Thursday, August 14, 2008

Trust but Verify (or: I have a mind like a steel sieve.)

One of the fundamental principles of "Getting Things Done" is to establish and rely upon a "trusted system" to free brain cells for thinking, rather than remembering.

Today I learned how this good advice can be taken a bit too far.

I have a magpie-like tendency to collect casually-mentioned social information in my calendar in the form of dated but untimed notes. If a friend mentions that they're expecting a baby next October, I might put a note on October 1st with "So-and-so's baby due". When a cousin mentions the closing date on his new house, I scribble or enter it in the notes for that day.

Life gets busy, and it's hard enough to keep track of my own comings and goings, never mind those of the people I care about. So these little reminders help me remember others' important milestones, without taking up too much of my limited and taxed bandwidth.

This system has saved me from making awkward and inappropriate comments on more than one occasion. Sometimes I get to masquerade as a more thoughtful and caring person than I really am. Other times, this technique counterbalances an absentmindedness that could otherwise be mistaken for a lack of interest.

hybrid notebook system for notetaking

But, like any system, it is merely a tool. One can't rely on auto-pilot for take-off and landing.

Two years ago, a friend mentioned the date of her son's bar mitzvah in passing, and I quietly blocked off that weekend in my calendar. I wanted to be sure to be available to help. For her older children, I helped design, print, and stuff the invitations, hosted overnight guests, and was involved with much of the general schlepping and fretting associated with running the events.

I had every expectation to be similarly involved with her son's bar mitzvah.

So, as you can imagine, I was surprised and disappointed last week, when I went to book something for two weeks from now and saw it conflicted with the time I had blocked off.

The last time I spoke with my friend was the beginning of the Summer. I didn't give it much thought, because all of her children go to sleep-away camp, and she has a demanding career.

But, here was the reminder of this major family milestone, and she hadn't mentioned word one about the upcoming events. Clearly, I was not consulted because our family wasn't invited.

I started to agitate about this. Did I do something wrong? Did I offend her or her family in some way? Was I supposed to have done something that I forgot about? No. She must have had some need to cut off the guest list at a much smaller number than last time.

Or maybe she did invite us, and I misplaced the invitation. Maybe she didn't consult with me because she didn't really like the invitations last time, and she didn't want to be insulting. Or maybe it got lost in the mail. Maybe she's annoyed with me for not responding to this invitation I don't remember receiving. She could be sitting at home, right now, aggravated because she never received a response from me.

So, I spent the past week obsessing about this, making myself crazy with anxious speculation:

Should I call her and ask how the plans are going? No. If she didn't call to discuss the plans, maybe she's hoping that I won't remember them. Bringing it up would embarrass her. Or me.

Should I call her, just to chat, and see if she mentions it on her own? No. There isn't any precedent for phone chatting in our relationship, and she's probably really busy with the preparations. This would be the last thing she needs. Besides, it might seem like a hint for an invite, which would be awkward and annoying for both of us.

Maybe I should just buy the gift and send it now. But that's also easily interpreted as hint-like. What if I send the gift now, and get the invitation next week? Then it will clearly have been an afterthought to have invited us, and we shouldn't attend. If she invited us out of a feeling of obligation or guilt, our company would bring no pleasure and just increase her catering bill.

If we're not invited, do we send the same size gift as if we were? Is that very question fair, reasonable, or petty?

I could call our close mutual friend, and ask if she's helping. No. That's not fair, putting her in the middle of things.

I was hurt. And I was annoyed with myself for feeling hurt. There are so many factors in compiling a guest list, not the least of which is the cost of the event. Nobody's budget is infinite. The list has to be cut somewhere. How dare I presume that I'd be invited.

Perhaps we're not as close as I thought we were. Or maybe, she opted for a family-only celebration. But if she did that, I would have expected some mention of it. But then again....

This morning, I just couldn't stand it any more. I had to make a decision about scheduling something else on that date, and decided it was ridiculous to keep it blocked off just in case we were invited last-minute.

I saw it, just as I was contriving a pretext for the call while looking up her phone number. In the notes next to her phone number was the date of her son's bar mitzvah. In 2009. Next year.

The news is full of people blindly following their GPS instructions, driving off cliffs, bridges, and off the road, ignoring visible hazards. (Like Howie Carr says, "Who're you gonna believe? Me, or your lying eyes?")

I let my system steer me off a cliff, despite all the contrary evidence of our many years of friendship.

Maybe I'll show her this post. I don't know. I'm a bit embarrassed about the whole thing.

But for sure, I've learned a lesson about not putting more trust in a system than in a valued relationship.

14 comments, so far. Add yours now!

Post a Comment

Anonymous said...

This post reminded me of what happened to my niece before her son's Bar Mitzvah. She is super-organized and always planning and preparing everything in advance. So, of course she went to book the hall, to make sure that the date will be available. She wound up booking it for the wrong year! LOL

If there is any response to this comment (not that I am expecting any. This is not a hint :) ), it should go to my email below since that is the only way I would get it.

Phyllis Sommer said...

i must admit, as i was reading this post, i was cooking up all sorts of reasons in my head why the bar mitzvah might not be happening, or things had changed, or never even occurred to me that you might just have the date wrong!:-) just goes to show, sometimes it's the simplest answer.

Anonymous said...

B"H. I like the idea that things like that truly do happen, because I spend so much time cooking up the "see the other side before I judge/feel bad/etc" scenarios, that when I hear a true story, I am so relieved to know that they are real sometimes!

SuMMy said...

Good idea entering reminder dates.

I'm glad there was a happy ending.

I'm happy to see another orthodox GTDer. You may be interested in:
How To Build A Shabbos Making Machine

Jack Steiner said...

I love my GPS, but one of the lessons that I learned early on was to pay attention to the road first and the GPS second.

I can't say that I drove off a cliff, but I did encounter a couple of complications that I would have avoided had I only thought about it.

But then again I am really good at doing things the hard way.

RivkA with a capital A said...

Always assume the best.

If you think you are "that close", then you probably are.

So, call next time, right away.

Think of the laugh you would have had!

therapydoc said...

I love that post because it's so true. We try, try, try to get the social stuff right, and then when we make a mistake, spend hours trying to figure out what we did wrong and how we should fix it without ever checking the facts.


Anonymous said...

Heh. That's something I would do. I wrote off a friend entirely because she kept on ignoring my emails. I assumed she was giving me the brush off. Then one day she emailed me and said she was really bummed that I never emailed her anymore and apologized for not calling or emailing herself. I told her that I had sent her quite a few emails, the most recent just a few weeks ago. I am sure you are predicting where my emails had gone. She emailed me back a screen shot with my most recent email in her spam folder.

Batya said...

Great post m'dear. It's so easy to obsess, and usually there are those surprise endings.

talmudita said...

So cool to see another Orthodox GTDer! I'm just starting, but your system looks awesome, despite the mix-up you wrote about.

Juggling Frogs said...


I can relate! There is no perfect system, no perfect user. But life does work more smoothly with an imperfect system than with none at all! (I'll e-mail this to you, too.)

Rabbi Phyllis,

I think the simplest (and most benign) answer is most often the case. Somehow, we get ensnared in hypotheticals, worked up with worst-case scenarios...

When I was an engineer, it often seemed like 90% of the world's problems amounted to a power cable being unplugged.


I've had the most contorted and unlikely "benefit of the doubt" alternative suggestions turn out to be true.

Just brainstorming these types of "dan l'chaf zchut" excuses for someone is a great psychological mechanism. Even if they're absurd, they could turn out to be closer to what happened than our worst (usually paranoid, pessimistic, or depressing) fears. At a minimum, it provides a harmless distraction and a way to avoid catastrophizing.


Welcome! Your Shabbos Machine post is an interesting take on making the preparations productive.


The "hard way" makes for some interesting blog posts.


But, if I *had* called, I'd have revealed that I forgot how old her son is... Not good! Of course, I have trouble remembering my own age, too. But still...


Thank you. It's things like this that prove the title of your blog, Everyone Needs Therapy!


In first grade, my son's teacher set up a black and white composition notebook for communicating with each child's parents.

I was so annoyed with my son's teacher because she never responded to my notes. Meanwhile, she was miffed that I was ignoring hers.

It wasn't until I marched into his classroom, fed up with writing to a brick wall, that I learned the truth.

It turned out, that my 6 year old son arranged to have two notebooks: one for us and one for the teacher.

We all laughed about it. I duct-taped the two books together, and all was well.




Thank you, and welcome! Welcome to this blog specifically, and to the blogosphere in general.

Crescendo said...

Honestly... I think more than your system not working, your brain is not working!

As close as you say you think you are to this friend, you should feel close enough to call her up and say: "Hey, you know, I'm confused about..." And go from there. Maybe a little awkward, but certainly better than putting yourself through tangles and overanalyzing things (trust me, I know from experience.) Just pick up the phone next time and ask honestly and say your honest feelings.

Juggling Frogs said...


You're right, of course. It took me that week to work up to the call. If I had reached for her number sooner, I would have seen the date sooner.

She's a friend, but we're not SO close that I knew what was going on in her life right now.

I've helped a bunch of people with their simchas. I love simcha, and particularly relish the role of ego-free de-stressor, clearing away problems and errands so that the baalei simcha can see the simcha through the stress of planning and organizing.

All of this may have come from my insecurity and self-doubt, but I also have run a few simchas of my own.

Whenever I could, I tried to have events as open as possible (like a kiddush lunch, open to the whole shul) rather than closed guest lists, because it is just SO HARD to draw the line and decide whom to invite.

I've agonized over not inviting people - both on my own, and with others who were planning their events. I often help with the invitations, so I'm sometimes there with the family working on the guest list database.

Even those with large budgets and the most generous, expansive attitudes, still have to go through this.

And, the family members don't always agree. I've seen the way spouses negotiate - trading this coworker for that committee member, not inviting that whole branch of cousins because that would mean inviting this other whole family tree over there, etc.

I've suffered from and supported others suffering with remorse from making mistakes. I've also been the recipient of and witness to various reactions of uninvited guests.

It's amazing how much angst, guilt, and stress can be generated during the planning of a simcha.

I work really hard to add to my friends' simchas and subtract stress. If I'm going to err in one direction or another, I want it to be at the expense of my comfort, rather than become a source of stress or hassle.

This may sound extreme, but after playing the role of "stress bodyguard" a number of times, I've come to see those who add to the celebrating family's stress as though they steal the family's simcha.

I know I've gone on and on about this. Maybe this should be a post of its own. It took me a week to build up to the call, because of my insecurities, and because I didn't want to be one of those people I think of as a simcha thief.

Crescendo said...

Wow! Yeah, that does sounds like a lot of emotional work for an event. I remember helping my friend with her wedding and all the drama that went on. It's funny how much it can create.

But one thing I learned is that the most drama was when people gossiped and chatted behind the bride's back about her decisions, instead of coming forward and honestly expressing themselves.

I agree that stress does detract from it!

Maybe it does need a post all of its own, though. :) As a stress body guard you probably have a lot of stress to blow off about the subject! And I would be very interested in hearing more about simchas... I am not knowledgeable in those areas by any stretch of the imagination... find it all very interesting.

And although you posted about your system not working, I think I am still going to copy you on it... righting down the informal things is a great idea! I am building my own GTD-oriented system right now, just before I jump back into school.

Thanks for taking the time to respond to my comment-- makes me feel special! :P

If you liked this article, congratulations! You have great taste. Please brew yourself a cup of coffee.
subscribe to Juggling Frogs