After a year 2020 which, as for many, gave way to quite a few more readings and podcasts than usual, I embarked on the famous New Year’s objectives project. This may be because of my passage into my thirties and the inevitable questioning involved, but the theme of self-care was a fairly popular one in my choices. So I was inspired and ready to make 2021 a year of personal growth through these new learnings.
Obviously, all this led me to long silent moments in front of an empty spreadsheet. Caught in a paralysis, surely caused by the countless ideas and advice I was considering at the same time, nothing came naturally to me. And since I wanted to set my goals with a little more rigor than by copying 2–3 lists found on well-referenced blogs, I waited.
I waited until something a little bit clever emerged.
And yes, finally, an idea emerged. An idea just specific enough to be useful to me, but just general enough not to sound like a prophecy, or worse, a LinkedIn post. An idea that, in retrospect, seems to sum up a lot of what I’ve been reading, listening, writing and thinking about over the past year. I recognized it in several other concepts:
Kind vs. wicked learning environments (Hogarth et al.)
Rules vs. principles
I humbly think that perhaps it can be useful to you if, like me, you are thinking about your goals for the years to come. Here it is…
Idea: The components of your life are distributed according to two categories: chaos and sandboxes.
What’s the point: since chaos and sandboxes should never be approached in the same way, it is important to differentiate them in order to navigate efficiently.
And right now: this reflection is a good way to take a step back and set consistent personal goals.
Basically, it is a closed system. A defined territory within which you can move fairly clearly. A context in which everyone uses similar benchmarks to report on their current situation. To help define them, here are some characteristics that differentiate them from chaos:
1. You are able to fix your personal position in it.
2. You are able to identify a clear endpoint.
3. You know that everyone generally follows the same rules.
4. You know that consistent action will produce consistent results.
First, your current position in the “world” of running is fairly simple to define. You will probably want to use time and distance ratios to rank your performance level in relation to other runners. The same system will also allow you to identify a clear purpose: you probably want to run a distance X in a time Y. Then the rules are pretty clear. You don’t measure your speed against someone racing in a car. You know that a 1000m freefall is not considered a race, just as you know that a race in constant ascent cannot be equitably compared to a race on a complete flat. Finally, you can count on consistency throughout the entire practice. Running twice in the same place, at the same time, under the same conditions is likely to generate similar results.
Based on these 4 elements, you will surely be able to think of other sandboxes. Your job may be a sandbox. You have a position and a salary, you know what position and/or salary you want to achieve, it’s reasonable to assume that your co-workers are on a similar path to yours, and you know that what is expected of you today will probably be expected of you tomorrow.
Scientific theory concerning non-linear systems with complex or random-looking behaviors, even though they are perfectly defined and deterministic.
I start with a more academic definition because it seems very important to me. Our popular definition of chaos often implies a completely random world in which nothing is logical or predictable. Through the scientific approach, we can see that this is overstated. It is true that we have difficulty identifying the rules that govern chaos, but the important thing is to note that rules do exist. That makes it less…anarchic.
Okay, so what is chaos, as opposed to a sandbox?
It is entropy. It is an open system, much more difficult to circumscribe. It is a context in which it is impossible for you to make a solid comparison with anyone else, because there is no universal evaluation of “success”. So, unlike the sandbox…
1. You cannot set your personal position in it, because the rating variables are not universal.
2. You cannot identify a clear endpoint, because the system is open.
3. Having neither the same positions nor the same idea of success, several systems of rules (or values) act at the same time.
4. Since you don’t understand all the forces at play, it is very possible that one constant action will create a completely different result in the end.
Although indicators can generally guide you, it is not possible for you to accurately determine your overall health status. You do not have a score out of 100. More importantly, the very notion of health varies enormously from one person to another. You may now represent someone else’s ideal of health, while considering that you are very far from your own. Then, you will never be able to identify an end to health. Your goal will be to maintain it as much as possible, for as long as possible. So it’s not about the destination, but about how you get there. Clearly, in the case of health, not everyone plays by the same rules. Age, genetics, economic status and cultural pressures are only a small part of the rules that will come into play. And finally, it is far too simplistic to think that what worked once will inevitably work every time. THIS meal, THIS workout and THIS amount of sleep may serve you well today, but chances are that the same plan will not be optimal for the rest of your life.
Once again, you will probably already be able to identify components of your life that fit the profile of chaos more closely. Your job is probably a sandbox, but your career is chaos. Your training regime is a sandbox, but your health is chaos. Your housekeeping is a sandbox, but your personal lifestyle is certainly chaos. And, without wanting to fall into the big inspiring sentences…fun is a sandbox, but happiness is probably an incredible chaos.
Clearly, the first step is to identify them, or at least have the reflex to ask yourself the question. But quickly, the interest is to understand the place of chaos and sandboxes in your life, to better know how to take advantage of them and maintain balance.
Sandboxes give momentum.
We all have our own hobbies, projects and habits, and that’s good. These can generate a sense of progress quickly in different aspects of your life.
“I don’t know why, but I find it so therapeutic to clean” or the very foundation of Marie Kondo fashion or even minimalism. This is a perfect example of a sandbox that brings you back down to earth when the rest seems too chaotic.
“At 40, I decided I was going to run a marathon and climb Kilimanjaro” or the popular athletic midlife crisis. Another excellent example of a sandbox that brings back a sense of accomplishment when some people feel they are stagnating in the chaos of progress.
The return to basics, the need for hands-on, DIY, cooking, reading and writing projects are good examples of sandboxes that can give you motivation and a sense of control. If “reading 50 books” gives you a sense of achievement, that’s great. You will certainly get something very positive out of it in the end.
Too many sandboxes will blind you to the nuances.
Sandboxes, on the other hand, become a threat if you are too exposed to them, precisely because of their four characteristics:
- You are able to fix your personal position…
And so you are very capable of staring at other people’s, and comparing yourself to them forever. Let’s assume something here: with few exceptions, you will never really be at the top of the pyramid. Running, flirting, artistic talent or salary condition are just a few sandboxes in which you will always find someone better positioned. Accepting this situation and focusing on yourself is the healthy thing to do here. But we know very well that some people choose instead to set impossible goals that guarantee a life of exhaustion, anxiety and orthorexia. Others will want to get away with inventing sandboxes from scratch, in which they have no competition. In rare situations, this gives us a creative person who will redefine his or her generation. But often it leaves us with radicalization, isolation and let’s be honest, a little cowardice and abandonment.
2. You are able to identify a clear end point…
So you can become very impatient. You don’t have to look very far to find people trying to sell you the magic recipe to besmart everyone in a sandbox. The miracle diet, the perfect training, the ultimate PDF, and so on. Several billions are spent every year by impatient people who get discouraged from the path that still separates them from the goal they see only too well ahead of them.
3. You know that everyone generally follows the same rules…
Then you will be destabilized every time it is not the case. Inevitably, you will be thrown into chaos by people or events that decide not to follow the same rules. A sudden illness, an unstable loved one, a setback or simply a fundamental inequality will surely create confusion and frustration. This is why it becomes important to make the distinction between closed and open systems, those that are fundamentally just or unjust. By recognizing this difference, you will surely be inclined to approach them differently.
4. You know that a constant action will generate a constant result...
So you may begin to believe in simple recipes and easy answers.
“I’ve always done it this way”
“That’s how I was taught.”
“The family always voted for them.”
“If it works for him, it should work for me.”
These reflexes are signs that a person approaches things like sandboxes above all, simply telling himself that consistency is more fruitful than questioning. Of course, this approach is rarely the best, especially not when facing chaos. And here, once again, people are making real fortunes to make you believe that the situation is much simpler than it seems and that they have the universal recipe that you can easily follow.
To see how dangerous sandboxes can become in the long run, just look at those who made the choice that their whole life would be one. Olympic athletes at the end of their careers or religious people who abandon their beliefs often face enormous challenges and great search for meaning. After feeling that life was just a list of tasks to follow, they are often very ill equipped to deal with the chaos that awaits them.
Chaos gives meaning
The real challenge is chaos. This is often where meaning and more fundamental emotions are hidden. That’s why no housekeeping can really make you forget a messy life, just as no salary can make you completely forget a career that goes against your values. No training will guarantee you eternal health, just as no book will make you a genius overnight.
Whether you like it or not, there will always be room for chaos. As in the famous parable, you can try to fill the bowl with as many marbles as possible, there will always be room for sand. So you can try to make your life a big list of sandboxes, there will always be room for chaos. So while you’re at it, you’d better try to tame it.
Here I am, after this short detour, back with my idea of New Year’s resolutions and objectives. (Yes, that was the point behind it after all).
After thinking about it all, I asked myself how to set goals for my various sandboxes (training, reading, employment, etc.) and my chaos (health, career, personal growth, etc). I quickly came to the conclusion that the goals can’t be the same. They cannot be constructed in the same way. The same weapons do not have the same effectiveness against sandboxes and chaos.
In a sandbox, use compound interest.
Faced with a constant and predictable situation where you are trying to move from point A to point Z, nothing is more powerful than compound interest. The cumulative effect of small actions is the only real way to create a result that lives up to your expectations. It’s never that run, but the sum of all your weekly runs that makes the difference. It is only very rarely this financial decision that gives you the freedom, but rather maintained financial prudence. It’s the sum of small efforts and your consistency that lifts you to the top of a pyramid, not the impossible stride you try to take in the face of an apparent delay so you are far too aware.
So in front of your list of objectives for the year, identify which ones are sandboxes, and think about how to improve. It should represent a concrete, but achievable increment. 10 minutes a day is better than one hour a week. 10 pages a day is better than 3 books during your holiday break. You get the idea.
In the face of chaos, use your principles.
In this case, you will be evaluated through your ability to endure the unpredictable, the abstract, the unjust, the ephemeral and the new. Quickly, you will have to accept that there is no infallible answer. You are in a race where the destination is not set, speed is not commanded, and direction is not determined. So the best you can do is to have a clear personal goal and mechanisms to increase your chances of reaching it as much as possible.
Identify what are the important chaos you are facing: health, family, career, spirituality, etc. Then, think about the general principles that will certainly help you: take more time to think, say no more often to what you don’t value, be careful of people coming into your life, try to just listen better, etc. If they seem vague to you, that’s normal. This is the highest level of precision you can afford in the face of chaos. But, to give you some momentum…
Align sandboxes and chaos.
Even if they are not of the same nature, sandboxes and chaos still tend towards coherent objectives. Faced with the chaos of “maintaining physical and mental health”, running won’t do all the work, but it is certainly a great start. This is where “running 10km a week” becomes momentum in the face of chaos. You might add “never drink more than one day a week” or “cook a new vegetarian dish a week”. And suddenly, your chaos has become 3 sandboxes + some clear guiding principles.
So that’s what I ended up doing. After long hours in front of the infamous spreadsheet, I resumed the exercise by placing 2 columns on it. The first one shows the chaos that seems important to me, and the principles that I want to respect in it. In the second column, I attached several sandboxes to each of these chaos. Each of these sandboxes creates a more granular list, easier to follow, adjust and “complete”. Now, by keeping an eye on both, I have a better perspective on the whole.
A sandbox by itself will never be enough to “make my year”. Conversely, chaos is…infinite. It therefore offers less context for the celebrations that are essential to stay motivated. Together, they give a clear direction and the necessary pats on the back to reach it.
I invite you to remain alert to these two notions. You may begin to see them everywhere. And maybe, in the end, you’ll succeed in doing what’s most important: you will make the difference and act accordingly.