Sunday, March 25, 2007

Finding out what you want to do

Let's say, you have some time on hand. Do you feel afterwards that you simply whiled it away without using that rare opportunity to do something either you enjoyed or mattered to you? Many times we do. We would have whiled away a nice afternoon browsing the net aimlessly, searching for the 10th time some update on a news story we are actively following. But, if this was not what you wanted to do then a strong wave of regret that follows can easily push you into depression.

Came across this simple exercise somewhere (not sure but may be from one of Brian Tracy's books). Idea is simple. First start listing as many activities you can. You can write anything and everything. More activities the better. As they say - "best way to get  a good idea is to first get a lot of ideas".

It is better to do this exercise on some spreadsheet program. You can do it on paper too but you would not have the benefit of being able to sort, change etc. easily.

To being with a simple spreadsheet with just two columns suffices. First column to list the activity. Second column to assign some factor to quantify how much you enjoy doing that. Let's stick to higher the number lower the enjoyment factor.

After you think you have written up good number of activities (say 15-20), start assigning priorities to them in the next column. Do not worry about repeating priorities. You can assign multiple ones for those activities that you enjoy almost equally. So on multiple 2s and 3s and 4s as needed.

Now sort the spreadsheet by using the priority and in the ascending order. So, you should get a list of activities sorted with the enjoyment factor in the priority order.

If you have listed good number of activities. You will have at least a few activities with same enjoyment factor. But, the fun is to resolve the tie. So, start with the first row. How many ones you have? Let's say 3 activities with enjoyment factor 1. All 3 can not have enjoyment factor of 1. So, what we do is to make 2 of the 3 activities with enjoyment factor 2. That's it for this part of exercise. So, now you have one activity with priority 1 clearly identified.

Now sort the entire list in the same fashion as did before. What do you have now? One activity with enjoyment factor 1 clearly identified at the top and whole bunch of activities with many requiring ties to resolved. Start the process again. So, how many activities with enjoyment factor 2 you have? At least 2 in this case because we had 3 activities with factor 1 and we made 2 of them with 2. So, now break the tie between activities with enjoyment factor 2. Remember only thing to do is to choose the one you think deserves priority 2, leave that like that and assigning the priority of 3 to remaining activities with priority 2. Sort the list and repeat.

This can get quite involving if you try it sincerely and can be useful in identifying a list of activities you really enjoy. But, point is break the tie incrementally and not randomly. Every activity can be downgraded by a factor of 1 only at any iteration so that it has a fair chance to compete with other activities. It does not make sense to attach the enjoyment factor of 15 to an activity that you originally assigned 3. When you assigned enjoyment factors the very first time, chances are you got them quite right as your intuition was at work. Incremental refining  only takes it to the next level.

This simple spreadsheet can be extended in innumerable ways. Next may be to add another column say utility factor. Enjoyment factor is one criterion and the second criterion is utility factor. Utility factor can be viewed as return on investment. While doing an activity you are doing, you have to invest time and other resources. What did you get out of it? Enjoyment is certainly one thing but it helps to consider utility as well.

So, now start assigning utility factor to each activity in the same fashion as you assigned enjoyment factor. Value 1 means you reap maximum  benefits from doing what that particular activity. Value 2 means little less than maximum and so on. In this case also do not worry if you assign same utility factor to multiple activities.

Now sort the list with using enjoyment factor as the first criteria and utility factor as second criteria. Now, it is time resolve ties between utility factors. Do it the same way. Shifting the utility factor by 1 for every activity that does not merit a particular factor. Sorting after each set of reassignment is important to get the most updates list.

The product of enjoyment factor and utility factor gives the net ranking of an activity. Basically we want to do those activities that we enjoy most and that benefit us most.

Some examples (individual choices vary :))

Enjoy 1, benefit 1 - Reading
Enjoy 3, benefit 2 - Exercise
Enjoy 2, benefit 3 - Movies
Enjoy 4, benefit 4 - Shopping

As you can see, there can be ties in the net ranking. Exercise and movies in this case. Product of two factors is same (i.e. 6). What to do in this case? One way is to introduce another factor or attach different weightings to enjoyment and utility. That is to say - factor 1 in utility means more than factor 1 in enjoyment.  So, in the above case, someone who puts more weight on benefit will rank exercise higher than movies although product is same for both of them.

You can add other columns such as which activity takes other people, what is relative cost factor, risk factor and so on and fun never ends. You can introduce another factor that is last done and weight it inversely so that you do get to do some activities even if you do not enjoy them much nor are they too useful. It's important to make time for such at least once in a while else it gets too routine doing only high ranking activities.

If I remember correctly, this exercise was originally created to help people understand there are a lot of activities they enjoy which they can do with friends and family and do not require any money or major effort to do them. In other words, the message was 'it does not take much money to have a lot of fun.' For those of us who understand that already or money is not a concern (lucky ones), that is a moot point.

Have fun.


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