Sunday, January 31, 2016

On Finishing Projects

[Note: If this sounds like it would undermine your productivity, you’re probably right, and you should consider emulating Nate rather than me.]


I have very recently become more comfortable with not finishing projects.

I am happy about this.


Last week, I felt embarrassed about not finishing a project. I’d set an intention, on January 1st, to "write at least one sentence of fiction every day this year", then announced that on Facebook. I created a document called “sentence a day”, and set out to make an entry for every single day of the year.

On the 19th, I started missing entries.

It took me a couple days to fully acknowledge the reason this was happening: I’d chosen the wrong method of “writing a sentence a day”.

I’d meant for this to be an MEA, and although "compose a sentence of fiction" is an MEA, "write that sentence down in a specific document" is, apparently, not. I was struggling to do it, and feeling conflict with the motivation for my intention. I’d hoped to keep fiction writing on my mind in a way that conserves effort.

The obvious solution was to compose a sentence every day, but not worry about where I wrote it down, or maybe even whether I wrote it down.

It was hard to let go of the original version of the project, though.

I imagined "Sentence A Day" staring back at me from my desktop with its pitiful 19 sentences, and I felt ashamed. I had enough comfort with not finishing projects to abandon the document, but not enough to do so without my brain putting up a fight.


I first recognized I was doing something wrong in late December, when I noticed I was feeling embarrassed at the prospect of posting an end-of-year wrap-up about the Tortoise Skills Project.

I didn’t want to write the post, because the project didn't progress as I'd originally envisioned, and posting would draw attention to that.

I'd planned to end up with at least 12 skills trained. In reality, if we don't count minor skills I didn't write about, skills gained as side effects, or meta-level thought patterns established, I only trained five tortoise skills in 2015.

The particular flavor of embarrassment was familiar. Specifically, it reminded me of how I used to feel while in the middle of a book I didn't like. “I set out to read this book, so if I stop without completing it, it means I’m not strong enough to complete this book.”

Fortunately, Malcolm broke me of that particular habit when he wrote a post about why he focuses on starting books instead of on finishing them. "You won’t finish everything you start," he said, "but you’ll finish nothing you don’t."

I’ve since maintained a policy of breaking up with books as quickly as possible, and I’ve completed a lot more books as a result. I occasionally discard a book that would have gotten better, I’m sure, but the total number of books I read and enjoy has gone way up. Plus, I’ve learned things from a bunch of introductions that I never would have seen if I’d insisted on slogging through every chapter of the previous book before getting to the next one.

My feeling about the Tortoise Skills project was exactly that kind of embarrassment, even though I reflectively endorse my reasons for changing course. “I set out to train twelve skills, so if I haven’t trained twelve skills by the time I stop, it means I’m not strong enough to complete the project.”

Not something I felt like focusing my attention on for the whole time it would take to compose a post. Not something I felt like pointing out to everyone else, either.


But that feeling of embarrassment was clearly a mistake. Or, rather, it resulted from a mistaken pattern of thought.

The Tortoise Skills Project has created immense value for me, for Eliezer, and for many of the people who have written to tell me how it’s helped them. This very post, in fact, began when multiple thought patterns that established themselves during tortoise training came together to highlight a mistake I was making, and began fixing it without my conscious attention.

Training those five skills is one of the most important things I’ve ever done. I much prefer the worlds where I learned all there was to learn from attacking five bottlenecks by the tortoise method, to the worlds where I never started the project because I wasn't sure I could finish it, or the worlds where I deleted all trace of the project the moment I "fell behind" in the hopes of pretending the whole thing never happened.

(Come to think of it, the Tortoise Skills Project arose from a book I choose not to complete, and I have definitely wasted some motion on feeling embarrassed for not completing it.)

And although I slowed down and changed course for reasons I endorse, the above would still be true even if I looked back on why the project petered out, and saw that my reasons were awful.

There are projects I've abandoned for dumb reasons. It’s easy to feel bad about that.

It hardly ever occurs to me, though, to feel bad about projects I never started. Or about resources I’ve wasted while continuing down a predictably suboptimal course, just so I can maintain that “I finish what I start”.

My emotions aside, the mistakes I’ve made out of a need for completion are objectively much worse than any mistaken failure to complete a project. If I’m afraid to start any project I might not complete, I complete fewer projects. Worse, I sacrifice all the experience I might have gained along the way.


I guess it takes a lot of trust in the consistency of my rationality to let go of the need to finish projects.

The "need to finish things" is a way of strong-arming my future selves into doing what I think they should do. It's a sort of black mail: "Unless you finish my project for me, I will reveal you as weak."

It feels good to be finally approaching a point where I can turn to my future selves and say, "Here are the goals and values motivating me to begin this project. Right now, it's the best way forward I can see. Please protect what I care about when deciding your own way forward, by only doing things we’d all reflectively endorse. I won't hold it against you if you see better than me, and choose another way as a result. Not even if I've just announced my intention publicly."

It’s taken a lot of growth to get to this point, though. “The value of finishing projects" is clearly an instrument of cognitive first aid.

I think most people probably have a harder time with motivation or endurance than I do. I used to complete most of my term papers one or two months early, for example. So perhaps for most people, when they pick up a strong emotional commitment device, they start actually getting shit done for the first time ever.

But once you are stable in your ability to finish things, I wonder if non-attachment to completion is, in general, the next step down the same path.

No comments: