The Trials and Tribulations of Making Stuff
I've come to realize that on some level, my love for making things is a love for avoiding the absence of making things. The soul-sucking drain of being stuck in a mode of consumption, where you cycle between dopamine sources like a digital junkie. Making things lets me forget the world around me and be consumed by a task. It allows me to focus my concentration on just one thing for a moment and it's incredibly engaging yet relaxing at the same time.
Either way, for whatever reason, I've been drawn to making things for as long as I can remember. From elaborate Lego projects (like that massive indoor Lego ski lift, sorry mom) and esports websites when I was younger to startups like Purple.
Maybe that's just a core human condition, maybe it's a certain form of the human condition, I'm not quite sure. Nonetheless, it's a persistent presence and the only way for me to tame that restlessness is to make stuff.
Ok so just make stuff, right? Turns out it’s super easy for me to get stuck in a mental loop where I feel like I want to make stuff, don’t make stuff and then beat myself up for not making stuff. Not really rewarding. In a sense, there are competing interests here, where on the one hand watching a movie sounds really nice, but on the other hand, I know I’ll be miserable if I don’t put my mind to work on something tangible… Soon.
Generally speaking, it's always easier not to start than it is to start. After you start, it's pretty straightforward to keep going, but to start is difficult. This whole note is a way for me to hold myself accountable. Dear reader, if you've made it this far please know that I'm impressed anyone is even here reading this. I'm doing this for me. Sharing publicly is just the best way of holding myself accountable that I can think of.
Then Again, What's The Point?
For a long time, I've been obsessing over "the point". "The point" was just a way for me to try to find purpose and meaning in what I do. It bothers me that whenever you get about 3 "why"'s down, most things push you toward the edge of solipsism. The deeper on this quest for meaning and purpose I found myself, the closer I came to this mediocre conclusion: that the quest for purpose is a dangerous one, without catharsis.
What has given me meaning has been focusing on my craft and my daily rituals. Reading it on the page, it may sound a bit selfish, but the truth is, you’re playing grand theft life. Ultimately, you can't help others much before you help yourself.
This left me with another question though: How do I do my work? I've searched far and wide for answers to this question, looking at the greats throughout history and reading books I've come across on the quest, and it seems to me that it boils down to a series of, what can best be described as platitudes.
1 - Do the work
This sounds really silly, but the fact of the matter is that for me this part was particularly hard at times. I'd find myself stuck in these never ending dopamine seeking loops where I would go, NYtimes -> twitter -> reddit -> hacker news -> lobste.rs ... repeat endlessly in search for something interesting to put my mind to. If things got really bad I'd even open up tiktok and there goes an hour of looking at dogs.
We know from before that part of the problem is starting. However, once I’m in flow, nothing else matters and I can stay there for as long as I need to.
So, how do you “do the work”? The book Deep work really helped distill a lot of things I had been reading about here.
Aside: the title, look and feel of this book made me shun it for a long time. I'm ashamed to say I dismissed it as "yet another self-help / pseudo business book" that was probably just going to be one or two interesting points made over and over again through endless examples. I was very wrong. Deep Work is a fantastic book filled with actionable insight based on research and self-study. I highly recommend it.
In order to help myself actually get down to work I started by building up some simple rituals in my life. First, and most importantly, I don’t check my phone before I have breakfast in the morning.
I think largely, this habit is about connecting with your own mind. It can be quite depriving to start every day by exposing yourself to outside stimuli. If you allow yourself to wake up with your own thoughts, you’re more likely to have interesting ideas surface sporadically.
The second habit has been to literally schedule deep work on my calendar. Actually committing to time where I will put my phone away, turn on website blockers and cut out all the noise I can to give my mind a single task to focus on.
There are a couple of tools that I've found to be really helpful here:
- Forest - Build a forest by putting away your phone!
- Focus - Website and Application Blocker for macOS
I also have specific
/etc/host rules for different devices. My main work computer for example, can’t access twitter, hacker news or reddit at all. Admitting to myself that I have very little impulse control, and then designing an environment to create a nourishing default mode has been transformative.
2. - Separate yourself from your work
Another fantastic book I read recently is Art & Fear. My biggest takeaway from reading it (it’s a quick read, you should totally get it) has been to separate yourself from whatever you’re making.
Tying your ego to your work gets in the way, and leads to perfectionism which at times prevents me from even starting work on a thing.
Ideas can be perfect in my head but never on github :)
3. Give your mind a rest
A wonderful side effect of scheduling time to do deep work and being intentional about how I spend my hours during the day is that it’s been much easier for me to relax at night. There’s a trap that can keep me from ever truly relaxing where I sit down to watch a movie, but instead of enjoying the movie I feel slightly guilty about not making the thing I thought about making all day. If I’ve done a little bit of work earlier in the day, it’s easier for me to tell myself that I’ve done my share and that building up some gumption will help me tomorrow.
Give yourself a small win or two every day and permission to relax when you’re finished. Momentum builds over time.
Allow me to let you in on a secret: the main reason for me writing this is to publicly hold myself accountable to make more stuff. I’m putting it down into words that starting today, I will make and share (in some form or another) one thing every month for 12 months. I’ve aptly titled it “A Year of Making Stuff”. Stay tuned :)
If you want to help hold me accountable give me a follow on twitter, I publicly promise to tweet there whenever I share something new.