I’ve been writing daily for 3 months, so you’d think I have a mass of content to output.
But I’ve had a week since the last post, a looming deadline in 35 minutes, yet I have no post.
I started twice, and failed twice, to produce a blog post that I was happy with.
I was about to go with my backup plan and just shove a TED talk or something up here, when I decided that instead I’d quickly share why I failed this week.
Mistake 1: The Corpse of Memory
Last week, I wrote a post on seeing productivity through the lens of software.
I’m not thrilled with it, but at least it’s original content. Towards the end, I realized I had bit off more than I could chew, and cut it short, “promising” to continue this week.
Well, a few days later when I started writing the sequel, I realized that my ideas had still not solidified. For many days I kept trying to write the followup post, and it just wasn’t going anywhere. As my Tuesday blog post deadline drew closer, I asked myself, “Why do I have to write about this?” and the only answer I could come up with was “I said I would.”
Ok, fair enough. Consistency is important. But the next question was “If I don’t feel it’s valuable yet, wouldn’t it be better for my readers as well if I write something else?”
Then I remembered the following line from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Self-Reliance:
Why should you keep your head over your shoulder? Why drag about this corpse of your memory, lest you contradict somewhat you have stated in this or that public place?
Speak what you think now in hard words, and tomorrow speak what tomorrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said today.
So that was my first mistake: continuing a thread for the sake of a foolish consistency.
Mistake 2: Epic Scope
With a few days left, I started writing about something I do care about, and something I feel is important. (I won’t make Mistake 1 again and tell you what it is, or when I’ll publish it).
My wife and son were out of town this weekend, visiting in-laws, so I had a lot of quiet time to think and work and write. And what I was thinking about was itching to get out of me.
Ah, but as I typed frantically, the minutes counting down to when I have to pick them up at the train station, the post I was writing grew to epic scope. Literally.
I quote both Steve Jobs and Marcus Aurelius. I have images of the vastness of the cosmos, and of tomb stones. I considered recounting in detail the chilling experience I had when facing the sarcophagus of a Pharaoh who’s name is lost in memory. I talk about famous physicists and the vastness of time.
I found myself thrashing about, trying to make an epic subject fit into my less than epic skills, and rapidly diminishing time. In short, I forgot my own advice to focus on Quality and Frequency, and keep the Scope in check.
I need to learn to trust the only barometer for my work that matters to me: “Am I happy in creating it?” For those posts, the answer was “no”.
This post is short, not very deep, but I enjoyed writing it. I laughed out loud when I decided I would scrap the other two.
And as a bonus, I hope that an honest admission of failure is of more value than a half-hearted attempt at rehashing a previous idea, or an incoherent attempt at tackling something grand and cosmic.
Our world is increasingly shaped by software, and I want to prepare my son for this digital future.
In planning my homeschooling approach, I like to play with different ideas. Recently, I wondered “How could one teach the powerful technique of Monte Carlo simulation to a group of 8 year olds?”
I came up with a rough approach that would work with a small group of 9 or more kids, using dice, strips of paper to be passed around, and a (hopefully fun) sequence of actions. My hope would be that the group as a whole would be able to converge on an answer, without any individual discovering it.
The idea of personifying computation is an interesting way of teaching it. But it triggered another thought: what would it look like if we actually used computation as a model for our behavior?
It’s not as silly as it sounds. We all have systems in our lives, chaotic as they might seem. We do certain things and not others, we do some things in a given order. And everyone’s system could be improved in some way. So I wonder…
What if we designed productivity systems
the way we designed software?
My PhD started with an intriguing question: “Why do DNA and other charged polymers attract each other in certain conditions?”
It’s not just counter-intuitive (like-charges should repel), it also goes against the results of simple calculations that you would make for the system.
At first, the question was exciting. A mysterious phenomenon, one that once unraveled might have wide-reaching implications, such as new possibilities for medical implants, or preventing cystic fibrosis patients from drowning in their body’s own fluids.
It was decided (note the passive tense), that “a good project” would be to extend some simulation results published in 1997, using the much greater computational resources available today.
Two years later, I had lost all enthusiasm. My project had stalled. None of the simulations I wrote produced any meaningful results. Nothing I read on the subject of “like-charged attraction” made any sense to me.
I had always assumed that I simply got bored with the drudgery of research. But I recently realized the truth:
My PhD died the minute it stopped being a question and became a “project”.
If you struggle with perfectionism, I understand how you feel. For years, I’ve seen perfectionism as my biggest weakness.
But what if there was a way to work better with perfectionism?
What if perfectionism is not a weakness,
but instead a misused strength?
For me being a perfectionist means living in the constant strain of the gap between what I can envision, and what I can create. And my vision grows faster than my skills, so my choices are: finish imperfectly or not at all.
The common advice is to just “push through” and keep releasing imperfect work until you’re finally able to close that gap.
It seems like sound advice. But taking this approach, it will be years of strain until you get to feel the joy of finishing work and being proud of it.
I will not accept that for myself, and neither should you.
There must be a better way…
How Often are You Proud of Your Work?
Here’s something you may have forgotten:
Pride in your work has nothing to do with its external quality.
Imagine a painter who frequently takes a knife to her work, to the horror of those around her. “Stop! It’s great work!” they say, but she trashes it all the same.
Now imagine a first-time potter, who tries and fails repeatedly to make a small bowl. When he finally finishes, he beams with pride over his misshapen “bowl”.
So which is the perfectionist: the painter or the potter?
They both are.
Why the difference then? Why is one disappointed and strained, while the other is proud and content? Is it temperament? Naivete? Does the painter feel the weight of expectations, while the potter has none?
I spend a lot of time on the floor with my son Zeno, playing with Duplo blocks. I’ll build spaceships or helicopters at his request. He’ll be making random irregular towers, and declaring them to be a “bird”, “elephant”, or “dinosaur”.
He concentrates intently, and when he’s done he’ll clap his little hands and say “Yaay, [z]eeeno!” as he looks at me with a deep and genuine pride.
It seems we are born knowing this, but somehow forget:
Quality is always relative.
He doesn’t care that my blocks are “better”. He doesn’t care that his aren’t as good as he will later be able to make them. All he cares about is that he did the best he could with what he had.
And in the process, he challenged himself just enough to experience flow while working. Naturally and without being taught to, he practiced deliberately on the skills that were just beyond his reach.
Perfect Flow: In Practice
So how can we work with pride and contentment throughout our lives, not just in some distant and imagined future? How can we quietly persist in getting better, when we feel the constant strain of the “gap”, and the expectations we have of our own great potential?
Start with something just beyond your current reach.
Work in flow as long as you need to till you feel proud of what you’ve done.
And only then, release your work into the world.
Most of these content-farm articles are just rehashing the same crap. On the other hand, there are people who go very deep on a topic, and risk overcomplicating things (ahem… someone like me!).
Remember though, productivity is just about three things:
Decide on what you want.
Decide on what you need to do to get it.
Of course, this is very simple, but it’s not easy. For making decisions, we’re constantly fighting the way our brains are wired. It seems that for most decisions we face in our modern lives, our brains are built to focus on the wrong things.
Thankfully, we are “Predictably Irrational”, as Dan Ariely so eloquently put it. And we can dig into the reasons we make poor decisions, and learn how to make better ones.
My favorite kind of books are written by “synthesizers”. People who attack a subject from all angles, trawling data and research and personal experiences, and collecting it into a cohesive framework for you to use. “Good to Great” is one example of this. My favorite team of synthesizers is Chip and Dan Heath.
Their book “Decisive” is one of my all-time most recommended. Since the framework breaks down neatly into sections and lists of techniques, I’ve found myself referring often to the book. But, of course, there’s another way to organize structured information: Gingko Trees!
During my physics PhD, I spend a lot of time working with supercomputers. Before I had direct experience with writing and running code on supercomputers, the image that came to mind for “supercomputer” was something like this:
The reality is far more mundane:
I’ve never actually seen the supercomputer I used to do my PhD work. It was in Toronto, I was in Montreal, at home in my pajamas.
This was in part disappointing (“What, I don’t get a cool security clearance card?”). But in another way, it was kind of awesome. I’d be sitting in my PJ’s at home sending instructions to a multi-storey supercomputer, and telling it what to do.
Besides making my PhD work possible, I received something else from my work there. Something quite unexpected, that I’ve found very useful to me in my daily life.
I found a new model for thinking about my own mind, that allows me to solve problems without thinking about them.
Think about the last time you let a great idea slip away.
Do you remember the terrible moment just as it faded, when the only thing you’re left with is the feeling that it truly was a great idea?
If you live and thrive by the ideas you bring to life, you’ll quickly learn to capture all your ideas. You’ll always carry a pen and a small notebook, or some index cards in the back pocket (my approach). Or use apps like Google Keep or Siri, or any of the thousands of note-taking apps available to you.
You shouldn’t have to worry about ever losing an idea again.
But you now have a new, and more insidious problem:
If you can capture every idea, you still risk losing them among all your other ideas.
This problem is far worse, because it can go undetected until it feels hopeless. And when you realize it, idea capture will start to feel less like creative expression, and more like dropping a slip of paper into a giant rolling raffle barrel.
Efficient Systems Make Things Worse
Having a great system in place, like Getting Things Done, does not solve this problem.
In fact, it could make things worse.
You have an efficient system to capture and process everything.
Your capacity increases, leading to a greater volume of ideas generated.
Since you can’t act on the influx, most of your ideas go into an ever growing “Someday/Maybe” list.
Soon, you reach a tipping point, where adding ideas in the system feels pointless.
You get discouraged, and stop using the system.
In a sense, a great system like GTD (which I swear by), can be part of the problem. By being able to handle more ideas and small tasks, GTD increases your capacity.
Without also changing your mindset from one of scarcity to one of abundance, you’ll just end up hoarding more ideas.
You might think that having too many ideas is a great problem to have. But it’s really only useful in the brainstorming stage of any project with a well-defined outcome. Ideas on their own, orphaned from any goal, are simply mental flotsam that clog up your flow.
If your problem is an overflowing closet, you don’t solve it by getting more storage bins, clever stacking, or “closet hacks”. In other words, you don’t solve the problem by increasing your capacity.
You’re addressing the symptom (“I have too many clothes”) and not the root cause (“Why do I feel inclined to keep things I’m not excited about, and don’t wear?”). Hoarders keep everything because it might be useful “someday”, or because it represents a memory.
But the underlying fear is simple: “What if I can’t replace it when I need to?”
Our bodies and our brains have evolved over millions of years for a “feast or famine” lifestyle. It’s a deep-seated response, so being in a “famine” mindset is a pervasive feeling. The result?
Hoarding ideas makes you feel idea-poor.
The underlying message you’re sending yourself is “This might not be a great idea, but keep it. Just in case you can’t come up with a better ones later.”
If keeping all your ideas, even the mediocre ones, leads to feeling idea-poor, the opposite is also true. Keeping only the best ideas, and trusting yourself to be able to come up with more when needed, leads to something much more important than a well-curated “idea file”.
It leads to sustainable creative confidence.
Achieving Sustainable Creative Confidence
In GTD, the entire process really begins by determining whether an idea or task you’ve captured is “actionable”. I believe this is an absolutely atrocious decision point. It’s true, much of what we think are “todos” aren’t really actionable, and the habit of determining the next action is invaluable. But you could have hundreds of actionable ideas, none of which are worth pursuing.
The fix is quite simple, but it takes practice and discipline to follow through.
It breaks down into three steps, all designed to create a tougher filter to use while processing.
Identify things you truly “Must Do” by asking “Can I live with the consequences?”
Check in with your goals, for each idea or task.
Check in with your desired identity, for each idea or task.
I’ll go through each of these in turn.
1. Focus on Consequences
It’s very easy, especially when overwhelmed, to treat everything as being important and urgent. To avoid this, we need a shortcut to understand whether something truly needs to be done or not.
“Is this important?” or “Do I have to do this?” are not helpful because they draw your attention to the task itself, and not the outcome. You can instead use a “What If?” question to trigger your imagination:
“What would be the consequences if I didn’t do this?“
If you’re honest with yourself, you’ll be surprised at the sheer volume of supposedly urgent or critical tasks that simply do not need to be done. That doesn’t mean that you won’t do them, but having this question first allows you to skip the other filters if you must do the task
2. Check in with your Goals
The second filter is to ask:
“Does this move me toward my goals?“.
Again, simple. But it’s so easy to trick ourselves into simply “being busy”, that it’s worth reflecting on your goals not just weekly, but every time you pick up an item or idea to process.
This not only ensures that you’re moving forward with every task, but it also makes thinking about your goals a frequent habit.
3. Check in with your Desired Identity
Think about this: any worthwhile goal you have would probably take a year or more to achieve. And, despite how sure you might be right now, accomplishing your goal might not actually make you much happier.
With goals, how you reach your goals is at least as important as reaching them. And so, you need a way of evaluating whether implementing a given idea would move you toward your goals in a way that feels right. Ask yourself this:
“Would the person I want to become, act on this?”
This question forces you to think about your values, and your desired identity. It also allows you to side-step your fears. If an idea scares you a little, without appealing to this “bold fearless” version of yourself, you’ll find some way to justify not pursuing it. But you’re more able to answer honestly whether your ideal self would pursue it or not.
And, as with checking in with your goals, checking in with your desired identity as part of this process forces you to think about the person you want to become several times a day. As I’ve mentioned before, this simple trick is a powerful way to change.
So much of productivity focuses on the organizing aspect of any system. What lists, what software, how do you prioritize your todos, how do you schedule them, and so on.
But a simple and powerful way to get the right things done is to stop the wrong things from getting into your lists in the first place. It’s not easy, but the reward is being able to focus on the ideas that give you chills, the tasks that truly move you forward, and the challenges that make you a better person in the process.
Recently I watched “Jodorowsky’s Dune”, a documentary about an epic science fiction film that was never made.
Alejandro Jodorowsky, an infamous Chilean abstract writer-director, decided to film the science fiction masterpiece “Dune”. The scope of the project was immense, as evidenced even by its opening shot: zooming in slowly from outside the galaxy, passing space battles, pirates, spice freighters, stars and planets, until finally settling on the planet Arrakis.
Here are some of the people who were signed on to the project:
Dan O’Bannon (writer of “Alien”)
H.R. Giger (character designer of “Alien”)
Soundtrack by Pink Floyd
and many others…
The storyboard, and much of the concept art, was created by Jean Giraud “Moebius”, one of the greatest graphic novel artists of all time.
There are many lessons I took away from the documentary. About overreaching with ambition. About the struggles of the creative process. About vision and leadership and team-building. About excessive sacrifice (Jodorowsky literally gave his son to the project, by pulling him from school and bringing him up as the character Paul he was to play). And about dealing with the loss of a creative dream.
But there is one idea, far more practical, that has been rolling around in my mind since watching the film. And it’s this:
Why are there no professional concept animators for software?