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.

The Edit Is What Matters

Everyone participates in the creative process. If you’re a writer, filmmaker, graphic designer, or one of the other traditional creative types, this is a given. For the rest of us, it’s not so obvious. But if you squint hard enough, every email and power point presentation follows the same creative steps.

Loosely, the act of creating something can be broken down into:

  1. The idea
  2. The raw material
  3. The edit
  4. The release

In my experience, the edit is the only step that truly matters (although the rest can help).

It’s a cliche in the startup ecosystem that “ideas are cheap.” There’s some truth to that. No idea is truly unique or original. Every idea builds off of previous work. This means that just about every idea has been tried before. While a bad idea can certainly kill a project, a good idea doesn’t guarantee success.

Raw material is where most folks get stuck. It’s the part that’s most easily used for procrastinating. Tools live in this category. And as we all know, not having the “right” tools is a convenient excuse for not proceeding. A hopeful film maker can spend unlimited time assembling the right camera rig. Writers will fiddle with software and note taking indefinitely. My peers, programmers, can jump from stack to stack without making any progress on the original idea.

Even if the tools aren’t the problem, hopeful creatives might not make it past step 2. The initial step of assembling raw material (words, photos, video, audio, colors, etc.) can be so intimidating that they leave the page blank. There’s too much pressure to create an instant masterpiece.

The irony is, the raw material is not what matters. The edit is what matters. The edit is where decisions are made. It’s where the idea can be expressed effectively. It’s where tradeoffs are considered and where a lot of the raw material is cut away.

Remixes are a perfect example of this difference. With the same instruments, vocals, and theme a skilled music producer can create two completely different songs with the same sounds.

This shouldn’t be intimidating. It should be a license to breeze through assembling the raw material. Write nonsense. Take photos of your front yard. Create a hacky python script. Remove the pressure.

Then you can get to work on the edit. Keep a high standard. But make sure it’s in the right place.

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.