Moving Forwards, Moving Backwards: On Making Decisions

This productivity, what is it all for?

What if I am wandering aimlessly? Or doing things without a purpose? Sounds scary. So for a while now I have been in search of something. Ideas, principles, or foundations that can help define the way I live, the actions I take, and the decisions I make. Why do I choose something over something else? Why do I react to an event a certain way? In short, what moves me?

Most people’s way of living can be described as some form of hedonism. The purpose: maximizing short term pleasure at all costs. Eat this pizza, get this dopamine shot. Buy that product, get that dopamine shot. Open those apps, get those dopamine shots. Get one marshmallow today, instead of two tomorrow.

When it comes to the big decisions, like career or relationships, hedonists aim for the one with the largest and fastest status bump, and the one which promises to enhance the hedonist lifestyle. Is it prestigious? Great. Will it allow me to buy more pleasure? I’m in.

Looking back upon my own life, I think something even worse might have happened: I am not even a full-time hedonist. I’ll alternate periods of hedonism to periods of asceticism, like a sine wave. I can’t even stick to a bad way of life properly. In any case, it is high time to change that.

Stoicism

You see, back in the ancient world, most philosophy was a practical affair. Philosophers boasted about how by attending their lectures, and by following their principles, you could actively change your daily life for the better. No wonder King Philip of Macedon wanted his son, Alexander the Great, to be tutored by Aristotle. Philosophers were, roughly, the equivalent of coaches. They taught in classrooms but also out in the open, in streets and in squares. Different philosophers had different views on how life should be lived, and each fiercely tried to convert listeners, passersby, and whoever else was there to their own school of thought, promising that theirs was the one yielding the most happiness.

Right now, philosophers barely answer their emails. But this does not mean that philosophy has outlived its usefulness. On the contrary, we can exhume one of those “philosophies of life” back from the dead and adapt it to modern living. This is what William Irvine does in his potentially-perspective-changing book A Guide to the Good Life, where he takes one, Stoicism, and tells the reader why it still works. Immediately after finishing the book, I was converted, as if I had just been strolling through the streets of Athens. Let me explain it to you.

The dictionary has done Stoicism a great disservice. The first thing that comes to mind when thinking about someone “stoic” is a person suppressing their emotions. But Stoicism with an uppercase S is quite the opposite: it is about living, embracing, and enhancing your emotions. The positive ones, at least. In fact, the main proposition of Stoicism is that by following it, you would be able to feel sheer joy 24/7, regardless of your external circumstances. While we might not become that perfect, it is something worth striving for.

So how do we do that? Stoicism has a few principles. While Hedonists want new things. Stoics want what they already have. They transform the desire for new things into a desire for what they already possess, while understanding that anything they have is fleeting. This allows Stoics to both enjoy what they have, and to avoid getting too attached to them.

Stoics understand that there are things under their control, and things outside of their control. What we can truly control are ourselves and our reactions to things, how we feel about things. Most events, however, are outside of our control, and there is no use beating ourselves up about something we had no choice over.

Lastly, Stoics will tell you that you must perform the work of a human being. Just like the work of a knife is to cut, and the work of a mirror to reflect, they figured that the work of a human is to reason. This last principle has other sub-principles flowing from it, for example that one of the duties of a reasoning human is to help others, and this is why many prominent Stoics were in public service (Emperor Marcus Aurelius and Seneca, to name two.)

This was way too short of a summary of the principles of Stoicism, and it does it a disservice, but I should probably get to the point I wanted to make in this essay. For more on Stoicism though, Irvine’s book is relatively compact and I recommend it to anyone. This blog post too is quite comprehensive.

As well as abstract principles, Stoicism has practical actions you can perform on a day-to-day basis. For example, in order to maximize your enjoyment of things and minimize the pain coming from their loss, Stoics recommend you regularly visualize yourself without them, in a form of meditation. Or, to understand whether today you have needlessly worried over something not in your control, Stoics recommend you keep a day-end journal reflecting on the day that’s just come to pass.

I have been following Stoic practices for a while now, and I’m happy with them. I particularly liked its guidance regarding what to do and what not to do (which is what I was most interested in) in the form of the precept “do the work of a human being.” It resonated with me particularly well, however you interpret what the “work” of a human being is. I found, however, that it was difficult to adhere to the principle on a daily basis. It was a bit too abstract for me, “out there.” So what I’d like to do here is to propose a different way of choosing our daily actions and measuring how we are doing, compatible with Stoicism but that also works on its own.

Moving Forwards, Moving Backwards

I mentioned at the beginning of this essay the fear of wandering aimlessly, without a purpose. Thinking about it though, what most fear is not to wander, but to go backwards. After all there is nothing scary about wandering if you are making progress doing so. Whatever “progress” means to you.

The thoughts come, occasionally. “What if my foreign language skills are poorer now than they were before?” “Am I really healthier now compared to five years ago?” Perhaps most importantly, “Am I happier than I was before?”

Being worse than others at something is expected. Being worse than a previous version of myself is unacceptable.

This is why I started thinking of my actions and decisions in terms of how they move me on the plane. Will this move me forwards, or will this move me backwards? Any day, I want to move forwards, no matter if it’s an inch or a mile. And sure, occasionally I’ll go back. But I want to zoom out, as if it were a stock’s market performance, and see that overall, even though there were dips, the stock went up reliably for years and years.

To me, the beauty of this framework is that it is scalable, both at the micro and the macro level, like clicking on zoom buttons on a chart. At the individual decision level, you have a general idea of where the decision will nudge you. Slouching on the couch will generally put you back, while exercising will push you forward. At this level of zoom though, things are not so clear-cut. For example, you cannot be productive 100% of the time, you do occasionally need that rest on the couch. And exercising every single day without a day of rest might hurt you in the long run.

This is where it’s useful to zoom out a bit, for instance to the day, week, or month level. Every day, I want to be 1% better than I was the day before. If I need to rest to let than happen, then so be it. Similarly, I want to make progress this week/month/year, and if I need a day/week/month of laying low to do so, sure. This does not mean, however, that one should neglect their daily actions. These actions are your habits, and your habits make you who you are. It’s about finding a balance between all zoom levels, keeping an eye out on them, making sure they are all taken care of the way you want to.

The biggest criticisms of this framework (I’ll just call if MFMB from now on) is that progress, or “moving” is subjective and non-measurable. Well of course progress is subjective. Any action, on its own, is neutral. Take eating a giant portion of pasta. For most, that would be considered moving backwards on the health plane. But if you are trying to gain weight, it moves you forwards. Or, don’t care about health at all? Just remove that from the equation altogether. Circling back to Stoicism, it is how you judge the actions that matter, that you control. Also, this is not a competition with others, but with you past self. Similar things happen at the macro level. Will quitting my job now prepare me for a move forward? Only you know.

On the non-measurability of progress. Well, some things are measurable, like your waist size and how far you can sprint before you run out of breath. Other things, like happiness, are not. Personally speaking, I think some things just cannot be put on a scale, but people do try. For example, I don’t think your happiness level can be indicated by a daily number from 1 to 10, but there’s many people who keep such logs and are happy (heh) with them. You can of course do that if that’s your down your alley. What I can advocate for though are two things, which work for more than happiness: daily journaling and regular self-reviews.

Looking back at journal entries from years ago is like warping through a time machine, to an older version of yourself. Reading the entries, you are able to look at life through the eyes of that version, and the differences become as clear as day. Sometimes I am doubting whether I am making any progress on my happiness level, then I read entries from a couple of years ago and yes, I definitely am. You can pick any date to make a comparison, to see if you’re making progress at your preferred zoom level, be it yesterday or ten years ago. To me, a journal is an essential part of MFMB.

A regular self-review is much simpler, but no less effective. Every X months (3, usually) you sit down and answer the same set of questions. People commonly call it a quarterly review. I have a template here, on an older post. My questions changed a lot from then as some things gained and others lost in importance, but it can be a good place to start. Once you have a couple of reviews done, you will be able to see your long term trends more clearly.

A further criticism of MFMB is that we cannot be thinking about some “framework” in our daily lives 24/7. And I agree with that. It would use up too many of our brain’s resources. This is why I like making computing comparisons here. MFMB is not a foreground app, it runs in the background, it stays in your task/menu bar. Of course keeping it in mind, even if in the background, is still taxing. Contrary to computers, however, brains can get used to things. While more demanding at first, requiring more conscious effort, thinking about how you’ll move will become second nature and MFMB will use almost 0 CPU time.

I don’t mean for MFMB to be a be-all-end-all framework to solve life’s problems. On its own, it won’t. It is just meant to be another tool in your box. I talked about Stoicism a lot for instance. MFMB complements it well, and Stoicism + MFMB can be a good combo. Stoicism provides you with the pillars, the plane on which you move, and MFMB makes sure you keep moving on it.

What’s the work of a human being? To reason, according to Stoicism. And a reasoning person will want to be the best version of himself.

That’s just one example though, and I invite creativity.

If you liked the idea, give it a try for a while. If it ends up not being for you, I am nonetheless grateful you took the time to try it out. If it works for you, I’ll be happy to have helped. However it goes, I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences. I have a contact page you can use for that.