Sometimes things just come apart at the seams, don’t they? It’s OK to confess it. The Scribbler, of all people, understands your plight. You know what you should be doing to make your life work, but the siren calls of constant little obligations and incessant digital distractions that plague our lives in the early 21st century are getting the better of you, so you aren’t sticking to The Plan.
Recently Our Man in Blighty, Gordon, gave advice on how to keep your ship afloat when the cosmic perfect storm blows through your life. I found myself reading his suggestions with one eyebrow sceptically raised toward my receding hairline until it dawned on me that the difference between his and my views on lifehacking during heavy existential weather is a matter of horses for courses (ergo, we will shift from nautical to equestrian metaphors).
Gordon, despite being an Aussie, is more your thoroughbred type: streamlined, fast and spry (even if he does indulge in the feedbag while in Florence and Paris). He wants to be in condition to do amazing sprints when he’s called to, and to do them often for a few years while he’s snatching up that prize money. Then they’ll put him out to stud and he can spend his remaining years in the beautiful rolling meadows of western Kentucky.
But he’s a fitting horse for his course. The things he recommends in that posting are good rules of the road if you are a young, single media executive living in London. Include him in any trifecta bets you make (Jason to win, Gordon in second, RO to place! Or maybe RO in second, Gordon to place.).
But me — a dude in his fifties with a nine-to-five corporate job in a support position, five kids at home and a mortgage — I’m more of a draught horse. I have to run my race pulling a wagon full of lumber or beer barrels, and I’m in it for the distance, not the big-prize sprint. And a lot of my habits were formed by martial arts training, and (as you’ve read before) deadline writing. Habits and regularity are the internal engine that make me a dependable beast for all the people and institutions who depend on me.
When life isn’t quite working for me, rather than give in to the wave and surf, it’s time for me to double down on the discipline.
That’s when it’s time to invoke the power of the four-banger.
Let me give you the nerdy history of that word, which will explain the old fossil I used as an illustration at the top of this posting. Back in ancient history, when I was in grade school, they came out with the first electronic calculators. They were clunky and ugly by the standards of even one decade later, by which time they were already small enough to operate on batteries (the first ones had to be plugged in!) and fit in your pocket (the first ones were about the size of a multi-line office desk telephone). And they couldn’t do all the fancy operations a scientific calculator can do, such as square roots, cosigns and exponents. They could do four operations: add, subtract, multiply and divide. Once calculators started getting more sophisticated, the cheap ones they gave away with a fill up at the gas station, or that came with a bag of dry dog food (I kid you not!), were affectionately called four-bangers.
This was around the time that America began to import more smaller cars that had only four cylinders in a straight line, as opposed to V6s and V8s. Worshippers of the American muscle car (like the Mustang, the Camaro, the GTO or the Corvette) derisively referred to these more economical engines as four-bangers.
But humble as they are, the four-function calculator and the four-cylinder engine are the workhorses of the world. And when it comes to putting my world back on track after I’ve been overwhelmed by events, I call on another basic four-banger.
As mentioned above, I depend on habit and regularity. Between work and family, my day is so structured, I have to fit activities into every available free slot, or never get anything else done. I get up obscenely early in the morning (so early, I’m not going to tell you, because you’ll think I’m bragging) so I can: 1) write down my dreams, 2) practice chi kung, and 3) meditate (plus, lately, do experiments for the Strategic Sorcery course). After that, it’s time to get kids out of bed, pack lunches, shower, shave, etc. I figure I get more done by 6am than a lot of people get done by noon.
And getting up obscenely early means going to bed disgustingly early, too. Even then, if all goes to schedule, I still only get six and a half hours of sleep. If something interferes with bedtime, I either do with less sleep (argh!) or miss dream journaling, chi kung and meditation (triple argh!)
But shit can happen to this arrangement. And I allow for some leeway. I realize there are nights something — a social obligation, a sick child, a surprise internet text chat with a friend oversees, watching a DVD with the kids on a Friday night — throws things off schedule. I figure if I manage early-to-bed-and-early-to-rise five days out of seven, I’m doing well. Doing chi kung five days a week keeps me fairly healthy in body and mind. So I’m not a total hard ass.
However, even allowing for some slack, there are times that interference and distraction just seem to be ganging up on me. The late George Leonard — prolific journalist and one of America’s greatest promoters of aikido — wrote a book (among others) called Mastery. In this book he reports the findings of his research into the common characteristics and behaviors of people who are masters of their disciplines, be it e.g. cooking, baseball, kendo, or management. Among them is a tendency to allow the goal to recede into the distance, and to patiently work on the tasks at hand that progressively lead to that goal, no matter how far away; a taking joy in the process and not focussing on the reward. This is a behavior that requires dedication, application, and long-term thinking. Leonard said that the contemporary world is “a conspiracy against mastery.” One always has to react to immediate pressing demands generated by a world full of people and institutions that expect instant satisfaction. And our society tries to make us believe you can learn to do anything overnight.
So there are times I suddenly realize I haven’t done chi kung in a week and had done it pretty infrequently the weeks preceding. Time for a four-banger! And it works like this.
I designate four days and then vow that for those four days, come hell or high water (or plagues of locusts, or two-for one night at the bar down the road), I will stick to a discipline I define beforehand. In this case, I will: get to bed at the designated time, get up at the designated time, do my dream journaling, do chi-kung, and meditate. No exceptions. Four days in a row.
The effect this has, I find, is that it establishes momentum. Anyone can do something once. It takes a little will to do it on the second day. You have to overcome resistance to do it on the third day, but you’re happy that you do. And it might be hard to get started on the fourth day, but once you get started you’re on a roll. I find that by the fifth morning, you don’t even have to have that hell-bent attitude anymore. The thing just sort of happens by itself. Isn’t that what habits are for? Once I do a four-banger, it takes much less effort to maintain my regimens in the following days and weeks.
Last night and this morning were the first round of a four-banger. I got a good night’s sleep, had a good chi kung session, meditated, and even practiced something for the Strategic Sorcery course. When I got the kids up, I was all chirpy and positive (They hated it. Snicker, snicker!) And while I was making tea and lunches and listening to the kids’ breakfast conversation, I was making plans for what I was going to get done today, rather than hoping I’d survive long enough to get home and go to bed again. What a difference!
The four-banger is a simple, humble little machine. But used wisely, it can move mountains!