04 March 2006

The (Substantially Amended) Traffic-Light Theory of Achievement

Morning traffic seems to generate lots of ideas for me. I guess I’ll have to look elsewhere for inspiration in my future dream life--the one in which I get to avoid my fellow citizens on the roadways.

If you do any city driving at all, you’ll know this phenomenon: You’re going right at the speed limit, one stop light turns green right as you come to it, and then you hit a long string of lights all timed to the flow of traffic. When it’s really going well, it goes beyond even what the traffic engineers intended: you hit a string of lights, there’s no traffic to prevent your left turn, and then you hit another string of lights on a second street. A 25-minute drive downtown takes 11 minutes, and you wonder why life can’t always be this way.

You also know the converse case: You’re running just a little late. When you’re about to get in your car to leave for the day, you have to pop back inside because you forgot your briefcase/cellphone/lunch/iguana, and from then on things go haywire. You need to merge onto a busy street . . . but you miss a huge gap in traffic by two seconds, and then you’re waiting four minutes while an improbably huge convoy of morning commuters rushes by. Finally you merge, you drive down to the corner . . . just as the turn signal changes from yellow to red. You wait. You miss the next light after you turn. A little old lady pulls out in front of you at the last second--you have to brake hard--and then you’re stuck behind her, traveling way below the speed limit, for 46 blocks. Finally she sails her Skylark through a stale amber light at 22 m.p.h., and you’re left to wait at still another light. Your 25-minute trip downtown seems to take all afternoon.

Okay, maybe I’ve spent a little too long setting up my metaphor here, but my head is stocked with images like these because I encounter them every day. Bear with me, thought, because there’s something to be learned from these experiences.

What’s the difference between the happy first scenario and the teeth-grinding second scenario? We can observe that the difference started small at the outset, then turned large as time went on--but why? The answer, I think, is chokepoints, represented in the form of stop lights and other intersections. Most of the time when we drive, there’s no reason to speed, because these chokepoints will keep us from getting too far ahead anyway. But when we work within the system, and when we leave a little earlier in the morning . . . things seem to just flow.

Don Aslett talks about this effect in his estimable book How to Have a 48-Hour Day. He offers many examples of the benefits of being early versus the penalties for being late. Latecomers have to park in the boonies and hike in, but when you’re early, you can take your pick of prime spots and back your car in if you want to. Aslett's so convinced of the wisdom of this that he fills a whole page of his book with the words “BE EARLY” in three-inch-tall letters. Being early helps us to circumvent chokepoints. It gives us time to route around them, or sail through them, or wait without stress when they do snare us.

This even helps for tasks that mostly answer to steady, sustained work. Getting in shape, for example, requires not huge, periodic efforts, but steady effort applied regularly over time. Even then, though, there are chokepoints. You should go to the doctor for a checkup before you start a serious workout program, but for as long as you fail to make the appointment and go, that checkup serves as a chokepoint. If you’ve been meaning to shop for a gym but haven’t gotten around to it, that’s a chokepoint. Finding a workout buddy could be a chokepoint. Until you get through these, you might as well be stuck at a red light.

The steadiest producers stay steady because they don’t let little things like this turn into interminable red lights. Prolific book writers bang out the prose at their safe “speed limit” even on the days when they don’t feel like it. As soon as they’re done, they go on to the next proposal, the next outline, the next rough draft. It’s the same for the best salesmen I know: they don’t put in heroic efforts at the end of the month, but call on potential customers at a good tempo day in and day out.

Low achievers--and I speak from experience here, having been one in many areas--do the reverse. They putter along. They slow down in fear that the upcoming green light will turn amber, rather than better estimating the distance, maintaining their speed, and sailing through without even flirting with the red light. They wait for the ideal opening to merge with traffic, instead of taking the first safe opening. They leave late and arrive later.

Life has certain built-in delays and a few unavoidable chokepoints. There is only so fast you can grow a crop, earn a degree, or mature a vintage of wine. That’s fine: prepare for these constraints in advance and you can still come out ahead. But don’t lengthen the waiting by imposing delays of your own. You don’t have to speed, but when you see a makeable opportunity ahead of you, keep up a steady pace; otherwise the opportunity may be gone by the time you get there. Take advantage of this opportunity so you'll be in time to take advantage of the next one.

You know, when I first posted this, the final paragraph read like this:
Think about the next “stop light” in your own life. What is that chokepoint between you and your ambitions? Commit yourself to reaching that light early so that you can also make the next one, and the next. Finish this leg of your trip through life earlier--and with less stress--so you can better enjoy both the trip and the destination.
You know what? This is all projection, my faux-wise way of telling you how to be. Maybe what I've said here will be helpful to you, but regardless, you can live your own life in your own way. Meanwhile I need to take this advice, thinking of my own "stop lights" and how I might work around them.

Here's the story I ducked away from in the first version:

I just wrote a check for $133 to Austin's municipal court to pay a traffic fine. The ticket was for an expired inspection sticker, which I had let lapse because . . . well, there was no special reason. I just didn't pay attention to it--like a driver who doesn't pay attention on the roadway and misses a light he could have made.

I got the ticket at a traffic stop in the neighborhood just west of the UT campus. I was circling the neighborhood looking for a place to park. Ordinarily I wouldn't try to park there, since it's usually quite crowded on a Tuesday afternoon, but on this day my schedule was awry and I hoped I could find something. I trawled through the neighborhood fruitlessly for a few minutes, got stopped and ticketed, and then finally gave in and paid $10 to park in a garage next to campus.

My schedule was so awry because I had interrupted my work to go downtown in the middle of the afternoon to buy a nice bottle of scotch for one of my professors; I took it to him during his office hours that day. I had to interrupt my work to do this because I had neglected, despite repeated reminders to myself, to buy the scotch at a more convenient time in the wine shop in my own neighborhood.

The bottle of scotch was a peace offering to my professor because I had taken many extra months to finish a seminar paper that had been due--technically speaking, you understand--last May. The professor knew I was working on it, I had talked to him about the paper, but mostly I just dragged my ass and didn't get it done. Finally, after hundreds of pages of notes and dozens of pages of typewritten draftwork, I just hauled the thing into some sort or order, lopped off the parts that made the least sense or were the least developed, and stopped work on it. Let me just skip over any long description of the months of background stress this paper brought to my life.

I took a long time on the paper mostly because I wanted to impress the professor. I admire him hugely and want him to think highly of me. He wasn't angry to receive the paper so late, he knew I was trying, but this was hardly the way for me to impress him with my ability to deliver a finished project. Hundreds of hours of research and writing amounted to . . . not that much, when I read over the final draft.

After I got the ticket I went to get the car inspected. Well, a week intervened because . . . because I didn't get my butt in gear. I needed the car to pass inspection so I could make my appearance in municipal court and get off with no more than a $10 appearance fee. But the car didn't pass inspection because of a "Check Engine" light that I had studiously ignored for, oh, a few months. Why? Probably the fear that it would ultimately cost $800 or something to fix the car . . . which it did, after the car failed the inspection and after I was able to spend a day at home while the local shop fixed it and after the get-off-cheap court appearance date had passed.

$40 for scotch.
$10 for garage parking.
$133 for the ticket.
$800 for car repairs.
$28 for the failed inspection.
Months of stress wondering when I would get my seminar paper finished.
Weeks of stress over the ticket, the failed inspection, and the car repair.
Wasted time that can never be regained.

Sure, maybe the car would have needed the $800 repair anyway. But maybe the bill wouldn't have been so bad, or maybe it could have come in two parts to make it easier to swallow.

The solution to this would have been to finish the seminar paper last May when it was due--to keep up the pace and make that first green light. I could have gotten the car checked out when the "Check Engine" light first came on, which was before the inspection expired. Then I could have gotten the car inspected before it was overdue. All of these were green lights waiting for me to make them, but I didn't get my act together. I'm wondering how much I might have accomplished in the interim if I had.

That's the real story. That's why I retract any effort to tell you how to live your life in this vein. All I can say now is: I'm trying not to repeat this experience in my own life; please take this story as an example of how not to lead your own.

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