0275 – the problem with getting things done

The problem with Getting Things Done (GTD) – for me, at least– is that you have to know what you want to do. You have to believe that it’s worth doing. [1]

And a part of me has been conditioned– or perhaps this part of me predates any conditioning, perhaps I’ve always been like this– a part of me always goes, “… Nah. I won’t do it.” It doesn’t respond to reason. [2] It is obstinate. It enjoys resisting. It enjoys being defiant. It exalts itself in being a sort of weird martyr.

Some people climb mountains and run marathons to find out their limits. I have a person inside me who wants to practice extreme work aversion, to see how far I can go. Who will stick around when you’ve utterly failed, over and over again? Everybody will give up eventually, even your own loved ones and your closest friends. And then you will be free. Free from obligations and deadlines and expectations. Nobody to answer to. Nobody to please. That’s kind of the dream. [3]

Paul Graham described how Facebook runs Mark Zuckerberg just as much as Mark Zuckerberg runs Facebook, if not more so. Sure, theoretically he could quit at any time, just as theoretically anybody could kill a stranger, or cheat on their spouse, or get a divorce, or run away and decide to be a yogi in the mountains. Anybody could. Yet these things aren’t very likely, they don’t happen very much.

There’s something scary about that– Zuck as Facebook, LKY as Singapore– there’s a certain sense of servitude.

And yet I am absolutely in no way better off. I am bound and chained myself, to my own mind, my own thinking, my own impulses, my own fears. And I have to break free from that, I feel, if I want to feel a sense of “true” (or truer, at least) freedom and pleasure and joy in life.

Meditation is part of the answer, but that’s not the whole thing. [4] Meditation calms the mind and allows bullshit to settle, disperse. Exercise achieves that too. The end goal of both, as far as they have end goals (and in a sense they don’t– they’re ends in themselves, the goal of infinite games is to keep playing) is to dissolve bullshit and discover “yourself”, discover some sort of Interesting.

So I suppose if Zuck and LKY figured out that they’re doing what they want (wanted, RIP LKY) to do, then it’s no longer stifling. It’s a glorious surrender. There’s a joy and freedom in surrendering to something greater than yourself that you believe in, that you’re fundamentally committed to. That gives your life a sense of meaning and purpose. A sense is really all you get, because existence itself is fundamentally absurd. Still, pleasure is pleasure, joy is joy, and I have been experiencing mine in a very shallow, haphazard and unsustainable way. [5]

But I have no aspirations beyond what great men and women had aspired towards and settled for throughout human history. Victor Frankl, Seneca, modern day Elon Musk, Stephen Hawking, Neil Tyson– these people have thought about this problem longer, harder and better than I have, and I will be more than satisfied to settle for an answer, solution or approach that seems to mirror theirs. I can’t simply adopt one of theirs wholesale, but they are all similar in some ways, and I need to find my own path to that ideaspace.

Serve, contribute, learn, grow, challenge yourself. That seems to be about as good as it gets. Ruminating further is a needless indulgence that I can’t afford right now– maybe I can fiddle with it in my old age, but really I think even then it would strike me as an unnecessary waste of time. It’s an intrinsically unsolvable problem, and trying to solve it seems to just make you unhappy and frustrated and anxious. You might write some really articulate neurotic novels that other really articulate, neurotic people enjoy, but is that really what you want out of life?

So– what am I to practice, serve, create? I need to start by reevaluating my own status– my present status. My skills, insights, perspectives. I also have the messy business of existence to worry about (which I sometimes frame as a separate thing that needs to be taken care of, and sometimes acknowledge as the central thing from which everything else should emanate– both lenses are interesting) – bills, the mortgage, food and such.

But really… it all boils down to my output. What I’m shipping. If I’m shipping, I’m good. If I’m not, something is wrong and needs to change. The publish button is the canary in the coalmine. It might mean I need to sleep earlier, eat better, meet friends, whatever. Just keep shippin’.

To address the title of the post– the problem with getting things done is that you need to want to get things done, and you need to believe that it’s worth doing, and you need to see how it helps you, and how it’s better than not-doing it, and even after all of that… you have to decide that that’s better than the alternative. And when somebody says “Yeah… I don’t know,” to that, people tend to say, “Oh, change your lifestyle, change your career, find something you truly love, get medication”– all of which are… I don’t know, somewhat dismissive.

I don’t know. I gotta think about it more. And I gotta do more stuff. I suppose just bringing it in front of my attention resolves most of it.


[1] I suppose my problem is that I don’t know what I believe in any more. So I should maybe start there. Take stock again. What do I still know as a sure thing? What do I still want? What am I now disillusioned with? Once you strip away all the bullshit, there is freedom. That I am pretty sure of.

[2] Hyperbole and a Half has a great comic about this. She isn’t quite able to resolve it. I hope I will be able to do it someday– more than hope, I have to take actions towards figuring it out. WaitButWhy covers similar territory. I’ve read it, nodded my head, and found myself struggling to do anything about it anyway. It seems like that final leap is something every person needs to take entirely by themselves, and you can’t even talk about it with other people– because the act of talking is almost always a distraction from doing what you know you ought to be doing.

[3] As I revisit this I recognise this as naive hopefulness. There will always be things to live up to. There will always be people and larger/broader forces to be accountable to. The exception is living in the wilderness outright, and people have tried and failed in that regard, and… that fiction isn’t nearly as fulfilling as my saboteur wishes it would be. So there’s no choice but to wake up to reality and recognise that it will always be like this to some degree, and it’s better to work hard and get better and stronger at dealing with this, than to try and avoid it.

[4] Well– it depends on how you frame it, and what you mean by what you’re saying, but I’m not here to play Game of Semantics.

[5] When I say sustainable, I mean over the course of a human lifetime or two– nothing is sustainable indefinitely. The heat death will claim us all.

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