Difficult, Meaningless, Necessary

There are some things in life that are enjoyable and some that are not. Ideally, we have a majority of things in our lives that are enjoyable and then a few that are not so enjoyable. I want to share some ideas and experience in the whole business of “doing what you don’t want to do but seems necessary.”

Really necessary?

Not all things that seem necessary are really necessary. This is the real tough question that we need to face when confronted with the seeming necessity of doing something. And this question is not easy to answer. Let me give you an example. I just made a call to an agent of a company that we do some small business with. Luckily, I got voicemail so I didn’t have to talk to “Laura,” whoever she is. She’s probably a nice person doing her job somewhere in New York or South Dakota. Maybe she works at home and just calls customers. I didn’t really want to talk to Laura, but it seemed a gesture that might take me a minute or two to do, so I made the call. The “please call Laura” note was on my desk for 4 or 5 days. Another document on my desk is a form that I have been asked to fill out for a research study I’ve been in at the University of Wisconsin for 10 or 15 years. I am still staring at this document that I have been asked to fill out. They even promise me for it; I can’t remember how much, maybe $25 or $50. I don’t want to do this but it seems that I “should.” Since I’ve avoided filling out this document for a couple of weeks, I’ll probably get around to doing it today unless something more important comes across my desk. I also made a call to a test distributer this morning that I had been postponing for a week or so, and go my desk is almost clean from stuff I don’t want to do. And I have what insurance companies call a “preauthorization” form so we can get paid for the psychological testing that we do all the time. It’s a chore, but I can usually get it accomplished in about 5 minutes and then give it to Cheri to kindly put it on the Internet to the insurance company.

These trivial tasks are not particularly important but do take some emotional energy, whether avoiding or doing, because they are things that I don’t want to do, things that don’t really give me much pleasure, aside from having them off my desk. But larger questions and seeming important things are harder to decide about. Deb and I have a supporting wall in our house that seems to need some repair, probably serious repair. I have looked at this bulging wall in the basement for years and haven’t decided what to do, or if to do anything about it. The decision about doing something about the collapsing wall is much more serious, much more costly, and much more something that I don’t want to do. (I would hire it out, not do it myself.) It is notable that there is a certain amount of emotional energy that goes into the thinking, feeling, and wondering about such projects.

Emotional energy

This is quite important, namely that “things that I don’t want to do but seem to things that I should do” take a bit of a toll on me, as they certainly do on you. The question is always first, “Should or Should not,” but then the questions “When and How?” come up pretty quickly. While waiting and wondering, it is impossible to put such things entirely out of you mind, so there is a tendency to think too much, worry too much, and probably avoid too much. Such decisions, namely the “should/should not/when/if/how” questions are not easily made. There is always a cost, not only a financial cost, like with the basement wall, but also the emotional cost, and the rational cost. So, should I fix the basement wall for maybe $10,000 or give that amount to the Salvation Army folks who are ministering to people in Indonesia? Too often people end up thinking too much while trying to push their mixed feelings away.

Dealing with the emotional element of such questions is of utmost importance, but this is no easy task because it means, without a doubt, that you will have some loss. You will lose something and gain something. You will buy something and have less money, or you will not buy something and do without the something that you want. So there is no way out of feeling sad when you face such decisions. Deb and I have written extensively about this in our book noting that sadness is an essential element in life. And it is certainly an essential element in decision-making, especially when it comes to large and important decisions.

The four questions of decision-making

We have worked with this “four question format of decision-making” for some time and have found it valuable. The four questions are:

  • Is it necessary to be done?
  • Can I do it?
  • Do I want to do it?
  • Should I do it?

Answering these questions is not as easy as it might seem. Furthermore, it is of utmost importance that you ask the third question, “Do I want to do it?” because most people skip right over this question having answered “yes” to question 2, “Can I do it?” mistakenly thinking that if they are capable of doing something, they should do it. When someone is capable of doing something, sometimes s/he wants to do it, sometimes not. Finally, when you get to the fourth question, “Should I do it?” the answer could be “yes” or “no” but the answer needs to be whether you really think that you should do it or not. This is complicated because sometimes the “something” shouldn’t actually be done, at least by you, and sometimes the “something” should be done by you. Here is where you have to be very honest. Just because you don’t want to do it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t do it; just because you want to do it, doesn’t mean that you should do it. But know this: when you actually decide to do it or not do it, you will feel both joy and sorrow: joy for having done it and sorrow for having done it; or joy for having not done it and sorrow for having not it. You have to accept both of these feelings. You might profit from the 80/20 rule.

The 80/20 rule

We use the “80/20” rule in such things, i.e. life should be about 80% about things that we enjoy and about 20% things that we don’t enjoy but seem necessary. But we also know that the lives of many people don’t reach the 80% enjoyable, and sometimes barely reach the level of 20% enjoyable. We meet such people every day in our work and often in our other contacts in life, whether friends, family, or brief encounters we have.

This is a whole lot harder than it seems to do. You can assess how you are doing in your life of doing and not doing by seeing how much of your life you enjoy. Hopefully, you enjoy most of your life, like 80% of it, because you are doing most of what you want. It might be helpful to consider the “spectrum of like/dislike” that we often use.

The Like/Dislike Spectrum

Consider the following spectrum of what you like and dislike from strongly like to strongly dislike with several stops in between:

Strong positive                                    Neutral                                    Strong negative

______________________________________________________________________________

Necessary //Good (for me) //Important //Like// Dislike //Unimportant //Bad (for me)// Harmful

Consider something, someone, some place, some idea, or some project in your life and see if you can place that thing, person, place, idea, or project on this line somewhere. You may have, for instance, an acquaintance who is not particularly important in your life but you like him, or you may have someone who had a place in your life that you really like and hence is “good for you.” Now consider a project that seemingly needs to be done and place it on this spectrum, say, on the “negative” side of “don’t like” very much. Once you place the project on this line, you will see that it is a bit easier to decide whether to do it or not do it. Just because you really like a project doesn’t mean you should do it, and just because you really don’t want to do it, doesn’t mean that you should not do it. Just note how you feel, which is the operative word. Once you see how you feel, you can respect your feelings and then proceed with deciding whether to do the project, like it or not, do it or not. You have been honest to your feelings first, then have taken action (yes or no).

Difficult, necessary, meaningless

Perhaps the most meaningless tasks I have to do are the insurance preauthorizations, namely filling out an inane form that describes in objective forms what I am doing with a patient in subjective terms. How can I quantify that I care for him and see my caring as important? How can I quantify the profit that may come to a child with whom I just play marbles (because neither of her parents ever plays with her), perhaps giving this girl a sense of joy and connection? You may have some meaningless things to do in your life that are necessary for you to do, just like it think it is necessary for me to see little Sarah. It’s a small price to pay.

On the other hand there are many meaningless things that are “bad for me” or “intolerable” after the system of like/dislike noted above. Then, no matter what the cost, no matter what the loss, no matter what anyone thinks of me, I shouldn’t do them. Know that there is some danger of “pushing” the “don’t like” way out to the harmful on the spectrum just because you don’t like it.

The task is to differentiate the truly necessary and valuable in a world that seems to require some much meaningless activity. So, by the way, I have successfully avoided completing the University form in favor of doing this blog.

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