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2: Keeping Score

In the first article of this series, I wrote of the benefits of working with your hands, preferably alone and in a natural setting. In the second, I will propose another rather simple – some would say childish – solution to reducing the sense of being out of control. Indeed, often the simplest solutions are quite effective.

My days always begin early. In our home, I am known as the human alarm clock, because my two roommates (my wife and son) have never found it necessary to set an alarm for them to wake up in the morning. They simply tell me when to wake them, confident that I will already be up – and they are always right. By lifelong habit, by temperament, and by choice, I am an Earlybird. As I wrote in my book China Bound,

Early morning, before the day’s activities begin, is my favorite recurring pleasure.  It is a time for planning the day ahead but, if we can avoid the trap of a too-hectic lifestyle, also a time for leisurely reflection.  It can even be a time for a mental game, trying to imagine the feelings and outlook of the other early-morning people stirring about.  

How does this relate to the topic of making your life less crazy? Well, assuming that you have a certain amount of discretion about choosing your activities for a specific time block, there are certain things you can do to regain a sense of control, almost a feeling of peace. To continue with the personal example… if I, the Earlybird, want to uncrazy my life, I can choose any activities which would not disturb my sleeping roommates. Fortunately, I can retreat to my computer and type quietly, which opens a wide range of opportunities to select from.

Because of the noise-level constraints at that time in the morning, I must choose tasks that are primarily digital rather than activities that involve working with my hands (the subject of a previous article). However, after I have created my first to-do list of the day and start working on them, I can then begin to play a rather satisfying game: I keep score of how well I am doing in completing my chosen tasks. In doing so, I am focusing on something I can control, something that makes my life a little less crazy.

To expand on this discussion about keeping score of our successful completions during a typical day – filled with interruptions, delays, and surprises by people and digital jinxes, I direct your attention to an unlikely source for ideas about reinventing our lives: a couple of books about fishing.

“If a fisherman is a good sportsman he can play a delightful game of solitaire with himself, of the most interesting kind. I have made a practice of doing this for years on the stream by keeping score of the number of fish seen rising and the percentage of these which are raised to the fly and the number hooked. My temper ebbs and flows with the results. When the great day comes when 90% to 95% of the fish I see rising are raised and hooked, I feel like the golfer who has beaten the best previous score.” This quote is from the book A Trout and Salmon Fisherman for Seventy-Five Years by E.R. Hewitt. It outlines his technique of quantifying fishing success.

Elaborating on that theme, Arnold Gingrich in his own book, The Well-Tempered Angler, said, “I wrote a couple of pieces for Field and Stream [a popular outdoors magazine of the time] comparing angling to golf, where what matters most is how you do this time against last time, and how you do against par, which is supposed to be a gauge of competence for the course…. I did not begin to approach my present level of enjoyment of angling, however, until I began carrying a notebook instead of a creel, and started thinking of angling as an interesting game rather than an uncertain meat-substitute.”

Mr. Gingrich went on to describe how he created a system of recording his fishing success without actually keeping the fish – called “catch and release”. By carrying a small notebook, he was able to note the details of each success (catching the fish) and, at the end of the day, see how many fish he had caught. By keeping a journal of his daily results, he was later able to compare one day’s results with previous days’ scores or against his average.

So, why can’t we turn the same technique into a way of measuring our success in completing our chosen tasks at home and at work – and, for many people, as we commute between work and home? The purpose of the first article (working with your hands) was to increase the sense of control over our daily activities by deliberately creating time in our life in which we deliberately engage in tasks that are manual rather than digital. This second article is to describe how a way to regain a sense of control over the broader range of activities from which we can choose – and which, truthfully, occupy most of our day. We cannot always be working with our hands but, by keeping score, we can measure how well we accomplish our chosen activities.

It begins with a simple notebook that holds the to-do list for your current time block. (I presume that you have chosen and prioritized those few tasks carefully, according to their importance and long-term value or degree of urgency.) Then, you simply give yourself one point for each item completed. As you work through those items on your list, you have the satisfaction of knowing you are choosing them and, hence, controlling your life.  

If you are mathematically inclined and think that spreadsheets are amusing rather than confusing, you might even create a more elaborate scoring system. You could begin by giving yourself one point for each task completed from your to-do list, then add one point if that particular task was from your current highest value projects, plus one point if you judged that you had performed excellently in completing that task, plus one point if you objectively decided that you had worked efficiently, plus one point if you successfully resisted interruptions while working on this task – or, conversely, plus one point if you judged that you had immediately returned to focus on your chosen task after responding to an interruption.

Thus, instead of a low score at the end of the day (the number of tasks completed), you could accumulate a rather impressive total for a relative handful of tasks successfully completed. (If you didn’t spend excessive time merely keeping records instead of working, this might be a great way to identify areas in your life which needed the most improvement.)

Finally, much as I deplore the idea, if you happen to be one of those individuals who are intensely competitive, you could even compare your scores for various days and projects with the scores of other people. Before beginning such a contest, you must agree, of course, on what scoring method each person would use. Just keep in mind that the initial purpose – and still the most important reason – for this exercise was to develop a sense of control over your busy life. Involving another person in your personal prioritizing and completions might begin to re-complicate your life rather than simplify it.

Any way you do it, I suggest this method will help you develop a greater sense of control over your life. Whatever amount of discretionary time you have, keeping score will help you to enjoy it more. In our hectic daily lives, anything that reduces the level of craziness has to be a good thing, right? Are you willing to try keeping score for a couple of weeks? Just get a small notebook, begin organizing your time blocks by the priority of tasks, and record how well you completed those tasks. If you try this, I would love to hear from you. What were your results and conclusions?

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