Productivity and existentialism

Posted: October 7, 2004 at 9:52 pm in people

I’ve been tossing this post around in my head for close to a month now, and it’s not coming together, so I’m just going to get down what I have and invite feedback to see what others think. Be warned, it’s a long one, with lots of whining.

It starts with my tendency to procrastinate. A lot. It’s one of the tendencies that I like least about myself. I’ll put off something, and keep on putting it off, until it absolutely has to be done, and then I do a half-assed job on it. For some reason, it’s just really hard for me to get started. This was made even more evident when Christy and UBoat were staying with me, because they’re good at starting on things.

Christy said at one point, “Are there any projects that you’ve been meaning to do around the house that you haven’t gotten around to?”
I said, “Well, I’ve been thinking about tearing down the ugly gold wallpaper in my bathroom, and painting the walls instead.”
Christy said: “Great! Let’s get started!”
Me: “What do you mean?”
Christy pries up an edge of wallpaper and rips down a strip.
Christy: “There, now you have to do it!”

And a couple weeks (and several trips to Home Depot) later, I had a refinished bathroom. It’s not like it was hard. It just took somebody to get me started. I’d been thinking about doing this project for three years. And now, it was done.

Just get started. I think that’s the key. Joel on Software would say Fire and Motion. I’ve been trying to do this recently; this is why my blog page finally got the redesign with a cool sidebar and stuff, why I finally upgraded my computer to Win2k and installed the 80GB hard drive I bought last year, why I finally moved the living room light fixture last weekend. And that’s a huge improvement. If I can just get one such project done, or even started, in a weekend, I’m doing well.

I think that part of my problem personally is from a tendency to set my goals too big. I get spun up into worrying about this huge big problem and stress about how I’m ever going to get it all done, instead of breaking things down into manageable chunks, and just launching into them one by one (like Christy ripping down that strip of wallpaper). So I’m trying to be better about that as well; just making lists of small chunks to do, and start on one of them when I’m not doing anything. We’ll see if I can keep this up; this weekend, I have to finish fixing up the ceiling after cutting holes in it last weekend to install the new living room light fixture, as well as replace the guest bathroom faucet if I have time – we’ll leave the list at that in the interest of keeping things achievable.

And I could end this post right here, except that it leads to a whole different set of questions. Which is, what’s the point? Am I a better person for having done these projects?

This is something I’m struggling with. I often feel like I’m not accomplishing anything. I mean, by many people’s standards, I do a lot of things. I have a full-time job, I sing in a chorus, I play ultimate frisbee, I hang out with my friends, I read, I post in this blog, I occasionally cook, etc. But none of these things are really lasting – they’re purely experiential. I don’t really feel like I’m building anything of importance.

To put the question another way, is it “enough” to just take care of myself and my stuff? Many people consider it a victory just to make it through each day. They go to work, maybe hang out after work with their buddies at the bar or sit at home and watch TV, and go to sleep, to repeat it all the next day. It’s all kinds of hubris for me to think that I should be accomplishing more than that kind of mere survival, but there it is.

I should probably start doing volunteer work. After all, if I don’t think it’s “enough” just to take care of myself, then clearly I should be helping others. (or, yes Mom, starting a family, but we won’t go there) (except to say that having children is one way in which people achieve the goal of building something that is more than themselves). But how should I contribute? Where can I be best used? And that opens up a whole ‘nother can of worms, because I feel like I should hold out for something where I can contribute something more than just a warm body, because there are plenty of warm bodies out there. Which is, again, selfish and egotistical. I should just get over myself, and go do something. It’s just the procrastination problem in another form, I suppose.

Here’s another question: Is it better to do something poorly than to not do anything at all? I hate doing a poor job on something – it’s so demoralizing that it makes me just want to give up. On the other hand, if I avoid doing anything I’m bad at, I’ll never get better, never improve. And, by being so scared of failing, I’m procrastinating myself into paralysis. It all comes back to just getting out there and trying stuff.

In other words, I’m having an existential mid-life crisis. Yay turning 30, and realizing that I’m pretty much who I’m going to be for the rest of my life. I’m not magically going to turn into a creative genius at this point. I’m not the type of person who’s filled with an overabundance of ideas. I’m not a glass half full type, who sees the world as a blank slate, ready to be filled with my creations. I like to think I’m a moderately competent analyst (in the dictionary sense of analysis – “The separation of a whole into its constituent parts for individual study”), somebody who can break things down, find the cracks, and generally play devil’s advocate. This makes me an adequate programmer and debugger, thankfully, but I’ll never be a great hacker because I don’t have that spark of creativity, that sense that something is wrong with the universe that must be fixed right now.

So I’m trying to find my niche. Where can I make a difference? What can I do? Is just getting through life enough? It doesn’t feel like it to me. It’s odd – I’ve probably been more productive in my personal projects over the past few months than I have been in years, and yet it feels even more pointless than ever. So what’s missing? The obvious answer is making a difference in other people’s lives, to feel like I’m having some sort of an effect. Does that mean doing volunteer work? Or spending more time with my friends? I don’t know. Maybe I shouldn’t even be aspiring to anything more; just accept my life for what it is. Anybody have thoughts?

6 Responses to “Productivity and existentialism”

  1. Eric Nehrlich, Unrepentant Generalist || Generalist || October || 2004 Says:

    [...] Beemer put up a thoughtful comment in response to my last post. To quote one part: Smart kids, especially the ones who go places like MIT, often get this idea that they need to be Einstein or Newton, which is frankly silly. Because that’s not how the world works — it’s the total contribution of everyone, in a whole bunch of different dimensions, not just superstars in narrow but visible fields. [...]

  2. Eric Nehrlich, Unrepentant Generalist || Design Choices || January || 2007 Says:

    [...] I think the answer is to pick something, anything, and just get started. You won’t know until later whether it was the right choice, but since you have no basis for making a choice, all choices are valid, so long as you continue to evaluate and evolve based on the results. [...]

  3. Eric Nehrlich, Unrepentant Generalist || Cognitive effort || January || 2005 Says:

    [...] that it prompted this post of wondering why it took so long. And that’s often the way it is. My post about productivity laments this aspect of myself, but I think it’s understandable in light of a theory of [...]

  4. Eric Nehrlich, Unrepentant Generalist || Embracing constraint || June || 2007 Says:

    [...] It’s the inverse of the paradox of choice, which is when you become paralyzed by having to choose from among too many choices. When you have no choices, you can just get started. [...]

  5. Eric Nehrlich, Unrepentant Generalist || Attention management system || January || 2005 Says:

    [...] would the output be? Well, let’s examine my current system. In my attempts to just get started, I’ve been making to-do lists on little scraps of paper with a mix of easy stuff (get a [...]

  6. Eric Nehrlich, Unrepentant Generalist || Going to Ohio || October || 2004 Says:

    [...] same. I have some extra vacation time, I can afford the trip, and I’ve been kicking myself to get out and do stuff. So, the upshot is that Brian and I bought tickets last night for Cleveland. We’ll be there [...]

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