the actual writing doesn't take time when I split it all into tiny bits spread over five-six days. If I tried to do it all at once, even a single break in the chain drains my energy and I waste twice or thrice the time.
I know you've heard me write and talk about this energy issue before, but to me it was crucial especially when teaching difficult courses like the Article Writing Course. In the past the emphasis on the course was to turn out dozens of articles. Yet, that often exhausted the participants and more importantly by the end of the course they weren't able to write within 90 minutes.
Some still took 3 hours, some even longer. And if you slog so hard, it's easy to get exhausted and even have dropouts. Now our dropout rate is often restricted to just one or two participants, but even so, I'm responsible for their success. If I'm the teacher, I can't afford to have dropouts simply because they're getting exhausted.
Which is why energy became such a big issue for me in 2016
I started to design my life around energy, not time. Any task was almost always split up into parts—like a chef sequence. Incredibly enough the first day of the sequence involved nothing but planning. Planning all the things I had to do was just day one. And in the courses, that's what clients spent their first day doing as well.
They planned what they were going to write about. This simple shift in energy vs. time management makes a world of a difference both for me, as teacher, writer, trainer, as well as for the learner. Instead of being bludgeoned by having to do it all at one go, the clients were able to learn better. I in turn was able to achieve more and do so consistently.
Overall the year was draining
I struggled when I returned from India; didn't have quite the break I expected in October in Australia and technically I should have achieved a lot less. Yet, when I look back at 2016, the only place where I struggled was in when reading books. I didn't get too much reading when it came to books, but otherwise I was able to get through a quite tough year to my satisfaction. Of course I'll never be satisfied. I still want to do twice as much, or thrice as much.
I'm fascinated with a lot of things: cooking, drawing, painting, software, dancing, teaching. The list goes on and on. And to maintain a high proficiency you need to be like a chef. I need to be like a chef. We both need to do the prep work well in advance.
Time management is still interesting to me, but it's energy management that really got my attention. Which takes us to the final point: dealing with seemingly closed doors.
Part 3: Dealing With Seemingly Closed Doors
Every day I pick up my niece Marsha from school.
And every day we avoid the mad rush of school girls and exit from the gate on the far side. We have no problem with this gate on most days, until we ran into a certain Friday. We could see the problem unfolding from a distance.
First there was a motorcyclist trying to get the gate to open. Then a woman stepped out from her car and ran into a similar problem. By the time we got to the gate, it seemed like there was a lock on it. If so, we'd have to retrace our steps and go back at least 150 metres to the other gate.
It was a boiling hot day, and I'm no fan of the sun
So I decided to fiddle with the gate. As it turned out, it wasn't locked after all. There was a lock on the gate giving everyone the impression that it was locked, but the gate was merely jammed. A bit of a tug in the right manner and it rolled to the right as it should.
To me this was part of my learning for 2016 mainly in my personal life
For much of 2016, Renuka was having a lot of trouble with her allergies and partly with breathing at night. On the trip to India, she went through the Ayurvedic treatment that helped her reduce the nodules that were blocking her breathing. We thought with treatment the problem of breathing well would improve—and it did. Even so, we couldn't shake the problem of her allergies.
Around 2008 or 2009 she'd gone to an allergy clinic
Without any medicine or fuss, they managed to get rid of her allergy in 24 hours. Instead of sneezing endlessly, using nose sprays or taking over the counter medication, she went from achoo, to being a normal person. Before she got to the allergy clinic her nose would get all clogged, her sinuses would flare and her eyes would get all red. She watched dozens of videos on YouTube and tried to self-medicate. The sinus issue and allergy would back down for a short while and then come right back.
So what's the point of this story?
We thought the allergy gate was closed. She'd been to the clinic several years ago, was free of the allergies. Now that they were back, would there be any point in going back? Instead of treating that gates as locked, she went back. And within 24 hours her allergies were gone and have stayed gone for the last few months. What I'm trying to say here is simple.
Through 2016, I ran into friends I thought I'd lost forever. I just had to dig further and deeper to find them and we were reunited. Most of the things I thought were doomed were just stuck on pause. When I worked my way through them, sometimes months later, they seem to magically open gates I thought were permanently locked.
I really wondered if I should add this fourth point of “never giving up” in this piece
It seems so very trite. So mundane. Yet, the story of Renuka's allergies, plus being able to find a long-lost friend was a matter of pure chance after giving up. It's not like I hadn't tried before. I did try. But then after a lot of persistence, I gave up. What this message is all about is to try again, a lot later.
That gate at Marsha's school seemed locked to everyone. And yet it needed nudging. Who knows? Maybe the motorcyclist and the driver of the car loosened it just enough for me to yank it free. It's a lesson that you have to keep going long after everyone else (and possibly even you) have given up.
And that was my 2016 in a nutshell.
We are already in 2017. Last night I had my zero-gravity dream again.
It's a recurring dream where I simply spread my hands wide and I'm able to beat gravity. Like an astronaut that tumbles and flies in zero gravity, I'm usually in a room, floating to the ceiling. Occasionally I'll go outside. Probably even show off a bit by doing double or triple flips. No one in the room seems to be surprised by my ability, but even in my dream I'm trying to prove that it's not a dream.
Except I didn't have this dream for all of 2016 (as far as I can remember).
Was 2016 a bit rough? Monetarily it was like all other years. We made thrice as much as we need and that's more than enough. Our subscriber rate went through the roof, climbing 200% and then 500% or more. And no we didn't do anything dramatic. No advertising or joint ventures or anything of the sort. No hoopla launches.
Though we did sail through a second year of podcasting and I believe that made the difference. Clients continue to listen and learn a lot from the podcasts. And if you haven't already noticed, they're almost little booklets by themselves if you were to print them out. Almost every podcast is about 4000 words and covers just a deeper look into a subset of a topic.
Even so, I felt a bit unsettled by 2016.
After a whole month of rest in December, I was ready to take on 2017, doing better stuff, not just more stuff. And I have my cue. I am flying; I'm in zero gravity. La, la, I'm on the ceiling again. Catch me if you can!
Sometimes life takes you down a diversion.
And you end up exactly where you need to be.