The thing I’ve been looking forward to most about having a newsletter, or more specifically, having you as a reader, is the privacy.
An email can be both casual and intimate, and I think it can be the perfect forum to exchange ideas. Something about the email client causes us to slow down, and at times, really take in the idea being presented.
It’s almost like the quiet room of the internet. Outside this room of ours there are an infinite number of choices.
It’s an odd duality – on the one hand we have limitless potential thanks to this wonderful technology, but on the other hand we kinda suck at big numbers. Infinity just breaks the brain, doesn’t it?
I’ve heard that most people can’t imagine numbers past a couple of hundred. It’s a fun test – what do you think a room with ten people in it looks like? Now what if it were a hundred? Ok, not so hard, is it? You might not be picturing the face of everyone in the room, but you know there’s a hundred bodies moving, talking, thinking.
Now imagine a thousand.
Little tricky, huh?
What about ten thousand? I bet it’s mostly a blur, maybe something akin to a sporting event you’ve been to?
When we start to talk about millions of people, or even billions, we start to talk about them in terms of countries, not individuals. Our brains just can’t handle that complexity.
But when it comes to the web we feel comfortable enough to move through a billion items. Heck, we appreciate and talk gleefully that there’s a billion, trillion, kabajillion options for us to pick and choose from.
And it causes a paralysis as we lust for something novel.
It’s like our desks or couches are hospital beds and novelty is coming into our system from a drip, one that never runs out. Sometimes we get so far down the novelty-hole that we grab the bag and squeeze, hoping to force as much over-the-top-novelty into our veins as possible. Otherwise we’ll be bored, and being bored sucks.
And the paralysis when we do this can be inescapable. “I’ll get to it tomorrow” could be the personal mantra of almost anyone with a decent internet connection.
And practice makes perfect.
If you were learning to play golf and you spent two hours every night for a month practicing your swing in the basement, the next time you made it on the green you’d probably hit the best shot of your life without even meaning to. It’s so deep in your brain you don’t even know it’s there.
Thanks to this amazing stuff called myelin, the more we practice something, the more our brain knows how to do it. Ok, well that’s obvious, but give me a second here – Myelin wraps itself around the connections in our brain when we practice something, ensuring that the action moves beyond habit and turns into something natural.
The more myelin we build up around a routine, the more natural that routine becomes – even cooler, myelin acts like insulation that increases speed. Yup – so the more you practice something, the more myelin builds up, the easier and faster the action becomes for your brain to process.
There’s a lot of cool stuff written about it in The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle (check it out, highly recommended).
Practice makes myelin. I like that idea. The more we practice doing something the more natural it’ll become.
The trick with building up myelin is that it requires deliberate practice. Simply performing the same action over and over and over and over won’t really improve the quality of that action. You need to go after the tough bits.
And what’s tougher than finding something novel? The whole point of novelty is that the thing that’s make you go “huh, that’s cool” will be less cool the second time you see it. After a while it’s not so cool, so it’s not so novel.
So you work a little bit harder to find something even more novel. You deliberately go out of your way to find something that’ll give you that “ooohhh neat!” moment.
It’s as if we’re deliberately practicing to find novelty. So…
So I always had this idea that because we deliberately go looking for novelty, that our standard for novelty goes up. The internet makes it an easy task, but it’s more deliberate than our brains have evolved to handle, so.. does that mean we build up myelin around finding novelty? While our standard to find something novel keeps rising?
The one-two punch is that we are increasingly needing to find something more interesting while also building up myelin around the act of trying to find something interesting. Every fix both raises our tolerance and our dependency.
We get better at needing to find something interesting.
Let’s flip it – we get good at getting bored.
Phew. It’s just a silly idea of mine, but it’s helped me realise something.
Most of the things we need to do on a computer or smart phone is boring compared to what we could be doing. But we’ve put in so much practice using the computer to find something novel, that when it comes time to work, what we’re doing better be as novel as anything on Reddit, otherwise our brains will go on autopilot and find some novelty. Makes getting work done hard.
But oh it get’s worse – it’s not just the intellectually mundane that we go hunting for. Have you noticed how damn good TV has gotten in the last few years? The bulk of it is still garbage, but if you give me a playlist with The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, Homeland, House of Cards, Louie, and I’m not afraid to admit it, The Good Wife, I’m pretty sure I’d be fighting one hell of an urge to not watch TV non-stop for a few months.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to high-quality, well-crafted, distraction.
So how do you fight it all?
Well, to be honest, that’s what I wanted to hear from you.
I can tell you how I go about it, but we’re all different.
For me, and I still need to build up a lot of myelin around these routines, but at least they’re simple.
I start with a list.
Sometimes it’s pretty basic – things like “reply to Alma’s email” or “CSS – check width of #comments”.
But these items slot into bigger lists, half in my mind, half in Todoist.
It might be small, but replying to Alma means I’m building up a professional relationship, as well as a personal one, that I hold dearly.
Checking the width means feedback on my site will be a more enjoyable experience, which builds me an audience, which gives me the opportunity to help people solve some problems and make them better at their craft, which could give me some extra income if I can solve their problems really well and build their trust, which means I can send my son to a good school, which means he’ll have opportunities that I didn’t.
(Well that, but there’s also a badass coffee machine I want that costs more than $10k. But mostly the opportunity thing. Like, 99% the opportunity thing. Sure.)
So yeah, I fight it all with lists and a 50,000+ feet in the air view of my life. I need to build up my skills in both – my myelin wrappings are way too thick around the wrong routines – but I’m working on it.
And I manage my time with the Pomodoro technique (my preference is 25/5, what’s yours?), which, when I’m smart enough to use it, works very well.
I also accept that it’s going to be hard. That’s what I really wanted to stress to you with this week’s (subscriber only! go you!) writing.
Getting things done isn’t as easy as writing something on a list. There’s a battle before the battle that we don’t even notice – fighting off the desire for novelty.
And being that we do creative work (who doesn’t?), we often have to be involved in little skirmishes that aren’t so fun. You’re not the only one. There’s millions, if we can pretend we can imagine that many people, going through the same thing. Don’t try to fight it, just accept it, and use the trick Charles Duhigg talks about in The Power of Habit – “I’ll get to it later.” That YouTube clip everyone on Twitter is talking about while you’re trying to work? “No problem, I’ll get to it later.” This trick is normally what people use as an excuse to not do their work right now, but it’s works just as well, with better results, when we use it on distractions.
Luckily Mr. Later doesn’t wear a watch.
So keep the fights small, use a timer if it helps, accept that you will be distracted and tell yourself you’ll get to it later, and just start at the top of your list.
What about you? How do you do such things? Hit reply and let me know :)
Take care and thanks again for subscribing.
If you know someone who might benefit form this kind of advice, they can signup for this newsletter at www.retinart.net
There’s a new design for Retinart coming and I’m very excited to show it to you! I’m starting to put together a list of topics I want to write about, and I’d love to hear if there’s anything you’d like me to cover? I’d love to help you solve a problem you might have, explain a design theory you’re interested in, or whatever it is you want to talk about.
Woah, you read this far? Thanks! I appreciate it – here’s a small list of books that I often turn to when things relating to organisation, habit, routine, and simply getting on my grind, become a bit of a problem. Have you read any? Hit reply and let me know your thoughts!
The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg (4.4/5 from 2,371 reviews)
The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle (4.5/5 from 408 reviews)
The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles by Steven Pressfield (4.4/5 from 1,447 reviews)
Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative by Austin Kleon (4.6/5 from 889 reviews)
Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity by David Allen (4.4/5 from 1,325 reviews, and #1 in Time Management)
The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life by Twyla Tharp (4.5/5 from 187 reviews)