This was written on March 3rd, 2014.
I think I’ve spent a lot of my life feeling like I’m only as 20% as productive as I could be. On my absolute best days I feel like I might hit 50 to 70%, and often when than happens I’m under deadline pressure or feeling inspired… more often than not it’s frustration from having been unproductive for too long. This usually coincides with some degree of burnout or sleep deprivation- I get so caught up in being more productive than usual that I work late, and it messes up my rhythm. All in all it’s a blunt, inelegant system that doesn’t serve me very well.
Fuel problem vs. Engine Inefficiency:
I sometimes get JC kids emailing me to ask about retaking their A levels. There’s one particular guy I had an extended exchange with that was particularly telling for me about my own predicament. He said that he could never stay motivated, and he thought the solution was to seek more motivation. Seeing the problem in somebody else rather than myself made it easier for me to analyse. He thought his problem was a lack of “fuel”. His real problem was that his “internal combustion engine” was tremendously inefficient, and he never learnt to correct that. So no matter how much fuel he used or how high-quality that fuel might’ve been, he was getting abysmal outputs and was going to keep getting abysmal outputs. More fuel wasn’t the solution.
A lot of advice is centered around the fuel bit. Identify your “passion” and remind yourself of it. I think that’s necessary but insufficient, and least for people like him and me.
Could the internal combustion engine analogy yield more insight? What we want to do is to use the fuel we have, combust it in a controlled, efficient way and use that output to propel us along a path that we can clearly visualise. For some people the problem is a lack of a roadmap. If you don’t know where you want to go, or where you CAN go, even, why would you go anywhere? Some people have a clear vision, use limited fuel, combust it as efficiently as they can to get as far as that can.
(For some reason the imagery that comes to mind is the battle at the end of the first Iron Man film. He’s using a weaker energy source, and a failing suit- same thing happens in Iron Man 3, where he has bits and pieces of the suit and uses it creatively to take out the baddies. I think this takes a giant crap on the idea that all we need is a bigger, more powerful suit, a more powerful power source. You need some of each, but knowing how to use them in difficult situations is what ultimately separates Stark from his competitors.)
Let’s start over- I have a powerful energy source, but a horrible, incoherent suit that wastes energy, and I haven’t learnt to use it well either. So my productivity sputters compared to people with less “power”. Ultimately it’s the output by which we are judged. My “superior power source” counts for nothing. It might not even be real, because it hasn’t been battle-tested.
The shlep is to build the best suit I possibly can. That requires rigorous effort in seemingly mundane things. Test drives to learn how to fly. Stress testing to get rid of the icing problem. If you can’t fly smoothly when you’re at max capacity, you’re going to get slaughtered when your suit gets damaged and you’re at low power.
Fantasizing about a silver bullet
I keep fantasising about this magical breakthrough around the corner that will suddenly make me incredibly efficient. From 20% to 80%. But that’s never going to happen. Even in the movies with the misleadingly compressed training montage + epic music, there is a phase of great, boring difficulty. You have to go from 20 to 25 to 30 and so on.
So the challenge for me is to increase my productivity from 20 to 25%. This can be uncomfortable to acknowledge. When I’m not paying attention to the meter, I don’t realize I’m at 20%. I feel like I’m doing the best I can. Which I kinda am, the same way a guy with a blunt axe is doing the best he can… without sharpening his axe. You partially sympathise with him, but mostly you think he’s an idiot. There’s all sorts of other things to consider- basic fitness, improving his swing, investing in buying and learning how to use a chainsaw. There are no prizes for being the hardest working guy with a blunt axe. And reality is even more stark- chopping trees with a blunt axe and no axe skills is demoralising. The guy’s more likely to turn to bumming, drinking, etc. All consequences of a faulty, uncorrected internal combustion engine. A guy who knows how to use a chainsaw is going to fell more trees even if he’s less passionate about felling trees. Such is reality.
So what does my path look like? It’s like being a blunt axe wielder and hoping that one day a chainsaw will mysteriously materialise and I’ll know how to use it. That’s just not a sustainable strategy. The returns may be high, but the odds are low. It’s a kind of escapism. Exactly like wanting to win the lottery. And I like to mock lottery buyers for paying idiot tax… yet here I am doing the exact same thing. Magical breakthroughs = fantasy, fiction.
What’s my equivalent of sharpening my axe? One thing is to write everyday, without fail, without using excuses. For that to happen I need to carve out time for myself. I already have two ripe chunks- my morning and evening commutes. Why don’t I use them? Usually it’s because I’m sleepy or tired. So there we go- I need to sleep better and exercise more. (And eat better and drink more water.) Whatever it takes to get my daily writing practice the best chance it has.
What next? This is auxiliary- this is my side project. My main task is to get more efficient at the work I do for work. That’s what I’m paid to do, that’s what pays for the roof over my head and the food on my table. What’s slowing me down there? I used to be overly ambitious and try to do really big pieces of content, all of which would inevitably get ruined in developmental purgatory. This has been alleviated to some degree by my awesome colleagues who have put together frameworks and structures that I was never able to do myself. For this I am tremendously grateful- these are structures that I’m free to carry with me and use in my personal life or in other projects.
The coolest thing we’re doing as a content team is to have use very reiterative model of content generation, which eliminates a lot of Creator’s Anxiety. Things don’t need to be perfect- we just show each other imperfect, broken drafts and we help each other refine them. This saves us from developing (and getting unnecessarily attached to) irrelevant elements.
These word vomits are also clearly a good idea. There’s no way I would’ve written this much without this structure. At the end of 1000 vomits, I may find that I only need 100,000 words to say everything I want (rather than 1,000,000). But that’s totally fine. The other 900,000 words are the cost of development- and most importantly, they don’t actually cost all that much. With work, I’ve been spending less time per post and my posts are getting more focused, concise… deliberate practice is all the difference.
What will be next? Empirically, if I look at the evidence rather than going by sentiment, it’s clear that I think/write better on my phone’s Evernote app or on good ol’ pen + paper. So I need to do more of that. I screw up quickly when I’m sitting in front of the computer without a hyperspecific task. I just have a horrible attention span and a pathetic inability to focus. This isn’t me beating myself up, this is an acknowledgement of reality. I only ever focus if I get really drawn into a task. (This usually happens for tangential stuff- exploring Internet rabbit holes, playing video games, etc…).
If it doesn’t work, do things differently
So rather than beat myself up for losing focus at work, I should change the way I work altogether. I should really break things down into micro-tasks and take frequent breaks away from the computer. I probably shouldn’t sit at my desk for more than 30 mins at a time because I know I can’t reasonably expect myself to focus on ANYTHING for that long. I’ve tried some measures in the past- having a chime every 30 minutes, Pomodoro… but the problem is that I never respect myself enough to adhere to these things.
The only things I’ve really made progress in would be in being early for 1-1 meetings with my boss. Why? In a cheesy but honest sense, he’s the first older adult/mentor/friend figure whose approval I’ve really cared about. In a very real sense, I’ve never quite respected myself. I’ve lived in service of the Bum/Saboteur all this while, at the expense of many friendships. Even at the expense of my relationship with myself. Indeed I’ve lived a good 23 years knowing that I can’t trust myself. And I think it took a very real intervention to get me out of that loop. I’m still a work in progress, still constantly in danger of lapsing into full Bumhood.
What’s changed? I think for the first time, over the past year, I’ve had a taste of a narrative more interesting and compelling that “Screw everything, just get whatever immediate pleasures you can and just get by day to day”. I don’t t think my parents gave me a better narrative. I don’t think my teachers gave me a better narrative. Immediate pleasure won out.
I spent some time during my NS trying to craft one for myself- which was why I blogged and built a little community- but it was never quite enough, never quite “real”, always a hobby, a cute little fantasy to escape into from time to time (like being a musician in a small town with no discernable audience, in the pre-internet days).
It was only when I actually got plugged into a real ecosystem greater than myself, with a mentor that I genuinely respected, with a relatively clear sense of who I could be and the value that I could be creating… only the did I get enough activation energy (over an entire year!) to even fathom reinventing myself, ripping myself away from my past and building myself differently.
Only when the path became reasonably clear and when I encountered someone further along who was willing to guide me did I start tinkering on my crummy engine. Hopefully it gets me more mileage. I’m pretty certain it will.