As many of you might have noticed, I’ve been actively and aggressively looking at ways to streamline both my life and my commitments. Much of them are self imposed, and many of them are, to put it plainly, of my own design. The problem is, when we make promises and pledges, we involve other people in our follies, and they often have to deal with the fact that, if we make or break a commitment, they are part of the equation as well. This is not necessarily a bad thing; by making commitments to others, we add a level of accountability to the things that we do, and how we do them.Very often, that action of including others holds us to making sure we do something.

This very process is where expectations come into play, and it’s also the process in which “expectational debt” (service mark Merlin Mann) can become a reality. Much of the time, expectational debt becomes overwhelming for the same reason that financial debt or technical debt becomes overwhelming; we aren’t really paying attention. One of the reasons I started doing my game of “The Hours” initially grew out of my desire to simply get a better handle on what I was actually doing with my time. In it, I discovered just how many expectations I had placed on myself, how many I had promised to others, and just how many I was either ignoring or kicking further down the road. As people, I think we often want to make promises, and we have grand ideas as to what we can accomplish and believe we can do. Unfortunately, there’s only so much “life energy” and time to go around. We cannot be all things to all people at all times. Any time we commit to doing something, we likewise commit to not doing something else. It’s that simple.

Early in the life of my blog, I mentioned that I’m a fan of Dave Ramsey and some of his ideas and philosophies that relate to financial debt. In short, I avoid financial debt like the plague, and hope to be able to continue to do so. Two of his ideas I like a great deal. The first is what he called getting “Gazelle Intense” on a goal. The idea is that a gazelle in the wild, if they are being chased by a cheetah, will put every ounce of energy they have into not getting caught and, subsequently, being eaten. When we get “Gazelle Intense”, we do much the same thing. We focus our energies intensely on survival and getting that critical thing done, no matter what it takes.

The other idea that Dave is famous for is what he calls the “Debt Snowball“, where you take all of your debts, smallest to largest, and you put the minimum payments towards all of the debts excepts for the smallest one, and you then take every resource you have at your disposal and you attack that smallest debt. Once that smallest debt is gone/discharged/completed, you move onto the next one and do the exact same thing. The idea is that, as each “debt” falls away, you take the money that you were using for that previous debt and keep piling it on to the maximum of your ability, applying it to the next in-order debt, and so on, and so on, until you have an ever larger pool of money going towards knocking out your debts.

Math aside (some people suggest paying down the higher interest items first regardless of the size), the idea is that, by starting with the smallest item and getting early wins and clearing the deck of commitments, you are able to use more of your resources to tackle the bigger financial hurdles. Ultimately, when you clear the deck completely, your income is now fully yours. As a by-product, you have also developed the muscles necessary to be more fiscally prudent and pragmatic (ideally). Your spending is no longer mindless; it’s deliberate and focused, and hopefully driven by different habits because becoming debt free was intense and hard won.

This idea has been floating through my head the past few days… could the concept of a debt snowball also be applied to expectational debt? What if we were to, effectively, stop the promise wagon for awhile, line up our expectations from the smallest to the largest, and then plow all of our energies into completing those items that suck up our time or our energies? What could we accomplish? What would we be able to “ship” that we haven’t been able to? How much of our time and attention could we divert from the niggling “oh, one of these days I’m going to do that” to “I’m nailing this one, getting it done, and moving on, and nothing is going to stand in my way!” I’m willing to bet that, if we could be more focused and aggressive and approach our time and attention the same way that we approach our financial debts, we could make huge inroads.

“The Hours” has helped me understand just how much time it takes to do certain things, and just how hard it is to properly estimate how long it will take to do certain things. It also has shown me that there are ways to get synergies in what we do. For me, that means doing all I can to find an immediately applicable and actionable aspect to what I am reading and working with. If I am reading about a  programming language or a technique with that language, it’s tempting to play through all of the scenarios and methods described, do the examples, and practice with it, and then “oh yeah, let me see if I can use this in my work.” The problem is, often by the time we get to the “use in my work”, other issues have popped up and grabbed our attention. Thus, the better approach is to find what we are working on and make it applicable immediately. Yes, read through the examples, but instead of going through and repeating the examples and assignments by rote, make your work problem or challenge the first thing you focus on with that new knowledge. This way, instead of taking time to learn, and then practice, and then apply it to a problem later, you practice with the technique while you are looking to solve a particular problem. We already do this much of the time, this is just a more mindful way of doing it.

Will there be false starts? Sure, but again, the idea is that this is a way to start building muscles we either have neglected, or haven’t really built. I remember my friend Jon, a musician in the same scene as me 25 years ago. we were talking about music theory once, and I kept saying “Yeah, I wish I had the time to learn theory”. He said:

“I learned theory by writing a song every single day. Granted, some of those songs were horrible, but that was my goal; write a song, every single day. Each day, I focused on some new aspect, some new tip or technique, and sure, it took me a few years, but finally, I could write songs every day and have them be unique and different.” 

The key thing Jon did was that he immediately applied what he learned. He didn’t wait for mastery; he let the mastery come with doing what mattered to him. Sure, he could have mastered the theory part first by doing all the recommended exercises. Instead, he figured it would be time better spent applying everything he learned immediately, even if it meant going down a number of dead ends.

Regardless of the approach, the best way to avoid expectational debt entirely is to never make promises. Unlike financial debt, that’s just not possible (or should I say, it’s not possible if we want to live a fulfilling and involved life with others). Since it’s not possible, and expectational debt is somewhat “unavoidable”, it’s then wise to find ways to minimize it where we can, and leverage the opportunities we do have to lessen its grip.