A Very Short Post: Why Efficiency Makes Me Eat My Lunch For Breakfast

I’m big into efficiency, so it’s not surprising that, when I made my wife a paper-bagged sandwich for lunch yesterday morning, I made myself one too.

Saving time! Efficiency!

But all it did was give me a ready-made, right-there, on-demand, how-can-I-possibly-ignore-this sandwich right there next to the Brita pitcher… all morning.

The sandwich made it until about 10. Because double digits or something — close enough to lunch, right?

No, not really.

Come 12, I made another sandwich. 


Efficiency, for its own sake, isn’t enough.


(NOTE: My book, Long Term Person, Short Term World, is $1 for the next few weeks and free on Thursday, August 3 and Friday, August 4. If you already own it or have already read it, would you mind encouraging others to check it out? Thank you!)


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Lessons from Stoic Philosophy That Challenge How We Set Goals

Of the additions I make to the SMART Method (using the not-so-clever name of ‘SMARTEST Method’), Epictetus (the 'E' in 'SMARTEST) is probably most popular. Actually, it’s probably the part I’ve received the most positive feedback about. 

Basic Premise

According to most, “accomplishment” of a goal is:

Person sought X.

Person did Y.

Person got X because of doing Y.

This conception ignores the role of other people and circumstances that we have little, if any, control over. As a result of this widespread misbelief, society judges our actions by the outcome.

This is wrong. Here’s why:

  1. Our lives are governed by uncertainty — and there’s little we can do about it. We like to pretend otherwise — it makes us feel safer.
  2. We commit errors of logic by presuming that getting X means Y was effective, and conversely, that not getting X means Y was ineffective.

According to Epictetus, a Stoic philosopher, there are three types of “things” in this world:

  • those entirely in our control (the few);
  • those outside our control (the many); and
  • those we have some control over (where the important action is.)

Applied to Goals

It does us no good to define goals that can only be accomplished if other people and events happen to go our way. Instead, define your goals based on what you have at least some control over.

For example, consider the goal of “winning a poker tournament.” Poker, like life and everything in it, is affected by other people’s actions and general uncertainty. You may or may not get the cards you need; you have little control over other players’ actions, etc. You could play the best poker of your life and still lose the tournament — it happens to poker professionals all the time.

If, instead, you turn this goal into “play the best poker of my life in the tournament,” then this goal can be accomplished. It is entirely within your control.

Other Examples

  • “Be a professional writer” requires other people to buy your book. “Self — publish a book”, however, is almost entirely within your control.
  • “Get a promotion” depends upon your supervisors, company profits, office politics, bias, etc. “Make 1,000 sales calls”, on the other hand, is a goal because it is in your control. It puts you in position to receive a promotion, but the goal is achieved whether you receive the promotion or not.


Define your goals so you — and no one else — is in the driver’s seat. Then you can learn from your actions, not your outcomes.


For more on Epictetus and goal management, check out my book.



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Meaning, Context, and Culture: Banishing “What do you do?” to the realm of other meaningless questions

As I’ve previously written about, How are you? is a meaningless phrase: a weightless vehicle for context and tone.

Then there’s the opposite problem: words that carry too much weight, leaving no room for context.

“What do you do?” is such a question.


When this question is asked, the questioner is specifically asking:

1. How do you earn money? 

(Or, if you don’t earn money because you’re raising a child, how your spouse earns money, or, if you’re unemployed, how you want to earn money.)

2. What life decisions have you made? 

(Not just your current title and current company, but your occupation generally. Certainly this says something about you!)

3. Where are you going next? 

(Because jobs are seen as mere steps on a ladder, and presumably you want to keep climbing, right?)

4. How do you compare to me? 

(Because now that person has created a situation where it’s awkward if you then don’t ask “What do you do?” too.)

5. What should we talk about next? 

(Rarely is “What do you do?” the end of a conversation. The question was asked in order to find a way to keep the conversation going. Perhaps the noblest of the reasons.)

I’m 34 years old, and until very recently, I had to either answer “I’m in school” or “I’m trying to…”

Now I can say, “I’m a professor.”

Of course, I much prefer saying the latter — you know, being an actual noun.

But in none of these cases was my answer, in any way, reflective of what I “do.”

Because I don’t do one thing. I do lots of things. And we all do lots of things. We’re more than our jobs, more than how we earn money. (In fact, I would argue that if we’re just “doing” one thing, we’re suppressing our aspirations, missing the chance to turn them into actually-achievable goals.

Prior to college, I decided that I liked Teaching and Mentoring, so I’d be an elementary school teacher.

Then I decided that, because I also liked Writing, I’d be a high school English teacher.

Then 9/11 happened and I decided that, because I liked Writing and (now) Politics, I’d write speeches for political candidates.

Then a family member went to prison and I became interested in the Law. And because I still liked Writing and Politics, I’d become a lawyer and maybe, someday, a politician. (Makes me cringe now.)

In law school, I decided that, because I still liked Mentoring and Teaching, I’d tutor the Law School Admissions Test and the Bar Exam.

After law school, because I realized that I liked Research — and that I liked Politics, Writing, Teaching, and Mentoring more than practicing the Law — I decided to become a professor of public policy.

Although I’ve chosen my profession, and although my answer to the “What do you do?” question will be the same for the foreseeable future, under the surface, I’m always changing.

So I’m always listening.


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