Search and Distract

All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone

Blaise Pascal

There’s a process that is always running in the back of my brain. It’s probably an artifact of the internet. But I’m not ruling out the possibility that it’s a part of the human experience.

Whenever there is a hint of boredom, my brain makes it the primary process. It’s pretty simple. I call it Search and Distract:

  1. Search for a distraction
  2. Give a reward for the distraction
  3. Become bored of the distraction
  4. Goto 1

The problem isn’t the desire to be entertained. Engaging entertainment can be incredibly rewarding and inspiring.

The problem is that even the distraction isn’t enough to hold my attention. Instead, hours disappear without anything happening. If you tap me on the shoulder and pull me out of this stupor I’d have no answer to “what have you been doing?”

I’ve found there are a couple of ways to break this loop.

  1. Exercise
  2. Doing nothing

Exercise is great for a lot of things (including staying alive). But it also does wonders for mental clarity. For whatever reason, going for a run can quiet the desire for a distraction more than the distraction itself.

Doing nothing is the more interesting concept. You could call it meditation, but I call it taking a shower. By doing nothing, you can take advantage of your brain’s inability to be bored. Just sit and wait for the loop to churn up something that might actually be productive.

Anything new on Instagram?
Anything new on Hacker News?
Youtube must have something interesting to suggest
Anything new on Twitter?
…
…
…
I have an idea about <project I should be working on>

Doing nothing is fine. But I’ve found that if doing nothing is the only alternative to productive work, the work gets done.

Stress Driven Development

Small teams that are creating something new have no shortage of problems. Among those is the question: What should be worked on right now?

I ask myself this question a lot while working at CaseFleet. One of the benefits of being on a (very) small team is autonomy. Autonomy, unfortunately, comes with the stress of responsibility. I get to choose what I work on because I’m also the person who is responsible for a large part of the company. That means support requests, maintenance, bug fixes, and many other tasks are also my responsibility.

So what gets done? How do I create any sense of priority from the endless stream of demands?

The answer to that question is: “I just know.” By necessity, the responsibility I carry comes with a large knowledge of CaseFleet’s product. I know where the product is missing a feature, poorly designed, or what parts of the infrastructure requires upgrades.

I can scroll through Clubhouse and feel the stress associated with each incomplete task. The one that creates the strongest response is the one I work on. Typically I don’t need to reference the list of outstanding tasks at all. I know for a fact which task is most important.

As a result of this process, the overall feeling of stress within the project should decrease over time. Eventually it will settle into an equilibrium where the amount of stress added by new projects is offset by the completion of others.

So, that begs the question: what is the task you know needs to be completed?

Ship

The internet has made us all venture capitalists whether we like it or not. Venture capitalists play a game of asymmetric returns. The vast majority of investments fail. But a few winners more than make up the difference (and add a healthy profit margin).

In the same way venture capitalists place bets knowing most will fail, internet creators play the same game. Most content created on the internet will never be seen. It will never be shared. It will never be noticed.

But a small fraction will explode. The exposure drawn from the 1 out of 1000 going viral is enough to make the other 999 worth the effort.

So how do you play the game to win? Take a lot of chances. Ship all the time. Create prolifically. Create deliberately. Don’t take shortcuts, but don’t self edit. The content that doesn’t make the cut won’t be noticed anyways.