0120 – build self-control like building a company

An interesting thing that happens when you go to bed committed to doing something the next day- in my case, this word vomit- is how the relevant thoughts prepare themselves, like rows of soldiers, ready to march on into unknown territory. I was excited enough about that fact that I didn’t bother thinking about where they would go, I just focused really hard on the fact that they’re there. We can just play by ear as we go through this.

I think this is something I never appreciated as a procrastinator. Getting stuff done always seems like it requires ungodly amounts of conscious. But actually it doesn’t. Most of it is habit and routine. That’s how you reconcile the fact that there are so many people seemingly less “intelligent” than you doing so much better at school or work. They invested in routines that do half the work for them. The system trains them to work without conscious decision making needing to interrupt the process. Procrastinators like myself get all self-important, refusing to be indoctrinated… and we throw the baby out with the bathwater, because by refusing to learn to follow orders, we grow up unable to follow our own. We’re just addicts to the short term pleasures desired by the monkey mind. We let the monkey take the wheel.

Following on yesterday’s thoughts I guess the goal shouldn’t be to extend consciousness over all of life, but to be intensely conscious of a few moments. Paul Graham wrote about how startups need deep specialisation and focus, and that’s an idea that’s stuck with me. If you want to build a company that’s big and good, you have to start good and stay good as you get big. It’s impossible for a company to start big and get good. This is because there are costs to running a large operation that are intrinsic to size. I remember Yishan Wong writing about this on a note by Boz about Facebook growing as a company. It’s an inescapable cost that burdens large companies, regardless of the quality of the people. Amazon, Google etc are good in spite of being big- big is a cost they bear, a tradeoff they make. Well- that’s just one way of looking at it, and it’s not entirely accurate now that I think about it. I can’t comment on large companies.

The point is that a small company should never look at a big, successful company and think that big leads to successful. It’s successful that leads to big. Aiming to be big and hoping or expecting to get successful as a consequence of it is a very dangerous, perhaps even suicidal approach.

Let’s get back to thinking about consciousness, habit formation, self-control. If the insight transcends domains (and I think this is a hypothesis worth testing)… then a person who wants to be more mindful is better off trying to be really mindful of one small thing. If she tries to be mindful of everything, her limited cognition is spread too thin and it evanesces.

I think the mindfulness teachers understood this. Consider the advice about drinking tea, or about walking, enjoying each and every step purposefully. It seems silly the way it might seem silly to make your bed nicely in the morning when you have a fuck ton of work to do, but clearly there’s something to it. You have to do the basics incredibly well. Practicing scales mindfully makes you a better soloist. In fact, practicing scales can help your solo playing more than practicing your soloing (without practicing scales). I definitely experienced this as a musician. I think I’ve experienced this as a writer, too. You get better at writing and grammar by doing loads of reading. If your job is to write, how do you have time to read?

You have to make time. It matters how Michael Phelps stretches before swimming, and that he listens to hip hop. It matters that Christiano Ronaldo does that silly looking leg spread before he takes his free kicks. You can’t become great without it. These are their soldiers- perfectly drilled, in beautiful harmony. You become great at the Great by first becoming great at the mundane. There is no other way, even for the daredevil genius improvisers. Even rockstars practice like crazy.

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Ack, I’m already at work and I’m still 300 words short. I guess I’ll just keep going. The mistake I’ve been making over and over again is overreaching. I try too hard to do too many things over too long a period of time. Instead, I should focus on each step, on drinking the tea. This applies at the smallest scales. Even right now as I’m at work, I have a whole bunch of tabs open. This is unnecessary. I’m going to close those tabs now.

Went for lunch and back. I realize I need to pick really small wins and dominate them, so that’s what I’m going to do. I think the word vomits I’ve written yesterday and today have given me the little victories I need to keep going, and I’m going to try to get little victories in other spheres too- most importantly at work, and then with my fitness, and in my relationships with other people.

Sometimes I wonder if it was silly of me to impose this 1000 word rule, but I think it’s an amusing, interesting restriction. I already live with a lot of “unrestrained” freedom in my day-to-day life, and I find THAT limiting. So this sort of limitation forces me to be a little more creative. And while I might sometimes find it silly, it’s not like anybody’s actually getting hurt because of it. I get to do more interesting things. Once I’m done with all 1,000 vomits, I’ll get to the much more challenging work of doing rewriting. Or maybe I’ll start rewriting right now, as I move forward. I still have a few more summaries to do, and maybe I’ll do them tonight. It doesn’t really matter, what matters most of all is that I keep moving. I can reorganize and optimize while I’m moving. I can’t do that while I’m static. Whatever reorganizing and optimization I do in my head when I’m static is actually kinda toxic.

Look at that, crossing the limit running, not crawling. That’s what happens. You really can’t let yourself think you’re in a rut, even when you are, because that prevents you from realizing how you might just get a burst of energy around the corner.

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