Or how to save you from yourself. Forever.
Backstops are a decision implemented in your life you’ve made to catch yourself from moving past a pre-planned terminus.
We’re all smarter when we make decisions in advance. Our decisions are better, our outcomes more positive, and our satisfaction with ourselves increases as our decisions help us finish the things we start. These decisions help control our outcomes and steer ourselves to the places we want to go.
Naturally, we can’t always know the complete information set required to make a great decision before its time to make the choice, but lots of times we can. Yet we still don’t.
Because it’s hard.
and it’s much easier to accept an external locus of control than to try and deliberately make our way through life. Yet. There’s a specific type of decision I learned to make while being dirty for 4 years that can help us make decisions for the things we CAN control. The decision to make a backstop.
It turns out to be kind of hard to travel through the woods. Even with a GPS, it’s an imprecise art and it’s pretty easy to drift off course in even the best of conditions. At night, in bad weather, and when you’re stressed and bad guys are chasing you? Forget about it. You’re going to eventually end up somewhere you didn’t want to be.
In anticipation of this, we memorize significant landmarks (a particular mountain, a swamp that curves a weird way, the only river on your map, etc) as a way to trigger our brain that “Hey, I need to re-check my map and change my plan right now to get to where I want to go”.
A good backstop should be:
Generally in the direction you’re going (or deliberately along the path as a guardrail to stop you from going a false direction)
Located early enough in your journey to make sure you can adjust your route in time.
A backstop in life works the same way.
Do you regularly wait too long before you start working on a project that’s due? (literally me rn)
Commit on Project Day 1 to a specific date and time for a progress review on the work you should be doing. Blow past that and you’ll be well aware you’re going down the wrong path.
Are you not making enough progress toward your one metric that matters? (stop this personal attack pls)
Write down what the leading indicator that feeds that goal metric should be each week for the next 8 weeks. Check it every Sunday to see if you’re on pace.
Regularly overspend your time on low value tasks? (How do you know all this!?)
Set a meeting for immediately after your allocated low value task time block. The time pressure often forces prioritization in a way unstructured space conveniently let’s you avoid.
This last one is honestly my favorite one. It’s simple and messing it up impacts other people which means I’m not going to mess it up because I’m mortally anxious about wasting other people’s time.
Figure out how to outsmart yourself like this and you’ll eventually achieve your goals.
At the end of the day, we thoughtfully allocate time to tasks and then somehow let the tasks make the decisions in the moment. All your beautiful pre-optimization goes to waste because you don’t actually follow through with your brilliant plan! You deserve better.
Backstops are a simple fix to make simple progress.
They’re a tangible reminder to yourself that you are off your path.
Don’t underestimate the power in that.
In truth, I’m running into my backstop meeting for this essay right now.
So I’ll sign off and wish you luck as you set some backstops for the day ahead.
I hope this added value to your day.
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