Feb 10

If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere.
It’s up to you – New York, New York.

-Frank Sinatra

This is a rumination on those tiny binary crossroad moments where it could go either way and the mechanics of what happens in those split-second daily junctures where (as yoda would say), you either “do or do not.” Let’s take these situations: either you’re going to…

  • get up and go jogging in the morning or you’re going to hit the snooze button and you’re not.
  • muster the courage to talk to that person of the opposite sex with whom you’ve been exchanging glances at the cocktail party, or you’re not.
  • put your pack of cigarettes down tomorrow and never pick it up again, or you’re not.
  • confront someone on an injustice you witnessed, or you’re not.
  • jump out of the back of that airplane and skydive 13,000 feet, or you’re not.
  • stay up an hour later tonight and start that project you’ve been talking about for months, or you’re not.
  • There’s a whole study in Psychology called “Cognitive Dissonance Theory” that basically says we humans don’t like to have incompatible beliefs and behaviors. We’ll twist one or the other in the strangest ways until they can live together in harmony. So that decision to hit the snooze button in the morning is rationalized by a single lightning thought like “it looks overcast this morning, I bet it’s a good chance it will rain on my run and I don’t want to risk getting sick so I’ll skip today.” Pick any excuse for any situation- there are an infinite number of ways to justify a cop-out. But think about this:

    Think of those moments in which you successfully resisted the temptation to hit the snooze button. Decompile that scene right down to the very nanosecond before that choice was made when you were still 50/50. Now what happened? What neuron fired that allowed you to overcome the inertia of comfort, put your feet on the cold floor, suit up and start running? Is it possible to bottle that mental sequence and reliably repeat it. Is there a formulaic approach to consistently perform better in this situation? Maybe not perfectly (because nobody is) but let’s say to be 70% effective vs. 30% at overcoming the inertia of comfort. I think there is and I’ll try and verbalize what I believe the crux of the technique is.

    It’s not so much about “Just Do It” as is about suppressing the mind while you allow muscle memory to carry you through the “New York New York” moment. I just made up that term, but I use it to refer to the tipping point at which “if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere.” I’ve definitely bailed on my share of morning runs, chickened out in talking to girls, procrastinated on starting a project, etc. But there’s a point at which if I can get at least one running shoe on, that I’m inevitably going to make it out the door and complete the run.

    For David Allen fans, this is the concept of breaking up a daunting task on your todo list into bite-sized chunks and clearing the nebulous-ness that gridlocks action. For me the key to making that morning run comes down to being able to distract my mind long enough until I can get one running shoe on. That’s the magic crest of the hill for me- the point at which gravity starts working with me instead of against. I’ve literally had socks on before and ended up falling back into the covers because the thought of cold air won out. But the single shoe for me is the magic point-of-no-return.

    I realize this insight is probably about as useful as the “bend one of the flaps” advice. But I figured I’d share because maybe this helps one person overcome a mental obstacle. So the question becomes – how do you suppress your mind long enough to get the shoe on? My advice: find some mental activity you can use to sap just enough cycles to distract your mind and then lay out your outfit within arm’s reach the night before to minimize the distraction time necessary to get to the tipping point. In highschool we had to memorize this 15-stanza poem called The Cremation of Sam McGee. As much as that sucked, it’s been a useful tool because I still remember the entire thing by heart and yet it draws enough mental cycles to get the verses ordered right where I can use it as a mental distraction for “New York, New York” moments.

    So my challenge to you:

  • What is the “New York, New York” moment that currently confronts you?
  • What is your equivalent to laying out your running outfit within arm’s reach tonight?
  • What mental distraction technique can you use to power though the 50/50 moment and arrive at the point at which natural momentum will carry you through to successful completion of the task?
  • 3 Responses to ““New York, New York” moments and getting one shoe on”

    1. Ben Nadel says:

      For me, a moment of tough decision making is about taking my vitamins and proteins. I have myself scheduled to take them at two times during the day (between meals). A lot of times, my calendar alert goes off and I have the instant thought – “Ugg, I don’t wanna! Besides, I ate recently.”

      To get past this I think to myself, “Don’t you have respect for yourself? Taking this stuff will help make you bigger / faster / strong. But, if THAT’S not for you, then by all means, don’t take them.”

      I can usually guilt myself into it and then I feel much better afterwards.

    2. Maxim Porges says:

      I run in to this when writing specs (which I don’t like as much as writing code). I know that writing the entire spec will be a tedious and time-consuming process. So, I usually start by filling the simple details in the template (like the name of the use case and the component it’s for). Then I throw in a few preconditions, because it’s easy. Next thing you know I’m working my way through the whole spec, because I got started.

      It’s like the inertia of the action is what has the most weight. When you’re in bed and the alarm clock goes off, your inertia is firmly planted in the sheets, and that’s why it’s so easy to stay there. Typically, I wake myself up forty-five minutes before I need to get up and hit the snooze button five times. Five usually turns in to seven, and then I show up later than I want to.

      But when I need to catch an early flight, I wake myself up with just enough time to get ready. That way there is no internal argument: I either get up, or I miss the flight. And as always, as soon as I adjust my inertia to be in motion towards getting up instead of staying in bed, I’m totally fine with the decision.

      We are such strange beasts.

      – max

    3. […] First, this does work. I’ve seen a noticeable strength improvement but more importantly I’ve experienced a significant increase in energy. Before starting I would find myself hitting a wall of lethargy about 3pm and feeling sluggish in the evenings after work. The change in diet and exercise has resulted in better energy during the day and consequently better sleep at night (which improves the daytime effectiveness). The improvements didn’t fully kick in until about the third week so it’s a delayed effect but if you can get through that first bit it becomes much easier to stick with it. I can see how the initial hit in extra work without the energy benefits cause people to bail on the program. But I have a trick to propose for overcoming that New York New York threshold… […]

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