0121 – a bird in the hand is worth a flock in the sky

120th. I’m amused by how long it took me to get here. It reveals how naive my projections have always been. I think I estimated that I would be in the mid-200s by now. What this means is that I take at least twice as long to get stuff done as I think I do. I think even that doesn’t capture the full reality of the situation. Let’s explore that.

A large part of getting stuff done is knowing exactly what needs to be done. Having a clear map of the territory that needs to be explored. There was a fun Quora answer that explored this by using the Coast Of Britain problem as an extended metaphor. We think that the distance is short, but when we actually traverse it, we realise it was far more complex than expected. Another great analogy I found was the expressway/roads idea. When you want to drive from point A to point B, you think of the total distance covered. You get out of your house, which is familiar territory, and you get on the highway, which takes you 80% of the way there. You’ve covered 80% of the distance so you assume that 80% of the trip is done. But the remaining 20% of the distance is much more complicated- you need to get off the expressway and explore the smaller roads, where there may be unexpected traffic jams. You might miss a turn here and there. The last 20% of distance ends up taking just as long as the first 80%, if not longer. So distance travelled is not actually an accurate indicator of how long you have left to reach your destination.

Often, we don’t even have a map and we don’t really know where we’re going.


I’m really eager to refactor my blog and remove extraneous elements, yet I’ve made really slow progress on this. I think a part of it is because I’m not clear about my priorities. So let’s try and clarify them now. I don’t want to delete old posts if possible, because I think there are lessons to be learned from them. If I find a post that expresses a perspective that I no longer agree with, I don’t want to censor it or eliminate it. I think a superior alternative is to write an updated header to the post that explains how and why I’ve changed my mind. This is less pretty, but I think it’s a good trade-off to make. If I have enough of these revisionist headers, I’ll probably feel more comfortable eliminating pointless noise.

I also want to trawl my Facebook account- and maybe even my Twitter and Tumblr- and look for gems worth re-emphasizing. It seems like a shame to let them languish in non- circulation.

Quick aside: I experienced a momentary impulse to close this document and get on Twitter/Facebook. These impulses come fairly frequently, and they remind me of cigarette cravings. There’s some cue- thinking about twitter/fb, in this case. The routine is to get distracted. The reward is the pleasure of aimless bumbling around- looking at pictures, reading what others have to say. It’s an immediate reward and a simpler, easier experience. But it doesn’t compound. It won’t be as rewarding as completing this vomit would be. By keeping this vomit as my main goal and reminding myself that it’ll feel better to complete this, I’m able to stay on track.

If you want to modify a habit, you need to identify the cue, routine and reward. Then you need to change the routine and make sure there’s a new reward. I think my new routine to the cue of temptation is to write it down. To acknowledge it. In the Age of Absurdity, the writer pointed out that a lot of primal, primitive desires wither away under the harsh light of intense scrutiny.

I think there’s something in there that I can crack open and exploit, or “hack”. Earlier I wrote about how there’s utility to be gained from telling people about your plans, or say, posting your gym pictures on Instagram. While ideally you want to get utility from the workout itself, if posting gym selfies gets you working out, then it’s worth doing (in pursuit of a fitter you). Similarly, if I can choose to get utility either from succumbing to temptation or making a big show out of resisting it, the latter is preferable. So from now on, if I feel tempted to distract myself in the midst of doing work, I’m going to write it down. If it happens at work, I’ll maybe write it down somewhere else and keep track of it. Temptation resisted is a pretty nice vanity metric to have, assuming it correlates with work done.

The goal of course is to do work, and get utility from doing work. But what do you do if you don’t get utility from work, because your brain hasn’t yet been rewired sufficiently to give you a chemical hit from studying or from exercising? You find something else you get utility from, and do that instead.

I think this is how people start smoking and drinking before their brains start enjoying the acts themselves. We do it for social utility. To impress our friends or earn their approval. The cool kids smoke.

I think there are some interesting implications here. We are social creatures, so it’s pointless to wish that people wouldn’t brag about their achievements. If we can make moral things cool, we probably should… assuming a whole bunch of things. If activism-tourism hurts rather than helps, we should discourage it. We should probably call people out if they’re faking things like posting gym pics but not working out, posting photos of their homework but not actually doing their homework… this gets unhealthy, it’s fake and it becomes a game of impressions rather than actual improvement, actual work done.

“Should” here is unnecessarily prescriptive. You can do whatever you like. There’s no need to interfere with anybody else. I’m guilty of making overly broad statements. I can only speak for myself, my problems and my circumstances. And my problem, as I define it for myself, is to figure out how to get myself to do things that I say I want to do. If there are second-order negative consequences, then I will figure out how to fix that.

Let’s take these vomits as an example. I will openly admit that part of the reason I’m doing this is bragging rights. Somebody joked that marathon signups would plummet if people had no way to communicate to others that they did it. It’s funny because it’s probably true. There will probably be some subset of marathon runners who will run even if nobody else ever knows that they do. But there are all kinds of other benefits anyway- a healthier body that impresses people even if they can’t explain how or why they got it.

Would people work out if it made then feel good but it made them look unattractive? Actually that’s also an oversimplistic question- a really muscular girl might be seen as unattractive by most people, but she might not care at all what most people think.

As a general rule I think most people care about what most people think… But that’s not a very useful rule either because the exceptions make all the difference. The average person is not interested in writing 1000 word vomits even if they agree that it’s a cool or impressive thing to do. So… I guess this stuff is really, really complex.

Let’s start over. I can only truly speak for myself. A lot of the above is just my pattern-finding mechanism going bonkers… I have to return to what is useful. So what IS useful? Useful is whatever I can use to steer myself down a path that I want to go. I want to complete these 1000 vomits as quickly as I can. I want to be more prolific at work. I want to procrastinate less and get more done in general. Broader claims and assertions are not useful.

Why am I always so quick and eager to “go broader”? Perhaps it is fear, perhaps it is incompetence, perhaps both. The real value comes from a clearer picture of myself, and perhaps the part of me that resists change doesn’t want to be too precise about things, because a lack of precision allows me to get away with more bullshit.

Here’s an interesting example. When me and my friends went for lunch once, we ended up discussing Blizzard and Diablo 3. I wondered what Blizzard’s game plan was, how they were going to survive, to continue putting out good stuff… I wondered whether it’s possible for any company to sustain quality over the long term (Apple?), or if it’s the inevitable nature of things to be disrupted. Should anybody try to build a lasting company that endures, or is it better for society for companies to be born and die? Venkatesh Rao’s Gervais Principle would suggest that it’s inevitable that big companies get bloated and bureaucratic, and that there’s a natural order of sorts to how these things work. Should one attempt to fight this natural order, or instead seek to work with it? Which is superior?

On hindsight, this question is a semi-pointless parlor game for me to explore at this point in time. I don’t work in a big company. I don’t understand big companies- a point driven in painfully well by Marc Andreesen’s guide to startups part 5: Moby Dick. Even Blizzard doesn’t likely know what Blizzard is going to do. I’m not going to get an answer to that question that corresponds to reality purely by thinking about it, because I lack the framework, I lack the context, I lack the knowledge. I don’t even know what I don’t know. So any answer I arrive at is largely meaningless- a matter of sophistry rather rush insight.

This can be fun and there is value in it, but a mentor pointed out to me that there’s also opportunity cost: time spent deliberating about Blizzard is time not spent figuring out how I can get better at my job, how I can become a better friend, husband, son, writer, marketer, so on and so forth.

A bird in the hand is worth an entire flock in the sky. Yet I spend large amounts of my time focused looking upwards. Clearly, it’s a coping mechanism. It makes me feel good. But it doesn’t actually leave me any better off. So I ought to change that.

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